How to be a Happy In Ear Monitor User
Over the last 10 years there has been a slow, gradual shift to using In Ear monitors. The Church has struggled the most with this transition and it seems it goes slower and with more opposition. People are afraid of change, and most churches are pre-equipped with floor wedges, so “why change what isn’t broken?” I think this response comes from the notion of, “it outputs sound, therefore it works and requires no change.”
From here on out I will refer to In Ear Monitors as IEM’s.
Please note that these are my own opinions. I am not a trained sound professional but have spent significant time as an audio engineer and spoken to many IEM and Sound Engineer experts. While these are practices I enforce with my teams, they are by no means the golden standard.
So why the shift to in ear monitors?
- Stage Volume – How many times have you done a set and had someone come up to you after and complain about how loud it was, or how the drums were too loud, or that electric guitar player needs to tone it down a bit? The issue with wedges is they are so incredibly loud, and when you have 8 band members all with their own wedges, it produces so much stage noise. You try to compensate this volume by raising the volume of your main loudspeakers, but then you just have even more volume in the room. By switching to IEM’s you eliminate that stage noise and allow your sound guy to properly mix your FOH speakers allowing the sound in the room to be clear, at a proper volume, and not overwhelmed.
- Aesthetics – This isn’t as an important of a point but I think its worth mentioning. Having multiple large floor wedges on the stage is a bit of an eyesore. When you remove these wedges and switch to IEM’s, you clean up your stage a bit, and it just looks nicer. Keep in mind, not all IEM systems are created equal. Systems like the Behringer PowerPlay system still require equipment on stage which can get clunky and ugly. My personal preference is fully wireless and/or wired monitor belt packs where the control is from a mobile device (iPhone/iPad) rather then an on stage control surface.
- Click & Tracks – We’ve seen a huge surge of tracks being used in the church recently. If you are a touring band you probably use tracks often as well. Tracks allow you to fill out your band with instruments you may not have available on stage (additional synths, strings, drum loops/machines, etc). Tracks come paired with click, a metronome that plays in your ear to help keep your band on time. Obviously you want click to be heard by the band and not the audience so using IEM’s is the only way to accomplish this. Side Note: Any band that I have every played on/worked with that has used and embraced the click, has improved tenfold. It’s hard, but its worth it.
- Hearing Protection – Using a properly tuned IEM system with proper IEM headphones can help protect your ears from being blasted by loud instruments with proper isolation. If you have a loud drummer on stage, or loud guitars, this can be damaging to your hearing if you are just using wedges. You can protect your ears by using sound isolating headphones that block out this sound and feed it at a proper volume through your headphones.
- Actually Hear the Sound – This is probably the most important one. Wedges are typically on the floor and direct sound to your knees. Spoiler Alert, your ears aren’t at your knees, so the sound you end up hearing isn’t a proper directed sound. This is often why you hear the musicians on stage asking for more volume because they can’t hear what they want. You can try to solve this by standing farther back from the wedge so that the sound is more directed to your ears, but then you have to compensate the distance with more volume yet again, it’s a lose lose. With IEM’s, we take the sound from our knees and put it to our ears. This allows you to actually hear what you need to hear.
Picking a good pair of headphones can be the difference between having a great IEM experience and an atrocious one. I think its important to note that you should be buying actual In Ear Monitors and not headphones. Traditional headphones may be great for personal listening, but you should absolutely not use them for IEM purposes. “But my Apple headphones sound great on my iPhone why not at church!” Apple Headphones do sound great, on your iPhone, when you are listening to tracks that have been mastered. When you are in a live sound environment, you have a much larger signal that is not mastered and your standard apple headphones aren’t gonna cut it. I’ve also seen people go out and literally buy dollar store headphones and then complain when the sound is garbage or that they can’t hear anything at all, even though they are “brand new.” Here’s the problem with that, is your typical dollar store headphone (or apple headphones for that matter) have a small gauge wire. Think of it as trying to push an entire oceans worth of water through a tiny culvert, theres too much signal to go through (more on sending signal later). Your average dollar store/apple headphones also typically don’t have a driver that is capable of pushing the signal that you are sending it. If you are using dollar store/apple headphones, please stop immediately and scroll down to my headphone recommendations below.
