Mary J Blige 'Strength of a Woman' Tour

by Suzi Spangenberg
in Production Profile
FOH engineer Ben Monroe
FOH engineer Ben Monroe

Arguably the best-dressed person working FOH today, Ben Monroe cuts a dapper figure in the three-piece suits he is known for wearing. Having just completed a 44-gig tour with Mary J. Blige, Monroe was in good spirits, coming off two tours with Blige that he calls “hands down, the best in my life.” A big statement from someone who’s been in the biz for 40 years now.

“I enjoyed everything about this tour, the quality of the staff, the effects with the drums, the delays with the guitars — the same with her voice,” Monroe says with clear appreciation. “One word I’d use to describe this tour?” “PHAT,” replies Ben.

Getting Blige’s message across was the single most important goal of the tour, says Monroe. “She leaves it on the stage every night. I don’t know to this day how she does it or where she finds the energy to do it and sing like that every night. I’d tear up every night. She has been through a whole lot and it reflects in her music and in this tour.” Blige’s songs did more than move Monroe to tears — they also got him dancing at the console. “I’d start dancing when she sings ‘U + Me’ off her new album. That song — I really felt it. I had fun with every song, but that song, I got to do a little dance.”

Ben Monroe works the show.

Blige is hands-on. “Mary is involved in the sound, and she knows what she wants to hear,” says Monroe. “If she does a sound check, she knows what she wants to work on and she works on just that one thing and then moves to the next and gets out of there — very professional.”

The Strength of a Woman tour kicked of at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans on July 1, ending on Sept. 22 in Savannah, GA, with a swing through Europe in July. Monroe jumped into the tour a month in, inheriting an Avid Profile. “It worked just fine, although I would have preferred the [Soundcraft] Vi7000.”

Monroe was mixing nine musicians on stage this tour with a considerable amount of inputs and mostly uses the house array. However, if the rig doesn’t meet Blige’s standards, he brings in his own. “In St. Louis, the Fox Theatre has a house system with all [L-Acoustics] K2’s and only four on each side. I needed to reproduce a note — so brought in my own subs — two on each side. They assumed it was to be louder, but it was about getting the best sound and reproducing a note. Better to make the extra effort so the client is happy.”

MJB gets a St. Louis crowd into the groove.

‡‡         Musician Turned FOH

Growing up in St. Louis, Monroe looked up to his older brother Dwayne, who he credits for getting him into the business. Emulating his brother, Monroe learned to play the piano and drums at an early age, eventually choosing to stick with drums. He played with several bands and then moved on to do session work.

At 15 years old, Ben again followed in his brother’s footsteps and started working at Don & Kathy’s House of Music as a stagehand. Soon after starting there, he was asked to set up the sound system. His brother showed him what the knobs did at FOH, before leaving him on his own. “Pretty much I had an idea [of what I was doing] because I’d seen it being done, but didn’t have a clue about why or what was working.” It turns out that particular show featured B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, and Gil Scott-Heron “and that is how the love of sound stayed in me,” Ben says.

He added, “I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I do remember what speakers I used: Klipsch La Scala’s — 3-way, passive — I had 12 on each side — put them on scaffolds and that was our sound system. I didn’t really realize what I had done until I was older.”

Ben’s first professional break was with Kool & The Gang, whose tour manager and lighting director, Charles Stone, took Monroe under his wing in the early 80’s. “We got to be friends, and he asked me to mix Kool & the Gang, then I was on the road all the time. I worked with them for 12 years.”

While working with Kool & the Gang, Ben continued doing session work. He turned his basement into a professional recording studio, working with artists from a long list of labels including Universal, Def Jam and Sony.

Other acts Monroe has worked with include Earth Wind & Fire, Ashanti, The Jacksons, Ja Rule, Nelly, Faith No More and Red Hot Chili Peppers as well as “one-offs of pretty much all the rappers out there.”

