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Ultimate Guide to Stage Monitoring

Ultimate Guide to Stage Monitoring

Whether you know it or not, the evolution of stage monitor systems has greatly affected the course of music history. The Beatles famously stopped touring, in part, because they couldn't hear themselves on stage. Stage monitor systems have come a long way since then, and it's a darn good thing. If you can't hear yourself and the rest of the band in proper balance, both your performance and the audience's enjoyment of it will suffer.

In this article, we're going to take you into the intricacies of setting up a stage monitor system, and how to make great monitor mixes that will work for the individual musicians, making the band sound more together. If you do it right, you’re helping protect your valuable hearing and helping the audience hear you the way you want to be heard. From simple systems that provide one mix for the whole band to systems that provide customizable mixes for everyone, we'll give you the information you need to make sure everything sounds as good as possible. Whether you're using floor wedges, sidefills, in-ear monitors or a system that combines these, by the time you're finished here, you should know what you need to make your live gigs more exciting and better sounding.

Table of Contents

Introduction
  Can I Hear Me Now?
Monitoring Systems Dissected
  Wedges and Sidefills
  In-Ear Monitors
  Hybrid Systems
What Do Musicians Want?
  Singers
  Drummers
  Bassists
  Guitarists
  Keys
  Horns
  Percussionists
The Silent Stage
A Simple Solution for Small-Scale Tours
Supplementary Needs
Conclusion

Can I Hear Me Now?

Even now, far too many musicians have never worked with good, quality stage monitoring and are struggling to hear their own and other's performances on stage. We think that's a shame. A good monitor setup makes life easier for you and better for your audience. The state of the art of stage monitors has changed hugely over the past decade or so. Even if you're among the many musicians who don't have a dedicated sound tech running your monitor or front of house (FoH from here on) systems, it's easier than ever to craft a monitor mix that keeps the band tight and the audience happy.

The better you hear—not just yourself, but the whole band—on stage, means your performances will be tighter, the vocals will be more on pitch, and the crowd will have a better time.

Monitoring Systems Dissected

Stage monitoring has advanced relatively quickly over the past several decades, growing from novelty to necessity as the number of venues has increased and stage volumes have peaked and ebbed. So let's take a look at both a little history and some basic concepts.

Before we dive into the minutiae, here's a quick comparison chart to give you some idea about the strengths and weaknesses of the various types of monitor systems.

  Floor Wedge Sidefill In-Ear Monitors Hybrid System
Individual Mixes Yes No Yes Maybe
Freedom of Movement Limited Full Full Partial
Feedback Resistance Partial Partial Complete Partial
Conflict with FoH Yes Yes No Yes
Sound Check Requirements Major Moderate Minimal Major
Immediacy for Performer Full Full Can be limited Can be limited
Suitable for Click/Tracks No No Yes Maybe

Wedges and Sidefills

For many years, the standard system of stage monitoring has been primarily floor wedges, that familiar slanted box you see on stage, and occasional small speaker cabinets set up at the side of the stage called, appropriately enough, sidefill cabinets. Floor wedges do double duty by also giving the lead singer a chance to put their foot up and pose dramatically while delivering a heartfelt lyric to the audience, but that's not their main purpose. They were developed so bands could hear themselves over the ever-increasing stage volumes that accompanied the growth of the rock 'n' roll concert business.

In the early days of concert sound, the only things running through the sound system were vocals and whatever bleed the vocal mics caught from instrument amps. As venues and amplifiers grew in size, bands had to turn up to be heard, making it near impossible to hear each other. This left the vocalist in an untenable position of having only spill from the main speakers and whatever was echoing back from the rear of the hall (or stadium), which made timing difficult. In those days, soundboards had no auxiliary sends, so the earliest attempts at stage monitoring, pioneered in the late 1960s by The Who's touring sound engineer, was an extra set of speakers on a separate amplifier, carrying the main mix, turned around to wash the stage and turned down to avoid feedback. These were the original sidefill monitors, and they offered a little relief. The louder bands got, though, the less effective they were. A different solution was needed.