Sound Isolation is also important. You want to make sure that you block out other sounds from the FOH Loudspeakers and on stage noise like drums and guitar amps. What happens is when you have other loud noises bleeding into your ears along with a dedicated IEM signal, your brain gets confused because its trying to listen to both signals at different volumes. I’ve also noticed a lot of people that like to take one headphone out so that they can “hear the crowd,” but this isn’t good either because it amplifies the problem I just discussed. If you want to “hear the crowd” I’d recommend talking to your sound guy and getting them to set up some ambient room mics so you can hear what is happening. If you really need to take your IEM’s out (maybe at the end of a worship set where the click is off and its a very worshipful moment), take both out. Your ears will thank you later.
Not all headphones are created equal. Like we discussed earlier, you should stay very far way from apple headphones, dollar store headphones, etc. My rule of thumb, is that if you bought it at a best buy or similar, or it says headphones rather then In Ear Monitors, don’t buy them. You should typically buy your headphones from a music store as they are more likely to actually carry proper In Ear Monitors that will work well in a live sound scenario. Now that you’ve decided to buy an actual pair of IEM’s. lets dive into drivers.
Sound Drivers are what actually drive the sound from the monitor into your ears. You can get 1-5 drivers depending on the headphones. The more drivers you have, the more clarity you can get from the sound because it will typically split up the frequency ranges between drivers. For example, a dual driver might split the highs to one driver and the lows to another. A triple driver might split it low, mid, high, and etc. Now Im not saying go out today and buy a 5 driver IEM. Know what you need. I’ve included a chart below for what you should probably get depending on your needs/instrument you play.
|Role / Instrument||
|Vocals, Guitars, Keys||
|2 drivers are a great place to start to get a nice sound.|
|Vocals, Guitars, Keys, Drums, Bass||
|3 drivers are where you start to get some real nice definition in frequency ranges making them great place from drummers/bass players to start at and a solid choice for any other instrumentalist on stage.|
|Vocals, Guitar, Keys||
|If you are a vocalist, guitarist or keyboard player, 4 drivers will provide great sound and definition.|
|You get some real nice definition in 5 driver headphones, these are of the most benefit to drummers and bass players with lots of low end frequencies.|
|All Around Great||
|A 6 driver will probably work for anybody. They will provide really great sound in all frequency ranges.|
Apex HP10 – The biggest complaint I hear about IEM’s is the price of the headphones. The HP10’s provide a decent sound at 1 driver and are typically priced at ~$40 CAD. While these aren’t completely sound isolating, they will be a significant improvement over the Apple Headphones / Dollar Store headphones you’re team members are probably using.
Shure SE215 – These should be the standard headphones when you are switching to IEM’s. They are only a single driver but they fit nicely, have a good sound, and have decent sound isolation. They are priced at $129.99 CAD so they won’t burn a huge hole in your pocket. Buy on Amazon
Shure SE315 – These are a step up from the 215’s. They have 2 drivers instead of 1 so they will provide a bit better sound definition. Priced at $229.99 CAD they are a great choice if you don’t have the money to break the bank for a custom moulded pair but also want a great pair of headphones. Buy on Amazon
Custom Moulded – From here on out I’d recommend going the custom moulded route. An Audiologist will take ear impressions and you’ll send those off to a company like Alclair, Westone, Ultimate Ears, or others, and they’ll craft you a custom pair of IEM’s that fit your ears perfectly. These will have great sound isolation and also usually come with minimum 2-3 drivers meaning they are a great choice if you have the money to spend and are serious about what your sound is like.
