Study Hall

In Focus: Tips, Tricks & Punts From A Veteran Monitor Engineer

A primer on the path to success in working with the stage side of the equation, whether it's at smaller gigs or touring with larger acts.

Working as a monitor engineer can be challenging, and I’ve had a fair share of hard lessons over the years with equipment (or lack thereof), facilities, artists, and more. Success is largely a matter of being able to manage a lot of moving parts.

I thought it might be helpful (and instructive) to share my experiences as well as some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way – some at small gigs and others while touring with larger acts. Each has made me a better engineer as well as made my life easier.

I’m going to focus primarily on general workflow ideas while mixing in-ear monitors (with sprinkles of other things that vibrate), as well as share a few of my favorite “punts.”

That Sounded Great… I’ve Heard Better

One big takeaway from early in my career, although seemingly obvious now, is that each of us hears differently. Aside from differing levels of hearing loss, we seem to have a different “curve” in relation to both frequency and taste.

On occasions where I’m working with a new act or using another engineer’s file or console, I’m forced to learn very quickly what each artist wants and interpret how that artist hears. I literally “stand in their shoes” in wanting to hear what they hear (and feel), as well as checking the volume level setting on their belt pack for reference. A cue mix is no substitute for actually being in the same space – monitor world can be a bit of an island.

While mixing IEMs, one finger is always on the cue fader level, bumping up to listen to the mix at the artist’s level and then quickly back down. I’ve found this technique gives me a fighting chance of “accurate” hearing throughout the gig. Listening at lower levels also seems to reveal issues much more quickly

Taking my first impressions of each mix into consideration, I begin to work on how I can make the artist more comfortable, confident and happier by using level, EQ, compression, panning and effects.

Split For More Options

With both analog and digital consoles, I take advantage of splitting one input to multiple channels. I’ll split the lead vocal input and other challenging lead instruments. This provides options when the singer and/or player hears their respective instrument in a way that’s much different than the rest of the band.

I also do this when faced with one mic on the kick drum (as opposed to the common Shure 52/91A setup). I’ll split the kick into two channels – one for the click and definition, the other is EQ’d for more low-end punch. When an artist needs more click or thump, I simply send more of whichever channel.

Channel Delay

Individual channel delay can really open up a mono source to feel more natural to the artist. With guitar amps, I view two mics as better (the whole “one is none” concept is in play) but when faced with only one mic, I’ll split or soft patch one input to two channels. Delay the second channel by 10 to 15 milliseconds, EQ a bit different, and pan to the opposite side of the first channel.

Sneak in the delayed channel until the guitar sound widens. Also pay attention to where the guitar amp is in relation to the guitar player’s ears.

A technique I learned from a talented engineer, Michael Larcey, to clean up and solidify drum sound is to align all of the kit’s mics to the overheads. Before this lesson, you’d find me daily with a tape measure and a notepad, jotting down the distances.

Solo-in-place is your friend, too. This concept can also be used with other inputs, but be careful of vocal mics and noticeable delay and phase abnormalities.

By the way, while in position on stage, I often flip the polarity of an input or output, as well as delay, to see if it makes any improvement.

Whish & Wash

The inevitable spill from cymbals and electric guitars that bleed into open vocal mics often gives me trouble. One technique I use is to take advantage of frequency dependent downward expansion.

On a vocal channel, insert a BSS DPR901 EQ (hardware or software version) or a similar multi-band device and dedicate one of the bands – usually a wide Q around the 2 to 7 kHz region – to attenuate that frequency range and accompanying wash when the singer is not on the mic.

I solo the channel or listen to the key on the expander, carefully paying attention to how the downward expansion behaves. It’s a key to a natural sounding solution.

Things That Go Bump

Stage volume is always a consideration and challenge, regardless of the music style being reinforced. Artists who learn to work within the space are a big help, yet even with the proliferation of IEMs, it can be an issue.

Eliminating some sources of energy on the stage can surely help both monitor and FOH world. Common culprits are bass amp volume and drum fill bleed – both lower frequency generators. Things like drum set throne thumpers and vibrating plates can really help players feel those lower frequencies, much better than relying on loudspeaker fill.

Vibrating plates can help players get more of a “feel” while helping to keep stage levels lower.

Stereo Please!

Over the years, I’ve worked with many artists who insist on using “one ear” and a wedge. I understand why – it feels more natural and less disconnected, at least first.

The aversion to using monitors in both ears usually stems from having a poor experience early on with IEM, either due to the lack of a monitor engineer, unsatisfactory mix experiences, or a lack of gear to provide a true stereo mix (sends, audience/room mics).

