Sunday, January 11, 2009

How do you set up your monitor mix?

Sometimes comments turn into a blog post... that's happening here after some comments on Karl's blog. We got to discussing the balance between having a quiet stage volume (monitors and instruments that make noise) but loosing the feel of the music versus having a loud stage volume so you feel it but making the front of house (FOH) sound muddy in the process.

I realized I'm kind of a freak and have learned how to get buy on really bad monitor mixes. Part of that comes from playing in concert bands (band with tubas and flutes, not guitars) where there's no monitors and you just have to listen to the room, and part of it comes from my first experience with monitors which was our college ministry worship band - we had 2 floor wedges (that both had the same mix) for the whole band. In both cases I got used to listening to the room not the monitor, only relying on monitors for things I really need to hear, and trusting that things sound different FOH than they do in my mix.

Listening to the room
At the conference last week I went two sets without anything in my monitor (floor wedge). It was either off or just so low that I couldn't hear it. I could hear the drums because they were right next to me, bass because he had an amp on stage and because he was in the subs, and my amp because it was right next to me. I could hear the worship leader's electric because it was near the stage (behind it) and could hear his vocals and acoustic through the FOH speakers even though they were facing away from me. It wasn't ideal, but I could hear all the pieces... well enough. I couldn't tell you what word the worship leader was singing but I knew the songs and could tell what verse or chorus he was on. Often times I can hear the lead singer in his or her own monitor loud enough that I don't need it in mine. I'm always amazed by how much I can hear from the FOH mix. In fact, it bugs me if FOH is muted for rehearsal because everything sounds a lot different once it's on.

Sometimes monitors actually inhibit our ability to hear things. If I had my own guitar blasting in my monitor I wouldn't have been able to hear anything else around me. If my monitor is really loud I won't be able to hear some of the instruments in the room and I'll have to add them to my mix, making my monitor even louder and possibly covering up some other instrument I would have heard in the room. If I have my monitor really loud it will make it harded for the person next to me to hear what they need to hear in the room or in their monitor too. They'll turn their monitor up, then I can't hear or someone else can't hear and before you know it the stage level is blasting. I've been at places where the sound guy realized this cycle was happening and had to stop rehearsal to start monitor mixes from scratch. Not good.

Only relying on the monitor for things I need to hear
Because I want to hear things onstage and in the room I only add things to my monitor that I can't hear already - namely acoustic, lead vocals, and keys if there are any. If there's a drum shield (or an electric kit for some reason) I might put kick and snare in if I can't hear them well or if I'm only hearing a weird reflection that's out of time. I never put background vocals in my mix and when there are keys I keep them pretty low. I absolutely need to hear the drums for time. If I know the songs I could get by with ONLY hearing drums and my guitar, that's how it goes with tracking a recording some times. Next most important is hearing the vocals so it's easier to keep track of where I am in the song and hear vocal cues if we add a chorus on the fly or some other audible. Next I like a little acoustic since it often starts songs and lets me know I'm on the right chord if I don't know the song well enough. I keep the acoustic pretty low though, that way I can hear it when it starts songs or if there's a break where it keeps playing and I don't. When we're all playing it might get lost in the mix but that's ok, I don't really need it. Next I like bass for the chord changes and for the feel of the song. Sorry background vocals, it's not that I don't like you, it's just that I don't need to hear you and the fewer things I have to listen to, the better I'll hear what I need to hear. If it's getting hard to hear something in the monitor instead of asking for more if it, try turning down other instruments that are covering it up. It doesn't always work, but usually it gives good results. Plus the sound guy will occasionally say something like, "In the 5 years I've been mixing here, you're the first person to ask for something less in his mix. Thank you!!!" Actual quote :)

Trusting that things sound different FOH than they do in my mix
This one is so hard to get used to! It's really important for that balance between feeling it and having a loud stage volume though. I just ran into this yesterday at a wedding I was playing in. Two of us were playing acoustic and the other acoustic was singing too. Once the sound guy did his check and put us in FOH the other acoustic asked me if she should turn down the treble on her guitar because it sounded really bright now. Mine sounded the same, it was because the highs from FOH were bouncing off the back wall of the church and back to us. The mids and low were lost along the way but the walls were bouncing the highs back really well so everything sounded brighter. I'm sure it sounded just fine in the house but on stage it was bright. We could have changed our guitars EQ to sound good to us but it would have been really dull in the house. We just had to trust that it sounded right out there.

The temptation is to have a FOH mix in your monitor so it sounds like your sitting in the house. It's possible, but in my opinion, it will cause your monitor to be too loud and you'll lose clarity of the things you really need to hear. If you listen to the FOH speakers you'll hear the mix... with a bunch of reverb since you're hearing it off walls, but it's there. The point of a monitor is to let you hear what you need to hear. I'm not really sure how it happened, or like I said, maybe I'm just a freak (!) but I can get a feel for the music and dynamics with a really sparse mix. I have noticed, though, that I need to be able to hear the FOH, otherwise it feels really empty.

