On-stage Monitoring

Sound On Stage

Published in SOS March 2004
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Learn how to choose and use on-stage speaker or headphone monitoring systems — after all, if you can't hear what you're doing, then your live performances are going to suffer.

Gavin Harrison

OnStage header.s

Live sound is problematical, and on-stage sound can be the biggest nightmare of all. The famous 'musical difficulties' that cause bands to break up are often nothing to do with the songs, but simply the result of someone turning up their amplifier too loud on gigs. Rock guitarists are the worst culprits, but some vocalists go over the top with their stage monitoring, and even normally placid folk violinists can go a bit decibel-crazy when they discover amplification. Drummers, being the gentle, peace-loving creatures that they are, never play too loud, of course...

Loudness Wars

The problem is essentially one of escalation. Compared to the industrial-strength racket that a modern drum kit generates, a '30s kit was a fairly tame affair that could just about be heard discreetly shuffling along behind the dance bands of the era. In the early sixties, drum kits got bigger, and had no difficulty making their presence felt over the trebly racket of 30W combo amps. But before long, some idiot invented the 100W amplifier, and that's when the real trouble started. There is no way that drums (which are, after all, acoustic instruments) can compete with a 100W amp turned up full. (Just ask drummer Ginger Baker, one of the early wave of volume casualties, about playing on stage with Cream.)

onstage wedge
If you're using acoustic instruments and vocals on stage, wedge monitors such as this Behringer Eurolive F1220 can be used to provide foldback from their microphones to the performers. However, this type of foldback monitoring can create feedback problems, especially if performers move their mics around with them during the show.
If you're using acoustic instruments and vocals on stage, wedge monitors such as this Behringer Eurolive F1220 can be used to provide foldback from their microphones to the performers. However, this type of foldback monitoring can create feedback problems, especially if performers move their mics around with them during the show.
If you're using acoustic instruments and vocals on stage, wedge monitors such as this Behringer Eurolive F1220 can be used to provide foldback from their microphones to the performers. However, this type of foldback monitoring can create feedback problems, especially if performers move their mics around with them during the show.

Not unreasonably, drummers started asking for on-stage amplification so that they could hear their own kits above the howling din. This brought about a temporary truce, but guitarists, noticing that they were no longer the dominant decibel force, went out and bought two 100W amps and more speaker cabinets. Unable to hear the vocals over the Blitzkrieg emanating from the stage, sound engineers were forced to buy bigger PA systems, powered by banks of kilowatt amps belting out nuclear levels of sound.

So it has gone on for the last thirty years, claiming countless casualties (not least the poor audience) with no peace plan in sight. My advice, which will probably fall on deaf ears, is: turn the ****ing volume down!! Once amps are turned up to eleven, no-one can hear each other properly and the stage noise spills into the auditorium, upstaging the PA and preventing the sound engineer from doing a decent mix. If you play at a reasonable volume level, you'll hear each other more clearly, perform more efficiently as a band and sound better to the audience. I realise that this game plan might not appeal to everyone, but you have to admit it does makes sense.

Getting your sound right on stage is not easy, and requires forward planning and preparation. It's a good idea to start with a sketch of the on-stage monitoring, including backline, wedge monitors and sidefills, then work out exactly how the audio will be distributed. Signals have to be split between the stage monitoring system and the front-of-house PA, and perhaps further split to individual musicians' headphone systems. The amount of cabling involved can be quite frightening, and there's plenty of scope for mains hum, high-pitched lighting buzzes, hiss, crackle, feedback, and all those lovely noises we live musicians know and cherish. But when the sound is right, the music can start to flow, making all the hours of irritating technical hassle worth the effort.

Backline: The Bottom Line

The backbone of on-stage amplification is the backline, traditionally a line of speaker cabinets and/or combo amps running laterally across the back of the stage. The simplest backline arrangement is for guitarists, bass players and keyboard players each to have a speaker cabinet placed directly behind their playing position. Each player then hears his own sound source directly, and if the drums are set up in the middle of the stage, the drummer can usually hear the centrally-placed cabinets reasonably well. (A good argument for positioning the bass and main guitar speakers in the middle of the line.)

