Creating a Headphone Mix in MainStage

Getting a headphone mix to the drummer during a live show can save you many a problem! David Earl (aka sflogicninja) brings his MainStage tips and tricks to the table and shows you how to set this up.  

When playing a live show with backing tracks and a live drummer, it is imperative to get a headphone mix to the drummer that is custom-made to keep him/her on time. Drums are plenty loud and a clean, well-balanced mix is not likely to compete with a snare and cymbals. Click tracks are also very useful in a live situation, as long as the audience does not hear it!

Step 1 - Choosing an Audio Interface

Our audio interface is going to provide us with the flexibility needed to send a separate mix to the drummer. Even the smaller interfaces often allow for a headphone mix that is separate from the main output of the interface. An interface that has at least 4 outputs so that we are able to send a discrete mix is mandatory. We should also be sure that it includes software that allows for routing a different set of outputs to the headphones. 

Even if the audio interface does not allow for a separate mix to the headphone outputs, we can get a headphone distribution system for about 50 dollars, and tie it to the physical outputs used for the drummer.

Step 2 - Setting up the Sends

Every channel strip in MainStage needs to be able to send to output 3-4. To achieve this, click and hold on the send section and choose ‘Bus 1’. After this, click and hold on the send again, and choose ‘Pre’ so that our signal leaves this channel strip before being attenuated by the volume fader. When set properly, the send will turn green to denote that it is in ‘Pre-fader’ mode (see Aux 1 below):

Headphones 1

Step 3 - Set up the Bus and Make it Loud!

At the newly created ‘Bus 1’, set the output of the bus to ‘3-4’. Now output 3-4 has a discrete mix. I would suggest adjusting the volumes of the more percussive Playbacks so that they are sending to this bus slightly hotter than the keyboards and vocals. 

After pushing the volumes a bit, be sure that the auxiliary that is assigned to Bus 1 is not clipping. Then assign a Limiter to the Aux.

Limiter on the Aux

The limiter will allow us to push the volume even further  before clipping. This way the drummer, who is usually struggling to hear the mix over the drums, will have a fighting chance to hear the rhythm tracks.

Step 4 - Sending the Click

In MainStage’s preferences pane, go to the ‘General’ tab, and select the output for the metronome here. Under the metronome settings, push that volume as high as it can go. 

There are rare occasions when a song might actually have (*gasp*) a tempo change. Tempo changes can be confusing to the rigid idea of time that Playback seems to have, but you can still get a click to the drummer that behaves with the music. 

Simply open the original song in Logic, mute all of the tracks, and turn the metronome on while in playback mode. Bounce the click so that it is the same length as all of the other stems.

Import the click into playback in MainStage, and route the output directly to 3-4. No need to send it to the bus, since it is never going out to the main output.

Other situations

Ok, so I’ve pretty much written this whole article focusing on getting a headphone mix to the drummer, but as you can surmise, this technique can be used to send any band member a mix that is custom-tailored to them. Singers can get more vocals, bassists can get more bass, etc. You are only limited by the number of outputs of your audio interface.

David writes music for all media including advertising, branding, movies, television, and games. He works for such clients as Sega, LucasArts, Microsoft Game Studios, Landor and Associates, Beyond Pix, Rich Pageant, and Nextel. He also teaches at an Apple Certified training facility in San Francisco called Pyramind and has long bee... Read More


Hi Dave,

At the moment i am trying to figure out something, and this seems to be the closest to what i am trying to figure out.

Basically, i have started a new band, where we are playing to backing tracks of songs that i have created on Logic Pro. Our set-up consists of myself controlling the midi keyboard/backing track cueing, a drummer, a vocalist, bass player, and sax player. What we are trying to figure out mostly though is getting a click track into the drummers headphones with the same track playing into monitors and FOH speakers without the click track for live shows (which is pretty much what you have explained here). I am VERY close to figuring it out now, but....

What i'd like to know from you is about my choice of Audio Interface, what one would you recommend i get for this type of set-up?
I have looked at a few like MOTU and Apogee, but it seems they are more for recording instruments into mic/guitar inputs, with mic/guitar outputs. Do these interfaces allow me to do seperate sends of the backing track and headphones, just using the usb connection, so i can do what you have explained?

I dont need to use instruments through it.

Sorry if this sounds a little confusing, your help will be highly appreciated.

Hi there!

It's all about outputs when you are on stage, my friend. I use a Saffire Pro 40, and with it I have a Behringer ADA8000.

This gives me 16 balanced outputs on the analog end. It also gives me 2 discreet headphone outputs that I can use. I run a feed to the vocalist and the drummer, and I share the feed that is going to the vocalist. The drummer gets the tracks AS LOUD AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE, and the vocalist and I get our own mix, which I can balance to taste. The FOH engineer is getting the tracks in stems, and they are not affected by the volume changes I am making to the vocalist or drummer.

This is because the outputs of the playbacks are going directly to the outputs they are assigned to, and we are getting bussed feeds that are sent to dedicated stereo outs... 1 for the drummer, and 1 for the vox and me.

Do not use the internal click in MainStage. I would suggest bouncing a click from Logic and dedicating a playback to that click. send from that channel strip directly to the drummer via the headphone feed.

This will keep everybody happy... although you - as the newly assigned monitor engineer - are going to have a lot more on your mind. Use in-ear monitors to minimize feedback if possible. We use wired in-ears, but there are many other options out there. :-)

DJ rob
This does not work as explained ,, when I assign the click to different outputs of the interface to send to drummer,, the click is not in sync, it is off, by about 3000 samples, I tested by putting delay on channel and wet 100 percent,, this a click that was recorded in logic along with playback channel, it is in perfect sync in logic, even when I assign click to other outs, but in mainstage they only stay in syncs when played through same outputs, when you switch either output it is slightly off sync, but enough to throw off drummer ...
Magic Fingers
Bouncing a click track the same length as the stems... Genius! How many of us Mainstage users just said to ourselves... "Why didn't I think of that???"... I just stopped complaining about the built in metronome, and making excuses to the drummers of the world about the click not being loud enough. No more having to reverse engineer to compensate for the low built-in metronome volume. Having control of the bounced click volume is priceless! Thank You Ninja!

Want to join the discussion?

Create an account or login to get started!