Mixing monitors is a mission-critical task, not an “add-on” to FOH.
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.
Worrying about Front Of House (FOH) doesn’t keep me up at night. Monitor-world, on the other hand…
It’s not just because an issue at FOH is much easier to hear, and thus much easier to correct swiftly and in detail. (Although that’s part of it.) It’s not just because midstream communication regarding monitor needs is difficult – exponentially so as the detail-level of a request rises. (Although that’s part of it, too.)
It’s because getting the monitors right is absolutely crucial to a successful show. If monitor-world isn’t doing its best, the musicians won’t be able to do their best, and if they can’t do their best, the most stupenfuciously awesome-sauce FOH mix will be a mix of musicians WHO ARE STRUGGLING. I don’t want to be forced to choose, but if I am compelled, I will take incredible monitors and mediocre FOH without hesitation.
Every day of the week.
And twice on Sunday.
Yet, for some reason, there has been a tendency to elevate the FOH audio human’s position above that of the monitor engineer. It’s as if there are two species of noise louderizer in the world, Homo Sapiens Mixus Audienceus and Homo Sapiens Musicius Keepem-Happyus, with the latter being an underdeveloped version of the former. Well, that’s a load of droppings from an angry, male cow if ever there was such a thing.
For FOH, you basically mix one show, a show that, as I mentioned, you yourself hear in detail. You generally get to make decisions unilaterally, and your path to those decisions is through your own interpretation of your hearing.
In contrast, monitor-world is the mixing of many shows to multiple audiences of one (sometimes eight or more). Those shows may have wildly different needs, and with wedges, each show bleeds into and heavily influences all the other shows. There may be a subtle detail that’s driving somebody crazy which is difficult for the operator to hear. Every significant choice has to filtered through the interpretation of another person, and nuanced communication is anywhere from challenging to outright impossible. At any given moment, you have to keep some sort of mental map about what’s going where, and also about what was recently changed (in case a problem suddenly crops up). Modifications have to be made swiftly and smoothly, and if you make a mistake, you have to be able to backtrack surgically. Panic is lethal.
To crib from The Barking Road Dog, mixing rock-and-roll monitors in realtime is not a skill possessed by a large number of people involved in the noise louderization profession.
…and then, there’s the gear side. It’s not uncommon to hear of a smaller audio provider upgrading a “point-and-shoot” FOH rig, with the old boxes being “demoted” to monitor duty. This sometimes happens by default or necessity. It’s certainly the reality in my case. But to do that intentionally doesn’t make sense to me. The boxes where being laser-flat across the audible spectrum helps stave off disaster? The boxes that have to stay “hospital clean” at high volume? The boxes that have to be able to produce large, uncompressed peaks, so that performers can “track” their own output? Those boxes are needed in monitor-land! (Seriously, if I ever get my hands on a bunch of disposable income, I’m going to bring my monitor rig UP to parity with my FOH system.)
So, no. Monitor-world is not for the intern or second-banana. The person running it is not a “junior” or “second” engineer. The gear is not the stuff that couldn’t cut the mustard at FOH.
What happens on deck is the bedrock, THE crucial and critical foundation for the show as a whole. It should be treated as such at all times.