If you've read our live sound mixer buying guide, you've already been introduced to Bill Hanley, often referred to as the "Father of Festival Sound." It was Hanley who developed the first slanted floor monitors. These had the high-frequency horns in a separate box clipped onto the woofer box and looked, Hanley observed, "like rabbit hutches, and that's what I used to call them." Despite the tendency of the separate horn boxes to fall off the cabinet in the middle of a show, they quickly caught on with artists who were tired of being unable to hear themselves onstage. But it wasn't all peace and harmony. Early live soundboards didn't have auxiliary sends, so the monitor mix was limited to a mirror of the main mix. Once AUX sends started to become more common, a fair number of sound engineers resented having to be responsible for multiple mixes, especially mixes they couldn't hear directly. It wasn't long before dedicated monitor mix boards became available at the high end of the market, and onstage wedges became an accepted fact of life.

Over the decades since, there have been a number of advances in the technology inside those wedges, though their appearance has barely changed. Large touring systems with equally large road crews still tend toward passive monitors with a separate bank of power amplifiers for the monitors. But, for the average musician, powered monitors have become more of the norm. Many of the powered speakers we covered in our article on choosing portable PA systems are designed to be used as both main speakers or as floor wedges. An increasing number of them have a choice of projection angle when set up as monitors, depending on which side they're laid on. Many powered cabinets, like those from Electro-Voice and QSC, have onboard DSP that adjusts frequency response for different uses, making setup simpler and faster, as well as allowing remote adjustment via Bluetooth for quick adjustments in the middle of a show, should things start to feedback.

QSC K12.2 Powered 12" 2-Way Loudspeaker System With Advanced DSP

Pictured: QSC K12.2 Powered 12" 2-Way Loudspeaker System With Advanced DSP 

The ideal configuration for a dedicated floor wedge is with the high-frequency horn placed with its widest dispersion on the vertical axis, rather than on a horizontal axis, as you would want for room coverage. This narrow beam coverage of high frequencies is a big help in controlling bleed into off-axis mics and helps reduce the potential for feedback. On some monitors, the horn is placed above, rather then beside, the low-frequency speaker. While this gives an even tighter pattern for the whole monitor, it can obscure sight lines for the audience members in the closest seats to the stage. The one drawback to wedges, especially when band members are getting individualized mixes, is that leaving the immediate area of your monitor means you start to get either someone else's preferred mix, or find yourself on a part of the stage not covered by any monitoring whatsoever. This is why some bands like to combine some sort of sidefill system with their stage wedges.

One of the easiest sidefill setups is to, like the earliest versions, simply send a copy of the FoH mix to the sidefill system. For smaller venues, the sidefill system may essentially be a duplicate of the main system or the same cabinets the next size down (e.g., if you're using 12" powered cabs for the mains, use 10" powered cabs for the sides). One increasingly popular choice for sidefill is to use one or two of the popular line array systems, like the Bose L1 Pro or EV EVOLVE, due to their ease of setup and resistance to feedback. In small venues, one of these can easily cover the whole stage.

Bose L1 Pro32 Portable PA Pair with Dual Sub1 Powered Bass Modules

Pictured: Bose L1 Pro32 Portable PA Pair with Dual Sub1 Powered Bass Modules 

The biggest downside to floor wedge and sidefill systems, whether used separately or together, is spill and bounce from them can interfere with the sound you're trying to deliver to the audience via the main speakers. This is especially true for bands who like high stage volumes, as that requires vocal monitors to be turned ever higher. These volume wars never work to the benefit of the performance. We've been in venues where the stage monitors were so loud they overpowered the FoH system, sometimes even forcing the sound engineer to kill the mains entirely to keep the overall volume level for the club under control. No band can sound great under those circumstances, which is why many performers have turned to other types of monitoring.

