Fellow hard rockers and metalheads (and maybe everyone else, too), lend me your ears. Do you love your perfectly crafted, totally brutal bass sound when you’re standing right next to your rig, only to have it disappear into a soup of kick drums and guitars and house-sound mush when you stand closer to frontstage? Yep, me too. I love the bass sound from my rig and instrument. To my ears, it’s nearly perfect. But being just 15 feet away changes everything, because that’s where the stage monitors come in. I’ve learned the hard way that if you want to have a consistently good monitor mix onstage, you need to shed the pretense of being oh-so-cool and just get geeky about it. We’re talking specific EQ frequencies, what to put where, what to ask for, and what not to ask for.
So, with unique individual preferences tacitly acknowledged, let’s set the table for a quick meal of Monitor EQ Nerd Casserole by zeroing in on these frequency ranges for reference:
80Hz–100Hz The “real” bass range. For rock and metal, if you go lower than this, it just gets messy. Most—yes, I said most— BASS controls on amps, and most onboard bass EQs, are pre-set here anyway. But if you can set the frequency yourself, take note.
150Hz–220Hz Low mids. Call it “punch” for short. Makes your note strike feel “faster.”
1kHz High mids. Hello, overdrive grind and kick-drum snap.
3kHz High end. The sound of the “click” on your finger/pick attack.
5kHz Crystal highs. “Opens up” the sound.
Two things before we ask the monitor engineer for anything. One, if you have active onboard EQ, set it flat. Yes, even if you don’t usually do that—trust me on this. Two, dial in your amp’s EQ/level the way you know and prefer. If you need to add a little more amp EQ to make up for what you were adding on your instrument, do it. (This assumes you’ve already done your homework and gotten a sound that works for you and with the band in rehearsal. You’ve done that, right?)
Okay, we’re ready. Let’s go with the most common small-to-midsize club scenario: You’ve got floor wedge monitors (not inears), you have your own monitor mix, and there are no “sidefills” (larger monitors on each far side of the stage pointing inward). You’re soundchecking. Drums go first. Soundman checks the kick; it’s a big blubbery mass. Drummer plays a blast beat and it sounds like a motorcycle in a cave. Soundman says “It’s good out here!” But you need clear kick in your monitor, or you’re sunk. What to do?
Tip 1: Sharpen the kick drum. The kick drum’s low end is probably bouncing around the room and making it impossible to get low-end clarity before you even play a note. You need clarity in front of you, not boom. Ask the monitor engineer to roll off everything on the kick below about 100Hz. Then ask for a boost at 1kHz, so the kick gives you a good snap. The kick’s low end will still be there, all around you. But ideally, in the monitor the kick will end up sounding like a lower-pitched snare drum, so when things really start hauling, both the kick and snare will both be perfectly clear. Note: The PA’s limitations may mean your request will affect the kick drum stagewide, or even in the house if the PA is truly lame. Be a team player, but also let the engineer know what you want—a cleaner, tighter, non-boomy kick onstage. He may have a creative way of achieving it for you. Now you have room to get some punchy low end in there.
Tip 2: Find the punch zone for your bass. Usually when the bass comes up in your monitor, it sounds a little clanky— you can hear it, but it’s ugly. Fortunately, you’ve got a great rig sound coming from behind you, so you just need to complement it, not re-create it. In my view, you don’t want to add “bass” (100Hz and below) to your monitor mix—it’ll muddy things up. You want that great-feeling punch from when you’re standing closer to your rig. Tell the monitor guy you’re looking for punch, and have him crank 160Hz on the bass channel-strip EQ, so you can hear what that frequency sounds like in the monitor. If it feels great instantly, have him dial it back to a reasonable boost, and test out a groove with the drummer. (Make sure you have enough hi-hat and snare in the monitor at this point as well.) If 160Hz doesn’t feel “fast” enough, raise the frequency to 180Hz or even 200Hz. If you set the number too high, it’ll probably sound honky. You’ll know when it’s right. (Bonus: Try checking the monitor with your rig muted for just a few seconds. You’ll feel the monitor’s punch zone quickly this way.) And again, the PA’s limitations may mean your punch requests affect other things. Give the engineer a chance to get you what you need in the most effective way overall.
Your patience is about to pay off: If you play an active instrument and are dying to boost the bass control, now’s the time to give it a little bump. Careful, though—now that you’ve dialed in your rig starting from flat onboard EQ, sharpened up the kick drum, and found your monitor’s punch zone, small boosts to your axe’s bass control will count for a lot more than they did before. And you want those boosts to be small, because they affect everything: your rig, your monitors, and especially the house PA.
I’m out of space. Next time we’ll get to the midrange, high end, overall mix, and esoterica (in-ear monitors, sidefill options, why the snare drum is so important, etc.). But just having your low end tighter ought to be cause enough for the obligatory show of horns: \m/
Bryan Beller is the touring bassist for the metal “band” Dethklok from the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim show Metalocalypse, and has played with Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Dweezil Zappa, Wayne Kramer, and more. His most recent solo album is Thanks in Advance [Onion Boy]. Follow him on Twitter (@bryanbeller) and find out more at www.bryanbeller.com.