Could monitor engineers soon be a thing of the past?

FOH engineer and studio owner Ben Hammond (pictured) asks whether more musicians taking care of their own mixes is putting the role of the traditional monitor engineer at risk.

Having just come off a five-band-bill UK tour, on which four of the five bands were carrying their own in-ear monitoring system, and not one monitor engineer, it begs the question – are monitor engineers soon to be a thing of the past?

An extreme statement I know, but with the current crop of extremely affordable small-format digital mixing consoles, and easy-to-use but surprisingly effective apps that even a bass player can use, are we going to see monitor engineers face the same fate as the large-format recording studio and become, in some circles at least, almost obsolete?

As time has passed since the rise of the bedroom producer, and much of the novelty has worn off, many acts are now starting to realise (thankfully) that maybe an experienced recording engineer and/or producer would do a much better job of capturing their band on record – this in turn has seen a noticeable boom in the studio business of late. Now things will obviously never return to the glory days of a residential SSL/Neve studio in every town, but the talent of a skilled recording engineer – something that was once held in such high regard – is once again becoming an appreciated and sought after thing.

So with the advent of the ‘app’ and the iPad mixer giving the band member the ability to easily control exactly what they hear and not having to communicate through the ‘middle man’ monitor engineer, will this result in the dream ‘CD-quality’ in-ear mixes? Or is it a recipe for disaster? Obviously most musicians’ knowledge will stretch as far as selecting their mix and moving faders, but this then begs the question of whether the subconscious element will kick in, and the band member will believe their monitors are perfect as they themselves have dialled in their exact mix, completely ignoring any kind of channel processing etc. Or will this not wash, and will it be all too obvious that it “just doesn’t sound right”. The next question we then have, in the face of ever-dwindling budgets is, “well is it good enough to get you through, as if you do it yourself, you will save X amount of money…?”

Where to start?

Now obviously I’m not suggesting that monitor engineers will disappear completely. As with everything, when a band reaches a level at which budgets allow things to be done properly, and monitor mixes become more complex and increase in numbers, then the monitor engineer will be brought in, but with the aforementioned current trend of up-and-coming bands taking care of their end of the multicore themselves, where does this leave the up-and-coming monitor engineer? Where do they hone their skills? Could the technology that we are bringing in today – to make for a much slicker, recallable, lightweight, and automated show – be in the long run putting us out of the job? As crew, by introducing these ideas to the band, are we in turn actually creating our own biggest enemy?

It goes without saying that the pros of the self-contained monitor system are many. The band are in their familiar sonic territory wherever they go, and so long as the system has been properly designed and built, it will interface with existing house systems easily and be very much hassle free. But in the event of error, the band members suddenly find themselves in a very lonely situation.

With more and more bands turning to amp simulators and dummy cabs, and striking the wedges completely from the stage, not to mention click tracks, cues etc, if the IEMs happen to go down, it’s not an easy thing to get around. The argument, then, is if you are going to make such radical changes on stage in light of moving to IEMs, surely then you need to bring a monitor engineer to make sure things function correctly, as in the event of loss of audio, the gig simply cannot happen.

So the burning question here is are these systems being seen as a one-off investment that will then eradicate the cost of a monitor engineer for good, over a way to further improve the band’s show if ran properly by the appropriate crew?

Just to clear up, I’m not an angry monitor engineer; in fact I’m not a monitor engineer of any kind, but a FOH engineer who now has the added responsibly of the band’s monitor mix – not necessarily the actual mixing of the monitors, but being responsible for the RF, the patching of the split, the WiFi connection etc – all simple things in their own right, but thrown into a rushed festival changeover situation on top of your normal job, how long until 10,000 people separate you and your suddenly silent band members?

Apologies for coming across a little doom and gloom, but these are things that need to be addressed in the event of moving to such an unmanned monitor rig. The opportunity for bands to own this kind of system, and the advantages that it gives them for such little outlay is incredible, and once more a testament to modern technology, but in this industry as in so many others, nothing can quite beat the human element.

Ben Hammondis a FOH engineer and tour manager for bands such as Deaf Havana, Saxon and Young Guns, and owns Reel Recording Studio in Yorkshire, UK.