While working with the Jacksons, Monroe met Michael “Huggy” Carter, Blige’s manager. “When I left The Jacksons in 2015, Huggy called and said ‘The London Sessions’ tour was coming up. I didn’t hesitate,” says Monroe. “For The London Sessions 2015 Tour, the main thing is that Mary did it correctly — she got the equipment I asked for and then set up the rehearsal hall. We rehearsed for five days at SAP (Stage Audio Production) in Atlanta so we got a chance to dial in the system, then we went out to James Brown Arena in Augusta, GA and rehearsed for four days. The first London Sessions show was there.”

Another PHAT moment from the MJB show in St. Louis

‡‡         Better to Be Loved

Keeping the client happy is Monroe’s main goal. “They either love you or hate you — I’d rather they love me,” says Monroe with a wink. While the Avid worked out fine for this tour, he preferred the previous tour when he got to work on a Soundcraft Vi7000. “My favorite thing about the Vi7000 is the way it sounds and how versatile it is. It feels more analog to me — it has engines I can actually use. The Profile has effects, but I only used about two-thirds of them — one reverb and one delay (Waves v9 Key).”

Monroe is not big on plug-ins, particularly when he gets to the use the Vi7000, and can lay the faders out wherever he likes. “The effects engines are very user-friendly and familiar because it’s all Lexicon and now it has BSS 901, great EQ, great compressors and gates.” Monroe adds, “I like a fast console.”

Hardware is a different story. Monroe says he likes to use the Apogee Big Ben to clock the digital console. “I like to bring everything all together through a API 2500 and a TC 6000 for more effects options. For quick delay, the old faithful TC D-Two or 2290. My approach to the overall mix and what I’m looking for is dynamics, clarity, and overall warmth. I want people to look on stage and see people playing, hear what they’re playing, and for vocals to be audible, articulate, and in your face.”

Monroe chose the Sennheiser SKM 5200 for Blige, saying, “It was very natural sounding. I didn’t have to use a lot of EQ to make it work. Mary has a very clear and strong voice, whether she’s just talking or whether she’s singing her heart out, so it was easy picking her up with no problem using that microphone,” Monroe says.

Not surprisingly, Monroe knows how to mic drums, and this case, there are a lot of them. “Since I’m a drummer, I’m going to use mics that I’ve always liked. I don’t like going to a concert and not hearing what the drummer is doing. I made sure that when [drummer] Rex Hardy played and moved around, you heard every drum he played. I wanted to make sure they sounded like cannons so they would shake the building anytime he would get all the way around to the floor tom.” Monroe accomplished this with a mix of Shure, Audix, Sennheiser and AKGs.

Stadiums that aren’t adequately acoustically treated are his challenge. “You have to be very aware of surroundings so it doesn’t sound like an echo dome. In old arenas, there usually isn’t any acoustic treatment, and you have to be careful aiming the speakers. It’s all trial-and-error — if I know it’s a bad room, I tune it differently than we usually do, so people enjoy the show. You have to aim speakers where the people will be.”

Eighth Day supplied both of Blige’s tours, much to the satisfaction of Monroe. “I would say Eighth Day goes out of their way to send very talented crew people out to spoil you. Anything I needed, they made sure I got it, next-dayed or whatever they could do to make it work out in my benefit.”

While on this MJB tour, Monroe used an Avid board with a d&b J-Series System, his druthers are elsewhere. “If money were no object, I’d go with a full d&b J-rig with a Vi7000. I just think that combination works very well together.” He added “I haven’t used the new Yamaha, and I’d also like a chance to get on the SSL — I’ve heard it, but haven’t gotten on it yet. I’d rather know that it’s a decent P.A., the best combination, and does what it’s supposed to do; the same thing for consoles. I like analog, of course, but we’re in a digital world, so I’m going to go with what feels comfortable with me if I can, and if not, I’ll just make whatever is in front of me work. I want to make sure I get what the client is looking for out of whatever console I get.”