In-Ear Monitors

These days, wireless digital in-ear monitors, or IEMs, are pretty much everywhere and at prices affordable for any musician who's serious about onstage sound quality. This availability represents several stages of evolution over the years. The first stage-worthy IEMs were developed in the late 1970s by Stephen Ambrose for Stevie Wonder's touring rig. Engineers started to bodge together wireless systems in the mid to late 1980s, using off-the-shelf, low-wattage, hobbyist-grade FM transmitters and what were essentially FM pocket transistor radios as jury-rigged body packs. These early transmitters were in the neighborhood of five watts, which was enough to broadcast to a small city on a clear channel—certainly overkill. Clearly something needed to be done.

That something happened fairly quickly when audio engineer Chris Lindop, who had put together a primitive wireless system for Stevie Wonder, and electronics engineer Martin Noare teamed up to form Garwood Communications, developing a low-wattage transmitter and sturdy bodypack. While these systems made for easier monitoring, the basic sound quality was still less than full range. It was up to touring monitor mixer, Jerry Harvey, to develop the first multiple-driver earpieces. Harvey also refined the custom molding process, eventually founding the pioneering company Ultimate Ear.

Advances in electronics technology pushed the cost of wireless in-ear systems down, and by the end of the 1990s, VHF and UHF systems were available at prices even the local bar band could afford. But frequency and bandwidth availability began to be constricted by the increased sale of VHF and UHF bands to the nascent cellular phone industry. Digital technology came to the rescue. Digital broadcast can fit more channels into a narrower bandwidth, with the added benefit of increased clarity and fidelity.

Shure PSM 300 Wireless Personal Monitoring System With SE215-CL Earphones Band G20 Clear

Pictured: Shure PSM 300 Wireless Personal Monitoring System With SE215-CL Earphones 

Today, there are a huge number of wireless IEM systems available. Manufacturers like Shure, Sennheiser, and many others have systems ranging from entry-level, analog UHF systems to tour-grade digital systems with software configuration and channel control. Wireless IEMs are an area where it's very difficult to make specific recommendations because of the constantly changing nature of frequency and bandwidth availability across the country. While less congested cities and more rural areas may still have UHF frequencies available for use, large cities may only have a small range of frequencies easily available for use, even with digital systems. So, we're going to provide some general rules to follow, but for each individual system, we strongly urge you check with the Pro Audio Sales Advisers at your nearest Guitar Center to help determine what systems and frequencies are working best in your area.

  • If you're outfitting your whole band, have everybody buy the same basic model. Every brand's different model levels are designed to work together. Cobbling together an IEM system for a band where everybody has a different brand, a different model or a different type (digital, analog, etc.) is a logistical nightmare. Also, if there's any way you can swing it, get custom-fit molds for everybody, both for comfort and for consistency in how the musicians hear the mix.
  • Spend a few weeks rehearsing with the IEM system before attempting to take it public. It's a different vibe, and will take some getting used to. You might even want to keep a wedge or two on stage until it becomes second nature. How often have you seen a touring artist pull one IEM out in the middle of a show? It's because they're not hearing something they need to hear. Pro Tip: Make sure a few of those practice sessions are with IEMs in and the sound system in the rehearsal space turned up. You may find you get enough low-frequency information through vibration, especially with subwoofers, that the bass and kick won't need to be up that far in your IEM mix.
  • Don't group all your transmitter antennas together in one rack, unless you also invested in what's called an antenna combiner, which is a cool item, but pricey if you're just starting out. Without a combiner, antennas too close together will desensitize each other, and their performance will seriously suffer. If you can't quite pull it together for an antenna combiner yet, the inexpensive solution is to have several small racks with no more than two transmitters in each one, that are kept at least six feet away from each other, and in line of sight of the stage. As a side note, the higher up the antennas are off the floor, the better the coverage you'll get. If you do buy an antenna combiner, make sure you're getting one that matches the frequencies used by your IEM system. Usually that will mean buying the one made by the company who made the rest of your system.
  • Have a backup plan for when you show up to a gig and discover you can't find enough available channels or clear frequencies. Since most wireless systems have a connection to run the IEMs wired, have the cables you need to do so. You'll also want to spend a few rehearsals getting used to how it feels to perform on a tether.
  • If you're lucky enough to have stereo sends available for IEMs, treat the mix like it's going to be an album, making an individual space for every instrument and voice. It doesn't just make it easier for everyone to hear their parts more clearly, but it feels like a production, and that makes your performance that much better.
  • You will need an audience ambience mic fed into everybody's monitor mix. Using IEMs without such a mic can make the band feel isolated from the audience and from each other. If you're running a stereo monitor mix, you could even use a stereo mic placed to pick up the audience so the band gets a sense of just where those frenzied screams are coming from.

