How do in-ear monitors work?


In-ear monitors are being used extensively now in many concert venues, clubs and churches. They offer a level of flexibility that floor monitors can’t do to the same extent and come in both wireless and wired formats. The wireless kind work in a similar way to a wireless microphone, in that you have a transmitter and a receiver, expect with personal monitor systems, each musician has a receiver and the transmitter is at the mixing console.

At some point, you may wish to switch from floor wedges to in-ear monitors for a number of reasons. Some reasons for this change are less stage volume (noise), clearer sound for musicians, option for adding an additional metronome, hearing preservation, more space on stage, etc. In-ear monitors, also known as IEMs, are made of two earphones that are connected together just like any other basic earbuds. Usually comes with different size of ear tips so you can easily pick and replace the one that is suitable for your ears.

Compared to other headphones or earbuds, IEMs has even smaller speakers (drivers/ transducers) built in which makes them able to fit in your ear canal. The best IEM systems usually have flat frequency response since the musician wants to hear the sound without accentuating any frequency.

Besides simple wired IEM systems, there are also wireless IEM systems which contain two devices, a transmitter and a receiver. A transmitter is a small unit which provides signal wirelessly to the receiver in which your IEM is plugged in. The transmitter is usually placed near the mixer while the receiver is carried by the performer. In-ear monitoring is a great and really helpful device. However, if the mixing engineer is not skilled enough it can ruin the mix and can be more distracting rather than helping your performance.

What are in ear monitors and why use them?

– Better on stage sound

Any live performer, especially singers and drummers, shall be more than pleased with their in-ear monitoring even with not so expensive isolated earphones. In-ear monitoring headphones will provide you with a full, rich sound with more personal control at the level you want. while reducing or completely eliminating noise from other performers on stage. At the same time, without floor wedges (monitors) on stage, the main monitor mixes won’t be that muddy anymore. And if you get yourself high-quality earphones, such as Audio Technica ATH-IM02, Sennheiser IE 800, Shure SE535LTD, Mackie MP-240, Audio-Technica ATH-E70, AKG IP2 etc, you will really enjoy your performance due to its high fidelity sound.

– Better performance

The use of an IEM system supports musicians in two particular ways. First of all, if you are a singer, you will have much better pitch control since you no longer need to focus on listening to yourself through your stage wedge. Also, there will be no distraction from the drummer playing too loudly or any kind of noise that can draw away your attention. Additionally, the general timing of musicians is improved since there will be no delay in the distance between your ears and on stage monitors. That delay is completely eliminated if using an in-ear monitoring system.

– Feedback possibility is eliminated

Another great advantage of in-ear monitoring is that with no floor wedges on stage, the possibility of feedback is noticeably decreased. There will be no chance for the singer to accidentally turn his mic towards a monitor speaker and cause feedback. There is also no possibility for feedback caused by the drummer’s condenser mics. Also, the laborious task of moving large floor monitors, dragging cables on and off the stage is no longer needed.

Also, if those monitors are passive, there will be much more work, and all of that hassle is gone with IEMs. This advantage will also save time for an engineer to set gain and EQ levels. The mixing engineer will then have enough time to focus on the main mix.

– Freedom of movement

You don’t need to stand in one place anymore for that sweet spot where you can hear all of your colleagues, especially if you are a singer or electric guitar player. No matter where you go, the monitoring will always be with you. That kind of freedom will be even more expanded if you have a good wireless system. This advantage allows you to be a bit more creative in how you use the stage. You can dance, run, jump, whatever you want, the sound will always follow you.

