Monitor Mixing- How NOT To’s
I witnessed a minor monstrosity a few days ago that still sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it. It had to do with either inexperienced or careless monitor engineers and their approach to mixing IEM mixing. I was there on other business, but when I talked to a few artists afterwards, they all complained about the same issues. Let me tell you about how the monitoring audio crew handled the event and what I think they could have done to improve the show.
The Big Picture
It was supposed to be a simple job - a dozen or so artists, all wearing IEM earphones with wireless bodypacks, using wireless microphones, singing live to a music track for a broadcasting event. Never more than 5 people on stage, so at any given time, the engineer had 5 mic inputs, 1 stereo track for playback and 5 stereo sends to work with. They were working with a digital console that allows for more than 90 processing channels, so no problem with channel count or gear. All wireless systems were connected to antenna splitters and I counted at least 4 directional antennas at the venue. The studio was a nightmare for wireless signal coverage, at it was basically an almost entirely metal construction with very limited access to performance areas. The monitoring engineer had no visual communication with the act from behind the console, but he had an assistant with a remote control for aux sends on an tablet. I was there during monitoring sound check and each act had 30 minutes allocated to test out the packs, the mics, set their levels and run through the song a couple of times. Here are 3 major issues I witnessed (with my proposed solutions):
proper wireless frequency coordination and antenna placement
This one is quite easily solved. Proper frequency coordination for all wireless units and proper antenna placement ensure that you can cover the areas where you know your artists will be. I realise that when doing broadcast, the importance of audio can quickly become downgraded - lighting, sets, cameras, costumes, make-up- they all seem to take precedent. But one of the jobs of an audio professional is to communicate the issues that can arise from not taking audio into account and to be the champion for the best technical solution possible when talking to the producers, directors, set designers, and anyone else involved. Making sure that artists have interference free signals is a step you never want to skip.
dropouts in signal to IEM bodypacks
Some of the artist complained about signal dropouts and static in their earphones. It was location dependent - some spots of the venue were just not covered by the signal or the interference from the set pieces scrambled the transmission to such an extent that it became an issue for the performers.
always have means of hearing what the artist is listening to
Another ignored easy fix - plug in a set of earphones or headphones and listen to what the artist is actually hearing in their ears. It reduces the time necessary for the mix, because you always have control over what the sound is like. Even if the channel count is small, you should never let the artist try to describe to you what they need as the only assessment of the mix. Most of the times the performers don’t know how to explain what the issue is and you can figure it out on your own most of the time - if you can hear what they are hearing. Maybe the solution to something being described as "too loud" in the mix is not a volume issue, but an EQ or pan position issue. Don't rely on the artist to give you instructions in terms of "let's try reducing 230Hz for about 3dB and see how that feels". It is your job to figure out how to translate the artist's instructions into console settings and you will never be able to do that if you can't hear what they hear.
running IEM mixes without hearing the headphone mix
When the performer received a bodypack, the pack was already set to a volume that the engineers set for everyone (about 75% volume on the pack). Then the mix was adjusted according to the artist’s instructions (which were only “louder” and “softer”, basically only adjusting send levels). But the engineer did not have any earphones, or even headphones for that matter. Their only means of control was a small single wedge on the floor next to the console. The result: a lot of requests for corrections from every performer and the majority of them not really feeling good about the sound.
easing into a mix
Number 1 rule of IEM mixing: take maximum care of performer’s ears. A few seconds of a loud mix can ruin someone’s hearing permanently, so you have to take this point extremely seriously. If you have determined that the bodypacks should be set at a certain level, then always pull down the aux send master to half volume and tell the performer that you will raise the level slowly, so they can get comfortable and let you know their limit. NEVER EVER blast any signal into their ears at full level if you are setting their mix for the first time. Remember, you are the only guardian between potentially harmful volumes and their eardrums - never take that position lightly.
setting send levels and unmuting aux send master at full volume
For the sake of consistency, the monitoring team kept bodypacks for every performer at 3 o’clock level. Then they would copy the settings from the previous act, run the instrumental track and wait for instructions from performers. This lead to levels being all over the place, starting dangerously high for quite a lot of artists. Not to mention the scares they got when music started blasting in their ears without any warning. You can imagine that they were not too happy about it.
By utilising these quite applicable solutions I have no doubt that the atmosphere would have been more pleasurable and the end result way better for everyone involved. Not doing the prep work and disregarding the A-B-C’s of IEM mixing can lead to a lot of unhappy clients extremely quickly, not to mention the potentially hazardous health and safety repercussions for the artists. I hope this example will make you double check your workflow and re-think if you are doing everything you can to ensure that everybody is safe and enjoying their performance, knowing there is a guardian of sound taking care of them from behind a monitoring desk.