Monitors can become just as beloved to vocalists as their mics. Michael Majeran shares how.
Early in my career, I heard myself recorded live and terribly out of tune. I was frightened: is something going wrong with my hearing? *
As a classically trained singer, I had never had this problem before – I had sung successfully in many different acoustic conditions: in theatres, churches, etc. I knew that I could sing clearly!
But now I was singing contemporary genres—what was the problem?
It was time for an experiment: I tried to sing in tune while wearing extremely loud headphones with a distorted noise signal.
I couldn’t even sing a simple melody in tune. The answer was obvious: I needed to find the right way to hear myself on stage.
That’s why I now believe that monitoring should be a part of the singer’s craft.
After all, guitarists have their hands, their guitars and their amps. Singers have their voice, their mic …and their monitors.
What is Monitoring?
Some time ago some fascinating research was conducted on the physical movements of classical singers during performance.
Many of these singers were vocalizing with strangely twisted lips, while moving their hands forward.
It turned out that these two actions were an unconscious monitoring system.
These vocalists were aiming their notes at the palms of their hands in order to shorten the path of their sound, reflecting it back to their ears.
Singers who twisted their lips were doing so because they had a distinct difference in hearing sensitivity between their left and the right ears—they were twisting their lips towards the ear that was more sensitive.
Simply put, monitoring is a system that allows you to hear yourself and the sound-sources of your choice in the way you need to.
But it’s not so simple for singers dealing with the unnatural electro-acoustic conditions of the stage!
There are a number of issues that confront vocalists with monitors. Maybe you are confronting one of these challenges?
*Your monitors are not “personal” (they are for more than one person and everyone wants to be on the top)
*Your monitors are in the wrong position (you are in crossfire of the drums and a guitar combo)
* You are having trouble with feedback due to the characteristics of your mic, monitors and amplification system.
* You aren’t able to control your monitoring either because it isn’t perceived as your “job”; you may lack the correct terminology to relate to those who are working with the equipment.
*You don’t have much stage space—you just can’t move away from the wedges.
While there are almost as many different monitoring systems as singers, there are some things that you can do which will help you master your monitors.
The first is to understand some key terms. Just scan the list below and stop on terms you are unfamiliar with.
Monitors – rear-facing speakers. Because of their unusual shape they are also called “wedges”.
Monitor mix – a signal that is created for monitors onstage. It can be produced either by separate mixing board or part of FOH mixing board.
In-ear monitors – headphones connected to a body pack receiver (wireless) or a body pack headphone amplifier (wired).
Monitoring system – also known as “foldback”, consists of a mixing board, sound processing equipment, amplifiers, and speakers or headphones.
FOH – front of house. In stage situation it refers to the main speaker system and show control consoles.
Frequency band – range of frequencies in sound. There are three typical frequency bands that you should be aware of:
HF – high frequency. Noisy instruments like cymbals or shakers operate in this band. It also covers most of the consonants in human voice.
MF – middle frequency. Almost every instrument operates in this range. It is also essential for vocals.
LF – low frequency. Instruments like the bass or kick drum operate in this range. Only very few voices go lower than 120 Hz. That’s why most sound engineers cut the lowest frequencies from vocals (“low cut”). The “low cut” also reduces popping.
Microphone gain – microphone sensitivity, usually controlled by a knob on your mic preamp. This preamp is either built-in on your effects unit or can be found on your mixing board. Note that setting up your microphone gain correctly is essential.
Microphone polar pattern – a microphone’s directionality. Your microphone is much more sensitive to singing directly to the capsule than from a side or from behind it. However, some microphones have patterns in which let in some sound from other angles. Knowing your mic’s polar pattern will help you avoid feedback from monitoring. Check out VC’s Guide to Mic Pic Up Patterns
How it All Works
When you sing into your mic, the signal goes to the preamp in your effects unit or mixing board. The signal is then processed (depending on your system the sound may be processed separately—or not— for each musician or monitor on stage).
The sound engineer (which might be you!) amplifies or cuts some of the frequencies. S/he can also compress the sound and add some reverb or delay to your signal.
Then, your sound goes back onstage to the monitors where you can hear it.
At the same time you are listening to your monitors, you can hear the reverberated sound of FOH and acoustic sound of most noisy instruments on stage—this is partly why one has to work so hard to have good monitoring.
Next Week I will present all vocalists with a simple checklist they can use to ensure they are on track with their monitoring.
I will also reveal the technical secrets of the system that is helping Me, Myself and I stay in pitch through all sorts of challenges including harmonizers, doublers, distortion, beat-boxing and vastly different venues…
*Written by Michael Majeran in conversation with Gregory A. Barker
Michael Majeran is a member of the renowned vocal a cappella group, Me Myself and I. He also has rich experience as a singer, producer and composer. An alumnus of RCM London and WAM Wroclaw (Poland), he’s sung solo operatic parts as well as experimental and jazz a cappella music. He composes and produces music for television and film. Michael is also a noted vocal teacher and coach having worked in the Royal College of Music Teaching Service in London and with various music schools and choirs. Michael’s singing and jazz guitar work sees him constantly on the move all over Europe.