What to put in your Mix
A lot of IEM users, especially new IEM users, want everything in their mix. They expect it to sound like something they listen to on their iPhone. What they don’t realize is live sound is very different then mastered tracks you listen to on Spotify. When you try to push too much signal through your IEM mix, its easy to get lost and not be able to hear something you want. Refer back to my example earlier, if you push too much signal through the cable, its not gonna work out the way you want. Now the more drivers you have the easier it will be to push more signal, but if you are running 1-2 drivers, less is more.
If you are a sound guy, I urge you to educate your teams as to what to put in their mix. They might not like it at first, but they’ll be happier and have a better time later on.
- Make sure you have yourself in your mix. This is obvious, you need to be able to hear what you are singing/playing. So make sure you have yourself sitting above everything else in the mix.
- Click – assuming you are running click, you want this pretty high as well. If it’s too low it will get lost in the mix when everything gets going and if you are a rhythm instrument, this isn’t a good thing. Some people like to pan this to left or right as they find it easier to hear. This is up to you, I personally like it cantered, but then again I don’t have very much in my mix so I don’t find it gets lost often.
- Something for melody. This is typically the piano, but can be a guitar as well. You don’t usually want multiple instruments in this category, so pick one and have that instrument sit right underneath your own instruments.
- Next you want something for timing. If your band has a drummer, take some kick, snare, hi-hat, and maybe ride symbol. You don’t want the whole drum kit as its just going to create unnecessary mud in your mix. Sometimes you might want an acoustic or rhythm electric guitar in this category as well, just be careful not to push too much signal in this category.
Thats what you need in your mix for the most part. Everything else can be really low in your mix if you want to hear what everyone else is doing but these 4 categories should be higher above everything else. As an electric guitar player, I don’t typically take acoustic or bass in my mix. I only take the lead vocalists, not the backup. Keys I only take at the end of a set when we are doing spontaneous worship, at the beginning ill take a bit to make sure I’m in the same key as them but thats about it.
How to run IEM
One of the most popular ways to run IEM currently is through Behringer P16-M PowerPLAY 16-Channel Digital Personal Mixer system. This provides you with a control surface on stage that you can adjust on the fly, with a built in limiter system. It runs completely on Cat5 cable so its easy to wire in your stage. I personally dont like this solution, mostly due to the way it runs. It requires you to separate each bus/mix on your board to 1 “group” of instruments. IE 1 bus from drums, 1 for lead vocals, 1 for guitar, etc. You get less control over your mix.
A great wired, and fairly affordable solution is the BEHRINGER POWERPLAY PM1. These are belt packs with XLR inputs that you can run direct from your board. They have a master volume on the belt pack to allow quick adjustments on the fly. If you run a digital board then you can adjust your mix with an iPad/iPhone. This is my preferred solution as the iPad/iPhone solution requires less stuff on the stage and allows for a nice clean stage. You can swap out the wired packs for wireless packs like the Shure PSM30 (These also include a pair of Shure SE215). Disclaimer: the PowerPlay PM1 I have had a few issues with, they seem to break fairly easy requiring the volume to be at full blast in order for signal to go through. There are other options like the Fischer Amps but I’ve never tried them personally.
If you are running IEM’s I’d highly recommend investing in a digital board. I’ve ran IEM’s on Analog Boards before, its possible, but you spend so much time tweaking and yelling to your sound guy what you want, and theres no way to save your settings so you have to reconfigure every week. Being able to control your own mix with digital is awesome.
Switching to IEM’s can be tough especially if all you’ve known is wedges, but if you work with it, it can be totally worth it, not only for you, but for the audience as well. Don’t dismiss it right away, but work with it, give it a chance. The right equipment goes a long way. Please don’t use dollar store or apple headphones. You’ll have a hard time. Invest into your craft. Don’t think that just because the church provides the piano and drum kit that you shouldn’t invest any money into being involved. If your guitarist can go spend thousands of dollars on gear, you can spend a few bucks on a decent pair of headphones.