I have talked about the importance of monitoring systems in a previous post or two, and how I believe that many bands have it backwards when it comes to where they put their money and thought in building out their live audio gear. Most immediately jump in to the FOH (Front of House) configuration, pouring all they have into the PA, with the stage monitoring system being an afterthought. I will probably be writing more on that topic in the future, however I want to take a few minutes to give this neglected subject a little of the attention that it deserves.
The default for most bands and their stage monitoring setup has traditionally been floor wedges and power amps, with maybe
2 mixes being fed by the main mix console (using either a monitor section on the board, extra auxiliary send channel, or a combination of both). It is the floor wedges and power amps that I want to focus on here. I have long been a huge fan and proponent of IEM
based monitoring systems, having used them for the first time 10 years ago and never gone back to the old school floor wedge configuration. There are many reasons, but I want to point out a few of them that stand out here.
Good things come in small packages
The first huge advantage of in-ear monitor systems is that they require a fraction of the amount of gear than that of traditional wedge based systems. Not only that, you do away with the heavy lifting of floor wedges and power amp racks. In-ear monitors don’t use power amplification, rather headphone amplification that often comes in a 1U rack-mounted unit. So, it goes without saying that your load in and setup time is reduced to virtually nothing when you implement a well thought out IEM system design.
Another built-in benefit of in-ear monitoring systems is consistent and quality sound. Now, the old rule "garbage in, garbage out" applies here, but when you figure that your in-ear monitors, or "ears", are your monitor speakers, and that they are set up in the same place every gig (your ear), you have essentially eliminated a huge acoustic variable that floor wedges bring. This means that what you hear will be fairly consistent no matter what venue you are playing in, whether it’s a small club or a large stage. Many who use IEM systems talk about the "15 minute sound check". There are factors that go into that consistency, and IEM systems alone are not the only answer to what it takes for sound checks to be consistently short. But I will say that IEM’s have allowed my band to go on with NO soundcheck at times, and at the very least they always give us a sense of feeling at home (the consistency) no matter where we play.
You can take the quality factor up a notch with stereo monitor mixes. While it’s not required, stereo, IMHO, is a big deal. Once you go stereo, and then have an issue that causes your IEM to go mono for an evening–or even a set, you will feel like the depth and color of that sound goes away. It can be a huge disappointment. What stereo does is gives you the ability to add a degree of depth and separation. In my experience, I have found that stereo panning and separation is a huge dimension that actually contributes to the inspiration and energy of the band, in our experience.
Talking a bit more about quality, the isolation that in-ear monitors provide also means that you are going to hear a lot more in your mix, both good and bad. Now, the bad isn’t really bad, it’s actually good. You will actually start to hear a lot of the mistakes and subtleties that tend to get lost in the wash of stage volume of floor wedge systems, allowing you to correct and adjust. I have found even just this aspect of IEM systems to be a beneficial tool in helping me improve my performance and musicianship.
High volume–the musician’s occupational hazard
High volume levels are not only dangerous to your hearing, they can also be dangerous to your career. Without wedges, again, you lose the stage volume factor out in the house by a good 90% most of the time. With IEM’s, you are able to take the volume of your backline down to a level low enough where the house still has a decent signal, yet the stage volume is manageable. This is a HUGE factor when playing clubs in particular, both for the FOH engineer
(who gets to mix without competition from the stage) and the club manager who complains about volume. This has given my band incredible flexibility and the quality of the sound out in the house is incredible.
A good place to start looking at more information about this is Sensaphonics
. According to their site:
Sensaphonics Hearing Conservation was founded by audiologist Michael Santucci
in 1985 as a research and development company committed to controlling the damaging effects of loud sound, especially regarding musicians and hearing loss
. With the advent of in-ear monitor (IEM) systems in the early 90s, Sensaphonics developed custom-fitted earphones designed to act as hearing protectors, isolating performers from ambient sound while allowing the in-ear monitor mix to be heard more clearly, even at lower volumes.
My in-ear monitoring experience started there and they were an incredible source of insight into educating myself about the health benefits of in-ear monitoring systems. I highly recommend that you spend a little time taking a look at the materials they have available
You get to keep your arm and your leg…
There are many inaccurate perceptions about the cost of in-ear monitoring systems thinking that they are extraordinarily expensive. Especially today, this is not the case. Sure, you can knock yourself out and drop a load of jing on a system, but you can get into a very reasonable system that will sound great for the same price, if not cheaper, that a wedge based system. When you get rid of the wedges and power amps that are required, and replace them with a single headphone amp and a pair of ears, the price can go down dramatically. As for stereo, you may be thinking, "…but stereo is a lot more expensive…" Depending on how many of your rigs are running stereo feeds to begin with, it won’t necessarily cost any more to run a stereo monitor mix, provided all of your lines are mono. Keep in mind that IEM’s, i.e. the ear buds
, are stereo to begin with as opposed to most standard wedges, and most (rack mounted) monitor boards have stereo configuration capabilities built in, so the only additional cost would be in channels required–again, how many of your rigs are running stereo feeds? If none are, then you require no additional channels. All of this without throwing out your back.
So, to wrap up, the net/net of all of this is that an IEM system can be put together for the same amount of $$ if some creative thought is put into the design of the rig. In-ear monitors have been an integral part of my band’s overall technical design and have been a major factor in the continuous improvement in our live performances as well as the musicianship factor. Again, along with the hearing protection benefits, you actually start to hear everything–including all of your mistakes. This can help you to make corrections and tighten up even more. Lastly, IEM’s give you a consistent mix in your ears, regardless of where you are on the stage, so you are free to move about and not lose your "zone" while performing and interacting with the band and the crowd. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.