If you are a drummer or keyboard player, you don’t need to have a wireless system. You won’t move around that much and wired monitoring will do the job. Also, you will save a couple of bucks for monitoring since a wireless system is more expensive and it requires batteries for powering. Also for a house of worship, there is less gear on stage to get in the way or for clearing away later. This is especially helpful for churches that rent their worship space and have to tidy everything away afterwards.

close up of ear buds

– Reduced risk of hearing disorder

With the isolation of the musician’s ear, the audio signal is improved while the noise of the stage environment is reduced. Isolated earphones provide you with clear sound at a significantly lower volume than stage monitors. On the other hand, some of the in-ear monitoring systems can produce more than 120 dB which is a dangerously high sound pressure level! If you are a drummer, your snare drum and cymbals can blow your ears. Maybe you will get used to it in the first place, but after some time playing, you can feel your ears ringing. You don’t want to lose your hearing after a couple of years in a loud environment. The cells of your inner ear can be damaged with long term exposure to loud sounds, such as listening to loud music. So, you have to be careful with handling the volume of your IEM.

FAQs

Why do singers wear in ear monitors?

Why do singers wear earpieces? IEM earpieces are made and molded to perfectly fit into the singer’s ear. This kind of monitoring will be of great benefit to any singer’s performance. Clarity and quality of the mix sent from the mixing board to a singer’s ears through earphones can only enhance their performance. If you are a singer, and IEM will definitely make a difference in your performance in a good way just because you can hear yourself better. You will be able to hear yourself clearly without the distraction and competition with the other instruments or amps on stage.

Ear vs stage monitors

You must be wondering why in-ear monitors are better than stage floor wedges? Stage floor monitors are usually large speakers you can see in the front of each performer. The mixing engineer controls how much volume each musician will be sent in each speaker. The real problem begins with bleeding from other monitors and it can easily cause feedback. Additionally, if you, as a singer, want to move around the stage, you will not be able to hear yourself anymore. With in-ear monitoring, this difficulty is solved. These little devices are like you having a small stage monitor in your ear and it can provide you with much better, cleaner sound with the full frequency range.

In ear monitors VS earbuds

In-ears and earbuds are the same, right? No! Yes, we know that they are similar. But the in-ear earphones, like basic closed headphones, are intended to clog the ear in order to reduce or completely eliminate environmental noise and keeping bass frequencies at a decent level. With the ability to block out the surrounding noise it will allow you to listen to the mix in much lower volume. You can find this feature not only helpful, but it also protects your hearing. Earbuds, on the hand, are open earphones and not the same thing at all.

These two products are very similar in size but earbuds do not fit perfectly inside the ear canal. Rather, earbuds are maintained in position by the external parts of the ear, the auricle. Since they don’t form a seal with the ear as much as a custom inear model, earbuds allow you to hear a mixture of sound direct from the mixing desk and from the stage area. Earbuds are a less expensive alternative, but also will provide you with lower quality since they usually carrying only one driver. Some people find in-ear phones annoying and uncomfortable while others don’t like to be cut off from ambient sound. So, for those kinds of people, earbuds would be a better choice.

How to set up wired in ear monitors?

Setting up a wired IEM is much easier than wireless. But on the other hand, this also can be really tricky depending on how many personalized monitors you want to run on stage. If you have more than one electric guitar, and a bass guitar, it does get a bit more difficult. If you need only one wired monitor, then it is fairly straight forward to setup. You can just plug in your in-ear monitors in ‘phones out’ on your mixer and that is it. But if you want to adjust the volume of each instrument then you should connect to ‘aux send’ input on your mixer. It is usually located in the back on your mixer.

Once, you have plugged in your wired IEM in ‘aux send’ input, you can easily adjust the volume for each instrument individually with aux knobs. If you want to use in-ear monitors for your whole band and if your mixer has that number of aux outputs that is great! Then your band member can easily setup desired mix in their IEM. If you don’t have enough aux sends on your mixer then you’ll be limited with an individual mix in each IEM even if you purchase an external headphone amp with additional headphone inputs and amplifier for each input. How much aux output or monitor outputs you have defines how many individual mixes you’ll able to send. The ability to set up a different mix for each performer is important when choosing a system. It is well known that musicians like to hear “more me” in the mix.

In ear monitors for drummers

Drummers, your instrument is the loudest acoustic instrument on stage. Especially kick drum and a snare drum its loudness measures up to 125dB in volume level. That could be really annoying after some time playing. It is clear that drummers can benefit greatly from high-quality in-ear monitoring. The biggest benefit is being able to hear a click track through your in ear monitor. Once you try it, you won’t go back to floor speakers. That would be one of the greatest improvement you could make to your stage monitoring since a drummer’s floor monitor is usually the loudest.

