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Stage Monitoring 101: The Essentials

The many factors to account for in getting it right on stage, and with consistency...

It can be tough performing live on a stage – all the noise, Noise, NOISE. This is the first thing in my mind when doing stage monitoring because too much noise can compromise performances and presentations.

It’s hard to be at your best when you can’t hear, let alone think, due to a sonic assault, and no amount of magic monitor mixing or technique is going to fix it.

The noise comes from everywhere. The backside of the house mains. The subwoofers. Various (and numerous) delayed signal reflecting back from the house. Stage sources. The audience. There’s only so much we can do, but minimizing stray energy on stage is a top priority, and then comes the work of devising a monitoring approach that’s best for the performers and production.

When setting up the house system, placement and people are the keys. Placement is where the main loudspeakers are stacked or flown, and people refers to the performers and the audience – we need to serve both.

A very clean deployment of monitors and fills.

If possible, the loudspeakers shouldn’t be too close to the stage, helping keep their excess energy off the stage while still insuring they fully cover the audience. Flying/stacking them even a few feet forward can make a significant difference. (Also try to keep their output off of reflective surfaces in the room.)

Loudspeakers on delay further out in the house, as well as front fills, are a good way to get even coverage throughout the listening area without having to crank up the mains too high. Digitally steerable arrays, which my company deploys regularly for both music performances and corporate events, provide an extra degree of welcome control. Cardioid and end fire configurations for the subs can help direct their energy outward rather than backward.

Various Approaches

Now it’s time to turn our attention to the stage monitoring needs of the performers. Wedges, in-ear monitors, stage fills, or a combination?

It’s a direction determined by the specific gig, performer preferences, and what we (and perhaps the venue) have available in terms of gear. Everything but in-ear monitoring increases the noise quotient, but that’s usually (and simply) the reality; plus, some artists like amped-up monitoring.

Over the past several years, a wide range of active 2-way boxes have hit the market with cabinets offering a monitoring angle. They’re quite useful in being able to perform wedge, stage fill and small system main duties. Onboard DSP means they can be optimized for the specific application.

We’re also seeing more active options with traditional wedges. Active does require both a signal and power cable, but there are now options offering both within the same jacket, which can help reduce clutter.

Welcome to the hot seat, otherwise known as monitor beach.

Otherwise, the choice is passive wedges and loudspeakers. They can also be bi-amped (2-way, lows and highs) or tri-amped (3-way, lows, mids, highs), requiring separate amp channels for each section, and may also require an external crossover or processor. Active or passive, options include:

—Mini/personal monitors. Designed to be used very close to a performer, they can be located on the floor, placed on an instrument like a keyboard, or mounted on a microphone stand. The object is to enhance certain parts of the mix (i.e., the vocal), not usually provide the entire mix.

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How Do You Know What Sounds Good?

—Standard wedges. Purpose designed and positioned on the floor in mono or sometimes stereo configuration. The most popular types are 2-way designs with a 10-, 12-, or 15-inch woofer and a 1-, 1.5- and 2-inch compression driver mounted on a horn. This category also includes the previously mentioned active loudspeakers. And, a popular variation are coaxial designs that align the LF and HF drivers while occupying a smaller footprint.

—Larger wedges. Usually 3-way systems with a bit more thump and oomph, with the trade-off of being larger and heavier.

—Drum boxes. A specialty loudspeaker to reproduce low frequencies to help drummers better hear the kick (and sometimes bass guitar).

—Drum fills. A single larger loudspeaker, or a group of loudspeakers, to better serve the drummer. Often accompanied by a sub for extra thump.

—Side fills. Also called stage fill, loudspeakers at the sides of the stage, often joined by subwoofers, to augment the output of the wedges and/or IEMs. Some bands prefer side fill exclusively.

—Stage subs. Smaller subs used underneath or alongside a wedge to help augment LF, and these can also be deployed as part of the drum fill or side fill.

These options can be used alone or in any combination, and with IEMs. Just remember, the more loudspeakers on stage, the louder it’s going to be, and there’s increased chance of feedback, both in general and if stationary mics aren’t carefully placed. Plus more boxes can clutter the stage.

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