My band is taking the plunge into using in-ear monitors (IEMs) and without a doubt, the plunge metaphor is apt. It’s like teaching kids to swim. IEMs are both loved and less-than-loved by performing musicians. On the plus side, they can deliver a perfectly balanced sound mix, tailored to each player, while removing floor wedges and the ever-present threat of feedback. They also provide excellent hearing protection. On the minus side, they remove the three-dimensional feel that you get from walking around the amps on stage. Some performers say they lose the direct connection to the audience. Hence the swimming metaphor. For many musicians, the experience is like trying to hear underwater. It’s alien and isolating.
I Can’t Hear You
This is one of the most common complaints I hear from musicians not wearing IEMs in a rehearsal or live situation. It can be extremely difficult to focus in on different soundstreams from different amps and speakers, since sound tends to travel in straight lines. It can be doubly difficult when rehearsing or playing in a small space with hard walls, since sound also tends to reflect off those walls creating intersecting straight lines.
It’s a wonder anything gets done at all. And the reason why it does, more often than not, is everyone inches their volume outputs up, progressively over time, resulting in a huge wash of sound leading to temporary or even permanent hearing loss.
IEMs put an end to this by delivering a mix directly into your ears. With a decent mixer/soundboard, and all instruments mic’d or DI’d, there is no longer a need to play amps loud. Singers do not have to strain to make themselves heard. Lead guitarists do not have to boost their volume for the solo and then…er….forget to turn back down again.
Don’t Forget the Ambience
To remove that feeling of isolation from the physical space around you, simply include a couple of ambient mics in the mix. These will pick up some of the room sound, including audience comments, and will add that sense of three dimensional space. This is just like adding reverb to a guitar signal. The human ear is accustomed to processing secondary audio signals such as room echo. It’s the normal way of hearing. So of course it’s vital to mix that in.
Make Sure They’re Comfortable and Correct
IEMs are specially shaped to fit in the average person’s ear, and should also include a soft rubber cap that seals off the ear canal from external noise. You cannot – or should not – use earbud style headphones, because they do not seal out the external sound.
They should also be physically easy to wear and should stay in place. The wires should go around the back of your head and down the back of your shirt to avoid getting snagged on guitar straps or clothing. If you generally stand still to play, then the wire should basically run all the way back to the mixing board. If you like to move like Jagger, then you’ll definitely need a wireless pack. These can be expensive ($600-$1000), but if you’re not gigging every second night, consider renting one from your local music store.
The App: The Magic Touch
Another complaint musicians have about IEMs is the time it takes to get a personal mix from the sound tech. The tech has lots to do, and setting up individual balances for every musician, along with the house sound, recording and everything else can be time consuming and frustrating for everyone involved. Double so each time you want to tweak your personal mix because it’s not quite right.
But hey, there’s an app for that. Many newer boards now come with a phone/iPad app that allows each musician the freedom to adjust her/his IEM balance as much and as often as needed. This to me is the magic sauce that makes it all so worth it. All the faders are labeled, and the settings will stay in place even when you turn off, pack up, and then set up for the next gig.
If You’re Pushing Back an Ear, Your Mix is Off
IEMs still take some getting used to. They are a different experience. But you can say the same thing about a lot of things. Multi-effects pedals in place of stompboxes, voice sweeteners and harmonizers, loopers, MIDI, shooting your performance with Periscope. These are all new things that once didn’t exist, and now they do. Once upon a time Bob Dylan switched from acoustic to electric. The Beatles got weirdy-beardy. Lady Gaga stopped showing up in an egg. Things change and most often for the better.
When I see someone who is new to the IEM experience playing with one earpiece hanging out so they can hear their own amp or voice better, I have to tell them, “Your mix isn’t right. You shouldn’t need to do that.” That’s like getting a car, putting it in gear, and then getting out and walking alongside it, because it’s the only way you can really feel the road. If you can’t hear yourself in your mix, then fix your mix. Don’t forget also that using IEMs in only one ear risks hearing damage as your brain starts sending its own confused signals as it tries to balance out a very uneven sound pattern.
The Proof is in Who Uses Them
My band is still getting used to them. Half the band (myself included) love them and want to stick with them. The other half still needs convincing. Ultimately I will ask any hesitant musician to take a look at their musical heroes. The odds are they are using them. Why? They have access to anything they need, yet they still choose to perform with IEMs. Though most of us don’t travel with a 6-person sound crew, the wireless, digital sophistication of soundboards and apps make IEMs accessible to all of us, which, I believe, benefits performers and audiences alike.
P.S. If you want to read a more detailed summary about IEMs, check out this article from Sound On Sound.