The view from monitor beach

This was originally featured at ChurchProduction.com

During my time on the road, I spent most shows on monitor beach. That’s the road dog term for the huge land mass on the side of the stage occupied by the monitor monkey and his toys.

I never understood the beach concept. Beach implies relaxation, sunshine, tranquility… Stuff like that. Monitor beach was rarely anything like that. Loud, chaotic, darkness… more like that. It was monitor world to me. My own little detached universe. I preferred to be there.

While also enjoyed the control freak adrenaline rush of mixing for the audience, I liked taking care of the band better. While the glorious A1 tech was basking in the glow of a screaming crowd, worshiping their mixing skills, I was becoming part of the band. While the FOH tech was attempting to make thousands of people happy, I only had a dozen or so to please. Sure, A2 sounded like a lower position, but I liked it.

As the monitor tech, I was able to experience things the guy out front never even saw. I have an amazing collection of stage plots and riders from my last four or five years as a hired gun tech. It still brings back memories like they happened yesterday. We worked with different groups every week. Sometimes dozens in a single week. I was part of all the craziness backstage on multiple occasions. Good stuff.

Within the church world, it’s pretty rare to have someone dedicated to monitors. By my guess, maybe one in a hundred churches have a tech who babysits a separate console during service. It’s much more common to see the front of house tech mixing from there or maybe personal monitor mixers for each musician. The average church I worked with, as an installer, was less than 200 members. Most didn’t have a real need for it.

When we installed for most of those churches, everything was mixed from one console. We couldn’t justify the expense or the space on stage for a separate console. Not a big deal. Just find pre-fader auxiliary sends and there’s your monitor mixes. Whenever possible, we tried to install mixers with switchable aux sends. Generally, you want everything pre-fader, except for tracks like CDs, DVDs, iPods, computers and other feeds. Keep them post-fader to control any fade ins or fade outs. It makes life easier.

In the larger churches, most of them were still hesitant to add a monitor console. It meant giving up more of the stage and having to depend on one more tech. When you are running a volunteer tech crew, that’s a consideration. It adds responsibility and it means adding more techs. Some churches just chose to work around it.

One way they got around it, was with the personal monitor mixers. The mic stand mounted gizmos that allowed the musicians to create their own mix. Once we got past the initial expense, it was usually a good choice. It took the pressure off the front of house tech and made the stage responsible for it’s own mixing. However. I still recommend having some live monitors.

Even when there are personal mixers all over the stage, it’s not going to help a singer or pastor who wants to hear themselves. Sure, you can still get around that with in ear monitors, if you have the budget. Most didn’t. And. Most churches tend to fly by the seat of their pants. At any moment “Brother Smith” might be called up to tell a story of sing. At that moment, you will be really happy to have a pair of wedges on the front of the stage.

My preference, when I could, was the combination of a standard monitor rig and the personal monitor rig. I loved to wire the band up with personal monitors and mix the front of the stage from the house. Just two mixes worked great. A pair of 12″ or 15″ floor monitors on one mix. A pair of large speakers mounted on each side of the stage for side fills. That setup seemed to be ideal for most situations, with or without a choir.

That setup was generally used on the festival stages we ran. When there was going to be a long list of soloist or small local bands, that was what we gave them. Basically a stage wash of sound.

Before I escaped from the real world and moved to the beach, our church had a dedicated monitor console. It was hidden in a rolling box on stage right. To the audience, it pretty much blended in with the walls. Once we had drapes installed, it tucked back into the drapes and was still pretty unobtrusive from the audience. Having it on wheels with plenty of slack in the snake helped for different productions.

The most important thing in working that spot, is your interaction with the stage. When I was training these techs, I had to get most of them to overcome that Quasimodo mentality. You can’t live in the shadows when you are in monitor world. You have to step out and communicate with the stage dwellers.

I made it a point to never let a band leave the stage without verifying that each member was happy with their mix. All through Soundcheck and rehearsal, I made it a point to continuously scan the members eyes, watching for someone trying to get my attention. During setup, I liked to get everyone’s names and a basic idea of what they wanted to in their mix. I wanted to make sure that they knew I was going to take care of them. They have to trust their techs or you will never experience them perform at their best. Trust me on that.

I loved mixing monitors. I loved the direct interaction with the performers. Well. Most of them. I had some great experiences and met some amazing people in that role. Stuff I would have missed at front of house. If you have the budget and legitimate need for more than a few monitor mixes, you may need to consider adding a monitor rig and tech to your system. It adds more responsibility, but it also adds so much freedom to the stage.

The other advantages include wireless systems. There’s a lot less interference between the monitor tech and those mics than there is from front of house. The monitor tech is also in a better position to manage them. What can you do about a failed battery from front of house except running madly across the room? It’s nice having someone right there when the stupid stuff happens.

When you are limited to only the tech at front of house, you don’t really have the ability to make changes during service. From the perspective of the band, once the show starts, they are stuck with whatever problems arise. Having that tech on stage gives them someone to keep it moving and cover them. They are much more relaxed when there’s someone watching them and waiting to take care of anything that happens.

Just don’t get the idea that you can dump any clown behind that board. The monitor tech better know as much as the front of house tech. It carries a lot of responsibility when you take that seat. Make sure the attitude and skills are there. Make sure you are all on the same team.

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