Stage Monitors Primer: Tips, Techniques, and Rules of Thumb

Mixing monitors can present challenges even for experienced sound people.

Yikes! As if keeping the front-of-house mix under control wasn't difficult enough, now you have to worry about a monitor mix for the musicians and singers on the stage! Mixing monitors can present challenges even for experienced sound people.

We polled loudspeaker manufacturers and pinged some audio professionals, asking them to provide tips, techniques, and rules of thumb about running stage monitors. Most manufacturers feature more than one model in their lineup so be sure to check their websites or check with a systems integrator to find the most appropriate product for your needs.

The contributors generally had a lot more to say on the subject of monitors than what we could fit in this article and we've done some editing for space considerations. For all the comments, as well as more tips, techniques, and rules of thumb from additional sources, go to www.churchproduction.com.

Dan Palmer, manager, L-Acoustics Installation Sound provides a good overview:

“The selection and usage of stage monitors for house-of-worship applications requires insight and knowledge. The monitor system must provide full coverage for performers, church staff, ministers and clergy. The mix is different than the FOH mix, of course, but the sound quality and impact should be representative of what is going out to the audience. Proper system EQ, level balancing, control of the monitor (limiting), frequency response, directivity (what is the coverage area requirement?), and even the physical profile of the monitor (aesthetics) are major considerations.”

As to the primary purpose of monitors and what the mix should consist of, Kent Morris, Peavey Electronics audio consultant weighs in: “Stage monitors should be used for only two purposes: to keep the performer on time and on pitch. Too often, church stage personnel ask for a myriad of signals in the monitor to their listening detriment. The more elements present in the monitor mix, the less discernible each element becomes. If the mix is limited to hi-hat, acoustic guitar, right hand of keyboard and vocal, the mix is clean enough to present a proper palette.”

Get the Right Tool For the Job

Insofar as the gear is concerned, Nigel Meddemmen, technical sales support, Martin Audio Ltd. says, “The first step is to ensure that the monitor is driven correctly with a suitable amplifier and a controller to get the best from the monitor. A great sounding monitor is a good starting point.”

John Loufik, technical applications engineer, Community Professional Loudspeakers reinforces that getting the right monitor for a particular application is key. “Pick the right monitor for the right job. Selecting bandwidth and horn pattern can make or break monitor choices for various situations. For example, duet singers sharing a monitor need a wider opening horizontal angle whereas solo musicians need a tighter horn pattern to focus on them and not spill their mix to adjacent musicians.”

Now that you have all the right equipment in place, what do you do? Just as important are the non-technical considerations, the relationships you have with the people on the stage. As John Sager, director, market development, Installed Sound, JBL Professional, says, “The best rule of thumb I have is to listen to each of the musicians needs, make sure you understand their needs, work with them one at a time to set up the mix they want to hear, and make sure they know you are there for them. Developing a rapport with each of the artists is crucial to a successful monitor mix.”

Randy Weitzel, district manager, Yamaha Commercial Audio Systems adds, “It is important to listen to the stage environment. When mixing wedge, or loudspeaker monitors, you need to walk the stage. Listen to the stage volume, tonality and instrumentation. Is the stage volume at a level that is conducive to create a mix for the sanctuary? In other words is the stage level acceptable for your space. The softer the stage volume, the better the chance of creating a great mix for the audience. The more lively the room is acoustically, the softer the stage volume has to be to have a chance of creating a good mix for your audience.”

Meddemmen from Martin Audio also reminds us to pay attention to the source. It's important to have the best possible signal to feed to the monitor mix. “Another consideration is microphone technique. Ideally, a vocalist should have a strong voice and keep the microphone as close to his mouth as possible. This will reduce the amount of gain required on the mixing console and therefore help reduce the likelihood of feedback. It is often our job to educate inexperienced vocalists to improve their mic technique, which is of benefit to everyone involved.”

