Tips for setting up an IEM Mix.
We don't really think about it, but mixing is hard if you're not a mixer….
One of the huge benefits of modern digital mixers is that they allow remote control through either physical, tablet or phone apps. It's soooo convenient - musicians don't need to spend ages in sound check trying to get the monitor engineer (or the FOH engineer more likely!) to get your mix right, and it's much less stressful for the FOH engineer as well, bouncing back and forth between mixes trying to make everyone happy at once!
But, what we tend to find - and we're constantly looking to refine our workflows - is the musicians don't usually have enough knowledge to get a great mix in their ears. And, they're usually really bad at communicating what they hear (or don't hear) too!
Mixing is, has always been, and will always be an art and there's lots to consider. But thankfully, as a musician, you really only need to think about the faders rather than compression, eq, limiting, pads, polarity reversal, gates, etc. But where do you put the faders so that your signal is clear in your ears? Where do you put the volume control on your IEM pack?
The answer here lies in understanding Metering. I spend a lot of time discussing metering with students. Controlling levels is an advanced mixing skill. But if you've got a good FOH engineer (and if you're working with Dave or JP, then you have!) your signals will be coming in at a suitable standard, and they'll be managed through the signal chain to arrive at the Main Outs at a sensible (similar!) level too.
Where it can go wrong, though, is when a 'non-mixer' gets their hands on a mixer?! How do you gain stage your IEM mix so that your signals arrive at your IEM at the optimum level?
In this short guide, I'm going to show you what to look out for - a very simple crash course in mixing, if you will.
There's a few things to consider
1. Use the right app.
Below is an image of UC Surface for the iPad. There's also an Android version. This the app that we recommend using because you can see all of the required information to get a good mix. The phone app - Q Mix UC - is way too small and simple to be able to see everything you need to see, thus it's handicapping.
Download US Surface for iPad here. Downloaded UC Surface for Android here.
2. Metering Metering Metering
In the above image, take note of Arrows B and E. Arrow B shows the amount of signal inside each of the channels. This is the instrument's signal level before it arrives at the fader (what we call "Pre-Fade") and every channel should be peaking at around -12dB. You can see -12dB on the meter scale, but you'll also notice the colour break: where the signal level turns from dark green to light green. (If you've got an engineer who doesn't respect gain-staging, you'll levels peaking in the yellow…. Just like in Presonus' picture!!!!)
If you see a small amount of level, you'll be unlikely to hear the instrument. If you see levels up in the yellow, it'll possibly prevent you from hearing other instruments!!! Your engineer should be gain staging properly and setting all of the input signals to around -12dB. (Some engineers may go a little hotter, but they should all be the same, and not at all too high!).
Now look at the Meter with Arrow E. This is the level of your overall IEM mix going to your IEM amp/transmitter. Your Overall Monitor/IEM output level is represented here, between the channels and the list of IEM mixes on the right. It'll likely have either your name or your instrument written at the bottom.
If this is peaking into the yellow, where it is in the image, you're getting dangerously close to 0dB. At 0dB, the digital system runs out of headroom and turns your music into digital distortion. This is important to keep below 0db for one thing, but if we keep it closer to between -9dB and -12dB then you're plenty of space away from 0dB for one thing, and if anyone ends up getting louder during the gig, there's little chance of the signal reaching 0dB, and thus distorting.
This Meter (E) is POST FADER, so it shows you the levels after your Fader and your fader has direct control over the output going to your IEM transmitter.
On the right hand side of the mixer page, you can see a matrix of all of the mix groups (drummer, bass, etc) and you can see that the mini meters are showing RED at the top of the meter. This is BAD!! Look a little lower at the Lead Vocal bus, this shows the meters peaking in the middle… this is GOOD.
• The problem with the Q Mix app
The issue here is that with the QMix app, you can't see your Output Fader and your can't see your output level going out of the mixer to your IEM Transmitter. And this is problematic, especially if you hear your mix distorting. If the engineer has gain staged the incoming signals to -12dB (and Prestige engineers are trained to), then the problem doesn't lie with the engineer not doing his job right - it's with the person controlling the IEM mix.
If you use the UC Surface app (and we can grant you access to ONLY your mix so you don't touch anything you shouldn't!) then you'll have access to all of the metering you need to be able to see what's happening with your signal.
You don't have any control over the signal level coming into the channel, but if you notice that a signal on a channel is too high (over -12db) or too low (below -12dB), check with the engineer. He may well have missed something; someone may have turned up their instrument at source; or someone might be playing louder than they sound checked with.
We do check the level coming into the IEM transmitters to make sure that they aren't going to hot into the transmitter, and thus into your receivers.
From there - use your volume control on the IEM pack to send your desired level to your ears.
