How the right live monitor can take your stage show to the next level 

Whether you’re playing a grungy blues set at a local club or headlining a stadium rock festival, delivering a show to remember is impossible if you can’t hear what you’re doing. What sounds perfectly harmonious to you could sound like a broken chainsaw out in the crowd—and vice versa. So how can you ensure you’re getting the onstage mix that you need to stay in time and on pitch?

Selecting the right monitoring system—and coaxing the most from that system—will make a world of difference. But with monitor options ranging from wedge speakers to custom-molded earbuds, and with many clubs providing their own systems, what’s a performing musician to do? We turned to two live-audio experts for help. Monty Lee Wilkes is a front-of-house and monitor engineer who has worked with artists including Prince, Alice in Chains, Britney Spears and Nirvana, while Kevin Glendinning has crafted monitor mixes for Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, the Black Eyed Peas, Lenny Kravitz and others.

What are the main types of live monitors?

GLENDINNING: You have angled speakers that sit onstage called wedges; smaller in-ear monitor systems that performers wear like earplugs; and side fills, which are basically stacks of speakers on the side of the stage. Monitors can miss low end, so acts add side fills just to get more feel. Side fills tend to be the speakers used in a venue’s general PA system.

What are the pluses of in-ear monitors?

GLENDINNING: One of the big advantages is that performers can hear a clear monitor mix without having to endure excessive volume. That said, some listen through in-ears with excessive volume, so in the wrong hands they can be dangerous. In-ears are also good for playing click tracks, which you generally don’t want the audience to hear. Though from the Black Eyed Peas did once request that I put a click track through a stage monitor for a piano song he was playing.

WILKES: Some in-ears can provide a great deal of isolation, so you’re only hearing the mix that’s being sent to you by the monitor engineer. Then there are musicians like Jay Lane, drummer for Bob Weir’s RatDog, who enjoys using crummy Radio Shack headphones that don’t really offer any isolation. We’d buy them every chance we got, since they blow out all the time. But the way he described it was, “I can listen past them.”

Any favorite in-ears?

WILKES: I’ve used a bunch from companies like M-Audio, Shure and Sensaphonics. Most often, though, musicians will just show up and say, “This is what I’m using.” The decision of which to work with can be really subjective.

GLENDINNING: With the Black Eyed Peas we use the Ultimate Ears UE7s and the JH Audio JH7s. The UEs are very durable, and I’ve also used the JH ears with Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys. The detail with them is amazing.

How about onstage wedges?

WILKES: Some people like a loud monitor roaring away and don’t like the isolation that in-ear monitors can provide. When I worked with Nirvana for a simple club tour we didn’t carry any audio equipment. We used whatever was there so it was all wedges, all the time. If you work just with wedges stage volume increases, and that can be a problem for the front-of-house engineer. Make sure that you’re aware of the capabilities of the monitoring system and work around it, if need be. In other words, don’t play your amps at a volume that the monitors can’t keep up with.

GLENDINNING: Wedges can feel a lot more natural to performers, and when acts use wedges, engineers aren’t required to manage as many wireless channels.

Do some use a combination?

GLENDINNING: With the Peas I use an Avid Venue Profile mixer with wedges and side fills, and everyone has in-ears as well. We can communicate easily and I can talk back to them through their in-ears. But there are wedges all around the perimeter of the stage, on the ramps and the band risers too. It’s one of the loudest shows I’ve ever worked on.

WILKES: When I was working with Britney Spears some band members had in-ears, but she hated the things. She loved the sound of big speakers cranked really loud.

Which wedges do you prefer?

GLENDINNING: The Peas use proprietary boxes from Clair, and I can’t say enough about them. They have the best wedge going, especially for getting vocals to the necessary volume. I’ve used Clairs with Timberlake, Alicia, Maroon 5—every one of my clients uses them.

WILKES: Clair has a wedge called the 12AM that’s been the industry standard for years, and it’s one of the best. There are also some great off-the-shelf solutions. The Nexo wedge really knocked me out—the pattern is so tight that you can put two next to each other onstage with different mixes, move back and forth
4 feet and not have the speakers bleed into each other.

What if the artist brings the system in?

WILKES: It’s not an easy thing to bring your own wedges to a show, so if you’re going to take the plunge, don’t do it half-assed. Know what kind of connectors your wedges need, if they’re passive or active and so on. You may even need to bring a separate amplifier to power them. You can make in-ears work more easily on a small scale, but you still have to make sure you have a proper system. When you perform at a small club, the host engineer does not have the responsibility of knowing how to operate your equipment—so be sure to have the proper cables figured out. If you’re using wireless in-ears, make sure you know what wireless frequencies you’re transmitting on.

GLENDINNING: The in-ear thing is definitely taking off. I’ve seen a lot of up-and-comers bring their own mixers and in-ear monitors to gigs. It’s awesome, and it gives them a level of consistency each night.

What should you request in your mix?

WILKES: All depends on the artist, and sometimes they want the weirdest things. In RatDog, Rob Wasserman wanted lots of bass, a bit of vocal and very loud hi-hat. I didn’t care to listen to that mix but he dug it, and that’s what he needed to hear.

Any general pre-gig monitor advice?

GLENDINNING: Just listen, make sure everything’s working and allocate what’s going where. For example, if somebody blew out a wedge at the club the night before and it’s duller than the other ones, that’s the one to give to the drummer—since it’s going to have to be the loudest.

WILKES: I would strongly recommend that musicians learn to identify frequencies, which are like notes. Good musicians can hear a note and say, “That’s an A.” They should also be able to hear some feedback and say, “That’s about 1,200 Hz, so let’s roll that off.” Beyond that, communicate. It doesn’t matter if your monitor engineer is at the front of house or on the side of the stage. He wants to give you what you want to hear, so if you need more snare, bass, whatever, just ask.

—Michael Gallant

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