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‘Don’t write off wedges yet’: Why we are still using stage monitors

Phil Ward finds out from professional live sound engineers why they are still using stage monitors instead of graduating completely to in-ear monitors

You may remember Robbie Williams’ Take The Crown stadium tour from a few years ago – a Brit Row classic. One look at the gigantic stage told you that it was completely devoid of wedges: only keyboard player and MD Paul Beard and drummer Karl Brazil had any boxed foldback, sporting a d&b audiotechnik Q-Sub each. Even the guitar amps were tucked under the stage in baffled isolation.

According to Britannia Row audio engineer Josh Lloyd, who attended rehearsal sessions at Robbie’s house in Compton Bassett, Wiltshire, this was the plan from the start: in the rehearsal room, the only acoustically audible phenomena were the vocals and the drums – “quite a nice, pure source to start with,” says Lloyd, “so the musicians get a much better experience.”

This ‘better’ experience was transferred to the stadiums on the tour, thanks to IEM, and in this instance the musicians were clearly well adjusted to the delicate, hi-fi interface with the total sound they were generating and found their own ways of resolving this with the physical reality of live performance. It’s a sea change that challenges many established notions of production, and presents everyone involved from talent to technician with the need to find an agreeable solution for a new age: one in which the time-honoured raw power of rock music may be giving way to alternatives that are physically and artistically safer.

SURF BOARD

Monitor engineer Simon Hodge not only took responsibility for the in-ear mixes on Take The Crown: he also developed a system that suggests another dimension to IEM that will only consolidate its popularity. As well as improving on-stage clarity and communication by avoiding wedges, he added a footswitch-operated microphone for each band member. Patched into the IEM circuit, they created comms for the band and for Hodge himself, augmented by a second vocal mic for Beard with an optical gate: if he leaned into it and talked, he addressed the band; if he pushed the footswitch, he could address Hodge directly. The resulting mini-conference system not only has a hierarchy but unites crew and talent, fusing monitor world and show comms plus the IT infrastructure – all supplied by Hodge’s company Surfhire.

Faced with this type of innovation, it seems obvious that IEM is leading the way to a clearer future. Sometimes it’s a purely practical decision. Simon Sayer, who mixed the Classic BRIT Awards concert at the Royal Albert Hall last June, pointed out that “some of the artists were performing on an LED floor, so having loads of wedges out would have spoiled this. It usually comes down to artist preference or logistics of staging. As a FOH engineer having everyone on ears makes for a much better sound out front – but we don’t always have that luxury”.

But is it always such a luxury? Jon Burton has been mixing monitors and FOH for over 30 years, and would prefer to reverse the question posed by this feature in order to underline the continuing relevance of the techniques that IEM might pretend to abolish.

“Why are we still using stage monitors? Why shouldn’t we is the question. Monitoring is specialised sound reinforcement. We use sound sources to help balance the quieter elements with the louder ones to achieve a mix where the performer feels comfortable,” says Burton. “My first foray into IEMs was in 1993 with The Cranberries, and initially Dolores [O’Riordan, singer] hated it. I was also doing monitors for Suede, and Brett [Anderson] wouldn’t even try it. Since then, we‘ve seen a massive switch to in-ear monitoring. Has it helped? Yes, for many acts it has given the musicians, particularly singers, a clear and consistent sound almost regardless of the venue. Has it made for better performances? Yes… maybe. Is it a perfect solution? No.”

For Burton, there is a particular trade-off between the acoustic security of in-ears and the greater musical integration of an act sharing the moving air of an open, if noisy, sound stage. “I hate doing a tour where it’s all on IEMs,” he continues. “It’s one of the reasons I don’t do monitors any more. It leads to introspective listening practices. It can become very insular, musicians becoming obsessed with ‘their’ sound and not the ensemble. I like working with acts where the singer has a pair of wedges. It can mess up the FOH sound, but it can also help produce a greater ensemble performance. If you have a singer who can sing and who can listen, you can get a dynamic performance that I find is often missing when the band is reliant on IEMs.

“Of the last three acts I worked with, two of the singers were on wedges and the third on IEMs, but they were performing on a stage where the side fill and keyboard fill were larger than most club systems. So don’t write off wedges yet – they still have their place. And we haven’t even got on to the physicality of sound. It’s about feeling as well as hearing.”

CHAIN REACTION

It sure is: witness the remarks of Michael Brennan, who has trod the boards with a huge range of acts from Primal Scream and Faith No More to KT Tunstall and, most recently, The Jesus And Mary Chain. “We were special guests with Nine Inch Nails in America,” he recounts, “and they had a completely silent stage: every single thing, including guitars, was processed through Apple’s MainStage software and sent to in-ears. But even so, they had six V-DOSC 218s along the back of the stage pumping out subs so the band could feel it. Despite a really controlled, hi-tech environment, there’s still a need for the movement of some air by loudspeakers. It was absolutely essential for the show, even if it was a bit of a nightmare at FOH.”

