Monitor Mixing 101

A set of in-ear monitors
JH16 Pro In-Ear Monitors.

Courtesy of Jerry Harvey Audio

Mixing monitors can be confusing, and it's not just as easy as turning up a mix and leave it—and bad monitor mixes are one of the first reasons cited for a bad show by most bands. As a live sound engineer, mixing monitors is something you'll undoubtedly come across. Let's take a look at the easiest way to make sure your performers are happy.

Understanding Monitors

If you're mixing in a small club, chances are the monitors will be mixed from the front of house console. You'll be sending the monitor mixes through the auxiliary, or aux sends. The output of those sends—however many you have free—will go to a power amplifier, which is attached to a monitor speaker. The purpose of these is, of course, for the performers on stage to hear themselves better.

Part of understanding this is understanding what the individual on stage will want to hear. At very least, they'll need to hear what elements of the stage they can't hear naturally, and in a loud club with rock bands, you'll find that this means a vocals-only mix. On larger stages, you might be making full-band mixes.

Most drummers tend to want everything in their mix, with an emphasis on a kick drum, bass guitar, and any guitars onstage. Guitarists tend to want any other guitarists onstage in their mix, along with plenty of kick drum and vocals. Bassists tend to want lots of kick drum and some guitar. Vocalists? Let's say; they love to hear themselves. And lots of it. Of course, it's always a good bet to ask the performer what they prefer in their mix and then work from there.

Managing Stage Volume

In a small club, you'll always be fighting stage volume. Getting a clear mix in the house is hard if you've got blaring guitar amps and loud wedges, with everything exponentially getting louder to try to compensate for everything else in volume.
Making sure that guitarists keep their stage volume down is of huge importance because their amps tend to get the loudest. We always tell guitarists to start off playing as soft as they can and still get their preferred tone, then see if they can compromise on something less. Sometimes they will; sometimes they won't. While it may seem harsh, we then remind them it's their show—and ultimately their sound—and if they want to ruin it, they're more than welcome. This usually gets a split-the-difference compromise on stage volume.

Ringing Out The EQ

The first thing you'll want to do before any performers get there is a ring out the monitors. Ringing out the monitors is a simple way to reduce feedback. Feedback occurs when a loop forms between the signal source (in this case, a microphone) and an output source (in this case, the monitor wedge), and it's, simply, a pain to deal with.

We'll assume that you have graphic EQ inserted on the output of each monitor mix. If you don't, then these adjustments will be tricky. You can accomplish something similar by cutting frequencies on the master channel, but be aware that those adjustments will affect the house mix, too.

Start by turning up one microphone—a dynamic microphone, similar to what you'll be using throughout the stage—in one of the monitors until it begins to feedback, which sounds like a high or low pitched vibration. Once it begins to feedback, reduce that frequency in the graphic EQ until it's no longer feeding back. Keep up that process until you can apply a great amount of gain to the microphone in the wedge without feedback. But watch out—take too much out, and you'll kill the dynamics of the wedges.

Let's Start Mixing

I like to start with the drummer first. Start by asking him to play his kick drum. Ask across the stage if anybody needs more kick drum—and most likely, they will. Turn up the kick in each individual mix until everyone's happy. Most times, they won't want anything else of the drummer in their mix; if they do, they'll tell you. Then, go to the bass. Most drummers—as well as the bassist themselves—will want plenty of bass guitar in their mix. Here's a good tip: run a DI box between the actual bass guitar and the player's amp, and use that signal in both the front of house and monitors. Micing a bass amp is a good way to get the overall tone, but if you're in a small club, the tone is the least of your worries—you want to hear the definition, and have control over it in both the monitors and the house.

Then go for the vocalists. Avoid using compression in the monitors, because this encourages really bad mic technique for most vocalists. Compressing vocals in an in-ear monitor mix is crucial, but it's not necessary for wedges. Acoustic guitar is the next thing to go in if it's onstage. Vocals and acoustic generally compete for the most gain and therefore tend to feedback. An electric guitar won't need much, if any, in the monitors, although it's not a bad idea to ask. Sometimes, a softer-playing soloist will need their signal across the stage.

Remember, every situation is different, and practice makes perfect.