5 Tips for Setting up a Digital Console for Monitor Mixing
Although I love mixing sound for an audience at a venue, the real challenge for me is mixing monitors for act members on stage. It requires a different mindset, where you have to deal with multiple mixes at once - it is like playing chess against multiple opponents. The most intense and stressful moments are when the soundcheck starts and you have to deal with monitoring cues from all members on the stage at the same time - that adrenaline rush will keep you going for quite some time. What will make you stand out as a great monitoring engineer is the speed at which you can perform the tasks of making all of those requests come true. To help me achieve that, here are five things that I always do when setting up my digital console for monitor mixing.
1. Put all my sends into post fader mode
When mixing monitors from front of house, the standard practice is to set your auxiliary sends for monitors to pre fader mode and your effects sends to post fader mode. That way your front of house fader movements do not influence the monitor mixes on stage. But since we don't have to worry about front of house mixing, things can be set up a bit differently on a monitoring dedicated console. Putting all of my sends into post fader mode allows me to use what would be “front-of-house mix” faders to control all of the sends for a particular channel at the same time with one channel fader movement. This comes really handy when trying to ride a guitar solo that is too loud or dealing with instruments that have a lot of variation in level between songs. It is also a crucial tool for dealing with quick festival changeovers where your sometimes don't even have the time to set up input gains properly. Just remember to put all of your channel faders to zero and to return them to their initial position once the level rides have been made.
2. Set up a noise channel
When mixing monitors it is of utmost importance that you can quickly identify your auxiliary sends on wedges or IEM systems. It can be a lifesaver, especially when running a high number of sends and dealing with a huge amount of channels. So instead of trying to route a talkback microphone into a particular auxiliary send, set up an input channel that is constantly running a pink noise signal. You can then quickly send that signal to a particular aux send to verify your routing or identify any possible issues on that monitor line. And if you are used to listening to pink noise, you can also quickly hear the changes between the sound of different wedges when troubleshooting or even use that channel as a generator for your measurement system. What you absolutely have to remember is to mute the noise channel when you are not using it. It is no fun for anyone to be blasted with high levels of pink noise when standing in front of a monitor wedge, no matter how hard core they are.
3. Set up a reference listening wedge
Whenever you have the chance, also set up a wedge at your monitoring position to listen to what is going on in other people's wedges. It can save you a lot of time and trouble and reduce the number of trips you have to make from behind your monitoring desk to the artist’s position on stage. In order for this to work, this wedge has to be the same brand and model and using the same settings as the rest of the wedges that the artists are using. As far as routing is concerned, route the CUE output of your digital console to the input of the reference monitor. That allows you to either hear particular inputs when pressing the CUE PFL switch or check the entire monitoring mix by pressing the auxiliary send AFL switch. Also remember to aim your listening wedge away from the audience area. It can be extremely annoying for an audience member to intermittently get blasted with either individual channels or full monitor mixes when they are trying to enjoy the show. One last thing you should set up for your listening wedge is the control of its volume. Most digital consoles will allow you to control the volume of a CUE monitor with either a master fader, phones volume knob or a user defined rotary knob on the console. By controlling that volume you have the option of discreetly checking for issues during the show without disrupting stage volume levels and, most importantly, it allows you to protect your hearing from possible high level changes between AFL and PFL listening.
4. Logically place and label your sends
When dealing with a large number of monitoring mixes, stereo and mono configurations, auxiliary lines feeding side fills or subs for a particular act member, it is of utmost importance that you do not get lost in the maze of all those channels. That is why you have to carefully plan and position wedges on stage. That placement has to not only fill the requirements of the artist’s rider and be aimed for minimal interference with a particular microphone, but it also has to make sense to you in terms of translating what you see on stage with how you lay out your channels on the console. I always start with the monitoring wedge that is closest to me to the monitoring wedge that is farthest away from me downstage. These get assigned the first auxiliary send channels, number one being the wedge closest to me with the numbers following down the line to the wedge that is farthest away from me. Then I repeat the same process for monitoring wedges upstage. The only digression from this system is the auxiliary send for drums which for me always comes on the last auxiliary send of them all. By consistently using the same system you train yourself to automatically know where a particular monitor send is going to be on your console and on the stage. When I have to deal with a large number of monitor sends, I take out my tape and my sharpie and write out the auxiliary send number and its name on a visible place on the console or even create a simple stage map. That way I can always double-check to make sure that I'm not adjusting the wrong auxiliary send for a monitoring cue, which is always a sign of a disorganized monitoring engineer.
5. Always set up at least one reverb mix
Being prepared for any demand that might come your way from the artist on stage will save you a lot of issues when running sound checks under time pressure. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes you get a request for a bit of reverb on a particular channel in the monitoring mix. Instead of saying: “Could you please hold on, I have to create a reverb send,” it always looks more professional if you can just humor that request within seconds. This comes especially handy if you are running wedges and IEM systems simultaneously, because you will definitely get more requests for some sort of spatial emulation from users that are using in-ear monitoring systems. Especially with higher quality wedges that are able to produce a more high fidelity sound, adding a bit of reverb can sometimes be extremely helpful for the artist on stage and put them into a place where they feel creative and comfortable, which is always your ultimate goal as a monitoring engineer.
There are quite a few important aspects of monitor mixing that we haven't touched upon in this article, but I believe that these five tips can improve the speed and reliability of your monitor mixing work. Even though I believe that sometimes the major part of mixing monitors is not even about the technical aspect of things, but more about the psychology of your approach and the reliability of your presence on stage, having the technical side locked down will enable you to focus on other demanding tasks that are part of monitor mixing. The ultimate goal here is to set up your console in a way that allows you to be the fastest and most reliable engineer possible in any situation, being able to respond to anything that might come up during stage work. Try incorporating these tips into your daily work and see if they improve your reliability and the speed of your workflow, as they have for me.