Singers: Building a great IEM Mix

THIS POST IS FOR THE SINGERS OUT THERE.

Having worked in many churches all across the country, one of the things I have found more challenging than others is putting together a good monitor mix for a vocalist. Most of the time, this is because unlike many of the musicians, singers tend to have a more difficult time articulating what they need in there mix. My hope is that I can bring some clarity to what makes a good vocal mix and for you singers, to give you an idea on how best to communicate what you need.

HOW A VOCAL MIX IS DIFFERENT

There are many ways to approach a monitor mix. Some people want a "CD" mix, meaning they want it to sound like the record. This works okay for most musicians because their instrument isn't quite as delicate as the human voice. Singer's on the other hand need their voice to sound as natural and clear as possible. A poor monitor mix for a singer can lead to all kinds of issues, the biggest ones being pitch problems, and vocal fatigue. If a singer can't hear themselves well they are going to push their voice harder than they should and end up tiring it out sooner than it should. This means that a vocal mix needs to have dynamic room, very much unlike a "CD" mix which is usually squashed to all heck with compression. A vocalists mix needs room to breathe and for them to be able to feel their own vocal dynamics.

 

WHAT DOES A SINGER NEED TO HEAR?

As a vocalist the most important things you need in your mix are:

  1. Your own voice
  2. A pitch reference
  3. A rhythmic reference
  4. A natural space

YOUR VOICE

I would let your sound guy know that you want your voice front and center. Ask him to EQ your voice to make it sound natural. You want the sound of the mic to be completely transparent. This usually means removing a bit of low end from the vocal channel. Putting a voice through a microphone creates a phenomenon called "the proximity effect". The proximity effect is boost in low end frequencies (around 200hz for those who want to get technical) the closer a voice gets to the microphone. Ask your sound guy to cut out those offending and unnatural low frequencies until you hear them reach a natural level that doesn't sound like a microphone. 

PITCH REFERENCE

Next you need a pitch reference. Usually some of the best and most consistent instruments for this are the piano & keys, and the bass guitar. Once your vocal is set I would bring in a healthy amount of piano, keys and bass guitar. These serve as consistent pitch references that don't fight too much with your voice. Later on you can add in extra things like electric guitars and tracks and such but for now you are starting by building a solid foundation for your mix.

RHYTHMIC REFERENCE

Next you need a rhythmic reference of course to make sure you are with the band! Aside from click track which you should have just enough of so that you can hear it clearly when the drums are not playing. When the drums are playing, they are your rhythmic reference. Which brings me to the next thing that should come up in your mix. Kick drum and snare. 

You don't need these blaring, but definitely up to a comfortable level in your mix. The kick and snare are what create the overall feel and pocket of the song. You can also add in toms in for some flavor at a level slightly below the kick and snare. again just enough to pick them out. I also discourage from putting much drum overheads into your mix as you will most likely get plenty of them naturally as they are one of the loudest things on the stage and tend to sneak their way into every open mic on stage! 

A NATURAL SPACE

This is more of a preference thing than a necessity. But adding a nice subtle reverb on your vice can liven it up and make it feel much more natural. This has to be done tastefully however. It will be up to you as the vocalist to decide whether the reverb benefits your mix and the sound of your voice or detracts from it. If it doesn't sit well or seems to make your mix feel crowded and unnatural go ahead and just take it back out. 

TIP** If you do ask for reverb, mention to your engineer that you want a very dark and subtle reverb. you want it to sit around and under your vocal, almost like its hugging your voice, not to distract from it. 

OTHER VOCALS

Now that you have built a solid foundation for your mix, you have covered all the necessities, except for the other singers you're singing with. Hopefully your monitor engineer has taken the time to make their vocals sound as natural as possible as well. I would bring up whoever is the lead vocalists to a level where you can clearly hear them just above the band, but they are not fighting with your own voice. Then other vocalists I would bring up only who you need and only enough to be able to pick them out. A great way to make sure that other voices don't keep you from hearing your own is to pan them out in your mix. That means to move them to left and right sides of your mix to leave the center clear for your own voice and the lead vocal. This still applies if you are the lead vocal. 

I would also recommend that you only put in the vocals that you absolutely need to hear. This is a delicate balance because as a singer, you want to be aware of what the other vocalists are singing, however the more open mics you have in your mix, the more "room" noise is allowed in which is something that will very very quickly degrade the clarity of your mix. If you must have all other singers, I would again caution you to use as little as possible. Pan them out hard left and right (which makes it easier for you to hear them) and only turn them up loud enough for you to be able to hear them. 

EVERYTHING ELSE

Now of course at this point you can add in things to taste. Guitars (Electric and acoustic) add a nice energy and color to your mix, but they can easily began to mask your voice if you turn them up to loud. I would recommend asking your sound guy to pan them out hard, one left and one right according to which side of you they are on. again this will allow you to hear them at lower levels and keep them out of the center area which is where your voice sits; so you want to keep that area as clean as possible.

If you are using tracks, feel free to bring them up to taste, but again as soon as they begin to distract from your vocal, you know yo've asked for too much and its time to bring them back down. 

I hope you have found this helpful! If you have any questions feel free to email me!

Thanks for reading!