As a gigging musician, you come to a point when you realize that Jane Q. Public has little to no idea just how much of your blood, sweat and tears go into making live music or about the ringing in your ears after a show.
For live shows and studio sessions, something that’s a must to check out to help you take the quality of your performance to the next level is…in-ear monitors.
In-ear monitors, commonly referred to as IEMs, are listening devices used by musicians, audio engineers, and audiophiles to hear a personal mix of vocals and instruments during live performances or recording sessions.
The benefits of IEMs are many but some of the main ones are:
- Studio quality sound to you onstage
- A balanced mix of vocals and instruments (including drums!)
- No feedback J
- Your ears aren’t ringing after the show
- You don’t have to sing as hard to hear yourself (see #2) below
- Stereo mix
- Easy to transport
- You can move around on stage and still hear your mix clearly
- You control your volume
Now before you grab your wallet and sonic boom to get to the music store to max out your credit card for the coolest IEM system you can get your hands on, here’s a brief review of what’s involved and a few things to keep in mind.
A wireless in-ear monitor system is made up of three things:
- Earpieces – These are what you put in your ears. They can be a “universal fit” or custom fitted to your ears. Based on how well they fit, they offer various levels of noise reduction from crowds and stage/studio volume.
- Bodypack Receiver – This is what the cord from your earpieces plugs into and gets the signal from the transmitter. The BPR is usually clipped to your belt, pocket or guitar strap.
- Transmitter – This is the half rack sized unit that sends your monitor mix signal to your receiver. It gets its signal from a monitor mixer or house console.
Some things to keep in mind are:
- Cost – There are IEM systems in all price ranges so definitely check them out. And don’t forget about having a backup.
- With any wireless system, there can be interference and drop outs but with the quality of gear in this golden age, these are minor.
- Earpieces can vary widely in price and quality but here is where you want to get the best you can afford.
- IEMS do block out loud stage volume and crowd noise, which is a big plus, but some performers can feel a little isolated without their Marshall stack on 11 blowing their hair back.
- You definitely want to keep your monitor mix engineer happy because you rely on them to keep your mix golden. A short funny story is how two guitar players in a band who both sing backup got their “pack and ears” swapped at a gig and had each other’s. Each kept telling the engineer they needed more of themselves in their mix, but only heard more of the other – ha! So, remember to label your pack.
Two big names in IEMs to check out are Fender and Ultimate Ears.
Fender (FMIC) became a major player in the IEM market when they bought Aurisonics, the Nashville-based specialty maker of custom-fit and universal-fit in-ear monitors founded by Dale Lott. Fender has a Pro IEM product line spanning from $99-$1,299. In August of this year, they introduced the MXA1 and MXA2 products that provide an affordable bundled solution for musicians just getting into the in-ear monitoring experience. These products incorporate the $99 DXA1 IEM or $199 FXA2 IEM respectively, as well as Presonus’ HP2 headphone amp for use with IEMs, designed to be tethered to a musician’s mixer via the included cable. For gigging and recording musicians, studio engineers and audio professionals, Fender’s IEMs are winners!
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If going straight to for the custom IEMs is your thing, Ultimate Ears has been serving professionals since when they started in 1995. Founded by Mindy and Jerry Harvey and based in California, they helped created a new market for custom IEMs which are now used by many top touring musicians.
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Some final thoughts are to work with your budget but there are IEMs in a wide range of prices. Next, try to get the best IEMs you can afford because they pay off instantly and in the long run. Also, pay attention to the fit of your earpieces for comfort and noise cancelation. Lastly, keep in mind that some venues run FOH and monitors from the same board so there are some shows where you have to use monitor wedges and side fills. For those shows, you won’t be able to use your beloved IEMs but compared to monitor wedges/side fills set up, you’ll hear just how much your IEMs make a difference and your ears will thank you every show.