For maximum efficiency, speakers should be pointed directly at the musicians' heads with no-one else in the line of fire — this means that if a player is tempted to turn up the volume to a punishing level, he or she will be the first to suffer! To achieve this, speaker cabs can be tilted up, placed on top of empty flightcases or even raised on poles. Once speakers and ears are correctly aligned, each musician should be able to hear his sound source clearly, and enjoy the desired 'me loudest' mix without blasting anyone else.

A weakness of backline monitoring is that, unless the stage is tiny, a musician positioned on one side will find it hard to hear the speakers on the opposite side. It helps if the backline speakers are not too widely spaced, but another solution is for musicians to use pairs of cabinets, one placed on each side of the stage. However, this only works if the cabs have separate volume controls, to prevent the musician on stage left accidentally blasting his opposite number on stage right! Get these simple backline logistics right, and you can start to achieve a decent live sound balance. But, for reasons outlined earlier, it's vital that the volume level of the backline should never exceed the acoustic level of the drums.

Wedges & Sidefills

The backline is supplemented by floor wedge monitors. Wedges are usually used to distribute vocals (and other acoustic sources like brass, drums and percussion) around the stage, and can fill in any sounds that musicians need to hear — for example, a keyboard player on one side of the stage might want to hear a bit of the drummer's kick drum, hi-hat and snare. Singers often use two or more wedges, and big-name artists who like to run around a lot have wedges scattered all over the stage, greatly increasing the risk of feedback. (Big-name artists secretly enjoy a bit of mic feedback, it gives them an excuse to have a screaming temper tantrum after the show.)

As well as backline and wedge monitors, a lot of bands use 'sidefills', especially on big stages. Sidefills are large speaker enclosures of the sort used in PA systems, set up on each side of the stage near the wings, out of view of the audience and pointing across the playing area. They are usually very loud, which vocalists like, but can easily bring about an escalation in stage volume, which sound engineers don't like.

A Singer's Perspective
onstage singer.psd.s
For singers with quiet voices, like myself, in-ear monitoring has brought enormous benefits. In a live gig, you can't rely on any clarity coming from the back of a PA, and trying to fish out your vocals from the auditory pond sludge that can be your wedge mix is nothing short of nasty. For what goes down your mic is never just your vocal, but the whole stage sound behind and to the side of you, including unruly bass frequencies, hums, buzzes and rattles, as well as other peoples' monitoring. Turn up your wedge in the forlorn hope of hearing yourself better, and you turn all this up with it, annoying everyone else, as well as cueing the vicious spiral that so often results in feedback.
Using headphones makes live vocal monitoring much more manageable. The three key advantages are proximity, focus and control over volume. With in-ear monitoring, we can hear the voice clearly inside our heads (the place we're all used to hearing it), rather than down on the floor several feet away! Small earpieces act as plugs, reducing the amount of level coming from the stage, so your vocal will always be 'closest' to you in the sound hierarchy, thus providing a primary focus. Consequently you need a lower monitoring volume — a good thing, as loud signals close to your ears are more dangerous than noises from the outside. Focus makes intonation (tuning) easier, which has to be top of the list when it comes to making the music work.
I use a small mixer at the back of the stage with one channel dedicated to my vocal, plus a stereo pair of submixed keyboards and a second pair for programmed percussion. I set the mix up myself, but as a rule I only need my vocal, because I can hear everyone else both from their backline, and via my own mic. I send the stereo mix from the mixer to a belt pack, which consists of a miniature amplifier, a limiter and an overall level knob. This belt pack in turn feeds a stereo pair of earpieces. I prefer to use the ordinary spongy Walkman sort — they're dirt cheap, and you don't feel as completely cut off from the outside world as you might with the 'blot out' custom ear moulds. But I'm lucky enough to sing with musicians who appreciate the wisdom of maintaining quiet stage levels.
I do still have a pair of wedges there, just in case something goes wrong with the in-ears. But nothing has yet, and I have found that I pay very little attention to the wedges now. I haven't yet descended to posing with my leg up on one, but they are good for sticking your set list on! Barbara Gaskin

Using Headphones On Stage

One way of avoiding a needless proliferation of speaker cabs, wedges and sidefills on stage is for musicians to use headphone monitoring. This used to be regarded in manly rock & roll circles as a suspicious, effete practice, but nowadays everyone does it — even butch rock drummers from the Bronx with blood-dripping daggers tattooed on their arms can be seen delicately fiddling with dinky little earpieces.