L-Acoustics’ SB218 is not a wedge but the companion subwoofer for V-DOSC and ARCS series enclosures, and it may be that an entire sub-species of PA could survive without wedges, retaining the throb of sub-bass that both Brennan and Jon Burton describe as so essential to an engaged performance – even if the IEMs can still be accused of isolating the performers to some extent.

“If you time align it correctly,” continues Brennan, “it can give you a bit more sub for the house, although it’s tricky. I have four subs as monitors for the drums with Faith No More, and I can bring round that kick and snare into the focus of the whole mix if I’m careful.”

Jim Reid, the main vocalist in JAMC, has two purely cosmetic wedges at his feet, unconnected and bereft of signal. This is wedge-as-prop, which underpins the legacy of these boxes from rock and roll mythology if nothing else. A bank of implausible Marshall stacks in the backline, only 10 per cent of which are working, will do the same. Whether real or not, wedges and other stage monitoring enclosures are fighting a rear-guard action against the clinical progress of in-ears. “Most tours have a mixture of both – even the older bands,” reflects Brennan, “who now realise that they have to protect their hearing a lot better.”

Health is probably the issue that will win the day, along with scalability. Both topics have exercised Chris Marsh, FOH engineer for Ed Sheeran, throughout the British star’s meteoric rise from modest solo gigs to mammoth solo gigs. Despite no change in his instrumentation or presentation, the sheer hike in venue capacity has necessitated an update in the monitoring solution, if not an upgrade, in creative terms.

“Ed started with just wedges, doing the pubs and clubs where in-ears are an expensive commodity,” Marsh reports. “He likes to hear the audience and walk in and out of the audio source, feeling the space around him. But as the gigs got bigger, the monitors got louder, even with just an acoustic guitar and vocal, we ran out of headroom. I became concerned for his health! We did a 6,000-crowd marquee in Columbia and the noise was unbelievable – he couldn’t hear a thing. I looked at him and said: ‘This is where I have to start using in-ears, isn’t it?’ So it’s now a necessity rather than a choice, and it has taken some of the pleasure out of playing; he pops out one of the ears frequently in order to be able to hear the crowd and sometimes play along with them.”

There are, however, wedge monitors at his feet…

“We’ve kept them for two reasons,” Marsh explains. “Firstly, in case his in-ears go down for any reason, so he still has a reference – they’re 20dB quieter than they used to be! And secondly for when he does pop out one ear-piece, so he still has audio in both ears – one in-ear, and the other using the wedges.”

According to Marsh, as and when Sheeran uses the wedges, they’re not loud and detailed enough to enable him to pitch correctly, or to build his famous loops using the custom foot pedals that help him to create such rich musical textures as one performer. For this signature technique, IEM is essential. “Nowadays, the wedges are really for the banter with the audience,” adds Marsh. “If Ed had a choice, I think he would only use floor monitors. That’s where he’s most comfortable. But unfortunately there’s a limit to what you can achieve.”

MIND THE GAP

It seems, therefore, that something is always lost when ear pieces build their inevitable barrier between the performer and the room – even for a solo act with a good deal of very intimate material, and not just the ensemble dynamics of a high-SPL production. Recognising this, the loudspeaker manufacturers continue to invest generously in the stage monitor format, which lives on below the radar of stadium megatours in more modest circumstances. To take just one example, for Todd Rundgren’s latest tour, production manager and monitor engineer Paul Froula switched to a choice of VUE hm-Class boxes including four hm-112 single 12-inch and two hm-212 dual 12-inch models – networked in the modern way by VUEDrive V Series digital engines and SystemVUE software, not a single in-ear monitor in sight.

But there’s a life for wedges beyond this too. Gregory Dapsanse, director of marketing and business development at French loudspeaker manufacturer APG, reveals that his company’s SMX15 multi-purpose monitor was designed expressly to complement IEM. “The in-ears provide fantastic quality in the mid-high range, very close to studio monitoring,” he points out. “But on stage they fail to provide the low frequencies, so the SMX15 is acoustically optimised to put these back into the on-stage experience. Any stage monitor for use in conjunction with IEM has to do this, and should be able to work almost like a sub.”

Dapsanse also acknowledges that many artists remove in-ears, or one of them, during performance, making not just the presence of a stage monitor but also its quality equally important. “It must maintain the sonic atmosphere,” he says, “including intelligibility as well as low frequency. It’s not about high SPL, it’s about approaching studio quality. In fact, you could almost define the SMX15 as a high-powered studio monitor for stage use.”

This is the next challenge for sound reinforcement, reaching studio-quality fidelity without losing the energy and spontaneity of stage performance… sound ‘thru a lens’, as Robbie might say.

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