A stage monitoring system is, simply, a complete and independent second sound system for the performers rather than the audience, made up of monitor loudspeakers (also called monitors for short or wedges due to their shape), power amplification and signal processing.
A monitor system can also have its own mixer/console, or receive a feed (or feeds) from the main system console. Note that adjustments made to the main system mix do not affect the monitor system mix, and vice versa.
People who sing and play instruments derive much enjoyment from both listening to and participating in music. Music sounds best when it is clear and balanced, when you can hear instruments and voices at appropriate levels. And singers and musicians play their best when experiencing these circumstances.
There are several keys to performer satisfaction with monitors and monitor mixes. Let’s start with positioning the performers. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked to come to a church because “we can’t hear the monitors”.
Upon arrival, the monitor loudspeakers themselves are actually tuned pretty well, and I can stand on the platform or riser and hear crisp, clear, and well balanced sound. This is when I’ve learned to ask where the people who “can’t hear” are physically positioned on the riser, and the answer, predictably, is that they’re almost always somewhere out of the primary monitor coverage field - too far to either side, too far forward, or too far back.
Getting performers to stand in the coverage field is usually a training issue - if necessary, the sound operator should show them where to stand, or, consider repositioning the monitor(s). The vast majority of times, it comes down to using what is already there (repositioning) rather than the need to add more equipment.
Other times I’ll come to a facility and experience monitor sound that is feeding back or poorly tuned - the equalizer (EQ) is not adjusted properly. EQ can help eliminate feedback, get rid of annoying, lingering overtones, and provide a way to “shape” the sound so it is pleasing to the ear.
What I find is that monitors tuned by novices are frequently bass heavy and “thick” in the mid frequencies, when instead, it should be rich and full, crisp and distinct. How to tune using an EQ is a complete topic in and of itself, and has been covered in a previous article.
Assuming monitors are well tuned, the next consideration is relative balance in relation to the main system. Aside from the problem of sound bleeding from the stage into the house, monitors that are too loud can also cause considerable distress to the performers.
Surprisingly, though, often when performers tell me they “can’t hear the monitors” it is because the monitors are too loud, rather than too soft. Being too loud robs all of the ambiance—a sense of space and the sound within that space. This causes a lot of discomfort, and really, what the performers should be saying is not “we can’t hear” but rather, “we’re not happy.”
Ever notice how cool it is to sing in a parking garage, a gymnasium, or a canyon? We enjoy the sound of our own voices returning to us from a distance, and this phenomenon also occurs, albeit at a much smaller scale, with stage performances. But if the monitors are too loud, the sound is too dry, in your face, and quite unmusical.