I’m a big proponent of stereo and “both ears in” for three reasons:

1) The brain and auditory system function quite a bit more efficiently when listening in “stereo.” (Experimenting with listing in mono, then again in stereo, makes this concept quite clear.)

2) Volume can be reduced.

3) Separation/masking. This is a big one for me. I always start panning, in broad strokes, the relative position of the instruments to the artist (lead singer), which helps him/her find physical “space” on the stage.

Often one instrument is masking another, and panning slightly can help. (Tip: Pay attention to how one instrument or voice and its respective frequency ranges may mask another. Often, I gently reduce the 1 to 5 kHz region in other instruments to gain clarity in a vocal.)

Audience Mics

Wearing IEMs, even with a great mix and monitor engineer, can still produce a disjointed feeling in many artists. Introducing audience mics seems to help.

Pay attention to how these are positioned and pointed (not directly at the close audience), and also provide a heavy dose of high threshold limiting. Putting them on a VCA and riding in between songs, as well as at the top and end of the show, can deliver additional energy to the artists.

I also PFL (pre-fade listen) these inputs daily, listening for room abnormalities that need some EQ or polarity help.

Compression

I tend to add a bit of conservative soft knee compression, in varying amounts, to several inputs (such as vocals, acoustic guitars, horns, snare and keys). In addition, I’m looking periodically at the mix output levels from the desk and input levels on the wireless transmitters, watching for average level and clipping. Gentle, higher ratio, fast release compression on the outputs seems to help keep things in check.

If running out of gas, I’ll have a quick chat with the artist, asking him to turn up his pack, as I simultaneously turn the corresponding mix bus down, restoring a better gain structure.

Reverb & Effects

When available, I tend to dedicate individual reverbs to vocals and lead instruments, as well as drums. At the minimum, I give the lead vocal a dedicated effect unit/patch.

Returning a small amount of a true stereo reverb, a touch of delay, as well as a tiny amount of a pitch shift patch, seems to help singers feel more comfortable. Adding a natural room or plate patch to drums seems to help solidify the sound.

Often, I experiment with sending the drum reverb return to artists who don’t like so much drums in their mix and sneak in very small amounts of the direct kick, snare and high hat channels for definition and time. I use a similar technique with background vocals – sending just the return to the lead vocal mix.

Always Prepared

I have a soft spot for the (in)famous “punt” – a.k.a., a back-up plan, another option, what-if, and the like. This is where really creative solutions are born and, some days, what audio engineers are paid for.

Aside from the obvious staples, such as a spare mic up and ready to go for the lead vocal and a mic cable always at the ready, console workflow can also provide safety nets. Check out the photo of the mixer: it’s from a unique, albeit challenging, tour in Alaska.

Deploying every adapter available to make it work on tour in Alaska.

Advancing gear for several gigs in unorthodox, remote locations was quite an adventure. For most of them, the gear was delivered by an open pickup truck or four-wheeler (seriously). A daily supply of small analog mixers and less-familiar gear of many stripes set the stage for some unique punts. I used every adapter available to earn a fighting chance at success.

The challenges usually revolved around finding ways to split and provide input strips for both monitors and front of house (I was handling both), which would give me with the ability to use the strip EQ (no graphs to be found most days) for wedges, IEM mixes and return reverb to one of the ear mixes.

A “punt” workflow I use on most digital desks that have the mix bus capacity is to having a “spare” mix with transmitter and body pack assigned to a matrix. In the event of transmitter failure or pack failure, this matrix can then be fed whatever mix bus I need – either by spinning up the appropriate mix or simply feeding all mixes, in mute state, to that matrix and un-muting the one needed. I also create a guest mix with corresponding transmitter and pack for special guests who seem to always pop up last second, as well as other crew and tech packs/mixes.

My cue pack always operates in “engineer mode” or similar. This allows me, when issues arise, to “tune-in” and hear what the artist hears. In addition, I make this mode active on my spare pack as well as guest packs, providing the ability to feed them any mix I desire, including my own cue.

Talk Back To Me!

Talkback mics with corresponding “push to talk” foot switches like the Radial HotShot line output selector, when strategically placed on the stage, allow the performers to talk to one another, as well as to me, other crew members and even the tour manager or lighting director if they have packs. When available, I assign a pack and mix for each crew member, also in engineer mode. This allows me to create a mix for each of them and also to talk directly to them if needed.

Since their packs are in engineer mode, they can switch back to their respective principals when necessary. Often the guitar tech or drum tech, while listening to their artists’ mixes, will point out something that doesn’t sound right and I’ll revisit the mix and work out a fix.

Always An Adventure

What I enjoy most about living in monitor world is finding innovative approaches to challenges, learning how to keep my eyes on several people at once, and sharing the energy of the show – yet always being ready to duck if a ‘58 comes flying in my direction.

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