10 tips to a great monitor mix
Monitor mixing can be a real challenge. Perhaps you have near double-figures of musicians, umpteen foldbacks and many individual or shared IEMs (In Ear Monitoring systems). Where do you start? How do you know what sounds good?
I'm talking from the perspective of a single engineer here (running FOH and also the monitor mixes). The same principles apply if you are a monitor engineer though. I've had to deal with everything from mixing for 4 or 5 bands that roll on and off without a proper soundcheck at a large street party, but bands still commented that it was the best monitor mix they've ever had (even in dedicated venues for them). From that to mixing a 9-person band with full IEM setup for each person in the band...
These are in no particular order!
1) Ask them what they want!
May sound a bit simplistic but literally go up and ask (if they're not already shouting at you). Some people won't care, some will be very picky, and some will be out-of-this-world picky. If you've got a good memory, be like that clever waiter who memorises your entire table's order and gets it just right. Or for us more conventional folk, a notepad or notes app on a phone will do fine too..
2) Don't be afraid to say no
I've worked with musicians who have demanded a monitor. An acoustic guitarist at the back in another 9 man band. You could hear him in his position no problem but he was adament he needed one, but I had to say no due to time constraints and unnecessary stage volume increases. You can say no - you are in charge.
And remember: more noise nearer the mics (unwanted noise, not band noise!) may cause feedback sooner (lower gain before feedback). A tip in the industry: if someone is demanding more of them and you just can't give it to them because you know it will feed, reach for the "DNF" (it also has other names...'DFA'). This, is the "Does Nothing Fader". OK, you might be laughing now thinking I'm having you on, but it's true! Sound can be very psychological, and if you give them the impression that you're turning them up, they believe it. I've heard many success stories for this method... but typically you won't need to resort to this unless you've got a particularly picky musician. And it may not work if they have well trained ears...
3) Go and have a listen yourself
Don't mix it off the headphones! It sounds different over by the band alongside competing monitors, keyboards with annoying built-in speakers, singers, backline, and through the speaker amp and characteristics of its sound frequency reproduction. Go over, listen at the rough distance the musician will be hearing it (remember personal space..) and see what it sounds like. Again, refer to tip 1 and ask if it's what they're looking for.
4) If you're using IEMs, work slower and listen back on headphones too
It can be easy to make the mistake just to crank up the dials and then go see what it sounds like over their headphones. With IEMs, you may not realise that you're actually sending a really, REALLY loud and amplified signal to their headphones, which will not only distort but could blow the headphones. Bye bye, nice, expensive, custom-built in-ears. You wouldn't be much more popular after that stunt...
Anyway - the basic rule here is work slowly. Turn it up ever so slightly and work slowly to bring up the levels.
You can listen back on the phones at your desk (bonus if they are similar to what the musician is using) to set an ideal mix for them at the desk.
5) Position the monitors as close to the band member as possible, but bearing in mind mic pickup patterns
Positioning monitors nearer the musician(s) means that you can have the level lower and thus less stage volume, aiding your quest against feedback. Also bear in mind that you need to try and put the speaker off-axis to the microphone's pickup pattern (so if it's a unidirectional cardoid mic, eg an SM58, put the foldback behind the mic). This will help the mic to reject unwanted sound and give a clearer sound.
6) Think outside of the box (or dial you may be twiddling)
How does a band stay in time? Typically it's through the lead musician, but maybe a bit of the drums coming through could help? For example, the kick and snare just quietly to keep an underlying beat. This in turn will keep the lead person in time who will keep the drummer in time and vice versa.
Bonus tip: some IEMs are very noise cancelling, and if they have both ears in they may not hear the speaker get up to carry on the rest of the service (in a church for example). Maybe a bit of room or presenter mics through IEMs as well would be a good idea (but not speakers - the audience may notice and feedback is possible).
Update tip: I have been in situations where the drummer has had over-ear headphones on so it has been necessary to send some of the drums through the drummer IEM line. Sounds crazy but you can get a great balance for him/her in it.
7) Be cheeky: bring the volumes down secretly
Not got much headroom on your monitor mixes? When the band play they usually play louder than soundcheck. Bring the overall monitor masters down a bit so you have better stage volume and more headroom. Don't let the band notice though...
8) Give yourself headroom for "more me" from the musicians
Don't set the levels initially as loud as they will go. Keep it at 1/2 or 2/3rds and that way you have more room to crank up the volume if they keep demanding more.
9) Set your foldbacks up well so you aren't left with no movement on the dials/faders
If your amps are really loud (active or passive) at the last point in the signal chain, you will only have to turn the dial or move the fader slightly to get a very loud signal at the stage end. You won't be able to create a finely balanced mix this way: set the system up properly at first so you make full use of the dial/slider.
10) Focus on one mix at a time, as a whole
Try to look at one set of dials or faders at a time (if you're on a digital mixer) and see the relative levels after you've set your gain properly. Is that what the musician will want to hear? Make tweaks on one mix, then switch to another, don't go getting confused!
11) Bonus tip #1: Setup talkback mics
A simple SM58 for the worship leader to talk to the whole band via IEMs just a foot or two away from the main vocal mic is a great way for them to communicate what song is next or to talk to monitor engineer. This is called a 'whisper mic'. Similarly for the drummer and electric guitarist (commonly the MD mic). You can also purchase foot switches which swap the mic between feed to FOH+Monitors to just Monitors (IEMs) so lead vocalist could talk to the rest of the band quickly. This can backfire though…!
You can also purchase Optogates which are Infrared enabled gates that only turn the mic on when someone is close to it. They run off +48V phantom, so pretty useful! - http://www.optogateonline.com/
12) Bonus tip #2: Everyone loves a bit of FX...
Adding a bit of reverb / delay through a musicians wedge / IEMs can help make the mix sound less clinical and more natural, just the same way a bit through FOH does. It can help boost their confidence.