First I would like to mention that the ideal monitor situation is being able to mix these three components with this order of importance, but it is not always possible. Some musicians sing while playing an instrument (like guitar or piano). I play piano/keyboard while singing for most of my songs, so I can relate to this issue. Most monitor systems are not able to handle such a complex array of sounds. If you try to send a detailed representation of piano playing and singing with a mix of background music and an underlay of audience sound through a mono speaker (or even a stereo set of ear buds) the sound becomes saturated, muddy and unintelligible. In the absence of very expensive monitor systems, singers who also play have to live with the fact that they will have to sacrifice the detail of either their voice or instrument in the monitor mix (sometimes a little of both). Most performers prefer their voice and chose to limit the detail of their instrument. This causes it to fall into the category of background music with the track or other musicians, and makes it more difficult for the performer to play expressively. Since it is already difficult to both sing and play expressively at the same time, this makes some performers consider the notion of ditching their instrument and just singing. I’ve thought about it, but I really love singing from the piano. It makes me feel grounded to the music.
Some artists perform with tracks, others perform with other musicians and some perform with a combination of both. Achieving a good monitor mix with a track is easier than with other live musicians, because track possess compressed and controlled dynamic variations. This causes it to sit in a steady position underneath our own level in the monitor mix. In addition, the lack of additional musicians means that only one monitor mix is required as opposed to multiple personalized mixes. Besides being easer on the mix engineer, this also makes it easier to use floor or mounted monitors since there is no issue with bleed and conflicting mixes. However, performing with a track is also difficult, because the tempo is solid like a metronome. There is no room for fluctuation or variation since everything is set in the recording. In addition, there is no visual stimulus and interpersonal communication between the performers. All of these factors cause hearing the track well to be even more important. The artist needs to be totally in sync with the rhythm and tempo of the track in order to make the performance feel authentic.
When performing with live musicians, robotic timing issues are not a problem. The musicians usually setup in a formation that allows them to see each other and they practice the art of following each other. However, the monitor mix becomes more complex. Each performer needs a monitor mix that highlights their playing. Also, different musicians may want more or less of the other musical parts in the mix depending on what they play. For example, a drummer will usually want more of the bass guitar in his/her monitor and less of the background vocals. If the monitor mixes are being sent to floor or mounted monitors, the sound of each one travels across the stage filling it with conflicting levels. In addition, most systems will not have enough auxiliary sends to accommodate all of these different mixes (especially at the gigs that the “average Joe” musicians play). When this happens, monitor mixes become compromises that are sent to two or three different groups of musicians.
In ear monitors solve the issue of sound bleed issue between mixes. Each musician has a private and isolated monitor mix (up to the number of mixes the system can accommodate). Even when a solo musician is performing with a track, in ear monitors prevent stage monitor bleed from competing with the house mix. In addition, in ear monitors bring the mix closer to the musician instead of broadcasting it through the air from the floor. This is a more efficient method of sound transfer with less loss of signal. In situations where a separate monitor mix engineer is not available, there are personal monitor mix control devices on the market that give the musicians control of their own mix by providing volume knobs for the level of each element of the band.
However, in ear monitors have their own set of issues. I will get more into the technical aspects of each of these options next week, but a brief explanation is appropriate here. First, they can be much more expensive than floor monitors (especially when using custom ear mold ear pieces). Second, they disconnect the musician from the outside world. The sound isolation is so effective that what a musician hears usually does not match what he/she sees. There may be a tone of visual energy happening on the stage, but the musician hears only the elements that have been placed in his/her mix. This can take a while to get use to. It is especially difficult for singers and wind players at first, since their tone contains both internal and external elements. Being disconnected from the external sound environment causes an imbalance between the natural internal and external aural sensations that these performers are use to experiencing. In addition, this level of isolation makes any type of musician more dependent on the quality of the monitor mix. If a floor monitor mix does not have every element that the performer needs sound bleed will usually provide the missing ingredients to some extent. With in ear monitors there is no sound bleed and the performer is only receiving what the mix gives them. This is why you sometimes see a performer take out one or both of their earpieces in the middle of a performance. If the mix is really bad, they may prefer to get by using the ambient stage sound.
The next in ear issue leads us to the component of audience sound within the monitor mix. Performers need to hear the audience’s response while performing. Although this is not as critical as the other two components, audience energy is part of the musical experience. In ear monitors disconnect the musician from this energy which can result in a mismatch in emotion between the audience and the performer. The crowd may be going wild while the performer feels that they are not into it, or the performer may be in another musical dimension while the audience is dead. Larger systems try to fix this issue by using separate microphones to feed the sound of the audience into the monitor mix. However, this is another element being added to an already complex mix, and it can easily be out of proportion when compared to reality. The sound of an audience being picked up through microphones and crammed into the mix of an in ear system will never be same as the natural ambient sound of the room.
Disconnect with the audience is less likely with floor or mounted monitors since the performer can still hear the ambient sound of the room. However, the monitor and main levels can sometimes get high enough to drown out the sound of the audience. Larger systems accommodate for this by providing separate monitors that are transmitting only the sound of the audience being picked up through microphones. These separate audience support monitors are the best solution since they provide separation from the sound of the music coming through the other monitors. In smaller systems, the performer has to live with adding a touch of audience sound under the other two components of the mix and hope that the speaker does not get too muddy with all that sound information. Some people choose to just omit the audience from the mix and live with the loss of connection.
As you can see, creating the ideal monitor mix is very complicated. The sound that our ears naturally perceive through ambient hearing is very complex. The limitations of electronic equipment make it very difficult to recreate this type of listening environment on an amplified level. Next week we will discuss more of the technical sound engineering issues that cause these limitations.