It’s imperative to have an onstage monitor to enable you to hear your own voice and music as well as your band mates when playing a live show. This is important for various reasons, including a nice reminder where you were in the song for those rare occasions when your mind drifts off. Regardless of the quality of the PA system, which is geared to provide great sound to the audience, you will not get a good idea of how you sound if you rely solely on it. There are a few keys to look at when choosing a stage monitoring system.
A complete monitoring system includes monitor speakers, amplifiers, monitor mix, equalization or other signal processing.
A Front of House (FOH) auxiliary speaker system is a monitoring speaker powered by one channel of the FOH powered mixer. The mixer is located onstage, allowing musicians to adjust their own sound levels.
Stage monitors mixed from FOH is the most common type of monitoring system you will encounter. This system uses a couple of supplementary mixes on the FOH mixer. These auxiliary mixes are generally pre-input equalization and pre-fader, so modifying FOH levels does not change the sound heard by the performers. The auxiliary mixes have their own equalizers and signal processors which drive monitor amplifiers which in turn power the monitor system’s speakers.
Large Venue System
Bigger venues have a separate monitor mixer with a whole gamut of monitoring equipment and a dedicated monitor sound engineer. Splitters are used to divide the signal of direct inputs and microphones so one feed will reach the FOH mixer and the other will reach the monitor mixer. Large setups may require a dozen or more separate monitor mixes, usually one for each performer. Each monitor mixer will include a variety of vocal and instruments. One mixer can be dedicated for the lead vocalist sound, another for the backup singers can highlight their vocals and another can emphasize drums and bass for the rhythm section.
A stage wedge speaker is probably the most commonly used speaker for stage monitoring. Think of a regular speaker cabinet with the back cut off in a slant to point the speaker upwards when placed on a stage floor. The angle and placement of a wedge is to project the sound upwards to the musician, improving his sound reception and to create an unobstructed view of the stage for the audience. One monitor or two monitors (for higher output), can be placed in front of each musician. In cases with limited monitor mixes a monitor or string-connected monitors can be placed in front of several musicians with a more general mix, still providing a form of monitoring their performance.
Side-fill speakers are typically large, full-range speakers that are located at the sides of the stage. They allow performers to hear a better balanced and more enveloping sound to get an excellent idea of the mix of the entire band. Side-fills are never used in isolation, as performers need to hear their own sounds so wedge speakers are still placed in front of the musicians to allow them to hear their individual mixes.
It is a commonly held belief that a fuller stage mix induces better execution from musicians. As sound system technology improves, small wedge speakers have been designed to impart astounding full-sounding mix to each performer and thus the need for side-fill systems has gradually decreased.
Drum Monitors are typically a little larger to include monitoring of the kick drum and larger toms. They also need to be directed to a person seated at the drum set. They can vary considerably and they are usually a combination of small mains speakers or wedge monitors and subwoofers. They can also be a single, taller dual 15 inch mains speaker, providing both low end output for the kick drum and full range vocal output. These are often preferred for smaller to medium club stages, where it is necessary to fit a solid monitor in a tight spot behind a drummer who is usually up against the back wall. Also, dual 15 inch speakers are great for up close kick drum punch without rumbling the whole stage and competing with the mains. In smaller clubs, a wedge monitor can be used as a drum monitor. Here, less drums are put through the monitor, and it is mainly used to help the drummer hear the rest of the band and his vocals.