I'm very comfortable wearing headphones while playing the drums on stage, and have tried many types over the years. Basically, it comes down to three types:

Big, closed-back headphones, as used in studios.

Walkman-type headphones — although not the 'bud' ones that dangle in your ears, as these are very likely to fall out!

Made-to-measure 'in-ear monitors'.

The first type are designed to shut out outside sound, so are great if you need to focus on a click track. But the downside of this sound insulation is that you'll then need all the on-stage sounds to be fed into your headphones, which requires quite an elaborate mixing set-up. Another drawback is that big headphones do look kind of silly, and make it very obvious to the audience that you're playing to a backing track.

I've had a lot of success with Walkman-style headphones such as the Philips Ear Gear type. They let in enough of the outside sound, including drums and cymbals, so that you don't need a whole mix to be sent through them (though, to be fair, the bass guitar and bass drum would sound pretty thin through them anyway). Visually, they are reasonably discreet, and are light and comfortable to wear.

In-ear Monitoring

More recently I've been using smaller, in-ear headphones which give me a mix of all the instruments except my bass drum, which I 'feel' through a monitor speaker positioned behind me. This does require quite a big monitoring set-up with its own dedicated monitor desk and operator — this kind of set-up pushes touring costs up considerably, and may be beyond the reach of smaller bands.

The entry level for this kind of in-ear monitoring is Sony (or similar) bud-type headphones, fitted into plastic moulds which are moulded to the shape of your ear opening. It costs about £120 in the UK to have the moulds made, which includes the price of the headphones. At the higher end of the market, you'll find Ultimate Ears UE7's, which have the drivers built into the moulds — these sound fabulous, but cost around £700-800! Both of these options block out much of the outside sound, but the sound quality of the bud headphones is noticeably inferior, especially in the low frequencies.

In-ear monitors can be a godsend to singers struggling to hear themselves over the roar of loud amplifiers, and I've noticed a distinct improvement in tuning from the singers who use them. However, not everyone takes to them, as their blocking effect can make musicians feel a bit cut off from the stage environment, causing a definite lack of vibe. It's also psychologically very peculiar not to be able to hear the audience; a heckler might be requesting your speedy departure, or urging you to remove articles of clothing, and you could just be standing there nodding and smiling, oblivious to their polite suggestions. Performance can be subtly affected too; sound engineers have commented that, when wearing in-ear monitors, some singers 'project' less and sing quieter, or that their vocal tone changes slightly. So, for singers in particular, there are a lot of pros and cons to weigh up — one compromise, adopted by many vocalists, is to sing with just one earphone in.

Another off-putting factor with in-ears is that you have to have ear moulds made, which can seem a bit like a visit to hospital (see the 'Bodily Functions' box). However, if you can cope with all this, there's no doubt that in-ear monitoring is a highly efficient way of musicians hearing each other on stage; keeping the sound in-ear reduces the number of monitor speakers required, which brings stage levels down and helps the sound engineer do a good mix.

