The Communication Angle
There’s another sort of listening that’s also vital, particularly for monitor engineers, and that’s the art of listening to what your artist is telling you. This is where we get into the realms of sound engineering as psychology.
There’s great importance in developing trust between the monitor engineer and musicians, and a great way to inspire that (after doing pre-production homework and introducing yourself in a friendly and confident fashion) is to really listen to what they’re telling you. (A wise person once said that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason!)
Make eye contact, give them your full attention, and check anything you didn’t quite understand. Repeat key words back to them in order to make sure you’ve got it. This not only gives you a better shot at meeting their needs quickly, but also helps them to feel heard – and believe me, that is a huge part of forming trust. You know those people who make you feel like you’re the only person in the room? Be one of those people!
Of course, the tricky part of monitor engineering is making every person on stage feel like that simultaneously, and if they’re all talking to you at once, that’s no mean feat! Use the “one at a time, but I see you” approach – stay with the person you’re talking with, but give the interrupter a nod or say “I’ll be right with you John” (or whoever). As soon as you’re free, it’s “Now, John, what can I do for you?’
After a few times they’ll generally stop jostling for position, because they come to trust that they’ll get their turn. Of course, there are often inter-band politics to deal with, and sometimes you’ll be caught in the crossfire of ego contests. Experience teaches you how to deal with those, but by staying calm, methodical and professional, you won’t go too far wrong.
Many musicians aren’t good at describing what they need to hear, so it’s also imperative to learn to decipher their requests, and again this comes with practice. Comments like “my voice feels muffled” can often be addressed with microphone technique and EQ (more about that coming up), but simply being curious is the way to get clues – if you don’t understand what they’re getting at, ask open-ended questions: “Can you tell me more about what crunchy/breathy/purple feels like?” (Yes, people do come up with the oddest descriptions!)
This has the added benefit of helping them to feel that you’re on their side and again, it builds trust. As a monitor engineer, the relationship with the band really is of prime importance – when they feel that you’ve got their back, they can relax and get on with their job of playing a great gig – and that’s what it’s all about!
Mixing sound is both an art and a science, a collaboration between the feeling, intuitive right-brain, and the analytical, logical left-brain. With that in mind, let’s examine how to separate different audio elements within a mix, and I’ll describe how I EQ individual inputs. It’s by no means the only way, but in 20-plus years of trial and error I’ve found this method to be the most efficient and effective for me.
Monitor mixes need to be easy to play an instrument to/sing to as well as sound good. They particularly need to provide clear, functional information about pitch and timing, so it’s worth considering what is supplying useful information to a monitor mix, and what is unnecessary filler.
For example, some sounds are useful for an artist to pitch to or time to, or they carry a signature riff within the song; other sounds might create a pleasing fullness for FOH but reduce the clarity of a monitor mix and make it hard to play along to. This is especially true when it comes to hard-drive tracks – some elements are more useful than others. Sounds like strings and percussion are typically pretty helpful, effects might be less so.
Pre-fade listen (PFL) is your friend when it comes to identifying different sounds, particularly when multitracks are involved, because the sounds are likely to change from song to song. Frequent PFL’ing of the inputs will lead to familiarity with what’s coming in, helping you to identify useful audio information.