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Do You Hear What I Hear?

Hello Troubadourians! In previous columns I’ve spoken a lot about monitors and I guess I just assumed that everyone A: knew what monitors were, B: knew what they needed to hear in them, and C: could communicate their needs in a way that could be understood by sound engineers and bandmates. In my conversations and correspondence with you, the readers of this column, I have learned that was a poor assumption on my part. I also realize that it’s not your fault if you don’t understand monitors, their function, and how to listen to them. In fact, most musicians – and even many of the sound engineers I’ve spoken with – don’t really “get” how to optimize a monitor system. This column will attempt to demystify monitor systems and hopefully give you some insight into how to work with monitor systems ranging from pro-concert stage setups to none at all.

A lot of musicians and sound engineers view a monitor system as a subset of the main house system. That’s sort of true… and sort of not. The fundamental difference is that the mains are configured to project all the sound away from the area of the sound source. Conversely, the monitor system is configured to project the sound directly into the area of the sound source. Anyone who has ever inadvertently faced a live mic into a PA speaker and had their eardrums pierced by the ensuing shriek knows that surrounding your stage area with speakers pointed directly at you can be hazardous to your health and hearing. So why do we do it? Well, because we have to. Here’s a test: try playing something even remotely complex without looking at your hands. Close your eyes, put on a blindfold, turn off the lights, do whatever you need to do to deprive yourself of the visual clues you are accustomed to relying on when you play. You probably made a few mistakes, maybe a lot. That’s what it’s like playing when you can’t hear what you’re doing. For a solo performer, you can sometimes get away with not having monitors, but you’re likely to not deliver your best – or most in-tune – performance. When you start adding players and singers – and electric instruments and, ahem, drums… things get really hard to hear really fast.

So, if a monitor system isn’t just a subset of the mains, what should it be? To begin our explanation, let’s begin by looking at the signal path of the typical main house system. Simply put, we collect all of the sound sources through live mics or direct inputs (DI), and sum all of the signals using a mixer. That summed signal is amplified and sent to the speakers and into the “house” in a directional but non listener-specific pattern (multiple sound sources sent in a single direction). There is direct control of each individual sound source in the mixer and the desired blend of the sources sent in that single direction can be relatively well controlled. By contrast, a monitor system is the same collection of sound sources fed back directly to those sources – which is a dicey prospect to begin with – and rather than the non-specific sound dispersion of the mains, the monitors have very specific “targets” to send the sound to. That would be you, the performer(s). The simplest monitoring chore would be a single performer playing instrumentally. Even adding a single vocal to the monitor feed raises the complexity. In this scenario, there are two very different sound sources that need to be blended and focused toward one specific target (the performer) and that blend may require being radically different from the blend for the house. As you add performers onstage in addition to sound sources of widely varying types and volume levels, attempting to deliver the desired blend of sound to each performer increases the complexity of the monitor system exponentially. Ideally, you’d have a monitor system that is essentially several micro-PA systems with one for each performer delivering the exact mix of sound sources they need. Unless you’re in a well-funded mega-touring act with full spectrum wireless in-ear monitors, you aren’t likely to have access to that level of monitoring. So what do we average performers do? Well, we learn to make do by learning what to expect from widely varying monitor systems and by learning what to listen for in those systems.

The most common system you’ll likely encounter is 1-4 stage wedges with the same mix in each one. This is a compromise at best but it can be made workable if you remember “B-V-D.” This stands for Blend-Volume-Detail. First, try to achieve the best blend of voices and instruments such that everyone can hear some of themselves and everyone else. You may find that this mix (blend) to be similar to that in the house system but with less, or no, bass and drums. There is usually enough stage level from these instruments for everyone to hear them at least minimally. If you have the right blend, you usually won’t need as much volume in the monitors. Too much volume can be as problematic as not enough. In fact, really loud monitors can actually be harder to hear. The monitors should be loud enough for you to hear the detail of every sound source in the mix. It’s the detail that allows us to hear the distinctions between individual voices and instruments, which is what we’re hoping to hear in the first place.

You should take monitor setup very seriously. Where the cabinets are placed and your position relative to them is vital for being able to hear them. If you are monitor checking with an ensemble, everyone needs to be present, ready to play, and be serious and focused on listening to the monitor mix. Be sure you play an entire song that includes every vocalist and instrument that is going to be used. Up-tempo songs tend to be louder than slower songs and are usually a better choice for your “monitor check” song as everything will be the most difficult to hear clearly when there is more stage volume. Learn to communicate your specific needs with the sound engineer and your band mates so that you hear what you need to hear. “Just give me more of everything or more of ME” isn’t going to cut it. The bottom line here is that regardless of the simplicity or complexity of the monitor system, the key to “hearing” what you need is “listening” to what you have.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

  • July 2013

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