Bodily Functions
onstage Buttkicker.s
The Butt Kicker fits to a drum stool and allows the drummer to feel his kick drum even if he can't hear it.
The Butt Kicker fits to a drum stool and allows the drummer to feel his kick drum even if he can't hear it.
The Butt Kicker fits to a drum stool and allows the drummer to feel his kick drum even if he can't hear it.
Being fitted with custom in-ear monitors involves having ear moulds made, which requires a visit to a hearing-centre specialist. This can be a little daunting. A little doctor climbs inside your ear... no, I'm joking. First, they closely examine your inner ear with a kind of microscope, then they insert a tiny plug (about the size of a pea) with a thin string hanging out so it doesn't fall right in and become irretrievably lodged inside your head. Next, they squeeze large amounts of what feels bathroom silicone straight down your lughole — lovely! 15 minutes later, they pull the whole thing out and, hey presto, there's a mould of your inner ear, the perfect present for a loved one at Christmas.
Investigating other openings (as it were), I did once try 'in arse' monitoring, using a unit called a Butt Kicker, basically a piston attached to the underside of my drum stool. Every time I played the bass drum, the microphone signal was relayed to an amplifier and then sent to the Butt Kicker which, er... kicked my butt. The vibration is meant to simulate the physical effect of low frequencies and replace bass end monitors. I personally didn't enjoy having my arse kicked all that much, and the whole thing felt pretty strange to me — but I know a lot of drummers out there love using them.

On-stage Mixers & Headphone Amps

In a live situation, the drummer may be expected to provide his own headphones and headphone amp. When it comes to amps and mixers, I've used small units like the MXR headphone amp (battery-powered and very basic) and larger, 1U-rackmount models by Behringer and Keymix, both of which were fine. I've also taken small mixers like the analogue Mackie 1202 and the digital Yamaha 01V on stage with me, which give the opportunity of tweaking the headphone mix to your heart's content.

When choosing a mixer, the really important thing is to make sure it can adequately power the headphones of your choice. You also have to find a way of positioning it right next to you while you're performing, which requires a stand or flightcase of the right height. Another vital consideration is whether to use a digital or analogue mixer — the issue here is not so much sound quality as practicality and reliability of use. One unfortunate problem with digital mixers is that they automatically load their operating software on power-up, so if the power goes off even for a split second, you'll be staring at a screen that says 'Welcome to the ABC corporation's XYZ digital mixer... loading operating system... please wait...' This would just about be tolerable at home, but if you're in the middle of a song at a live concert and need the mixer to hear the click track, those few seconds will feel like an eternity.

Looking After Your Hearing

Taking care of your hearing is of paramount importance. Once you've damaged your ears or got clobbered with severe tinnitus, there's no going back. Just ask Pete Townshend of The Who — you'll probably have to raise your voice a little. I've had many years of coming off stage with my ears ringing, but I've noticed since using in-ear monitors that my ears don't ring at all, even at the end of a two-hour rock gig. To guard against sudden volume peaks or surges, I use a TC Electronic Triple*C compressor to limit any really loud noises coming down my headphones, and I also shelve off high frequencies above 8kHz, as it's the high end which can really do the damage. Wearing in-ears also filters out a lot of the splash and crash of the cymbals — when I practise the drums at home in my studio, I protect my ears by wearing big headphones, to which I send a mix of my (permanently miked-up) kit.

The most frightening noise I've ever heard is not a ferociously loud crash cymbal at close proximity or a Marshall guitar stack set to 'stun', but young girls screaming at a pop concert. Those frequencies are so piercing that you can't hear anything else. With that kind of shrieking racket going on, you'd be very pleased to be wearing in-ear monitors — in fact, under those circumstances, it would be almost impossible to stay in time with a backing track without them!

Join The Cue

One of the nice things you can do when all (or most) of the band are wearing in-ears is to send them clicks for certain selected musical passages from your playback machine. Take the example of a song with a long solo piano intro: rather than the drummer having to mark time on the hi-hat to keep the other musicians in time with the track, you can send the band a click just for that section, enabling the piano to do its sensitive artistic thing without a hi-hat clanking along.

Another example is a chorus near the end of a song where the drums and bass drop out, leaving the guitarist to play on his own for a few bars. With the band wearing in-ear monitors, I can send them a click for the bars when I'm not playing, and when I re-enter, I program the click to disappear in their headphones so they can get the tempo from my drums instead. You can also send vocal cues to certain members — for example, 'only four bars left till the end of the guitar solo!' This sort of thing is good for inter-musician communication, but not so clever if the cue track accidentally gets routed to the front-of-house mix. I still go red every time I remember an audience in Athens accidentally hearing my spoken song cues belting out of the PA at full volume. That was bad enough, but the Jimmy Saville impersonations made it even more embarrassing...


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