That brings me to a final point:

How things change for inears
So far I've only been talking about using wedges since the make a lot of stage noise. It's more important to have a quiet wedge than it is to have a quiet inear mix since you're the only one in your ears! With inears I still only put instruments I need to hear in the mix (sorry again BGVs) because it will still make things harder to pick out if you have a lot going on. Since my ears are sealed and I don't hear much of the room, I add bass and drums (usually just kick, snare, and high hat if I can't hear it in the snare mike - no cymbals or toms though). Even with a good inear mix I still lose the feel unless I can hear the room. If there are room mikes then I kiss the sound guy and add a good helping of room mike, if there aren't room mikes I pull on ear out (not all the way, just enough to break the seal so I can still hear the inear too). If the place you play has stereo inear consider yourself truly blessed! I've played with them at a few churches and it's heaven! If this is the case, make sure you pan things left and right. I really helps make things clearer. I usually put vocals, kick, and bass in the center; snare and high hat a little left and right your guitar and the lead guitar further left and right; and keys and whatever else way left and right. It makes it super easy to hear everything! My home church uses stereo inears and while they've had a room mike for a while, they just added STEREO room mikes and panned them left and right in my ear. Oh it was glorious!

Not the only way
That's just my way of doing it! I know good musicians who have other philosophies of setting a mix. What's yours?


Karl Verkade said...

Awesome post! I love your comments about how the monitors can inhibit us. Personally, I never have any of my electric in my monitor for that very reason. And great point about learning to trust that the house mic is different. hehe If not, you can go crazy! :)

All around good stuff.

Anonymous said...

I kinda do what you do...
We are led by keys-- So I want them #2 in my mix. #1 is the Bass, and if we have the "soft" drummer then him at #3. Loud drummer- NOT IN MONITOR. Lead vocal is #3 or 4. Nothing Else. I am NOT in my monitor, as my amp is no more than 15 to 20 feet behind me. I hear me just fine.
I agree with the acoustic being just enough to hear when slow--- but he shares his monitor usually. And those guys want the "full band" to hear everything in their monitor. They have the loudest monitor on stage. I can hear their parts just fine through their monitor (which overpowers mine at times). Its embarrassing to me when the pastor says "its really loud today" and they cut the house mix and its still too loud--- watch the monitor level!

That said, my personal sound is funny how it ranges: my amp is a firecracker at 3 volume. (new tubes!)I start at 3 for first service and as we add a bass for second service, then go into full electric band for 3rd, I slowly turn up until about 4 1/2 for the 3rd service. Just interesting how that fits in. (and I still can't hear over the Acoustic's monitor!)

Dan said...

Nice post.
Do some people really like their monitor mix to sound like the FOH?
You have to trust that the soundpeople are doing their job with the FOH mix (and that you're actually in the mix!).
For wedges, I like to have the minimum amount of stuff in there for me to do my job.
Lead vocals, acoustic guitar are most important to me. Then a little bass, kick/snare, keyboards (louder if the keyboardist is going to improv so we don't clash, less if playing it straight), and a tiny bit of BGV. I am always asking the soundguy to lower stuff in my mix. I always laugh when someone on stage asks me to turn up because they can't hear me. Ask the soundguy to bring me up in your monitor! IEMs are another story because you may have to share the mix with someone else. I've taken my guitar completely out of a shared mix so that it doesn't interfere with what they're doing. One in one out is not preferrable but you have to make sacrifices sometimes.

Mike said...

Karl- Thanks! I have to have guitar in my mix cus my cab is usually off in an iso room somewhere. If the amps on stage, no amp in the mix :)

LPD - That would be so annoying having another monitor overpower yours! How do their acoustics not feed back???

Dan - nice blog! Yes, I've run into people who are trying to get a FOH mix in their monitor, especially if using monitors is a newer thing to them and they haven't gotten used to hearing things differently. Cudos for asking for less of things! I don't think I'd like sharing an in ear mix. I feel like it's so isolated you really need a separate mix for each person. But if your board only has so many aux channels and there's no budget a new one, you gotta do what you gotta do!

Anonymous said...

Mike--- the acoustics OFTEN feed back. But they are "OLD" guitar players who have been playing 200 years before I was born etc... and the sound guy built the sound system out of the remains of Noah's ark. So I just kinda give my opinion and step back. When we have major feedback and the head pastor asks... i say "turn off the acoustic, or its monitor".
Its usually fixed then, and they'll listen to me about 2 weeks then it happens again.

heh, its not like I have ever setup a sound system/band in Nashville or anything :)

Worship TEAM. Which means sometimes I keep my mouth shut so not to offend the group friendship dynamic :)

eric said...

Beautiful... This is what I was trying to get at over at Karl's blog.

I run almost the same mix as you Mike if I run a mix at all. Lately, I've been playing without a monitor. Our room is small enough that I can hear the house pretty well.

I do however get slightly off pitch vocally if I'm not careful so I put my vocals and some bass in the mix to keep me on. I usually only use one ear because I want to hear what's going on in the room (no room mics). I know that's bad for your hearing so I try to switch ears every week. But like I said, I've been playing without a monitor for the last few months and it seems to be the best compromise.

Great post... gonna send it to my teams...