Eighth Day Sound supplemented house systems on this tour.

‡‡         Off to the Future

According to Monroe, the next big innovation in sound will likely be more speakers that take up less power and smaller consoles that you can roll off laptops. “On a major tour, consoles may become obsolete. No more tipping up XL4’s, hooking up all kinds of outboard gear, or even tipping any kind of console up.”

And in thinking of the future, Monroe says he would like to see more engineers working together. “If we talked more, and had some real meetings, we could figure out some great new innovations and technology that we all can agree upon. A soundman summit where we all could finally agree, put our egos behind us, look at each other and go yeah, that’s what we’d like to see.”

With the future in mind, Monroe went on to give some advice to those entering the biz. “Be humble. Don’t think your stuff don’t stink. Look over people’s shoulders to get as much of an education as you can by watching and observing. There are a few engineers that will share that info with you. Listen and be willing to learn. If you see a place to jump in, jump in, and be nice to everybody.”

Sounds good.

Alex MacLeod at monitors

Q&A: Monitor World with Alex MacLeod

FRONT of HOUSE: How’d you get into the biz?

Alex MacLeod: I was fortunate and started hanging out at a performing arts theatre when I was 10 that was close to my house. It didn’t take me long to figure out that all I wanted to do was audio and they had me mixing. I met some of the local sound company owners and was doing local gigs for them starting at 14. At 18, I worked for the largest sound company in Arizona and that was college for me. I worked for that company for six years, then got my touring break at 23. I am 34 now and absolutely love what I do. I have always preferred the challenge of mixing monitors and almost all of my touring gigs have been as a monitor engineer.

How did you start working with MJB?

I started this gig last minute on the first show day and didn’t get to do the tour rehearsals. Not ideal, but it all worked out.

What are you mixing on?

DiGiCo SD5 Core 2. I have been mixing on DiGiCo consoles for a long time and they are my favorite for mixing monitors on.

IEMs? What system, what buds? Any wedges on stage?

IEM’s are Sennheiser 2050 and Sennheiser G3, All IEM molds are Jerry Harvey, with d&b C7 Stage Subs for the drummer, bass player and both keyboard players

Biggest challenge on this tour?

It’s all about Mary, so I need to have my eyes on her at all times. To achieve that, I rely heavily on the talkback system. Every band member and tech on stage has a switched talkback mic that goes to my cue mix at all times. This allows me to take care of their request without ever taking my focus off Mary. This also opens up a communication system between the band members and the techs that never used to exist when bands were only using stage monitors.

Nine musicians took the stage on this year’s tour.

Mary J. Blige Strength of a Woman” Tour


  • Sound Company: Eighth Day Sound
  • FOH Engineer: Ben Monroe
  • Monitor Engineer: Alex MacLeod
  • FOH A-1: Dan Bluhm
  • FOH A-2: Benny Masterton
  • Monitor & Stage A-1: Dustyn Peiffer, Austin Rivers
  • MJB Show Engineer: Lalah Hathaway


P.A. System

  • Main Hang: (12) d&b audiotechnik J8s and (2) J12s/side
  • Side Hang: (6) d&b V8s/side
  • Subs: (12) d&b B-22s (6/side)
  • Front Fills: (6) d&b Y10Ps

FOH Gear

  • FOH Console: Avid Profile with Profile 2 Stage Racks
  • FOH Outboard: API 2500, TC 6000 effects, Waves v9 delay and verb, TC D2, Yamaha SPX990, Eventide Eclipse
  • Drive System: (3) Lake LM 44, Smaart V7 Software, Apogee Big Ben clock

Monitor Gear

  • Monitor Console: DiGiCo SD5
  • Monitors: (4) d&b audiotechnik C7s — subs only
  • IEM Hardware: Sennheiser 2050 and G3 systems
  • IEM Earpieces: Jerry Harvey Audio