How to Mix Monitors

by Curt Taipale

I played in rock and roll bands for twelve years. In all that time, we never had stage monitors to help us hear what we were doing. We were either too poor, or couldn’t justify the expense to ourselves. So instead we adapted, did our best, and our performances were just fine. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Today, I chuckle to myself when I hear a young musician or singer proclaim their dire need for stage monitors.

I’m not at all belittling the importance of a good monitor mix and a quality monitor system. As a performer, I would prefer to have good monitors as well. And if your church has the budget for a quality monitor system then, by all means, go for it. But please don’t forget where you came from. You didn’t always have stage monitors, did you? Oh my – for those of you who just said “yes” to that question, I have a suggestion for you. Go somewhere and perform without monitors a few times. You’ll come back with a much greater appreciation for the equipment you do have to work with, and for your friends who run it.

Now, I don’t have a lot of patience for a performer who gets upset at one of my volunteer monitor engineers over his “lousy monitor mix”. That can get a little frustrating. Oh, I don’t make a big deal of it, though I will protect my volunteer. We’re a team of individuals trying our best to communicate the word of God to a mix of people, some who know Him, and some who have never heard the Good News. In effect, we’re working for God. Okay, maybe someone did make a mistake, or was unaware of a problem with the monitor mix, but that’s no reason to place their importance as a child of God on any lower level.

Sometimes there’s nothing really wrong with the monitors. Sometimes the performer needs a scapegoat. It happens. It’s human nature to want to feel a little superior to the next guy, and our insecurities will lead us to blame our poor performance on something, anything but ourself. And it hurts or is embarrassing to admit to our friends and peers and ourselves that we just don’t know our part today. The monitor speakers or the monitor mix is an easy target, and everyone knows that monitors are a problem from time to time, so the monitors, or monitor mix, or monitor engineer gets blamed, and fortunately no one can really argue the point. It’s perfect – no witnesses.

And that’s one of the real problems with mixing monitors. Even if you have someone with a dedicated monitor mix console just offstage, whose job it is to concentrate fully on mixing monitors for those on stage, that monitor engineer isn’t standing where the performer is standing during the service. He/she can come out on the stage and check the mix during rehearsal, but during the service he/she is stuck with an interpretive mixing process. Hopefully he has a monitor speaker next to the console – preferably a speaker similar or identical to that being used by the vocalist. If so, when he checks the monitor mix, it should be a good representation of what that person is hearing from the speaker. Unfortunately, there is no way for the monitor engineer to also hear the other things that the performer is hearing – like spill from other instruments and monitors on stage, or spill from the house speaker system as heard at that spot on the stage, or the sound from their own voice as heard inside their head as they sing. All of those elements play a part in developing what the performer ultimately needs to hear in his monitor mix.

So what do musicians and vocalists want in their monitor mix? What do they expect of the sound engineer? It would be cool if there was a simple solution to that question, but God made us all different. Therefore, we all have slightly different views on what the monitor mix should be like.

I can tell you what it shouldn’t be like. It does NOT need to be a mirror image of the main house mix. Even I am surprised at the number of times I’ve hear that comment made. Some singers have the mistaken notion that it is their assignment on this planet to check up on what the sound engineer is “doing to” the house mix, and so the efficiency of their task could be improved by having their monitor mix reflect what’s going on in the house mix. Oh my. My suggestion is for them to spend a little more time looking at the plank in their own eye before they try to deal with the speck in the sound engineer’s eye.

No, the monitor mix should be built from whatever components will help that person lead others into worship of the God of the Universe. This will sound contradictory, but if a full mix is what you perform best with, then build your monitor mix that way. Just don't do so because you want to hear what the congregation is hearing. Trust your sound engineers to handle that!

Most rhythm section players I have worked with want to hear a full band mix in their monitors, plus the lead vocal. That’s similar to the request you’ll hear in the recording studio, and probably what I would ask for if I was playing in that rhythm section. By comparison, a vocalist may only want to hear their vocal, the piano or keys, maybe a little bass guitar and the hi-hat. Obviously they need to hear their vocal clearly. The piano (or some other “lead” rhythm instrument) is there to provide harmonic structure and rhythm. A little bass guitar can confirm to the vocalist where the root of the chord is. And the hi-hat is there to lock in the “time”. Another vocalist might prefer kick and snare rather than the hi-hat. It’s very much personal preference.

I consider this sparse approach to mixing monitors a blessing from the house mix perspective. Anything we can do to reduce the volume of sound on stage, particularly that coming from open stage monitors, only serves to help keep that sound from spilling out into the audience, thereby cleaning up the sound in the house. This is way cool.

Another preference often expressed by the vocalist or musician out there on the stage is for their monitor mix to be static. That is to say, once their monitor mix is exactly what they want it to be, just leave it alone. Unless there’s an obvious problem, they don’t want the mix to keep changing on them. It can be too distracting. They’re having enough concerns up there remembering the lyrics to the songs, remembering the melody or unusual syncopations in the rhythm, adjusting to a musician or vocalist who just played a wrong chord or note, and so on. If their monitor mix is static, at least they have a second rock to stand on.

If you are mixing the monitors from the house desk, on occasion you’ll find someone who prefers that you do their monitor mix on a postfade auxiliary send, so that once their mix is established it will follow your fader moves in the house. This is a mixed blessing for both you and the performer. That could potentially result in a cleaner monitor mix, since as the house mix is adjusted to remove mics that are temporarily not being used, they would also be removed from the monitor mix. On the other hand, a real threat for feedback exists with this approach. Often, the vocalist asks for his vocal mic so hot in the monitor that it’s running just below feedback. If during a song that vocalist gets into a part of their range where they can’t sing very loud, the house mix engineer is going to automatically push that vocalist’s fader up to maintain the vocal blend. Unfortunately, with this configuration, that will also push up the level in the monitor mix, and therefore put the monitor into feedback. This is way bad. It is also one of several reasons why I recommend using a prefade auxiliary send for mixing monitors in most church applications.

No, you do not need monitors. They are a blessing. A welcome addition. When you do invest in stage monitors, don’t skimp on their quality. Regardless of what measures you take to combat it, those monitors are going to spill some sound out into the audience seating area. If that sound is spitty and distorted, your audience will hear it quite clearly. Spend the money for quality speakers, amplifiers and equalization.

So stop blaming the monitor mix. If we all spent more time honing our own gifts and craft, and seeking God’s face, and less time complaining about something we don’t understand, I think we’d all be a lot further toward our common goal. And that’s very cool!

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