3. Using the Faders and Building your mix
Your faders (Arrow A) have direct control on how much of each instrument goes to your ears, or your monitor. Too much on one channel and you won't be able to hear other stuff - and too little, and you'll get lost. And if you have too much of the ambience (FX) in your ears, things will sound distant and weird!!
Usually, we'll start you off with a mix that WE think you'll like. From here, you can build you own mix, but here's some guidelines:
• Build the backing track first. Ignore YOU and adjust the instruments around you to a sensible level in your ears - checking that you're not exceeding the -12dB level in the E meter that we discussed before.
• Considering having something of everyone in your ears - even if it's a little lower in your mix. It also helps if The band goes off in an unexpected direction. Just focusing on your contribution may have you playing the wrong part if either you or the band go wrong!
• When you're happy with the balance of the rest of the band in your ears, concentrate on you and give yourself a small boost. If you boost too much, and have you dominating the mix, you'll lose the mix you made. All of the sound is being pumped into your ears and there's nowhere else for the sound to go. You have to be sensible and careful. Give yourself a boost enough that you can hear what you're doing clearly.
• Introduce a little ambience/FX. It helps to relax you into the music.
• Be wary about boosting guitar amps that have microphones in front of those, especially in small theatres. The engineer may need the amps to be turned down considerably so that he can get the band over them, and have control of them in the FOH. (If they're too loud - the engineer has no control). The problem here is that he/she may need to boost the input gain on the microphones to get a decent level, and this can have a knock on effect on what you hear in your ears as you'll head a lot of background ambience as the mics amplify the room around them.
• Don't get into trying to set your levels too early, before everyone is ready and before anyone is playing. If you're mixing your IEMs for the first time, make sure that the Faders are at UNITY (the black lines between -6dB and -9dB… this means no boost and no cut to the channel level), then respond to what you hear when musicians start playing. If we work with you often, your mix will be saved and at the beginning of each gig, you may just need to make some small tweaks to your mix to account for changes in venue, slight mic position, the fit of your IEMs in your ears, etc.
All the while, keeping an eye on YOUR output meter (Meter E) to make sure that you're not pushing your levels too high. If you need more overall level in your ears, adjust the volume on your IEM pack.
4. Advanced Options
When you're comfy with mixing in your ears, there's a couple of other things you can try.
• Run your mix through a compressor. Each IEM output has a Compressor on. Turn the Attack all the way down to the right and the release all the way up to the left, and turn the Threshold control down slowly until you see a small amount of gain reduction on the GR meter. Any more than that and your mix will sound over compressed and you may not like it!
• Turn your Mix into a Matrix Mix. By default, your IEM mix will be setup as an Aux, which is a simple submix system that allows you to mix just the instruments in your ears. This is set up as Post-FX, so you'll hear all of the instruments with the FOH engineer's Compression and EQ on your channel. (Again, if he's doing his job right - this will be largely transparent and unnoticeable.)
But you can give yourself a lot more options by turning your IEM channel into a Matrix Mix, which allows you to pump more of the output paths in your IEM.
For example, I have my general IEM mix setup, but I also pump a little of the Main Output into my ears (what goes out to the house mains) and a little of the Drums Parallel compression subgroup (so I get slightly punchier drums). Vocalists could add in some of the BV subgroup, which doubles up the Vocals in your ears and gives them a little more power to you.
We don't usually put instruments like Keys and Guitars through a dedicated subgroup so there's unlikely any opportunity for a boost, but Brass is usually sub-grouped.
• Set your Mix to PRE2
The monitoring outputs have 3 output modes: Pre1, Pre2 and Post.
Pre 1 steals the signal from the desk BEFORE and of the engineer's processing - EQ, Compression, Gates, etc. This isn't ideal if you want more clarity in your mix.
Pre 2 steals the signal from the desk AFTER all of the processing, which means you'll hear the instruments with EQ and compression. This is the most ideal scenario - you'll get more clarity from each of the parts in your ears.
POST steals the signal after the main mixer channel faders and after the processing. If you select this mode, your IEM mix will change as the engineer makes mix adjustments out front. This might not be ideal for you. This is different from the previous two PRE modes, where your IEM faders are independent of the main channel faders so your mix will never change.
5. You are in control
You are in control of what arrives at your ears. Your IEM mix is entirely dependant on the levels coming into the desk and the signals for your IEM should be stolen before the main channel faders, which means that any changes to the FOH mix that your engineer makes will not affect the amount of signal arriving at your IEM channel. He/shouldn't be making any changes to the input gains (which would affect your IEM levels) during the show - but, if you've not performed at a representative level during the sound and line checks (IE, you sing/play louder/softer during the gig that you did during the line/sound check), he/she may need to make changes and this will affect you.
This may take some time and some practice, but take the time to get it right and read all of the information you need in your app to ensure you reach a suitable mix level in your ears.