“Monitor engineers can get fired for all kinds of reasons; some valid, some not so much.” Bob Windel, Monitor Engineer
Window or aisle?
Bob Windel has toured the world with many high profile bands, ranging from The Black Eyed Peas to the Goo Goo Dolls to the Eagles.
Hello Bob and thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. Every one of our readers loves music and attends numerous concerts a year – but few really know all the intricacies of what goes on in order to make sure that a show happens night after night. So with that said, thank you in advance for helping explain things from your unique vantage point.
Glad to be here!
OK – so we’ve all seen that sound desk in the center of the audience but that is not what a monitor engineer is in charge of. So before we really get into it – what is the difference between a monitor engineer and the guy who runs that desk in the center? What are the responsibilities of both positions?
The mixing desk you see in the middle of the floor is in the area called Front-of-House, or “FOH.” This is where not only the FOH audio guy/gal works, but is also where the lighting designer runs his/her show. To answer your question, simply put, the FOH engineer mixes for the audience, and the monitor engineer mixes for the band.
So how did you choose to become a monitor engineer over a front of house engineer?
As with a lot of careers, I didn’t really choose it; I just kind of fell into it. Early on in my career when I worked for a production company I was put in the monitor position where I’d mix for all the smaller bands at various shows and festivals and then served as the monitor tech for all the touring engineers who were mixing for the bigger bands. Early on in my career a “big league” monitor engineer gave me some valuable advice that I never forgot. He said, “You want to stay busy? Become a good, solid, competent monitor engineer. Because for every good monitor engineer there are six FOH guys trying to get a gig.” So I kept at it, and eventually I got comfortable dealing directly with the artists and working at getting a mix they were happy with. I enjoy that about mixing monitors; working directly with the artist. People often ask, “so do you get to meet the band?” I usually laugh and say, “yeah, whether I want to or not, I meet them.”
What are the main challenges that a monitor engineer faces on a nightly basis?
There are many, and a lot are specific to whatever gig you’re on, but the main challenge is of course keeping the artist(s) happy. Meaning, hit your cues (guitar up during the solo, vocals at the right levels during harmony parts, muting the backup singer on the second verse of the third song, etc etc) accurately / on time, keep an eye on everyone on stage to be sure you don’t miss any requests for level changes, and keep an eye on your gain structure, to be sure you aren’t distorting any inputs or outputs. This all happens instantaneously, by the way. There’s a lot going on at show time. But you do get in the groove as the tour progresses, and with a lot of gigs there is a little time to enjoy the show.
Does a band typically use the same monitor engineer tour after tour and if not, why?
Typically yes, as long as they’re happy with the monitor engineer’s performance on the job. It’s better for everyone — the crew, management, the band — if the crew remains consistent.
That makes sense. But even with that said we both know that there is a LOT of turnover – sometimes even mid-tour. Why is that? What do monitor engineers typically get fired for?
It is a very challenging job. Monitor engineers can get fired for all kinds of reasons; some valid, some not so much. Sometimes engineers get complacent if they’ve been with the same artist for a long time and they start to miss cues, or make stupid mistakes because they’re not on their game. But other times, especially with the more “eccentric” artists, engineers can get fired because they’re simply not liked on a personal level, or the artist needs to place blame for a poor performance, and who better to blame than the monitor guy?! And when we talk about people getting fired it’s not like corporate America where it’s a long, drawn-out process to get rid of someone for poor performance. If you get fired from a tour, you’re gone that day. The joke on the road is, “window or aisle?” That’s the question you’ll get asked by the tour manager if you’re getting sent home.
In the broadest of terms, how different is it mixing in-ears rather than mixing traditional wedges?
It’s very different; both have their own challenges and workflows. A lot of the time mixing wedges is just about getting things really loud without any feedback (that loud screeching sound you sometimes hear at shows), which isn’t an easy thing to do by any means, but it’s more of a broad stroke approach. In the case of mixing in-ears, a much more precise methodology is involved because the artist hears every nuance of your moves and changes. Now you’re mixing more like a studio engineer, where you can clearly hear the differences between specific effects (reverbs, delays, etc) and dynamic controls (compressors, gates, etc). It also allows the artist to demand more subtle changes in the cues, right down to a tenth of a dB in some cases. IEMs are so accurate, you can hear the little changes. With wedges, cues are usually more drastic and pronounced.
How does being a live sound guy differ from being a studio engineer?
There are more differences than similarities, from the workflow to the lifestyle and everything in between. Studio engineers have an “undo” button, which is an impossibility in the live production realm. We get one chance at it, and if we screw up, everyone knows it. Or in the case of monitor engineers, the artist knows it, which is all it takes to get sent home. Don’t get me wrong, I have all the respect in the world for studio engineers. Some dear friends of mine work in the studio realm and I’m amazed at their artistry and creativity. And it’s not like there’s no pressure in the studio; when the singer nails that one take, you better not have missed it. And all the deadlines, and dealing with record labels, and trying to get paid, and all that stuff… it’s what recording engineers deal with every day. Touring pays very well and the checks never bounce.
Thank you so much for your time and for this insight.
This interview was originally published by Mike Dias for Ultimate Ears