Monitor Mixes and Mental Ouroboros
My self confidence is like a lightbulb in a house with faulty wiring. It flickers on and off due to internal currents that I’m not particularly attuned to. When I’m on stage there’s a small part of my brain on high alert, worried that my confidence is going to abandon me right before a solo or an exposed melodic part. Combine that with an active, loud, and persistent inner monologue and I occasionally put on a masterclass on psyching myself out.
So, with all that in mind, I sat in the green room of Full Sail Live on Wednesday with just a touch of trepidation. I wasn’t nervous per se (it’s been a long time since I was nervous before a show) but I realized I was a little too aware that this show was going to be recorded. Full Sail University has bands in to play full length shows where their students run the sound and record the video as part of their classwork.
We had a good soundcheck earlier. We’re a pretty easy live set up. Dan and I have our own DI’s*, and Sean and Tony have Amps with XLR outs. Justin was on the full drum kit for this show rather than his usual cajon/snare concoction so he required more mic attention than he usually does. I set up on stage right, with Tony next to me, Dan next to him, and Sean on stage left. In a show with all five of us there Justin usually ends up in the back. There was a riser on this stage so he was pretty visible.
*DI = Direct Input. A DI matches your guitar’s instrument voltage level output coming out of the 1/4” jack to the mixing board’s mic level input voltage. Having all of the instrument signals come in to the sound board at the same voltage level (mic level) makes it easier for the engineer to mix. (If you had, say, vocals coming in to the board at a weak mic level and a guitar coming in at a strong line level, to get them balanced and playing together at the board output to the speakers you’d have to gain the vocals level way up or gain the guitar way down which can inject distortion, noise, and most likely irritation as you struggle to keep them civil with each other.)
It was a big stage so all five of us got our own monitors, which are the small speakers that face us so we can hear ourselves. We don’t usually use monitors at our smaller shows at bars or restaurants and especially for me, playing a quiet instrument, it’s like a little treat when I can actually hear what I’m playing. Levi, working the soundboard, had us play individually so he could set our monitor levels and tweak the out front sound.
I’m an Occam’s Razor type when it comes to the monitor mix. I want the minimum sounds that I need to play well and no more. I don't really care what the tone of the mandolin is coming out at me (usually pretty piercing), I just need it loud enough for me to hear.
After we get our monitor levels set we run through a song so we can make sure we can hear everyone else that we need to hear and the sound engineer can get the out front mix right. We play either 13 Bottles or Allyson for sound check as both of those songs have the hardest instrument combo to mix (mandolin and dobro) and both have backing vocals so Tony, Justin, and I can set our levels.
Often a volume that you think is fine when you do the individual level check ends up being too low in the mix when the whole band is playing. I almost always underestimate the volume I need and during individual check have the mandolin turned down only to then get it put back after the full band run through.. I generally put no drums in the monitor (I always can hear it well enough coming from Justin’s kit) and since I’m usually standing in front of Tony’s amp I don’t need very much bass. I like the Dan’s vocals mezzo forte (medium-loud).
As long as I can hear the vocal melodies and the drums and bass I’m usually good. I basically ignore Dan and Sean’s guitars and often have them off in my monitor. There are no songs where I need to queue off of Sean’s parts and he has a small amp next to him which is usually enough. I have a lot of reps playing with Dan so I’m pretty tuned into his strumming patterns when I’m doubling him and I set up on stage right so I can see him. I don’t really have to hear his guitar to know what he’s doing.
Adding extra parts in the monitor mix can quickly become an escalating arms race and especially since the tone’s aren’t prettied up it can be cacophonous to have everyone on. I also ignore Tony and Justin’s backing vocals because I only harmonize with Dan and the more vocals that are blasting in my face the more likely I am to get pulled off my note when I’m singing. For this show I actually had my vocals pretty loud in my monitor which in retrospect was a mistake. I don’t like the sound of my own amplified voice and it’s really hard to tell how loud you’re singing through the monitors when the level is so high. I am totally paranoid about singing too loudly and taking away from the lead vocals and I’m already a little vocally gun shy so my reflexive reaction to my voice coming out so loud in front of me was to back off the mic significantly. In the end, after I listened to the recording we got, I realized I wasn’t singing loudly enough.
At the actual performance we played for an hour, as planned. It was... ok. I think the knowledge that we were bing recorded combined with the really big stage and Justin on the drums, which we don’t have much practice time with, meant we were a little out of sorts. We made some uncharacteristic mental errors. There was some confusion at the end of Janice when we didn’t all see Sean’s signal that we were ending and a near train wreck at the beginning of Nova where a snag in the vocal entrance almost sent us all to different parts of the song.
I’m sure it was fine for the listeners in the audience but I’m not sure how much of it will meet our recorded performance content quality standards. (One of the advantages of playing original music is that, live, unless you completely go off the rails and the drums stop or you titanically screw up a first time listener probably isn’t going to notice. Listeners unfamiliar with your songs are more likely to notice the rhythm section is out of sync than missed notes or chords so, fortunately, Justin and Tony carry us when we get into trouble.) If there’s a window of “acceptable” live performance, we were definitely still in it but we’ve also definitely played better.
Knowing that the record light is on tends to increase the flickering of my confidence, which then makes it more likely that I’m going to make a mistake. It can be hard for me to let go, quiet my brain, and just trust my preparation and muscle memory. I know I’m in trouble when I start thinking too much and second or third guessing myself. “Solo is coming up this song’s in A you start on the 2nd fret wait is that right it doesn't look right god it’s loud in the monitor this instrument is so piercing that I’m going to stab the audience in the face wait does it start on the second fret we’ve got seven songs left is my hand in the right place right now you’re queue is coming up three two one...” It can be a little tiring trying to put on a good performance simultaneous with a brain starting to devour itself.
Of course I ganked a really exposed chord badly in our first song right out of the gate, but I managed to shrug it off and played decently well overall. I listened to the raw recording we got of the show the next day and there were some pretty good tracks in there. Even our near train wreck in Nova didn’t sound a quarter as bad as it felt onstage. We set a high bar for ourselves when it comes to live shows and since of course we know all our songs really well, we hear every blemish and judge ourselves much harder than most audiences will. I think we all knew it wasn’t our finest performance but I definitely felt better about it when I heard the recording. It’s very easy for me to only remember the bad and flush the good from my memory so in retrospect it was nice to hear how much went right in a show I would have given us a solid C on.
All things considered it was a pretty good, if a touch humbling, dry run for our Amp’d Concert Series at the Dr. Phillips Center on the 18th. If we’ve got a stumble in us, I’d rather get it out of our system before DPAC than at DPAC. And the recording we got is going to be really useful to find things to work on. It’s amazing what you hear when you’re not in the moment.
And hopefully in the coming weeks we’ll have some live tracks and videos to share. The next 10 days we’re going to be pretty focused on DPAC (I’m about to start finalizing the setlist). It’s going to be fun, probably a little surreal, and hopefully humbling in a different way than Full Sail Live was.
So, onward, hope to see you at Dr Phillips on 18th.
Delenda Est Carthago.