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Up Close & Personal: Keys To Successful Monitor Engineering For Smaller Groups

Mixing monitors for a solo artist and supporting band requires a specific set of "soft" skills, it has more to do with rehearsals and relationships.

In my previous article (Organization, Communication, Anticipation), I focused on the details of how I run monitors at the annual Glastonbury Festival. This time, I’m sharing some tips about mixing monitors at the other end of the spectrum – a solo artist and supporting band.

A large festival requires a different set of “soft” skills than working closely with a smaller group. Both take a great deal of preparation, but while at Glasto this means collating tech specs, session files and stage plots for 24 bands, with solo artists and their bands it has more to do with rehearsals and relationships.

And whereas at Glasto I have the artistic input of making sure that the EQ and any necessary time alignment on side fills and wedges means that the stage sounds good, with artists it gets a lot more refined, particularly if I have a long working relationship with them.

The two artists that I currently work with are both fantastic singers, and I’ve been with them for nine years and seven years, respectively, so by now I have a fairly intuitive understanding of what they want to hear. Both are lovely people, have excellent bands playing with them, and I enjoy their music, so it’s a very nice position to be in.

Develop Rapport

The quality of the relationship between the monitor engineer and the artist is an important part of the job, and as with people in any walk of life, it doesn’t always click. You can do a great technical job of mixing, but if the artist doesn’t feel a connection, you may not get a second run. They need to feel that you’ve got their back because they really are reliant on you. Put yourself in their shoes – it’s a vulnerable position, standing on stage in front of an audience, and their ability to hear what they need is totally in your hands.

This goes for all bands, but is amplified for a solo artist – the backing musicians are a big part of the show, but the crowd is watching the star most of the time, so they’re very exposed and have to trust you. Part of it comes down to personalities – you might gel or you might not – but you can help build rapport by being reliable, consistent, calm, professional, prepared and confident.

Understand The Hierarchy

Being friendly with artists, but not overly so, is important – you want to establish an easy working relationship with them, while remembering that they’re still your boss. I’ve found that balancing friendliness with a little professional distance is a wise move.

Friendly, not friends.

Of course, in most cases, you’re not just mixing for the artist but for the band too. I always sound check with the band by themselves first, so that I can make sure they’re happy before turning my attention to the artist – and often an artist will stop sound checking when they’re comfortable with the engineer. I never stop watching the artist once they’re on stage because you can guarantee that the moment you look away is the moment they’ll look over!

During shows, I keep an eye on the band while my main focus is the artist. So how do I make sure that the band feels taken care of too? I ask the stage tech and backline techs to keep focus on them and to alert me if I miss anyone trying to get my attention.

I also provide every band member with a switch mic so that they can talk directly to both me and the techs. I set up a “talk to me” mix on the console and I feed my own in-ear monitoring (IEM) pack off a matrix, pulling in that talk mix as well as the pre-fade listen (PFL) bus. This ensures that I never miss someone talking to me, even when I’m listening to the artist’s mix.

Sometimes there’s a request that comes at a critical point in the performance. For example, the drummer wants a little more hat overall but I have a show cue. I nod to let the drummer know that I’ve seen him/her and hold up one finger to say that I’ll be addressing it in just a moment. Then when I’ve made the change, I glance over and make eye contact to make sure that all is well. I encourage musicians to give me immediate feedback when they’ve asked for something – it’s no use finding out after the gig that something wasn’t quite right.

Be Aware

Mixing artist monitors is like being an avatar. There’s the need to develop a real understanding of what artists pitch to, time to, what they’re used to hearing, and what helps them enjoy the gig.

I don’t usually alter the backing band’s mixes unless asked to do so, but I’ll subtly ride elements of the artist’s mix as necessary during the show, once I have a good understanding of their preferences – if an element of the mix sounds too loud or quiet to me, then it probably does to them as well. I tend to tap along with my foot, which keeps me aware of whether they are wandering off the beat and might need a little more hat or snare.

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