My Monitor, My Pet

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!

Monitor Madness

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.

Getting Control

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

Useful Links

Me, Myself and I

Attack of the Killer Monitors

Michael Majeran in Action

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.

  • aifbaui9

    monitoring is such an art. I say this because most of the the artist likes it, but the audience doesn't or visa versa.

  • Michael,

    This is a great intro to monitoring, especially for the novice singer. Just for fun, I ordered the HearPhones from the technology reviews page of this site. Albeit, classical artists have less to contend with, in respect to amplification. Still, I find the Hearphones oddly comfortable and I believe they create a similar response to “cupping the hands,” as you've described. Not a bad place for new singers to start…hearing is paramount!!!

    I also like that you go into frequencies a bit…often singers might purchase cool and interesting vocal equipment but not know where to begin when modeling a sound to their distinct liking. I've tried a number of monitoring solutions but none fair as well for me as in-ear monitors. I've used the typical floor wedges, brought my own monitoring rig, used TC stand mounted monitors…you name it, but nothing is quite as freeing as being completely wireless.

    I use the Shure PSM 400 in-ear, which is really nice because it boasts a 4 channel mixer. Typically, I will run a stereo signal from my Voice Live 2 to it as well as a stereo signal from the mains to it. This gives me a great sense of how the band sounds out front, while affording me the capability to the float the vox on top without effecting anyone else’s signal but my own. I really love this approach + it helps to greatly reduce feedback on stage :)

    Thank you Michael, for sharing your sage wisdom!



  • Hello Brian,

    Thank you for your comment.

    There are two different methods of monitoring while using advanced processors such as VL2.
    You can hear either your processed or unprocessed voice. You can also mix those two.

    Dry voice can be useful, but I always liked the idea of controlling effects such as delay, or hard tune only my voice. In this case it is very good to hear yourself the way it goes to FOH.

    Another words I don't control my voice. I control the way it sounds at the FOH :)



  • Right on Michael…yes I prefer to work with FOH…BUT that could be because I haven't tried the other option, since obtaining my VL2. I'll have a go of it my friend…I'm always up for a different angle…the engineer might like having a dry vox + my effected signal…if he/she has a savvy ear they should find it rather rewarding, I imagine, to have both at their disposal. I'll toy with this over the weekend to see if there's something more substantial here for me :) Thanks for the feedback!



  • Hi Michael,

    I wanted to revisit this article as it directly relates to this past weekend's performance for me. Since procuring my in-ear monitors I haven't dared to do a show without them. Friday, I had the opportunity to perform and original showcase at one of our top 3 venues in the Tampa Bay area, Jannus Landing…a very high profile gig. It was a benefit so there were several bands. Given the size and class of the venue, and the fact that they brought in one helluva sound systems…I thought how bad could it be? In my desire to make for an easy transition…I neglected to don my in-ear monitors.

    I knew that we'd only have maybe 10-15 minutes to set up in between bands, and they weren’t going to split up the floor monitor mix to give me an in-ear mix. Even if they had, the floor mix was so blazingly loud, and piss poor that I wouldn't have wanted it in my ears anyway. We're an original band and a good portion of our sound is sequenced. All they had in the monitors were guitar (and way too much of it)…we didn't even get a sound check.

    So, no sequence in the mix, the drums were even drowned out, and the vocals were a faint whisper in the mix…I ended up honing in on the slap back from the back of the venue for a vocal reference, which was weird coz it captured a small delay…what a nightmare! How could such a beautiful moment go so south so quickly? Regardless we were still received well.

    However, I watched the videos yesterday. Much to my dismay, I was sharp by a half step in nearly every song. I'm experienced enough that if I can hear well I can usually perform spot on. I was very disappointed at the outcome, knowing I could have done a lot better, had I been able to hear myself.

    So, I got to thinking…would in-ear monitors have even helped? I just had to switch my thinking…see, typically, I ask for a board feed so I've got FOH coming at me and then tweak my vocal blend. However, in-ear monitors can be used in myriad ways. Had I scrutinized my approach, I should have donned the in-ears anyway. Even though the floor mix was maniacal…I could have blended my own voice into my ears against what I was hearing at my feet…I also should have had them take me completely out of my floor mix and just used my in-ears. The Voice Live 2 freaked 'em out a bit and caused some unnecessary feedback due to the ridiculous volume and we’re not even a heavy band!

    Anyway, this will never overtake me again…I learned my lesson…always use those in-ears…for most of us…if we can hear…we can sing, regardless of any challenge.