Gigging Right: Hearing Onstage
What? What!? WHAT?!!! Hearing yourself onstage is no joke when it comes to getting your performance down. Do you know what you need to?
Many years ago, I read a story about a Nashville touring band—I’m not exactly sure which one, but a longtime touring act with a few hits and close to a million road miles under their collective belts. The writer reported how the band leader told the house sound crew that at least 45 minutes of the scheduled one-hour soundcheck would be spent on monitors and whatever times was left would be used for the house mix.
It stuck with me, but I did not understand it for a long time. On the surface, it feels like a selfish, “screw-the-audience” attitude. Many years later, I finally figured out that it was exactly the best approach for the audience. In order to lock in and really play as an ensemble, the band members have to be able to hear what is going on—both with what they are playing and what others are playing. While good monitors do not guarantee a great show, crappy monitors make a great show much more unlikely.
There are a few ways to get great monitors. The first would be to carry a monitor rig and console, and a human to run them—but unless you sell a lot of tickets or have a rich relative that is unlikely.
Another option is to have your own sound engineer who either handles both mains and monitors from the house console—or who (in situations where the venue has a separate monitor system and console) can work closely with the house engineer, running monitors to get them where he or she knows the band needs them to be. But, again, even if you are carrying no PA, it does mean another mouth to feed. So what else can you do?
Low End Solutions:
Communicate - Connect with the sound engineer on your gig early - before the soundcheck starts to talk about anything you think will make a difference in the monitor mix. Do you have hearing loss? Does your bass player always jack up the volume halfway through the gig blowing you out of the water? Small details that you are used to in your playing situation, but are unknown to the sound engineer can make a huge difference on your gig.
Personal Monitors - It’s always possible for you to add your own personal monitors to your gig setup. These can be the mini ones that sit in front of you if you are an acoustic artist, or a loudspeaker of your own that is simply an output from your guitar amp. Drummers can add a sub for more low end allowing them to connect better to kick and bass frequencies. If you struggle to hear yourself in every club you play in, chances are you need to consider beefing up monitoring on the personal side. (Exactly what you need will depend on your setup and band, but feel free to contact us here at Live2Play for some ideas).
Manage Stage Volume - Many young bands don’t really understand the importance of not overdoing stage volume. I know, I know - things ALWAYS sound better louder, right? Well - not really. A great sound engineer will be able to take the front of house sound to that level. But there is very little they can do about a band that is blowing the club out of the water with their stage volume. Simply turning up your amp to hear better is a bad idea because it affects everyone on the stage. Young bands need to work as a team to dial in a good volume for all the instruments that allows everyone to still energetically connect onstage without destroying the ability to hear yourselves. Work on it. It’s worth the effort.
High End Solutions:
In-Ears - With the move toward in-ear stage monitoring, it has become really doable for some acts to take control of their own monitors via in-ears. In-ear monitors are not necessarily cheap since most of them are custom made, but they are a lot more affordable than they used to be. And if you’re a performer that really struggles with hearing yourself onstage - particularly if you are singing - they could save not only your performances, but your hearing. There are lots of reviews and information on our site about several companies that make in-ears. Check them out and start saving.
Wireless - If you are a “moving” player you need to carry your own wireless system. BEWARE! Wireless is a mess right now and you have to make sure that whatever you buy will be usable under the current FCC rules. The good news about wireless in-ear monitor systems is they are getting better all the time, with more control at your fingertips. For an example, check out our video of the Lectrosonics Quadra system. Most definitely out of price range for many indie artists, but if it’s any indication of where all wireless will be going in the next 5 years or so - it’s worth being excited about.Good quality units are also made by Audio-Technica, Shure, Sennheiser and AKG. Budget systems can be found online but be careful and listen before you buy.
On the Gig - The biggest obstacle for the freelance musician is getting the cooperation of house sound crews. Adding an in-ear mix for you is not a big deal as long as there is an open AUX output on the console. Knowing how to look and know how many outputs are available on a board makes it easier to ask the engineer if he is using all (X NUMBER) of the auxes before asking for one for your mix. Some less dedicated sound guys have been known to tell a musician that they do not have an unused output just because they don’t want to deal with another mix.
Bring anything that might make giving you that mix easy. The biggest is audio adapters. If your transmitter has only XLR inputs (which is typical) make sure you have 1/4”-to-XLR cables. Some low-level pro consoles do not have XLR AUX outputs. A one-in-two-out splitter box will let you jack into a system using powered wedges and just get the same mix as is feeding the wedge. As a last-gasp option, a speaker level to line level convertor will allow you to do the same thing with a conventionally powered wedge system. Be careful here. These converters are really made for car audio and are only made to handle about 80 watts.
What's it Mean?
All of this means you need to know a thing or two about audio in addition to whatever musical role you play. Stay tuned to the Live2Play Network for features, reviews and how-to’s for musicians learning the ins and outs of performance audio systems.
For a comedic look at monitoring from the sound person's perspective, check out this video, by our sister site, SoundProLive Network blogger, Void Caprio, front of house engineer for Cee-Lo Green.