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What is a Stage Monitor? – Every Performer Needs It!

If you are a live music enthusiast, you would have noticed those speakers that are always on stage. But do you know what they are actually used for? They are there to meet the performers specific needs, and without them, your favourite bands will have problems on stage. So, the golden question for today is – What is a Stage Monitor?

For the experienced audio engineer, the subject for today’s article is a pretty simple concept to understand. However, others may have a little trouble with grasping the whole idea. But don’t worry, as I will only be covering the basic principles of a live monitoring system, and its impact on live music. Ready to satisfy your curiosity? Then let’s begin!

Introduction – Why Use It?

The loudspeakers used on stage during live performances are known as stage monitors. They are directed towards the performers and are often driven by power amplifiers. The sound signal may be sent from the main mixing console (“front of house” or FOH), or from another console, usually placed at the side of the stage, that produces a separate mix just for the monitors.

Stage Monitors

Monitor loudspeakers on the stage floor / Photo by Gianni Alberto Passante / CC BY-SA 2.0

Without stage monitors, performers would only hear the reverberated reflections of the sound produced by the FOH, bouncing from the rear wall of the venue. This sound will be delayed, which may cause for instance, the singer to sing out of time with the band. Audio signals without effects such as echo and reverb may also be sent to the monitors to help performers keep time with each other.

Let us look at the topics we will be covering today:

  • Front of House system
  • Stage monitoring system
  • Related tools

Front of House System

A complete live sound system typically consists of two loudspeaker configurations: a “main” system and a “monitor” system. The “main” system is also known as “Front of House” (FOH), which amplifies sound for the audience. It uses a range of large, heavy-duty loudspeakers including subwoofers (for low frequencies), full-range speaker cabinets, and high-range horns, all driven by power amplifiers.

FOH

View from the FOH mixing console (facing the stage) / Photo by MatthewFromRVA / CC BY-SA 4.0

For smaller venues such as coffeehouses, where only acoustic performances are held, a low-powered FOH system such as a pair of 200 watt powered speakers may be enough. A large club may need several power amplifiers to provide 1000 to 2000 watts of power to the FOH speakers. An outdoor live concert may require power amplifiers that can provide 10,000 watts or more.

Stage Monitoring System

Simply referred to as “monitor system”, a stage monitoring system typically uses wedge-shaped loudspeaker cabinets, that are directed towards the performers on stage, in order to help them hear the instruments and vocals better. A small venue such as a bar (with a stage big enough for only one to two performers) may only need a single 100 watt powered monitor wedge.

Monitor mixing console

View from the monitor mixing console (at the side of the stage) / Photo by Duncan Underwood / CC BY 2.0

The most basic monitor systems usually consists of a single monitor speaker for the lead singer, which amplifies their singing voice, so that they can hear it clearly. In larger clubs where there is enough space to host performances by full rock bands, multiple power amplifiers are often needed to provide about 500 to 1000 watts of power to 4 to 6 monitor speakers on stage.

In most larger venues, audio engineers are hired to control the mixing consoles for the “main” and “monitor” systems, adjusting the tone, levels, and effects of the sound signals. Each mix that is produced for a single monitor speaker may include different vocals and instruments, and the amplified monitor speaker is often positioned right in front of the performer.

Live Sound Venue

Multiple monitor loudspeakers used here / Photo by Joe Mabel / CC BY-SA 3.0

This configuration allows for instance, the lead vocalist to have a custom tailored mix which emphasizes their vocals, the backup singers can have a mix which highlights their backup vocal performances, and the rhythm section members can have a mix which accentuates the bass and drum sounds.

Related Tools

There are some tools that audio engineers and performers use, in conjunction with a stage monitoring system. These devices can either help to make the mixing process more convenient for sound engineers, or help musicians give a better live performance.

Headphones

Headphones makes it easier for a sound engineer to monitor specific channels or to listen to the whole mix. While there are monitor speakers that are designed for this purpose, the loud volumes in most venues make headphones a superior choice due to the foam cushions which helps block the room noise. Performers may also use headphones as monitors, if they prefer it that way.

