Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Short History of Stage Monitors

A Short History of Stage Monitors.

For most of civilization there was no need for stage monitors. Musicians just listened to each other and tried to blend in. My first experience with monitors was in a radio station. Bands often played live and there was a speaker hanging on the wall so you could hear the announcer and know when to play. They killed the monitor when the music started to prevent feedback.

By the 1960’s, when I started playing a lot louder, in bigger venues, and often outside, it became very hard to hear the rest of the band. Different bands tried different techniques. One of the most famous was the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound. They put all of the speakers behind the band and eliminated feedback with out of phase microphones.

We decided to go with two separate sound systems, one with the speakers facing the audience and another with the speakers facing the band. The goal, as always, was to be able to hear exactly what the audience is hearing. If the band is hearing the same thing as the audience, you can play with dynamics, sing or play louder or softer as appropriate, always aware of what the other band members are doing. This was the setup used at Woodstock. By most accounts, the sound system was the only thing that worked right there.

Most bands started using this system and some started laying the speakers on the floor in front of them. Speaker manufactures picked up on this and started making wedge shaped speakers.

At some point, musicians figured out that they could customize the mix to each speaker and the phrase “more me” was born. Mike Finnigan was always complaining to the sound guy that he couldn’t hear when he was playing to organ. The sound man built a little speaker with its own amp and sat it on the organ and the personal monitor was born.

It was a short step from there to in-ear-monitors - ear buds that each musician can control themselves. It is now possible to totally tune out everything but yourself. You can even listen to the ball game if you wanted. I am sure it has happened. The whole idea seems pretty narcissistic to me and not enough team play.

The idea of needing to hear what the audience is hearing so you can adjust accordingly seems to have gone away. We have given artistic authority to the sound crew which are probably not musicians and usually have no idea what the artist would like to sound like.

There are signs of change. Bose is making a portable sound system that sits behind the band so everyone is hearing the same thing. I hope this idea grows to bigger systems, and we can get back to musicians being in charge of their sound,