Mixing Monitors

Floor wedge

A good monitor mix can make the difference between doubt and confidence, good and great, happy and frustrated musicians.  It is not simply a matter of what they hear, but how that affects the music.  Having a good monitor mix can make all the difference in the world.

But all too often the responsibility for that mix is placed only on the musician.  They tell us what they want and we give it to them, whether it is really what they want or not.  Often without stopping to think about what they are really asking for.

For this post, I am going to start by listing some signs that may indicate a poor monitor mix and then talk about how I set them.  Often times, the signs of a poor mix are not the fault of the musician.  Sometimes, things are just off, and it is hard to put a finger on exactly what the problem is.  These symptoms may be a sign of a poor monitor mix.:

  1. Constantly asking for changes.  (Often even contradictory changes)
  2. Continuously asking for more of different channels.
  3. Poor musicianship.  (Singing/playing off key, poor timing, etc.)
  4. General frustration or apathy about the monitor mix.

If your musicians are showing any of these symptoms, they may be struggling with their monitor mix.  (They may also just be having a bad day, so tread lightly).

Here are my basic keys for mixing monitors.

  1. Know My Musicians:  Generally speaking, I have a pretty good idea of what my regular musicians like to hear in their monitors.  If it is significantly different than others, I try to have it set up before they walk in the door.  That way I know what they prefer before they every ask for anything.  I also know what they mean when they say they need a little of something.  Sometimes a little more of something means they want a very subtle bump, sometimes it means more.  Knowing what each individual is actually asking for really helps.
  2. Listen to the Mix: Soloing a monitor send can really help you hear what the musician hears, if your console has this ability.  I even know of engineers who keep an extra floor wedge at the console, so they can hear what the musicians hear.  I have mostly IEMs on my stage, so I just use my headphones.  It is not exactly the same, but it gives me a good idea of what they hear.  Also, if someone is really struggling, it often helps to plug into their in-ear pack.  I have found that clipping and limiters can ruin a mix that sounds good at the console.
  3. Beware of the Mores: Often times a musician who can’t hear something in the mix will ask for a little more of it.  If they are struggling with a bad mix, this can often turn into asking for more of a lot of things, sometimes all at once, sometimes one or two at a time.  Eventually the mix gets to the point where everything is so loud there is no clarity in anything.  Before it gets to this point, I try to bring down the individual sends.  For example, if the drummer is saying he needs more of the entire kit, and most of his sends are pretty high, you get the same outcome by turning down everything except what he wants turned up.  Just make sure to keep the basic mix the same.  If done right, this should bring down the overall volume slightly without impacting the balance, but most importantly, should bring clarity to the mix.
  4. Know What They Need: Many musicians know exactly what they want, but some don’t know what they need.  Usually, it is best to give the musician what they want (within reason).  At bare minimum, musicians need themselves, the leader’s instrument and vocal, a time source (usually kick/snare/click), and any instrument that they need to blend with  (for example, it is a good idea for the lead guitar and keys to be able to hear each other so they don’t step on what the other is playing.)  The same basic needs apply to background vocals, except they need a key reference as well (and if they are on a wedge, they probably have enough natural drum noise without it cluttering the monitor mix.  Many musicians want more than these minimums, and give it to them if they ask.  But if they are struggling with a bad mix, start with the basics and add from there.
  5. Focus on Clarity: When the mix is bad and the musician can’t pinpoint the problem, I will ask if I can listen to the mix during the next song and adjust it.  Often times when I hear what they hear, it sounds a lot like mud.  So I make subtle adjustments to bring clarity.  Sometimes that is EQ changes, sometimes it is bringing down unnecessary extras.  The key is to simplify without losing the basics.  Make sure you make the adjustments in the first half of the song, so they can hear it for the second half.  Then ask how it sounded, and make any additional adjustments as needed.
  6. Communicate Well: By this I do not just mean clearly communicating what you are trying to say.  I mean communicate in a positive and encouraging way.  It is far too easy for a musician to settle for a bad mix, especially when we do not make them feel comfortable when asking for adjustments.  I try to always make the band feel safe to ask for changes.  At the end of every sound check, I tell them to let me know what they need.  I never give anyone a hard time for asking for something.  And sometime during rehearsal I normally ask again if everyone is happy with their monitors.  These simple things show the band that I care about them and want to make sure they have what they need.  I never want them to feel that adjusting the monitors is an inconvenience, even when it is.

Using these basic keys helps me create good monitor mixes.  And this gives the band the confidence needed to play their best.  As the old saying goes, “Good in – Good Out.”  When you give your musicians good monitor mixes, you get better inputs, and therefore a better mix.  So make sure they have what they need.

As always, if you have any thoughts or questions please feel free to add them in the comments section below.

Happy Mixing,

Aaron

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