On Stage Monitor Mix Advice for Bass Players

In-Ear Monitors

Photo by sergio_leenen

Q: I play on a weekly gig and I use in-ear monitors. Things sound fine during sound check, but I don’t realize I need something until I’m lost in the middle of a song and find myself unable to find the keys or guitar in my monitor. This happens fairly regularly. I’ve even had most of my bass taken out of the monitors, and it still seems to happen. I don’t know if its because theres too much or too little going on in my mix… or maybe it has to do with where I’m standing on the stage? I’m sure I’m not the only one that this has happened too…any thoughts or advice?

A: In-ear monitors (IEMs) are an entirely different experience than playing with a wedge monitor (or no monitors). For those who don’t know, using in-ear monitors is literally just replacing loud (and large) floor wedge speaker monitors and with headphones. This does the house and stage a lot of good by keeping the stage volume down, which makes life much easier on the front-of-house sound person. It can also save the hearing of the musicians as we actually listen at much softer volumes through headphones than we would in front of amps with wedges competing for sonic space (often, next to a drummer). In fact, there really is no need for amps on stage if you have a quality sound system, a good in-ear rig and competent sound men/women.

You will also find that the majority of people who use an IEM system frequently will have custom molded in-ear headphones with multiple drivers to deliver a fantastic level of audiophile sound quality.

The biggest complaint from musicians is that IEMs produces a sound that doesn’t sound live. It almost sounds like you are listening to a recording, but this is something that one usually gets used to pretty quickly. Guitarists especially have a hard time not hearing that amp sound that they’ve spent years refining.

One thing which helps is to crack (or un-seal) one of your ears, allowing you to hear the room and stage a little better. It’s amazing how different music sounds when you can’t hear the ‘air’ in the room. I’ve come to like it because it reminds me of being in the studio and for whatever reason, when I have the studio headphones on, I play with more intention and clarity. I trim the fat, so to speak.

Back to your question. I have a few suggestions:

1. Talk to your sound person.
I assume that you have someone manning the in-ear mix while you are performing? Just like with a person in charge of a monitor mix, you might have to flag them down. Don’t be afraid to point to the piano player and then point up to indicate that you want more of the piano in the mix, for example. If they are the type to keep their head down, you should speak to them before the gig and mention that your needs are shifting during the performance, and request that they keep an eye out for you, in case you need something.

2. That’s what sound checks are for
There are times when we have to find the best balance. Every song is different and may require a little bit more or less of this and that but you have to find a balance that serves all songs, or run the risk of driving your sound person nuts by requesting he change everything every 5 minutes.

If you find the perfect balance for the piano on the ballad, but it makes it just a hair louder than you’d like on the heavy hitting song? Might be time to suck it up just a little bit for the greater good.

Use your sound check time to try and refine the balance you have going. If you make good use of your sound check, and everyone plays the way they are going to play during the performance, you should be close.

3. Less is more
I have found that I prefer my monitor mix (in-ear or wedge) to have as little information in it as possible. When I’m given a wedge, I generally start with nothing in it and gently add what I need, and nothing else. When people add everybody to the mix, it creates clutter on stage, which tends to be overcome by more volume from the amp, which requires more information in the wedge, which can quickly spiral into a sonic hell for everybody involved.

When you are using in-ears however, you will definitely need a few things in there so you aren’t flying blind. I would argue you still don’t need everything. My tendency is to only add what I need to hear and play the songs well. On a pop gig, I usually have lots of drums and bass, touch of percussion, enough piano and/or guitar to discern harmony and hear solos and vox.

Again, most levels are lower than you’d think in my mix. just enough to tell what’s going on and hear anything that I might need to react to. My main focus is on pocket and form, so it’s mostly bass and drums for me.

On a jazz gig, I likely wouldn’t be using IEMs. The monitors would ideally be a good balance of everything in that setting, because a jazz gig requires a more conversational approach to playing. When I have a wedge for a trio gig on a larger stage, I tend to put just a touch of piano in there and nothing else. Jazz is best served when you can control the volume from the stage. Actually, I think most music is best served that way.

You also mention where you are standing on stage. If you are using molded plugs, this is not an issue. The only thing I can think of is that you may still have your amp too loud and yes, if you are in front of it, you could be obscuring the information a bit. In-ears are there to make life quiet and to make the stage quiet. Turn the stage volume down (or off, if you have a good sounding bass and DI).

I can’t imagine taking the bass out of an in-ear mix as you mentioned. If you’re using good headphones with any kind of isolation, you wouldn’t hear yourself well at all. Some people do like to use over the ear headphones with poor isolation (i.e. a lot of “bleed”) so that they can get the reference mix in the headphones but still hear the amps and room. That is a different scenario which requires its own approach with regard to mix and stage level.

