Let’s start here: contrary to popular belief, in-ear monitor systems will not protect your hearing. That’s your job. But if you’re a survivor of onstage volume wars, screeching feedback and floor monitors that don’t give you what you need onstage, in-ear monitor systems just may deliver just what you’re looking for.
IEMs are all about giving singers and musicians the ability to hear what they need to hear — “more me” is usually #1 — above the stage noise. And while the applications for IEMs extend far beyond the rock stage and include anyone who wants to monitor their own performance in a broadcast environment, rehearsal room, orchestra pit, house of worship, theater stage or recording studio, we’ll focus here on live music.
Who really invented in-ear monitors is a subject of some debate, but what is clear is that early systems, used by the likes of Peter Gabriel, the Grateful Dead and The Who in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were reserved for massively popular globe-trotting acts playing stadiums and arenas.
By the mid-1990s, leading audio manufacturers introduced affordable systems designed for a wide variety of users. Fast-forward to the present and you’ll find feature-rich wired and wireless rigs on smaller stages everywhere with entry-level setups starting at under $500.
In this post, we’ll break down the basic components, look at wired and wireless options and shed some light on what you can expect — the pros along with the cons — from today’s IEM systems.
Signal Path and System Components
Wireless in-ear monitor systems include three basic components:
Transmitter – generally a half-rack unit, it sends monitor mixes to a bodypack receiver, or receivers, from the mixer or house console.
Bodypack Receiver – compatible with wired and wireless systems, these small units can be clipped to a belt, guitar strap or pocket. The most basic bodypack receivers allow the user to control volume, pan and two customizable mixes.
Earphones – sound-isolating earphones attenuate stage volume and allow the user to hear a high-fidelity monitor mix. A good fit to seal the ear is critical; some users will opt for custom ear molds over the multiple sleeves that come with all professional earphones.
An optional component is a personal monitor mixer (PMM). Some models are capable of mixing up to 16 channels, allowing the user complete control to dial in effects and mixes from the mixer or house console without asking the engineer to change anything. Popular brands include Aviom and Roland.
First Decision: Wired or Wireless
You might find it surprising that systems marketed today offer both wired and wireless versions, but there are good reasons for that.
One is cost. A simple wired set-up can eliminate the need for a transmitter, with the artist plugging right into the house console or mixer. Another consideration is whether the artist is moving around the stage. A drummer, backup singer, keyboard player or a horn section may not require the mobility that wireless offers. Wired components (body packs and earbuds) can be used in a larger wireless IEM system; in fact, major touring acts, including The Who, use both types onstage even today. Not every member of the band and crew requires a wireless body pack.
What You Can Expect
We’ve already established that the main benefit of IEMs is that performers can hear the mix they need. There are some downsides, too. Let’s look at them individually:
On the plus side
- Individual mixes are not affected or dependent on environmental acoustics. The performer’s preferred mix can be dialed in and remain consistent gig to gig.
- The performer’s sweet spot is always in the same place affording wireless IEM users unprecedented freedom of movement.
- Stage volumes are lowered when floor monitors are removed. There’s no need for the engineer to turn anyone’s monitor up. That’s good for the band and the audience and one reason why IEM has become popular in contemporary churches with praise bands. Sanctuaries prefer a quiet stage.
- Stereo monitoring allows the performer to hear naturally, the way our ears do.
- The feedback loop caused by floor monitors positioned too close to open microphones is eliminated.
- Singers are less likely to strain their voices, since they’re not trying to sing over the lead guitarist. Artists indicate that the overall quality of the performance improves when band members can hear themselves.
- A typical IEM rig – bodypacks, transmitter and earbuds – can fit nicely into a gear case. Compare that to loading and unloading bulky floor monitors.
- Systems are easily expandable – one transmitter can handle multiple receivers, as long as they share the same mix, without significant degradation of the signal path.
- Artists can control many aspects of their in-ear mixes – individual left/right mixes as well as volume and panning – without involving the engineer.
- There’s less stage clutter.
Still, there are some trade-offs
- The #1 issue for new users of IEM systems is a feeling of isolation from the audience, and sometimes other band members. The common solution is to add ambient mics to the mix.
- It takes time, sometimes a long time, for a performer to acclimate to IEMs. Pretty often, there’s a step-by-step training period. Someone needs to take the advocate and training role.
- Earphones are the most important factor for sound quality. Earbuds designed for casual listening are poor choices for the stage.
- There’s a tendency among new users to remove one earbud. What most people don’t realize is that to balance the volume in both ears, the volume on the bodypack would have to be turned up 60dB – a level toxic to hearing health.
- Engineers control the volume of floor monitors, but that isn’t true with individually controlled bodypacks. There’s a hearing issue when the bass player turns her volume to “11.” It also contributes to a feeling of isolation from other band mates.
- RF coordination when wireless IEM and mic systems are used simultaneously must be carefully managed, particularly with challenges in the RF spectrum. This can result in occasional IEM dropouts, something that doesn’t happen with floor monitors.
- Drummers can miss the low-end punch of a kick drum when using IEMs. Solution: a throne-mounted sonic shaker like the Pearl Buttkicker.
- Cost. The higher costs of IEM system represent an investment for most artists and bands that already have floor monitors.
Julian Ludwig é diretor do Pro Áudio Clube, produtora de áudio Jacarandá, Loc On Demand e Jacarandá Licensing. Trabalhou para empresas como: Guaraná Antartica, TV Gazeta, NET, Chivas Regal, FNAC, Prefeitura de São Paulo, Mukeca Filmes, Agência LEW’LARA TBWA, Agencia MPM, Agência Content House entre outras. Fez trilhas para programas de TV como: Internet-se (Rede TV), Você Bonita (TV Gazeta), Mix Mulher (TV Gazeta), Os Impedidos (TV Gazeta), Estação Pet (TV Gazeta), CQC (TV Band) Vinheta Oficial TV Gazeta, entre outras. Também atuou em vários longas e curtas metragens, incluindo mixagem em 5.1 e serviços de pós-produção.