For any performer, there’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to hear yourself on stage. How can you make your best music, if you don’t even know what you sound like? Monitors address this problem by giving musicians their own speaker to hear and react to their sound as they perform. While most monitors are basically loudspeakers aimed at the performer, recent technological advances in this field give other options for a clear sound.
As PA systems began to get louder in the 1960s, singers had a difficult time hearing themselves and singing in tune. The first recorded use of a stage monitor was for Judy Garland in 1961. It was simply one of the speakers that the audience hears turned around towards her.
Often times, what the band needs to hear in order to feel comfortable on stage is different from what the audience wants to hear. For example, the band may want the vocals to be much louder in the monitors than in the main speakers. To accommodate this difference, most PA heads and mixer boards have the ability to create separate monitor and main mixes, also called the front of house (FOH) mix. This allows the band to custom mix their own sound, independent of what the audience hears.
Stage volume can be a problem, especially when the whole band shares a single monitor mix. Sometimes when playing a gig, every performer wants to hear more of themselves, so they take turns increasing their own volume. If that’s the case, you may need to have a conversation with your band about stage volume and hearing damage, or buy some earplugs.
Recent advances in monitor technology have eliminated some of the problems associated with traditional monitors. In-ear monitors (IEMs) are high-end ear buds that pipe the monitor mix directly to your ears. Since there is no external sound, IEMs drastically cut stage volume, eliminate feedback, and allow each member of the band to easily create his or her own custom mix. They do, however, tend to be more expensive than traditional monitor speakers because they require special wireless transmitters and receivers.
Before buying a monitor system, carefully consider your needs as a performer. A heavy wedge monitor with a 15-inch subwoofer might not be the best choice for a solo acoustic performer in a coffee shop, but it is a must for loud rock bands. Or you may want to spring for a wireless IEM, though some musicians perform more naturally with speaker monitors. If you already own a mixing board or PA system, make sure the monitors are compatible to avoid any unnecessary frustration. Take your time and research different options before making a decision.
This is the most popular type of monitor. They are “wedged” at 30 degrees to direct the sound to the performer, while staying on the ground and out of the way. Wedges usually come standard in PA system packages and are relatively inexpensive by themselves. Because of their high output, they are used by loud rock bands.
Mic Stand Monitor
If you play as a solo act or in an acoustic group performing in a small space, a wedge is probably overkill. Small and unobtrusive mike stand monitors fit on a microphone stand, and can be placed very close to the performer. Unlike wedges, volume and EQ controls are put within easy reach of each performer, making them a great fit for DIY sound systems.
In-Ear Monitor (IEM)
In-ear monitors are basically noise-canceling ear buds with great sound quality that feed the mix of the band directly into your ears. The more expensive ones are custom molded to your ears by an audiologist, but there are many fine buds that are one-size fits all. The advantage to in-ear monitors is that feedback is virtually eliminated, every musician can easily adjust their own custom mix, and stage volume drops considerably, resulting in a clearer sound.