Great conversation and great music have something really simple in common: each party is carefully listening and adjusting their communication approach to either complement, or counterpoint ideas. Listening and adapting are core skills that ensemble players, like a string quartet or a jazz ensemble, use to blend their instruments. Effective communication is crucial to conveying the emotion of a tune as a single unit, by playing with harmony and time.
Modern worship has gone another way. We’ve taken a pop/rock approach to music. In our world, musicians use stage monitors to hear what they want to hear, so they can perform at levels that feel right to them. This is done in the hope that musicians will be comfortable, thereby rendering their best performance. It becomes the job of the FOH mix engineer to blend all of the simultaneous performances together, and hopefully, to produce something that sounds harmonious.
Great stage and backline monitoring creates the conditions for beauty. When musicians have great monitoring they experience the freedom to collaborate, freedom to be creative, freedom to express, freedom to listen. It is in this environment that great music is made.
So how can we, as artists and technicians, create the conditions for careful listening and dynamic interaction on stage? It starts with a great monitor mix. Unfortunately most musicians don’t know how to articulate their monitor needs on stage. Likewise, most sound operators don’t have the touring level experience needed to guide the artists in the right direction.
There are a number of key learning’s I’d like to share, from both sides of the monitor console, that foster an environment of freedom in performance. Keep in mind that each of these techniques have the side benefit of encouraging musicians to listen to each other, thus becoming more aware of what others are playing, and how they fit in.
- Come Prepared:
Come with the best gear available, including a console with enough mix busses, graphic EQ’s on each send, matching stage monitors, and an additional matching cue wedge for yourself. Practice knowing frequencies so you can listen in on each mix, and can catch the problem frequencies before feedback happens. This is the key technique to ensuring the stability of each mix throughout the gig.
- Prepare the Stage:
Ring out each mix, before the artists get on stage, to ensure plenty of gain before feedback. Nothing erodes trust in the monitor engineer like a burst of feedback. Minimal EQ is the goal here, so if you find yourself carving all over the place, you might have the wrong gear for the gig.
- Establish Communication:
When the artist arrives, get out there and communicate directly and personally with each member of the band. Let them know you’re there to help them achieve the best performance they can. Get their names, check out their backline, talk about their monitor needs, and get the changes to stage-plot and channel charts sorted out.
- Have an Outcome in Mind:
A great monitor mix offers the artist clarity at their performance volume. It also has available gain before feedback, so if things need to get louder, they can do so without introducing feedback.
- Optimize the Monitor’s Position:
- It should be pointed at the artist’s ears.
- It should be at the right angle for the microphone pattern.
- Negotiate items interfering with the monitor sound path, positioning the wedge to avoid reflections or physical interference.
- Minimize spill into other listening areas on stage.
- Empathize with the Artist:
Step out and listen to the mix in the context of the artist’s position on stage. Be sure they have the pitch, timing, and arrangement references they need to perform at their best.
- Listening Environments:
Consider and maximize the complete listening environment on stage. Backline and acoustic instruments can have a big impact on they way an artist perceives their monitor mix. Create comfort on stage.
- Channel Processing:
Take the time to EQ each instrument channel, paying special attention to your HPF’s. EQ the channel to minimize resonance, balance harmonics, and to help it stand up in the mix. Compress/limit select channels to manage extensive dynamic range, so individual monitor mixes remain stable. Vocals need 6dB of compression to just level consonants and syllables. Direct instruments often need some compression or limiting too.
- Side Fills:
On larger stages Side Fills are often required to ensure that, when musicians roam the stage, they can still hear themselves. Some engineers delay the center vocalist’s wedge to time-align with the side fills for added clarity.
- Listen for Trouble:
Watch the performers like a hawk. Things change over the course of a performance. Intensity increases, their hearing profile changes, their confidence fluctuates, and the backline misbehaves. Many of these changes will require some intervention on your part. Watch your artists, cue their wedge, and make the requested changes to their mix while listening to it!