Jim Mathis

Monday, August 2, 2010

Stage Monitors

A friend of mine confided in me recently that their worship leader at church had no idea, if or when, the congregation was singing. We soon figured out that because of his in-ear monitors, he couldn’t hear anything but himself. That got me thinking about stage monitors in general, and my experience with such things.

About forty-five years ago, I was playing about 200 dates a year with my rock band. Like just about every other band of that era, we had gotten so loud that we couldn’t hear each other, especially the vocals. Everybody was just playing louder than everybody else. I understand that the principle reason the Beatles quit touring was that they couldn’t hear themselves and it was becoming extremely frustrating.

We had bills to pay and didn’t have that luxury, so we began to try to find a solution. We tried various placements for the amps and PA and eventually came upon a solution that worked great. We took a “line out” from the mixer and fed it to guitar amps on the stage. I played hundreds of gigs with a Fender Princeton amp sitting on top of one of my bass cabinets with the house mix coming through the Princeton. Essentially that meant that we were hearing on stage, pretty much what it sounded like out front, which was the goal. The goal of a good monitor set up is for the musicians on stage to hear what the audience is hearing.

Over the years, stage monitors have gotten increasingly more sophisticated to the point where you can pretty much hear whatever you want. This has led to the “more me” syndrome where the vocalist wants to hear mainly the vocals, the guitar player is only interested in the guitar and so forth. Overall mix is left to the sound engineer who may or may not have any idea what the music is supposed to sound like. The only people who really know are the musicians, and they are now isolated in their own little world.

Playing in a band is a team sport. It should not be individual musicians all doing their own thing. Being able to hear, see, and know each other is essential to playing well as an ensemble. What I sound like is not near as important as what the band sounds like.