Some musicians have trouble getting acclimated to using IEMs, while others love the freedom and clarity they provide. When those two approaches collide, it's time to think about a hybrid system.

Hybrid Systems

A hybrid system is one that combines two or more of the types of monitor setups we've discussed previously. We already touched on one, in fact, when we discussed adding sidefill speakers to supplement stage wedges. Once you add IEMs into the mix, there are a number of possible choices for hybrid monitor setups. If you've got some band members who prefer different types of monitors, you may have to look for compromises, unless you're lucky enough to have multiple monitor mix engineers. If you're among the many musicians who are setting up your own sound and running you own monitor mixes, here are some suggestions to consider.

Musicians who like to move around the stage should be on IEMs whenever possible. This is especially true for singers. An open mic moving from one area to another when there are live monitor speakers is an invitation to feedback, and not the cool psychedelic kind. When IEMs are in use, it is absolutely critical that potential feedback in wedge and sidefill systems be guarded against. If you haven't already, this is a great time to get to know your digital mixing board's feedback suppression system. If you've got an older, analog board that doesn't have one built in, there are a number of stand-alone units on the market. Even if you have one in your board, you might want to echo the multiple backup systems of the Apollo moon missions and have one in the rack, just for safety. To protect every user's ears, it's vitally important to fully ring out any non-IEM monitor system before the show.

Sidefill and wedge cabinets will necessarily have to be at lower levels with a hybrid system than if IEMs aren't being used, which means the overall band level will need to be more controlled. A more controlled stage volume makes for an overall better mix, both for the monitors and for the FoH. All of this makes for a better experience for the audience. And if they're loving it, you'll end up having a better performance.

Most often, whoever is fronting the band may prefer wedges, as the biggest complaint about IEMs seems to be a feeling of disconnection from the audience, even with ambient mics. If everybody else is in the band except the vocalist is on IEMs, this is going to restrict the singer's movement somewhat. But, it's made up for by having that wedge there to put their foot on and lean out. You may even want to put a dummy wedge up front for just that effect even if the singer is using IEMs. Hey, it's all showbiz, right?

Obviously, a hybrid system requires a number of compromises on everybody's part, and it gets far more complex than sticking with a single type of system. So think hard about whether it's what you really need. Despite the potential conflicts, if you do go with a hybrid system, you've got the added benefit of it being backup if the IEM system has an issue.

What Do Musicians Want?

Different musicians tend to want different things in their monitor mixes, and those things can change as you shift from wedge/sidefill to IEM. We did an informal, not particularly scientific, poll (also known as asking a bunch of working musicians we know across the spectrum, from weekend warrior to touring pro) as to what they liked to have in their personal monitor mixes, to give you some ideas of where to start setting things for a band. These responses were for regular stage gigs, generally performing pop and rock tunes. Before we dive into the specifics, though, a general note is that it's hard to go wrong by starting with a general mix of the whole band, at a lower level, and then adjusting for individual tastes during sound check. All of these recommendations are based on that concept. We'll get to the requirements for modern "silent stage" shows a little later, as they're very different different from a stage with live amps and non-isolated drums.

