Working With In-Ear Monitors

In-ear monitors have been around for some time, but now they have become a staple for all creatives that take to a live stage. Like anything, systems range in quality, but principly, artists of all levels are focusing on getting their live mixes as good as they possibly can using IEMs. It’s great for the industry, great for the engineers, who have quieter stages to work with, and most of all, it’s really great for the ears.

In-ear monitors are critical components in modern touring and production systems for both the artist and the engineer. There are countless advantages over traditional stage wedges including lower, safer stage volumes.

This, in turn, results in superior audio clarity, and ultimately a better performance from the artist - and that’s before we even consider many of the other advantages, least of all not having to lug heavy speakers onto the stage, and battling with feedback issues. Swapping from wedges to in-ears initially brings a number of challenges for artists and the engineer, but it pays off in the long run.

For the artist, switching from a loud stage environment to essentially hearing everything inside your head can feel odd to start with, but when you consider the huge benefit that comes with having your own, personalised mix sent directly to you, it’s worth persevering.

To get an idea of just how much it pays off, we chat to some talented session/touring musicians who are working night after night, often in multiple bands, to make a living out of the music industry. All of them have made the transition from wedges to IEMs.

James Smithells is a guitarist, keys player, and vocalist for a string of artists performing on the circuit today: George Ogilvie, Marius Bear, and Caitlyn Scarlett, to name a few.

“The ability to protect your hearing from surging dynamics by working at safe volumes that you choose is a life saver,” he says. “Without them, I wouldn’t really know where to begin in terms of preparing for any live show. The ability to hear the mix that you want, without any bleed, was once a dream, but now seems to be the professionally standard way of achieving the perfect on stage sound for any level of performing musician.”

Singer-songwriter, guitarist, and groovemeister general, Lucy Lu (pictured below), has made quite a name for himself on the South London jazz scene. He too says he couldn’t play a show without his IEM setup.

“As a vocalist, it’s so easy to over throw your voice when trying to hear yourself in the on stage mix when using wedges,” he says. “The moment I changed to using IEMs, I noticed the general stamina of my voice increased, which meant I could sing for longer, and play more shows, day after day.

“I’ve known too many singers on the grassroots circuit that have suffered from voice issues after two or three shows simply from not being able to hear themselves, and having to push to get above the on stage audio bleed. With IEMs, you have clarity; and the ability to raise the vocals in your mix, and lower the levels of other instruments. The noise cancelling effect also stops any kind of pitching confusion.”

Being able to transport your perfect on stage sound mix in your pocket relieves artists of a load of stress and worry over achieving the right sound on the night. James Trood, MD & Session Musician

As well as the practicality on stage of using IEMs, the portability is also something to think about, according to accomplished session drummer, James Trood (pic above), who works with Alunageorge, Ben Khan, and VC Pines. Trood is also a frequent MD for the bands he performs with.

“Being able to transport your perfect on stage sound mix in your pocket relieves artists of a load of stress and worry over achieving the right sound on the night,” he insists. “And the best part about using in ears - other than the fact they stop you going deaf - is that you can hear everything that’s happening on stage. This is a real treat, as usually on stage you can’t hear a thing. Especially when you’re keeping the cymbals splashy.”

Said as only a drummer can. But these are all valid points, and it’s good to see the young creatives investing their time and [very] hard earned cash into IEMs.

On the audio engineer’s side, getting to grips with running a wireless in-ear rig requires a new set of skills - particularly given the ever-changing RF (Radio Frequency) landscape, and continuous clearance of spectrum. One company keen to keep on top of this is Shure.

“We’re continuously working to improve the experience for artists and engineers by upgrading and developing new in-ear technology,” explains Shure’s Stuart Moots. “For example, our new bodypack receivers for the [Shure] PSM1000 and PSM900 in-ear systems now feature a brand new digital processing circuit that works to provide higher quality audio over RF, with improved stereo separation, greater dynamic range, and better signal-to-noise ratio. On the RF side specifically, the signal stability is improved, with greater protection against drop-outs.”

One professional who’s dedicated her working life to the human ear is Jenna Paley, owner of Project Decibel, a company which fits IEM moulds, carries out hearing tests, and is striving to form partnerships with leading music industry organisations to make hearing wellness more accessible and more affordable.

“As an audio doctor, my main concern is hearing loss prevention. That being said, I also do a lot of IEM fittings; in-ear monitors aren’t inherently hearing protection devices because they too can get dangerously loud, and you have the ability to turn them up just as loud as you would a floor monitor,” she explains. “However, if worn properly, they definitely give you the best opportunity to protect your hearing by blocking out stage noise, allowing you to keep your monitor mix low. I highly recommend them for all performers, and anyone who is on stage.

“In addition to working with MusiCares, a Recording Academy organisation, we recently finalised a partnership with BMI, an extraordinary music rights organisation. It’s partnerships like these that allow us to reach more people, and provide more on-site hearing tests, wax removal, and ear mould impressions for custom earplugs to those who otherwise would not be able to access it.”

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