Although settings may vary, I think all performers would agree that the most prominent component of the monitor mix should be their own instrument or voice. We will focus this week’s discussion on this component and cover the other aspects of this huge topic in future weeks. Contrary to common belief, the need to predominantly hear one’s own performance is not based in vanity (at least not entirely). Creating a truly great musical performance requires a mixture of kinesthetic, aural, visual and emotional stimulus. The visual element retains a more important role in the other two components of the monitor mix (hearing the band/track and the audience); however, some instruments are easier to play with visual stimulus (like piano and guitar). The connection between sound and touch, in my opinion, is the key to accessing a skilful and emotional musical performance.
An outside evidence of this can be found in video games. Poor quality video games (or video game setups) provide mainly visual stimulus. Enhanced gamming situations provide added aural and kinesthetic stimulus to make the simulated situation more true to life. In the same way, when a singer or instrumentalist has the ideal balance of kinetic and aural stimulus the performance is enhanced. In private practice we feel the vibration of our vocal chords or instrument, the texture of the keys or strings and the friction or resistance (weight) of each motion. We also hear every detail of the tone that we are producing and how it is related to the kinesthetic stimulus we are receiving. We become accustom to this aural and kinesthetic connection and use it to access the connection between our emotions and our physical performance. When an aspect of this stimulus is out of balance, the performer can become inhibited from achieving his/her best results.
Performance situations that most closely resemble the solo practice experience are solo acoustic and small group acoustic (like folk acoustic groups and jazz trio / quartets). The simple sound mix and acoustic nature of these performance situations allow for an ideal environment of kinesthetic and aural stimulus. When the number of instruments and overall sound level increases it becomes more difficult for each individual performer to hear themselves. Tones mix, compete and mask each other causing a lack of intelligibility. In addition, we sense vibration from the instruments or amplification of the other performers which disrupts part of our own kinesthetic stimulus.
When this happens, we need to compensate by amplifying the sound of our performance above the level of the competing sounds. This can be accomplished through the use of personal amplifiers for guitar, bass, keyboard and other electronic instrumentalists. Vocal and acoustic instrumental performers that require microphones (or amplified electronic instruments that are being run directly through the system) often use floor or mounted monitors. In addition, any of these types of performers can use in ear monitors to aid in hearing themselves.
All of these options have pros and cons that will be discussed in future posts. For the sake of this discussion, you could imagine the affect that competing monitors and amplifiers could have on stage. The sound bleed of opposing monitors causes each performer to raise their monitor in a never ending competition to be heard. In ear monitors avoid this by providing isolation, but this isolation causes a disconnect with both the other musicians and the audience. Plus, artificially amplified sound is quite different from natural ambient sound. Blend and dynamic contrast often becomes dependent on changing mix levels during different parts of the performance. This requires a separate monitor mix engineer who is thoroughly acquainted with each song and prepared to automate the mix to each performer’s taste. Most of us do not have this type of monitor situation at our performances, and so the battle continues. We keep seeking that ideal kinesthetic and aural experience, but our artificial attempts to achieve it fall short. Keep in mind; this is just our attempts to hear ourselves during the performance. Next week we will discuss hearing the other musical elements and the audience.