In-Ears Monitors (IEMs) appear to becoming more and more popular. But what exactly are IEMs and why should you, or your band, consider using them.
What are In-Ear Monitors?
IEMs are, in essence, just noise-cancelling earphones. IEMs are used by musicians to hear a personal band mix when performing live. They can also be used in the studio when recording – which can be better than using the studios headphones.
IEMs come in two different options:
Off-the-shelf IEMs are the cheaper way into in-ear monitoring. Having said that though, some off-the-shelf models cost as much, if not more than Custom-Moulded IEMs so you really need to do your homework first before jumping in.
The upside with off-the-shelf IEMs is the price – Shure have a great range starting with the single-driver SE215 at less than £100. The downside tends to be the fit. Off-the-shelf IEMs come with different size ear-buds which you have to squish into shape to fit into your ear. These do a good job, though are never a perfect fit and sometimes, comfort can be an issue.
Custom-Moulded IEMs are made specifically to fit your ears. Impressions of the your ears are taken, in exactly the same way as if you were being fitted for hearing aids. Then using these impressions, custom fitting IEMs are made. The benefits of custom-moulded are the fit. As long as the impressions have been taken properly, then the fit will be perfect and snug. Of course, the downside can be the price depending upon your budget especially if you’re starting out on the road of in-ear monitoring.
That said, Minerva Hearing offer a single-driver custom-moulded in-ear for around the £200 mark which is around the same sort of price range as the Shure SE425 (although the Shure model is a dual driver). Minerva’s dual driver comes in at around £350. Other custom-moulded brands include Ultimate Ears with the UE4 Pro starting at around £400.
As with all earphones, IEMs contain drivers. The cheaper IEMs contain single drivers while the more expensive models contain dual, triple or quadruple drivers.
The driver is the little gizmo that delivers the sound – think of it as a speaker if you wish. A single driver has to handle all the frequencies, from the bass right the way to the trebles. In the case of multiple drivers, a dedicated sub-woofer is usually found to handle the lower bass frequencies better. This delivers a more punchy bass sound – especially great for bass players and drummers.
In Ear Monitors on their own are useless – they need a system. This tends to be a wireless system consisting of a base station and a wireless receiver, such as the Shure PSM range or LD Systems range for example.
Your IEMs go into the wireless receiver via the 3.5mm jack, the receiver clips to your belt, or guitar strap, and connects to a base station into which your mix-feed is plugged. This is great if you’re the singer or guitarist as it gives you the freedom to wander the stage and still have your own mix wherever you are.
If you’re the drummer (like me) then you have another (cheaper) option to you. Instead of having a wireless system, drummers can have a wired system instead – after-all, we get to sit for the entire gig and not prance about. For a wired system, you would need a small mixer instead of a receiver/base station. The mix-feed plugs into one of the inputs and the IEMs into the Phones jack and hey-presto!!
If each receiver has its own base station then each band member can have their own personal mix in stereo mode.
The downside is though, this can be quite costly. That said, when you weigh that up against the cost of a decent stage wedge (and the room it takes in the car/van, as well as having to lug it around) the cost probably works out about the same – assuming that each band member has their own wedge of course.
However, if two band members want the same mix but are happy to listen in Mono-Mode then two receivers on the same base station can provide different mixes – the first band member would get what’s plugged into channel one and the second band member would get what’s plugged into channel two.
If each band member is happy to have the same stereo mix then you can register multiple receivers to the same base station.
So, what are the benefits of using In Ear Monitors instead of using the traditional stage monitors – what am I going to put my foot on when I’m playing my killer guitar solo I hear you shout. Well….
1. No Volume Battles
Each musician on the stage wants to hear themselves on stage and this is traditionally done with wedges. The thing is though, everyone wants to hear their performance clearly above everyone else. This leads to the “fighting” over monitor-mix volumes and calls of “can you turn me up please?” which then causes the stage volume to increase.
Using IEMs, there is no “fighting” over the monitor mix volumes which helps reducing the on-stage sound level and so providing ear-protection at the same time.
2. Protect Your Ears
We’ve all been to gigs and the followed day have experienced post-gig tinatus. Prolonged exposure to loud noise can cause damage to your ears. Once your ears are damaged, they’re damaged! And of course, as musicians, our ears are really important to us. IEMs gives you the protection of wearing ear plugs with the added benefit of tiny speakers to provide a comfortable personal monitor mix at a controlled volume level.
When using wedges, a vocalist or guitarist may wander into an area of stage where the mix is sounding completely different. But when on IEMs, vocalists and guitarists still get the same mix where-ever they are on stage, giving them the freedom to move around. Obviously this is within reason if they’re using wired mics and guitar leads to the amps.
For drummers, this doesn’t apply because we’re sitting still.
4. Minimise Feedback Issues
This is closely related to the “No Volume Battles” benefit. Without the excess volumes on-stage there is less chance of feedback issues from monitor wedges and amps. This is particulary the case on the smaller stages where space can be a premium.
5. An uncluttered stage
If stage space is at premium, monitor wedges can use up precious space. IEMs do away with the need for wedges and so give a cleaner, uncluttered stage.
6. Reduced Vocal Strain
If singers can’t hear themselves over poor mixes, they push their voices too much. This can lead to damage to the vocal chords, and also doesn’t come across so well to the listener if the vocalist is straining. IEMs allow vocalists to hear themselves clearly.
7. Click tracks
If you’re using a click track live then the whole band can get the click in their mix on stage – you couldn’t do that with stage wedges. “But our drummer just needs the click track, the rest of us don’t need it” I hear you cry!!! And that’s totally fine. But, if the whole band are using IEMs, then you that option.