Singers

Featured vocalists will generally want their own vocals, slightly out front, and any backing vocals to make sure that pitch and phrasing are tight. They'll also want whatever instrument is doing the chordal work to cue from. If there are acoustic instruments or other instruments that are going straight to the PA, they will definitely want some of those. As previously mentioned, bass and drums will probably not be needed, unless it's a silent stage setup. If they are requested by the singers, keep it light.

Backing vocalists will want all the vocals at approximately even levels. Good harmony vocalists are used to finding their own blend, so their monitor feed should be fairly close to what their FoH mix is. The rest should be much like the featured vocalist's mix is.

Drummers

Drummers usually don't need a lot of themselves in the monitor, but the bass and vocals are important for locking in and for cues. Lots of drummers will want some guitar, as well, especially for funk and other styles where the rhythm guitar and drums need to be as locked as the bass and drums are. If there are auxiliary percussionists, the drummer may want them, but at a slightly lower level. If the band works with either tracks or a click, you'll really want to convince the drummer to go with either IEMs or a pair of comfortable isolation headphones to keep the guides from bleeding into anything the audience can hear. If using in-ears, many drummers like to have a small sub next to them, or even attached to the drum throne (like the Buttkicker Sonic Shaker), so they can feel the low end more easily.

Bassists

The number-one vote in our informal poll of bassists was kick drum. No surprises there. Second choice was vocals, and "some guitar." Following that up was any instruments that might be running direct to the PA.

Guitarists

For many guitarists, their relationship to the snare seems to be analogous to the bass player and the kick drum. Our poll showed both snare and kick, vocals and acoustic instruments as first picks.

Keys

Our informal poll of keyboard players leaned toward players who tend to go primarily direct, and their first requirement was to have enough of themselves in the monitors to hear, plus vocals and acoustic instruments. Since they are frequently in the same frequency range as guitars, they tend to want them a little lower, to avoid muddying their own sound. On a live stage, the keyboard players we talked with generally felt they were getting enough bass and drums from acoustic spill, especially if they were on the same side of the stage as the bassist. On larger stages, you'll probably need to feed them a little of the bass/drum mix.

Horns

We talked with a few horn players, and the consensus was divided, depending on whether there was a section or a single horn. For solo horn, the request was for vocals, for cues, timing and intonation, then a little of the keys and guitar. For horn sections, it's similar to what you would feed to backing vocalists. The horns want to hear each other, for intonation and attack/timing and the vocals for cues and intonation. As with backing vocals, you'll want to let the horn section find its own balance. Depending on stage setup, and size of stage, the horns may also want some bass and drums for timing. As with all of these recommendations, the key thing is to start from your basic mix, and then ask the musicians what they need tweaked.

Percussionists

Percussionists will first want to hear each other, if there are more than one. They'll want drums and a little bass next and, especially in Latin jazz styles where the keys and guitar are playing montuno patterns, they'll want those instruments as well. Vocals aren't going to be quite as important here, but are still necessary for cues.

The Silent Stage

Over the past several years, more and more venues like nightclubs, casinos and houses of worship have moved to a silent stage system. In this scenario, everything is run direct—frequently switching from acoustic to electronic drums for that purpose—and all musicians are on IEM systems. For the increasing number of guitarists and bassists who are switching to amp-modeling, multi-fx setups, silent stage performances are a big bonus, as they know that what the front of house system gets is exactly the sound the musician intends.

For these shows, the monitor mixer has become more important than ever, as what the band hears is entirely determined by how that in-ear mix is configured. The silent stage is a new challenge for sound techs and performers alike. It's also a new opportunity for bands to take more control over their final sound and presentation to an audience, and for venues to make sure their customers always get a consistent sound experience that will keep them coming back for more.

