Mixing monitors can be tricky. Maybe you’re working with lots of musicians with tons of mixes or a few players sharing a single in-ear mix. Where do you start? How do you get it to sound “good”?
I’ve been in the position of pulling double-duty mixing front of house and monitors for a large festival, in addition to working with seven or eight bands who got no real sound check. I’ve also been a dedicated monitor engineer managing individual in-ear mixes for each band member on an established tour. I often get compliments on my monitor mixes from musicians and in this business, reputation goes a long way. No matter the setting, the principles of building a good monitor mix remain the same.
These tips are in no particular order.
1. Talk to the band
This may sound like common sense, but as with anything, common sense is not always common practice. Proactively seek out the band and ask the players “What do you want to hear in your mix?” Some musicians won’t care and will tell you that as long as they can hear themselves they’re cool. Some musicians will be super picky and ask for 4dB more of 6kHz in their vocals. Regardless of the type you’re working with, the band will appreciate the personal attention.
Pro tip: Learn the musician’s names. Write them down if you needed. People are more likely to respond positively to their own names rather than “Hey! Bass player!”
2. Listen for yourself
Don’t just rely on your mix wedge or headphones. If you have the luxury of sound check, walk the stage and listen to each mix if you’re using wedges. If you’re mixing in-ears, keep an extra pack handy and listen to each mix as the band is hearing it.
Pro tip: Keep in mind mixing monitors is about multi-tasking and focusing on what the band needs, not necessarily the most sonically balanced mix.
3. Think outside the mixing desk
What does the band need to stay in time? Definitely the lead musician, but maybe a little bit of the kick and snare mixed in could help to keep the underlying beat.
Pro tip: Mixing in-ears can sometimes leave the musicians feeling cut off from the audience. Try setting up some ambient mics that feed only the in-ear mixes. This will help the band reconnect with the audience and “liven” up the mix.
4. Turn it down
Most bands will play softer and more conservatively at sound check than at show time. Keep an eye on the meters and start backing down levels gradually. Doing this will keep the mix tight and clean. Plus, the band will think you’re the mix master!
Pro tip: Get in the habit of using high and low pass filters. These will help to clean up your monitor mixes and make less work for you in the long run.
5. Keep your head up
Watch the band during sound check and show time. Work out how the band can communicate with you during the performance without being too conspicuous. I will usually tell the band if they need specific tweaks mid performance to make eye contact with me and signal if they need more or less. Thumb up for more, index finger down for less and head nod when it is just right.
Pro tip: Set up talkback mics. These mics are routed only to the monitors and best used with in-ears. Talkback mics allow the bandleader to talk to the musicians/crew without the audience hearing. Set up talkbacks with a footswitch to keep the stage volume out of the monitor mixes. Just be wary, these have their drawbacks too. Some musicians can get into the habit of using this as a complaint mic.
6. Don’t be afraid to say no
Not too long ago, I worked with a band with a horn section consisting of 2 trombones, 2 saxophones, and 2 trumpets. The show rider requested 1 monitor mix for the horn section. During sound check, the horn line was requesting 3 separate mixes. Not only did we not have enough mixes to accommodate, this would have unnecessarily raised the stage volume to unworkable levels. The monitor engineer has a responsibility to keep stage volumes in check and from feeding back through the mics.
Pro tip: If musicians are asking for “just a bit more” of themselves in their monitors and you’re maxed out on headroom, try the DNF aka the Do Nothing Fader. Running sound can be just as much a psychological act as a physical act. You’d be surprised at how many times I’ve been asked to give a bit more in the monitors and didn’t actually make any changes only to have the musician say “Yeah, that’s it. Perfect!”
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