I Want Everything A Little Bit Louder Than Everything Else

Even after everything is up and running, your job is far from done. You have to get the monitors at a level that's workable for the musicians and singers, while avoiding feedback or running the monitors louder than the main sound systems. Dave Rat, president, Rat Sound Systems Inc., who co-developed the MicroWedge with EAW’s engineering team advises, “One of the primary challenges with setting up stage monitor systems is achieving the desired volume levels without creating feedback. At some point, regardless of which monitor type is used, if you turn it up loud enough and there are open mics, feedback will occur. There are some things to keep in mind in order to minimize feedback and maximize volume while maintaining the desired tonal balance. An often overlooked and useful trick is utilizing mic angle. Cardioid microphones offer rejection to the rear of the mic. This rejection pattern is three-dimensional so the tilt of the mic on a stand is important. While common practice is to have the mic angle parallel to the floor, the ideal angle is typically pointed upward at a 30-to-45 degree angle, depending on where the wedges are. Then the person would speak or sing slightly over the top of the mic. An added benefit of the up-tilt mic is a subtle improvement in sightlines where less of the person's face is visually blocked by the mic.”

Stu Schatz, applications engineer, Bosch Security Systems Inc., Communications Systems Division, emphasizes physical placement of the monitors. “There are many pickup pattern variations available on the market, but most common performance microphones are either cardioid or hypercardioid. Figure 1 shows the polar pattern of a cardioid microphone—note that there is a null on the backside of the element – 180 degrees from the on-axis point of the microphone head. Figure 2 shows the polar pattern of a hypercardioid microphone — note that there are two nulls at about 120 degrees on either side of the on-axis point of the microphone element. For maximum gain before feedback place the monitor in this null relative to the microphone as shown in Figure 3 and Figure 4.”

Randy Weitzel of Yamaha Commercial Audio Systems adds his thoughts. “Think about reducing levels in mixes to make changes. Ask yourself: What can I turn down, to make something else appear louder? If they need more drums, perhaps the bass is too loud. If an artist wants more vocals, perhaps the instruments are too loud. Instead of turning up the vocals, turn DOWN the instruments. If you are always turning things up, eventually you will run out of mixing head room and everything will be too loud.”

Also, in many situations there is considerable interaction between the house and monitor systems. Timothy Thornton, director of sales and marketing, Radian Audio Engineering Inc. offers this suggestion, “Make sure the house system is on with the monitor system so the singers and musicians can hear what the house mix is doing to the room and the interaction. This adds to their monitor experience and reduces the chance of the monitors overpowering the house mix.”

Steve Bush, senior technical support representative, Meyer Sound Labs spoke about another important consideration: “One of the common problems with regard to monitors in houses of worship is doubling up on wedges to increase SPL. All too often, you’ll find two monitors pointed at one location reproducing the same program material, which causes different amounts of interference at variable frequencies. It’s much better from a practitioner’s standpoint to use a monitor with more available SPL in higher frequencies rather than trying to sum together two loudspeakers. This will both increase amplitude and minimize the complications that arise from adding additional wedges.”

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

Sometimes a monitor has to pull double duty. Gerry Tschetter, vice president, marketing, QSC Audio Products LLC provides a handy tip from a keyboard player’s perspective. "As a keyboardist who has logged a few hours playing in praise-and-worship bands I really appreciate the flexibility of powered loudspeakers in the stage monitor and keyboard amplification role. A powered loudspeaker that has some built-in mixing capability is required for this tip; take advantage of the internal mixer on your powered stage monitors by running the electronic keyboard into one of the inputs and a monitor send into the other. The keyboardist can now hear a general mix and have the ability to hear ‘more me’ without eating up a separate monitor mix. This can also work nicely for other instruments, such as electrified acoustic guitars."

Be sure to take advantage of rehearsal opportunities. When the band, singers and choir are rehearsing is a great time to use these tips and perfect the monitor mixes. Rehearsals are as much for you as they are for the singers and musicians. Applying some of the concepts found here and online (www.churchproduction.com) should help get your monitor mix under control.

Mark Johnson is an independent technical trainer/writer based in Crockett, Calif., and former editor of Sound & Video Contractor magazine and of Church Production magazine, where this article was published. He can be reached at mjohnson6286@sbcglobal.net. Used by permission.

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