Mixing IEMs for a silent stage is an interesting balancing act. The monitor mix will probably be close to the mix that's destined for the main speakers, but individual musicians will be wanting a little more or less of specific instruments (see the previous section). This means sound checks are more important than ever, and may be more focused on getting the in-ear mixes balanced for the players. If it's a house system, as is common for many such shows, the management may not be eager to give each player access to control their own mix (every modern digital soundboard has remote access from apps). So, if you're not controlling your own mix, it's good to plan ahead and have a list or stage plot of who in the band likes what balance in their monitor mix. Some singers, for example, want to hear some reverb on their voice in the monitors, while others prefer their personal mix be dry as a bone. So compile all those preferences beforehand. For some gigs, like casino showrooms, the band, or their sound tech, aren't allowed anywhere near the mixing board, so be prepared.

On the other hand, if it's your system, you've got the luxury of not only having all your monitor mixes set up in advance, but saved to presets you can start from, and band members can have access to the mixer's app to tweak their personal mix. So sound checks, at least for monitors, are quick and easy, with only minor tweaks generally needed to compensate for onstage acoustics.

A Simple Solution for Small-Scale Tours

What if you're doing a small tour—maybe a series of opening dates—and are going to be limited in sound check time? If your band has committed to an all-IEM setup, here's a spin on a solution we've seen an increasing number of bands adopt. It's pretty modular, so you can expand it as your needs grow, but it's a real time saver and can really help with consistency from show to show.

This will take an 8–12 space rack to house it all, or one 6-space rack for the mixer and a second one for everybody's IEM transmitters. Start with a simple rack-mounted digital mixer, like the PreSonus StudioLive Series III 16R and enough rack-mount mic splitter units to handle the number of inputs you have. The ART S8 is a great starting place here. You'll need enough XLR male-to-female patch cables to connect the mic splitter outputs to your rack mixer's inputs and an XLR-to-XLR snake to connect to the stage box that feeds the FoH system, and cabling to feed all those IEM transmitters. That's the basic system, and here's the idea.

PreSonus StudioLive 16R 16-Channel Rackmount Digital Mixer

Pictured: PreSonus StudioLive 16R 16-Channel Rackmount Digital Mixer 

Take this small rack into your rehearsal space and spend all the time you need to dial in everybody's mix. If you have more than seven people, a couple may have to double up, since the mixer we're using as an example has six AUX outs plus the main outs you can use. Get everybody hooked up with the free remote control app on their phone, so they can do minor tweaks to their personal mix. Once you've got it all dialed in, save that mix as a preset. Presto, you've got your own custom, pre-configured in-ear system that's always setup perfectly for your band. A big plus for this particular PreSonus system is you can have a multi-track recording of every gig, straight from that rack. It's also easily expandable as your needs grow, thanks to the AVB audio networking connectivity that supports digital stage boxes, more advanced personal monitoring systems like the EarMix 16M, and even connectivity to other mixers. If you think modular and plan for the future, this system, or one like it, will be with you for years.

Supplementary Needs

As always, there's stuff you'll need to keep things up and running. Start by buying quality cables, and always have spares. Grab gaffer's tape to keep everything anchored on stage. Keep some flashlights for when you have to dive behind the rack and find which cable got disconnected. An SPL meter is a must-have for keeping things under control onstage when you're setting up wedges and sidefills, while trying to protect everybody's precious hearing. Always have spare universal fit in-ears in the kit, and replacement cables for when someone's custom-fit ones go down. And batteries—lots and lots of rechargeable batteries or battery packs to keep all those receiver packs going. We advise at least three sets of batteries for each unit, and enough chargers so there's always at least one charged set available.

Conclusion

We realize this is a lot of information to absorb here, and wrapping your head around pulling a great monitor system together may take a bit of work. But, we're confident, with this information and a little common sense and experience, you and your band are going to be sounding amazing, not just to the audience, but to yourselves.

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