Mixing LOUD monitors... who's responsible for the artist going deaf?
After mixing monitors for a well known female artist last night I got to wondering: who is ultimately responsible for an artist's hearing, if not the artist themself?
From my point of view it seems logical to think that the next person besides the artist themselves bears that burden, and in a typical concert environment that is the monitor engineer. We all know you can talk honestly and convey your concerns to some artists and then there are those artists that you can't speak directly to. You have to go through management or some other department. The likelihood of getting one of those types to actually pass on your thoughts and concerns accurately, or even at all is about 0%.
The artist almost always claims that they need to "feel" it onstage and I get that, but it's at the expense of their hearing. Don't they realize they are jeopardizing their own career? Hasn't anyone learned from Pete Townsend? Many don't realize they are also sabotaging their own show by smearing the FOH mix with stage wash. Few, if any artists will take responsibility and they put the whole mess in your hands. In reality we can't do much about it during the show if the artist is on stage motioning to you frantically to turn everything up. Such was the case last night. The venue is an old theatre with a capacity of about 1,200 seats. The PA is a well tuned Meyer M3D line array with plenty of aux-fed subs. On stage I was using a Meyer CQ on top with an M3D Sub for side fills. I ended up not using the subs since the artist only wanted vox and some tracks in the fills. Downstage wedges were Clair 12AMs with a few Meyer powered wedges upstage for the band. During soundcheck everything was within reason and sounded great. Everything was rung out tightly with not a hint of feedback and I still had plenty of headroom if needed. Band and artist were all thrilled, at least from what they told me. Then comes showtime and all of a sudden the artist wants the fills CRANKED far beyond what we had at soundcheck. I'm pushing up faders and I'm soon seeing lots of red lights, both from the CQs and then also the aux outs of the desk (Avid SC48.) After the artist motioned for me to turn things up further I indicated to her that we had hit the limit of what we had available. She wasn't happy but soldiered on. After the show I spoke to the MD and he confessed that they have been trying for the last ten years to get her on IEMs. I told him that they should update the rider (from 2006) to indicate a larger side fill rig. I didn't get the chance to talk directly to the artist who, by the way, is someone I first met at the very beginning of my career, working on her second album as an assistant engineer in the studio. If I had had the chance to talk to her I would have tried to openly discuss the options available that would enable her to continue to perform without damaging her hearing... FOREVER. It's clear to me that she already must have some hearing loss and at the rate she's going it's likely she'll be nearly deaf in a few years.
As we see more and more artists using IEMs it seems crazy that there are still people that want 115dBA (and more) on stage. It may be a bit easier for some of the musicians in the band because even with IEMs you can at least give the drummer a "thumper" attached to his or her throne, and even bassists can get a "rumble pad" to stand on that gives them a tactile response to the music they're playing. All these tools are great but they don't do a damn thing for singers. I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with better ways to incorporate IEMs with sidefills and/or wedges that project strongly for singers that are not fully satisfied with just IEMs. So far I've had mixed results with my experiements but the bottom line is that the stage volume can still get out of hand. The best scenario to date has been to use subs only as side fills so the artist feels the kick drum and bottom end. At this point in time there are really no other tools or resources besides the standard wedges and fills on stage so its frustrating to try and come up with alternatives, but I'm working on it.
I'm now mixing FOH for Cee Lo Green and he is a fan of frighteningly loud stage volume. I first met and worked with him when I was mixing monitors for a large corporate gig and he was a guest performer. At the time he was using IEMs along with a standard complement of wedges and sidefills. For that show the stage volume was under control and by no means out of hand or potentially damaging. When I got the gig to mix FOH for him I found that he was no longer using IEMs and had gone back to using just wedges and side fills onstage. The band is all on in-ears. So in order for Cee Lo to "feel" it onstage our monitor engineer (Aaron "Double A" Dilks) has to crank everything to clearly damaging levels. We discussed getting Cee Lo back on IEMs to no avail so far. There have been numerous occurences when we've soundchecked and people have commented on how loud the rig is and I'll point to my master fader, which of course is all the way down. They are shocked to find that all that volume is from the stage alone. To say it interferes with my FOH mix is an understatement. It's at the point now that if I were for some reason asked to mix monitors for Cee Lo I would refuse based on the simple fact that I don't want to be the one responsible for ruining his hearing. I'm at the point now where I'm comfortable enough with my own ability and ethos that I can approach an artist and discuss with them the damaging effect that loud stage volume can have on them. Unfortunately it seems that for the most part they just don't listen or don't care. To this day not one single performer has done anything to change their ways. I almost wish I had started in this industry sooner so I could have been one of the engineers that was able to change a band or solo artist over from wedges to IEMs, just to feel like I had accomplished something.
It's also scary because in today's litigious society one could imagine an artist's lawyer coming after you and trying to sue you for ruining their career by making them incur hearing loss on stage.