In-Ear Monitor Systems

November 1, 2012

IN THE NOT-SO-DISTANT FUTURE, WEDGES AND sidefills could disappear from stages large and small, ending up as museum exhibits alongside Shure Vocal Masters and Altec Voice of the Theater speakers. As in-ear monitoring (IEM) systems drop in price, more working musicians may opt for the benefits of less stage volume, less feedback, and clearer, cleaner monitor mixes. Good affordable systems—meaning transmitter, receiver, and earpiece for one musician—include Audio- Technica’s M2 ($599 street), Galaxy’s AS-1100 ($399 street), Sennheiser’s ew 300 IEM G3 ($999 street), and Shure’s PSM 200 ($599 street). If you desire custom-molded earpieces, Logitech’s Ultimate Ear models start at $399 (retail). Here are some things to consider before embracing IEMs.

IEM systems prevent volume wars between the wedges and your backline as the monitor mixer struggles to ensure band members can hear their parts over the roar of the amps and drums. Instead, earpieces isolate the performer from ambient sounds and output the monitor mix directly into the ear. This can be a mixed blessing, however, as bassists typically dig being enveloped by the stage sound of their amps, and vocalists often feed off the exhortations of the audience. To prep for the cutoff -from-everything sensation of wearing earpieces, pop on a pair of closed headphones, listen to a stereo track, and critically assess whether you can hang performing “in your own head.” If you purchase a system, test it out at rehearsals long before hitting the stage. And if your entire band buys into the IEM concept, work out learning curves, system refinements, and other issues one member at a time.

Mixing for IEMs is quite different than mixing for wedges. The good thing is that you’re not managing feedback with EQ in ways that can tank sound quality. The challenging bit is that you’re practically mixing a record with every show. You’ll have to bring bass and guitar solos up, and ride vocals so the singer can hear soft passages and not get blasted by screams. Featured vocals and instruments should be compressed individually before the master (safety) limiter to ensure nothing jumps out of the band mix. Also, singers can get too comfortable with hearing their voices so clearly, and they may back off somewhat. It helps to mix the vocal so that the singer has to push a little to get on top of the mix. Savvy panning can help separate and clarify instruments, and a bit of reverb will add some comfy dimension to the vocals and drums. To negate aural claustrophobia, some pro mixers even set up audience mics to feed the sound of the room into the IEM mix.


IEM systems can help manage stage volume to relatively safe levels, but only if the musicians don’t blast the levels hitting their ears. If you can’t hear something very well, discuss the problem with the monitor mixer before you pin your receiver’s volume knob and risk hearing damage.
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