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FOH/systems and monitors: Two sides of the same coin

FOH and monitor engineers have a similar skillset but ultimately different responsibilities, navigating a different set of nuances which can be developed over time, writes Aston Fearon

ByAston Fearon

The main misconception I tend to hear about the front of house position when people compare FOH and monitors is that the former is easier, because it’s more self-centred. I’ve often heard it said that if you mix FOH you only have one mix to provide, which is only for one pair of ears – your own.

While this could be a temptation, I think that this shouldn’t be the case. There is ‘only’ one mix to provide – however, its audience is the many hundreds or thousands of fans who have paid good money to hear their favourite band, and it should cater for all of them. Because the FOH mix is singular and full-range, each element is important during the soundcheck and the show in a way that is different to the monitor engineer’s considerations. Even if the FOH engineer is touring and not carrying any PA or control, a knowledge of checking a system’s tuning, coverage and time alignment, etc., is important in order to familiarise him- or herself to the system and the room, making sure it is correctly set up to deliver their mix accurately to the audience. As well as this, the acoustics and physics of the room have more impact on the front of house mix than the monitor mixes, and the absorption of the audience has more effect for the engineer out front. Temperature and humidity also generally have more of an impact – even if simply because of the difference in distance sound has to travel from source to listener.

The main misconception I hear about the monitor position is that it’s easier! I’ve often heard people talk about starting newer engineers out at the monitor position before moving to front of house because they think it’s an easier role. The potential complexity of the monitor position is that, although each mix may have less processing and use less channels than a front of house mix, it requires juggling the responsibility of multiple mixes simultaneously. A strong working memory is needed when two or more band members ask for multiple changes for their mix all at the same time. While I think that some activities like rigging and flying a large FOH system are more involved – while monitor systems stay roughly the same size – I still think that mixing monitors is an equally involved position of responsibility for an engineer to get started. Larger monitor systems (often including stereo in-ears) can still become fairly complex.

At the monitor position it’s important to allow musicians to hear their own dynamics being represented back accurately. The more the band can hear the dynamic range of their musicianship via monitoring, the more they can control the dynamics of their performance and control the energy of individual songs – the ebb and flow of the set. There is often a lot of debate whether to use compression on stage, even for bands who are less experienced and therefore have less developed mic technique and dynamic control; the truth is that when vocals are over-compressed (or even just compressed at all) it can lead to singers pushing their vocals more than they need to, psychologically affecting their feel for how a microphone responds to their voice and causing more compression needed at the FOH end of the multi. While on the subject of accurate monitoring, it’s also worth remembering that latency is also a bigger consideration for stage monitoring – especially when it comes to mixing in-ears or a combination of in-ears and wedges.

It’s often said that engineer will need to mix with his ears and not his eyes, but the monitor engineer will certainly do both – listening via his cue mixes but mostly keeping his eyes on the band: watching body language and facial expressions, as well as being sure to make eye contact with everyone. The front of house engineer will at least spend some time observing the audience, seeing how they are generally reacting to the mix, but also where the band members are taking the energy of the set.

Both monitors and FOH deal with the issue of bandwidth, but in different ways. Mixing monitors is largely about not cluttering the mix, giving each musician only what they want and achieving good gain before feedback for wedges. Good use of bandwidth at front of house is mainly about ‘pocketing’ each instrument in the frequency spectrum, having enough headroom for an appropriate SPL and making the right instruments stand out out at the right point in each song.

Mixing FOH and mixing monitors ultimately need the same dedication to high fidelity: mic placement, gain structure, stagecraft, dynamic range, tonal balance, etc. Although the two different positions have different roles, the laws of physics are still the same and a good working knowledge is helpful for both. It’s much easier to understand and communicate with the engineer at the other end of the multi if I understand how aspects of the sound check affect him differently to me.

Understanding both positions also allows us to think about how front of house sound and stage sound affect each other, like when reflections from the venue bounce back to stage or the stage level being louder than is helpful for good direct sound and gain structure. Being competent at both, then, is ideal – but specialising in one position in particular can offer a certain level of excellence which comes from repeated exposure to the nuances we, as live engineers, encounter week in, week out.

Aston Fearon is a freelance sound engineer.