In-Ear Monitors

In-Ear Monitor / Photo by Kimdrummer / CC BY-SA 3.0

In-Ear Monitors

These are special monitors that allow musicians to hear their voice and any other instruments with a clearer, more intelligible sound, due to the molded in-ear headphone design which blocks out unwanted stage noise. In-ear monitors can also be custom-made to provide an exact fit for a performer’s ear. They also greatly reduce on-stage volume, since stage monitor speakers are no longer needed.

Bass Shakers

Drummers need loudspeakers that have a strong bass response, in order to monitor their kick drum. However, since the drum kit is already very loud, using a typical 15″ or 18″ subwoofer with high sound pressure levels will increase the overall stage volume to intolerable levels for the drummer. Due to this, some drummers use tactile transducers called “bass shakers”, to monitor the timing of their kick drum.

These transducers are attached to the drummer’s stool, and produce vibrations that are transmitted to the body and then on to the ear, in a manner similar to bone conduction. Just like subwoofers, they are also driven by a power amplifier. This allows drummers to monitor their kick drum performance without “polluting” the stage with excessive low frequency waves.

We have come to the end of this article. I hope that you are now armed with adequate knowledge, in order to confidently incorporate stage monitoring systems into your very own live productions!

Do leave comments and questions below, and share this article with your friends!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

10 Comments

  1. Those huge speakers that are on the stage are actually there for the performers and are not speakers for the audience? I did not know that.
    So performers use the stage monitors or in-ear monitors to actually help them hear the music as its actually happening, so they’re not 2 seconds behind.
    I actually thought bands came out on stage and just sang… I never thought of all the technical things that must happen in order to have a good live show. Great stuff, thank you!

    • Hi Jennifer!

      I’m glad that you have learnt new things from my article. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you have any questions!

      Thanks a lot!

  2. Hi Farhan,
    I enjoyed reading your page about Stage Monitors. I always wondered about these monitors or why people wear headphones or earphones on stage. I guessed the reason but having it so clearly explained in your article was very useful. The World of Audio is a complex thing, just looking at the thousand buttons an a Front House System is quite overwhelming. I can see you are loving it. Keep going!

    • Hey Ralf!

      Awesome to know that you enjoyed reading my article. Yeah, audio engineering can get a little mind numbing at times, but there’s also a creative aspect to it that I really love. Thanks for the compliments and support!

      Cheers!

  3. I love music but have never understood the technical part of it. I’ve always found it to be very complicated, but I definitely learned from this site. You must have a lot of experience.
    It’s cool that an in-ear monitor can be molded for an exact fit for a performer. I did not know that. I also didn’t know about bass shakers. It’s amazing what can done with our technology today.
    This information was very interesting and informative. It’s clear that you are very knowledgable about this subject.
    Thank You.

    • Hi Gary!

      Thanks a lot for your kind words and compliments. It means a lot to me to know that my article have benefited you in some way. Do come back anytime!

      Cheers!

  4. This was the most in-depth look at stage monitors that I’ve ever seen, and I love it! I’ve always kind of wondered what they actually did and how they did it, but thanks to you, I now know everything I could possibly need to know! All in all, you seem like you have a great understanding of what you’re talking about, and your site looks great. Keep it up!

    • Hi Timo!

      Thanks for dropping by. Don’t hesitate to come back and ask questions if you have any!

      Cheers!

  5. Farhan, is audio interference a problem with stage monitors? With the band’s performance on the FOH system bouncing off the walls and the (undelayed) performer’s work being played back on the stage monitors, how do performers sort out what they’re hearing? I’m guessing this is why at big venues artists wear the custom earphones? And how do the sound engineers control feedback from the stage monitors?
    Very interesting Farhan.
    Larry

    • Hi Larry!

      Often times, performers will only request a few audio signals (maybe just 2 instruments and lead vocals) to be heard through the monitors. They don’t need to hear everything through the monitors, but just instruments they find hard to hear, especially when playing on a bigger stage. When you have monitors (either custom in-ears or wedge speakers) on stage, the reflections from the wall will be pretty much negligible, especially with noise coming from the audience.

      To address your question about feedback, I suggest you read this article. Thanks a lot for your thoughts!

      Cheers!

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