A Monitor Layout For A Rock Show

Sometimes you’re thinking about audio, and sometimes not.

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The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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The picture attached to this article is an important reference point for the text. What you’re looking at is a scale drawing of the stage and monitor rig for the Sons Of Nothing: Clarity 10th Anniversary show.

So…why did it all end up like that?

The first thing that drives monitor placement is the stage layout – or, more precisely, where the actual players are going to be. In general, what we want to do with wedges comes down to one, simple rule: We want the loudspeaker output to hit whoever is supposed to be listening to it, while hitting as little of anything else as possible.

Of course, that rule gets bent (or simply taken outside and used for target practice with heavy artillery and wiffle bats) for various reasons, but it’s the starting point.

Down front, the plan was to have up to three people in play at any given moment. A guitarist downstage right, a solo vocal or solo guitar downstage right center, and a bassist parked down center. The down left riser was a dedicated space for a separate “keys and guitar” world. Center right was to be the land of woodwinds.

Upstage was split because of a need to run video. Sons Of Nothing uses projection as a key part of the concert, and in this case, front-projection was the order of the day. That meant that we needed a clear shot for the projector to fire “through” the band and onto the back wall. To get that open space, we put the drum riser off to the stage right side, and the backup-vocal riser went the opposite way.

Now, with the rule that I stated above, the natural inclination would be to always get a loudspeaker delivering a foldback mix as close to the players as could be physically managed. That’s not a bad rule of thumb. In fact, that’s a huge advantage of in-ears; You get to put the monitors so close to the player that they are partially inside their head, and only deliver usable output to that musician.

But an important realization is that live-sound is not actually about the best sound, as divorced from everything else. Rather, what we’re trying to do is create the best show, which is a holistic exercise.

Hence, the three downstage wedges were set on the floor, rather than up on the deck. The difference in distance was negligible, but a couple of very nice advantages were gained. Advantage 1 was that the loudspeakers no longer had as much physical contact with the riser, so they didn’t transfer as much vibration to the stage. Advantage 2 was that rather more of the main riser was available for actual people and the things they need to have to play well – like guitar-effect pedal boards.

A natural tendency is to set a player’s wedge such that it’s centered in front of them. In most circumstances, this is a reasonable idea. With a mono mix, most people like getting the output into both ears equally. There’s a problem, though, when keyboards enter into the equation. Physically, they’re pretty big and solid, and thus are very good at blocking the oh-so-critical “intelligibility frequencies” from a loudspeaker. Plus, keyboards can’t hear. It’s waste of output to fire a wedge into the bottom of a keys setup.

That’s why the keys wedge is off to the side. That placement allowed the sound from the drivers to have a clearer path to an actual human ear. A big help with making that placement work was the use of supercardioid-pattern microphones. Their pickup null points are at an angle to the rear of the mic (rather than straight back) and they have a tighter pattern in general. That helps significantly in being able to get enough output from a box that’s coming in from a diagonal. (With supercardioids and a monitor directly in front of the player, having the mic parallel with the floor helps to get that wedge firing into the least sensitive areas of the pattern.)

I would have liked to have put the keys wedge on the floor, but I was worried that the necessary distance for a good angle would be too much of a tradeoff.

Talking about the upstage folks, it might seem a bit weird that the backup-vocal wedge was set so that the riser partially blocked its output. There is an explanation though. First, I was concerned about chewing up real-estate on that platform, because there wasn’t much to go around. Second, some blockage from the riser was actually helpful. Plenty of sound that needed to get to the vocalists’ ears could still get there, with “splash” from the back wall mostly heading up into the acoustically treated ceiling. If the wedge had been up on the riser with the singers, there would have been a lot more spatter in general, and a lot of those reflections might have headed directly for the vocal mic in keyboard land.

The drumfill was an exercise in compromise. From a purely audio-centric perspective, it would probably have been best to to put things on the stage-left side of the drummer, with the full-range wedge off the sub and pointed upwards. The backup vocalists wouldn’t get blasted with the drummer’s monitor mix, and excess spill would go up into the ceiling. Unfortunately, logistics got in the way of this. Most of the square-footage on the drum riser was needed for…you know…drums, and so the “idealized” drumfill setup was too greedy for space. It also would have made it very hard, or maybe even impossible for the percussionist to enter from stage left as was planned. Stacking the drumfill on the left would have blocked the video.

So, a tall stack on the up-right corner was the solution.

One bit that I haven’t yet discussed is that lonely subwoofer that’s just upstage of center. What the heck is that?

Well, remember that down-center was the bass-player’s territory. As an additional wrinkle, no bass backline was brought in, except for a wireless rig. Such being the case, we needed to ensure that adequate low-end was produced for the folks on stage. Sonically, it would have been better to push the subwoofer downstage a bit (to reduce the time-arrival difference between the low-frequency information and everything else), but it seemed more important overall that it just not be in the way. So, I set the box flush with the drum riser, dialed the internal crossover for about 90 – 100 Hz, pulled the high-pass output to the down-center wedge, and the bassist ended up with a triamped monitor rig that could make some rumble without being run hard.

As far as I could tell, the overall setup was a success. Now, if only the woodwinds monitor hadn’t become unplugged at an unhelpful time…