Making a Personal Monitor Mix

by | Jun 29, 2022 | Audio, Production

Real talk. Mixing multiple channels of audio can be hard. Many of us have years of training and experience and it can still be tricky. But mixing your own personal monitor feed does not have to be hard. This article will give you an approach to mixing your own monitors that is not overwhelming, gives you what you need to hear, AND is easy to teach to others. 

First, let’s get this out of the way.

Your monitor mix should not sound like a record. 

Say it with me.

Your monitor mix should not sound like a record. 

Ok, one more time to make it stick.

Your monitor mix should not sound like a record.

One of the key things to keep in mind when making a personal monitor mix is, you guessed correctly, it doesn’t have to sound like a record. 

When we mix a song that will end up on an album or streaming service, we design the mix to sound interesting and to keep the listener engaged through the whole song. We want the mix to have interest, dynamics, excitement, drama, depth, etc. 

A monitor mix has only one function — allowing you to perform your role on the team with minimal distraction. That’s it. You need to hear yourself. Yes. And you need to hear the team. Meh, kinda. You need to hear the elements of the team that keep you a part of the team.

Let’s dive in.

A good monitor mix starts before you touch a single knob or play a single note

Before we get into the details about what makes a good monitor mix, we have to look at some basics that tend to get skipped because they are not “technically” related to the act of making a mix. A good monitor mix starts with a well-organized rehearsal.

The sounds you have available to mix your monitors generally come to you from the mixing board in the back. This means, to have the best signal coming to you, the Sound Techs need time to make sure y’all sound good on stage and the levels are all correct. 

Generally speaking, there are four parts of a rehearsal:

Practice is what happens before you get to the rehearsal.

Line Check is where the sound folks make sure the mics work and wires go where they should. In most cases, this should happen before the musicians show up. 

Sound Check is where the sound team sets gain levels and makes sure your sound is going all the places it needs to go (including back to your monitors).

Rehearsal is when y’all go over the songs that you practiced throughout the week.

What usually happens is something like this. The band shows up and starts setting up their instruments while the tech team is finishing running cables or setting up drum mics. Then everyone tunes, bangs, or riffs while the tech folks try to get your attention. By now, the leader wants to get going, but we haven’t sound checked yet. So we rush through that so the band can practice the new song for the week.

This is where the band starts making their monitor mixes. The techs are still sorting out sound issues and adjusting gain levels. Since the song is a new song being practiced, the team is a bit hesitant and doesn’t quite know their roles yet. They are not playing with confidence yet. But we muddle through in time to go over transitions and keys changes and then go home.

Sunday morning comes, everyone is practiced, rested, and excited. The first song is one everyone knows well. There are people in the seats. Everyone starts playing and WHAM… it seems like all the mix levels are totally off. And they are. Because we didn’t dedicate time to setting the foundation for our monitor mix.

Here are some quick tips for running a rehearsal that will lead to great mixes.

  1. Give time to the techs to adjust levels. One musician at a time and NO NOODLING while you wait your turn.
  2. Rehearse a song you KNOW at first. This will give everyone a chance to make their mixes with everyone playing with confidence and at a volume level similar to how they will play on Sunday.
  3. Play with “Show Intensity and Show Volume.” This lets everyone set their mix to the maximum it will be on Sunday morning so there are no 10dB changes first thing in the AM.

Ok, now that we have the foundation….

You only need to hear about 4 things in your monitor mix

Now we get to the more practical tips. What do you need to hear in your mix? As it turns out, you really only need to hear 4 things.

  1. Yourself
  2. A Pitch Reference
  3. A Timing Reference
  4. The Leader/Musical Director

It’s at this point where the MD or Worship Leader usually lets us know that they need to hear everything since they are the leader. And to that we say… no. Lovingly, no. You need to hear the same four things so that you can perform your best on Sunday. This is where we trust the rest of the team to know their parts. Besides, there isn’t much you can do to “correct” a wrong note or missed beat if it happens. 

Let’s break down our 4 things a bit. The first and most prominent thing in your mix will usually be yourself. This is self-explanatory. You need to hear you

Next, you need to hear a pitch reference. This will be different for everyone. The guitar may want to hear the keys. The bass might get their pitch reference from the guitar. A background vocalist will get their pitch reference from the lead vocalist. Find the single (or at most two) source that you rely on to know if you are on pitch. This is your pitch reference. 

Now add in your timing reference. Your timing reference isn’t “the drums”. It might be the kick and snare or the hats. It could be (and a GOOD argument could be made that it should be) the click track. In fact, with MOST of the professional bands I’ve mixed, the click has been the highest sound in the mix, even over the artist’s own vocals or instrument. Pick the simplest combination of tracks to help you stay on time for your timing reference.

Finally, you need to hear the leader or MD. Especially if they tend to call audibles during service.

What about everything else? PAN and REDUCE. Move the things you don’t need to 0 volume or very low in the mix. If you don’t need the pads, have them low, around 10-20%. Enough to hear when nothing else is playing (like in a transition) but not enough that it distracts you. Move instruments, drums and vocals that are not in your 4 things to the left or right and reduce their volume. 

By doing this, you will find you have everything you need to perform your best and you won’t be distracted by things you don’t need. There will be enough space in the mix for you to hear yourself well and lead with confidence.

A Few More Bonus Tips for Getting A Great Monitor Mix

Once you master the above tips, there are a few things you can do to get an even better mix. 

INVEST IN DECENT IN EAR MONITORS

Many of us have never had to buy anything to be a part of a worship team, while others (guitar players, looking at you) routinely add new gear. It can be a bit of a shock to find out a pair of earphones can cost from $200 – $2500 or more. But the earphones you buy for use on stage are more than just earphones, they are monitors. They can be specifically tuned for your instrument and can be made custom to fit your ears only.

Aside from giving you superior sound, they also protect hearing, and if you move to a custom fit in-ear monitor, they are the safest option yet. You don’t need to get super high-end models if you play once a week or less. But there can be a benefit from doing so. If you want to know more, Alclair Audio (https://alclair.com/resources) has a great resources section about in-ear monitors you can check out.

REVERB AND AMBIENCE

Some personal monitor systems allow you to apply reverb to your mix. Reverb is helpful, especially for vocalists as it helps you find your pitch faster. A more effective option is adding ambience. Placing two condenser microphones on the edge of the stage pointing to the congregation will bring stage ambience, reverb, and congregational response into your mix. Pan these mics to the left and right and you will notice that you feel more engaged with the team and congregation.

STEREO VS MONO

Most of the tips here are designed to work with a stereo system. This means that you can move a source to the left or the right ear. If your system is MONO for monitoring, that makes things a bit tricky. We recommend finding a stereo solution even if that means sending 2 auxes to a headphone amplifier. A stereo mix with some good panning will do a lot for your stage mixes.

SEND MONITOR FEEDS PRE-FADER

When sending a signal out to a monitoring system, most modern consoles provide multiple routing options. It is best to send your monitor feed AFTER the preamp/trim but before the fader. If you send it POST-FADER, every fader move will throw off musician’s mix.

It’s up to you if you send PRE or POST EQ and compression. I generally recommend sending it PRE EQ as sound folks will often make drastic adjustments to compensate for the room. Sending a signal back to the performer after EQ might not sound natural to the musician or vocalist. And again, any changes to the EQ will be reflected in the monitor mix.

The bottom line when it comes to making a personal monitor mix is, the simpler the better. Keeping to the four main things – Yourself, a Pitch Reference, a Timing Reference, and the Leader – and panning/reducing everything else will help you hear everything you need to perform with confidence with minimal distraction.

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