Dealing with Sound Engineers

Sound Engineer

Q: I have a question regarding how I might get my sound man to successfully change all the monitors on stage, (5 stage mixes) before a song with a different lead singer and making the original lead singer a backup and not in the musicians mix anymore. Changing to a song that is led by a female while still having the male vocal part in our monitor mix is quite annoying. It really causes problems especially if you are the one singing the lead. Yet after asking the sound guy he claims that he changes it in the mains and we should just roll with it. Is that realistic?

A: The sound-person has two jobs, when it comes down to it, assuming that you don’t have separate front of house (FOH) and monitor engineers. They need to dial in the room and make the music sound good for the audience and they need to dial monitor mixes so that the band is comfortable and able to play well.

It sounds as if you have a steady sound man for your gigs (one person for all shows, not a different person every night). If that is the case, there is zero reason why they can’t make notes on the set list to bump one vocal and/or drop another 2db on this song or that. There is likely a line to be drawn but occasional mix changes in the set is a part of the gig both for FOH and monitors.

I’ve had any number of bands where the sound person knew to bump the piano in the main vocal mix for certain tunes, for example. You write it on the set list and there it is. If they’re already doing their job and tweaking each tune for the house, it’s a small thing to change a monitor mix or two. I wouldn’t ask them to have mix changes for every tune but the occasional tweak is a part of the gig, in my opinion.

The best situation is one where your band has a dedicated monitor person (especially if everyone has a different mix and/or every one is using in-ear monitors). If your band is gigging steadily and doing well enough, it might be worth it to hire a monitor engineer who can sit stage right or left and tweak the set as any musician needs – both pre-determined changes and on the fly hand signals.

Do any of you readers make the occasional buck running sound? Please add your two cents and take this as an opportunity to make those of us with no experience (but a lot of preferences) more aware of the reality of your gig. Please share 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. themensch

    I’ve run a few boards in my day, and while it’s certainly a luxury to have a dedicated monitor mix and engineer, I’ve found that even most mid-sized clubs weren’t offering that. So preparedness is the name of the game here. Here’s how my band (and me, as a sound engineer) addressed this:

    My first suggestion is to practice with the suboptimal conditions present.
    My second suggestion is to provide a set list with cues for the soundman (ymmv.)
    My third suggestion would be to manage your own monitor mix.

    Ultimately only #1 is the surefire solution. If you have a particularly challenging mix, a soundman might not even look at your notes, or maybe can’t even read them. Of course #3 is expensive and requires attention from both the engineer and the musicians and can be a hassle to set up in changeovers between bands.

    Making things simple for the engineer will likely help, too. Do you /really/ need 5 (!) individual monitor mixes? Can you rely on stage sound to supplement your audio cues?

  2. Max

    Complicated monitor mixes with a dedicated monitor engineer is not a problem. In smaller venues when this doesn’t happen is more of an issue. In this situation, you will probably be using the same desk for foh mix as monitor, using pre fade aux sends to control output to monitor. Depending on the desk, you will have limited number of sends, and therefore limited number of monitor options. The post below deals with the available options, best idea in no 1 – get used to it – you never know how good a monitor mix is available so be prepared for the worst and be happy when it’s better. In my early playing yrs, (80’s) we couldn’t afford monitors so got used it. I still look on them as a joy!
    You can always all go in ear, invest in digital mixing and program scene changes for each mix scenario!
    Finally, if you don’t understand the problems, take over running the pa for a gig, be responsible for the sound of the whole band, not just yourself. It helps to understand pa guy and also what you need to do to make the band sound great. Don’t forget, many sound guys do it for little or no money. Upset them and they can ruin your gig and you’ll never know because the monitor mix can sound great but foh complete mush.

  3. Ben Heartland

    I understand your sound engineer’s reluctance to change monitor levels during the gig, since he has no way of judging how much adjustment is required from his position front of house. However, if you agree on a particular amount of adjustment beforehand, say in soundcheck, there should be no reason that it can’t be done in the gig.

    Bear in mind that changing 5 monitor mixes may take 30 seconds or so, and that the FOH mix will take priority, so you may not get the new mix immediately at the start of the song. Also, replicating the soundcheck settings exactly is probably not going to happen unless you’re using a digital desk, so have some tolerance for things not being exactly as they were in soundcheck. Also, settings that worked in soundcheck might not be right for the gig, especially if the audience is noisy.

    A simpler solution may be to get the singers to swap mics – then one mic can be permanently set up for lead and one for backing.

  4. the 6 p’s prior preparation prevents piss poor performance. look into a small digital mixer for your monitors that does scene change and snap shot. they are very common these days. It will solve that problem for the most part. look into presonus live A.I. you could be running your own monitors from a I.Pad

  5. Andy

    When I ran sound on cruise ships, it was part of the job to mix monitors as well as foh. The tracks could be too loud depending on one song for each singer. Or there could be specific instrument part they needed to hear a bit better. If you are a good sound tech you can push and pull certain things for a band as long as it’s not a crazy amount of requests. Luckily the band had avioms and could adjust their own mix so all I had to deal with was 2 singers requests.

  6. As a bass player and as FoH tech of several Dutch rock bands I can add this: I love monitor techs, they let me focus on front of house. Doing both is a PITA, not only for focus reasons but also for sound quality reasons (no or light compression on vocals).

    As a player I know how important my monitor sound is. So when as a tech I have to do both I make sure a) players at least hear themselves to enable to play, b) good fixed monitor balance for all. Also in this situation monitor sound quality goes right out of the window, you need to hear the notes, not CD quality.

    If singers change function (back lead) I ask them to use the designated microphone so the levels and monitor mix don’t need adjustments. If swapping mics is not possible then only a dedicated monitor tech can promise to be on time and accurate.

  7. most good sound engineers are bass players any way… usualy there is no problem unless you suck at bass!!!

  8. Doug

    This is easy to do if your vocal channels are post fader. Changing the fader will change the level in each mix. Lower the male vocal and raise the female vocal. If you try this during sound check your engineer can note how much to change each channel, and where to put them back to get the original balance.