I’m sure many of you readers have some IEM experiences to share. Let’s keep the discussion going in the comments!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. This is a great article, and I’m glad this topic is being discussed. I’ve used in-ear monitors for about 90% of the gigs I’ve done over the last six years, and honestly, I’d prefer to never do a gig without them. The “less is more” thing is big. Usually, when using in-ear monitors (at least from my perspective), you don’t want to turn UP what you need as much as you want to turn DOWN what you DON’T need. For instance, if you’re at soundcheck, and you need more bass in your mix, start by turning down other things in the band such as drums and keyboards. THEN, if you still need more bass, have the monitor engineer turn up the bass. If you’re constantly telling the monitor engineer that you need MORE of this and MORE of this and MORE of this, eventually, you’re gonna wind up with a monitor mix that’s a garbled, distorted mess…more like a wedge. SMALL adjustments are key. As for the complaint that it doesn’t sound “live”…well, that’s not really up to the people onstage to decide. If sounding “live” onstage inhibits the front-of-house engineer from getting a good mix out front, that issue is void…you either gotta turn down or turn off, and go by what’s in your ears.

  2. My advice for bass players is: get used to playing well with bad sound. For a variety of reasons, bass typically gets buried or obscured in a stage mix. As long as I can hear the kick, snare hihat/ride, the lead instrument and some sort of chord accompaniment, I’m fine. If you are one of those guys who can’t function unless your bass sounds as awesome as it does in your bedroom, you’re gonna have a bad time on a lot of gigs.

  3. I hate loud stage volume…

  4. I’ve recently started using in-ears along with my normal amp/cab setup, probably about 75% of the time. The combination of definition from the in-ears combined with the low end support from my cabs makes such a difference. And my ears never hurt afterwards because I can control my own level and usually still feel the bass. I’ve worked out a system with an in-ear box that has 3 inputs (though I only use 2). 1 signal from my bass coming off a Mooer Micro DI (post effects) and then whatever I can get from the soundboard (usually sharing a mix with someone else), mixed to my taste. This way if my cab is too loud for a fellow musician, soundman, etc., I don’t have to worry about not being able to hear myself because my amp is so quiet. Takes some adjustment, but I greatly prefer it for the definition and ease on my ears. Taking the next step soon to get custom molded IEMs to really seal the deal (no pun intended).

  5. We use 2 ambient microphones pointed at the crowd, this lets us hear the audience and some of the room as well.

  6. I have to agree with John , you need to adapt to all situations within a given venue. You may not be able to get the best sound you are looking for , but you need to work with what you have in front of you.Each venue and sound system can be a challenge . Maintain a positive attitude and get on with the best performance you can deliver under the circumstances you have in front of you .

  7. I’ve found that when playing with my in-ear monitors that sound can sometimes be canceled out by neighboring wedges, creating a dead frequency range. Especially in the lower frequencies. I’ve found fairly good success with cutting off lower frequencies below below 60hz and boosting the mid 120-400hz for monitoring. For live, I play with the eq on my bass, almost entirely flat allowing the soundboard to kick up the bass.

    Moving things on the sides and keeping your bass dead center helps a lot for clarity and you won’t need them as loud that way.

  9. Thanks for such a detailed answer! Its given me a much better for approaching my mix. I can’t wait of my next gig!!

  10. Also, I run direct to the PA through a DI box. With no speakers on the stage, I am so much more aware of how the bass is effecting the room….I now have such a deeper understanding of what ‘less is more’ means.

  11. Marco

    Great article.

    I have to say that i some years ago my band an my skills git more pro than my gear. Actually i had only a 90 watts practice amp which was noisy and useless on gigs. On top if that i played in a pretty large band on very small stages … 8 people on 2m to 3m … so i could not bring any amp with me.
    I have always played over the pa using a di box and the floor monitors for listening. I can say that this kind of trained my ear. I can hear the bass in what ever worst situation i am.
    But now i invested in a decent rig and i wont play without it again. Its so much easier to listen what you play.

  12. Terry O'Farrell

    I have a condenser mic on the ground near the bass amp. I find that I get a stage sound and can hear my bass amp through this mic (effects and all). I use a mono mix as our band only has 4 aux sends. I love the custom moulded IEM for pitching vocals and find that the bass sounds as good as I can get it with the setup. I do have the low cut roll off on the low bass freq around 50hz but I still can hear the low freq from the amp through the earphones.

  13. Mike Skeffington

    Make CERTAIN your monitor send or AUX is PRE FADER. If not, any move the engineer makes out front will affect your monitor level. For example, if the keyboardist is slamming the bass side of the instrument, a FOH engineer might turn the keys WAY down and you’d lose them ;)