A drummer’s earphones should be isolated as much as possible. Also, make sure your phones fit your ears perfectly since there will be no chance to push it back in the ear while playing. If your in-ear phones are not that comfortable, it can really annoy you, and make your ears hurt after some time. You really don’t want something that distracts you while performing. So, if you already spending some money on in-ear monitoring, make sure it sounds good as well as fit your ears.

What do in ear monitors sound like?

On the one hand, the answer is very simple. If you compare in-ear earphones with simple earbuds while listening to music from a cd, it will sound much better. You will be provided with a wide, rich, full and warm sound with enough bass. On stage, there will be no distraction of other instruments and speakers, monitors. You’ll be able to hear the tiniest detail of sound, especially with custom iems. Also, some people use them in studios as reference earphones because of the sound quality and isolation properties.

How to connect an in-ear monitor to a mixer?

The basic connection process would be like: “Just plug it in the headphone, monitor or aux output on your mixer”. No matter if it is a wired or wireless system, you will need an output signal to your transmitter. But as always, things are not that simple especially if you are not that familiar with audio equipment. You won’t be the first musician who isn’t. If you think your job is done if you just buy an IEM, you are so wrong. The game just has begun. Depending on what you require from your IEMs things can get very complicated. It is all about cables, inputs, outputs and at the end, mixing. Unfortunately, there is no single answer.

Wired or wireless in-ear monitors?

How can you decide between a wireless and wired IEM system? Actually, it is very simple. Just ask yourself a question “Do I need a wired or wireless microphone?” and you will have the right answer. Musicians, actors, performers that do not move around that much, like keyboard players or drummers, will probably use a wired monitoring system. Performers who move around on stage, like singers, guitarists, should use a wireless system. It is obvious that the wireless system is more expensive than wired. Also, we should point out that a wired system is easier to troubleshoot.

There are a couple of downsides to the wireless monitoring system, especially if cheaper. The frequency range of cheaper systems is usually really small. That could be a serious disadvantage particularly if there is a couple of wireless IEM’s on stage. You can hear random noises, frequency interference, clicks, the signal can be lost easily, etc. Why is that happening? Put simply, if there is a lot of “wireless traffic”, each tx/rx pair has to connect among other signals causing interference. Sometimes, if its frequency range is small, like on cheaper devices, the transmitter won’t find its way to your wireless receiver. Companies like Shure and Sennheiser are among the best manufacturers of wireless systems.

Which earphone monitors are perfect for me?

There are so many different kinds of earphones on the market. They basically all look very alike. With that many similar-looking products, there is a common assumption that earbuds sold with portable music players or smartphone can be personal monitor earphones. These kinds of phones will provide you with sound, however, they offer very limited isolation from the environment noises. Simply put, they are not that good a choice for earphones which should be used on stage.

A proper isolated earphone acts like an earplug which fully protects your ear from ambient sounds. Better isolation – better sound. With small speakers built in gives the monitor mix straight to the ears. With a decent fit, it will transmit rich, full low, precise middle and high frequencies. Many of today’s noise-isolated headphones come with various sizes of rubber, foam or plastic additional parts to assure a perfect fit. Isolated earphones are available in a variety of forms starting from simple dynamic earbuds, to multi-speaker devices, providing magnificent sound reproduction. Of course rather than the in-ear type, you could opt for an over-ear headphone as an alternative.

Universal or custom earphones?

There are a lot of companies on the market which create generic-fit or universal- fit earphones, and also custom made in-ear headphones. Universal fit earphones have replaceable or reusable ear tips made of foam, rubber or plastic. These earphones are created to fill in anyone’s ear canal. While these all around systems work well for a few, the natural variation of ear canal size means it will be difficult to find a pair that is a perfect match, in comfort and isolation.

A better seal between the ear canal and earphones guarantees far better bass frequency response and a better signal-to-noise ratio. When a performer complains about bad sound quality or low level, it’s usually just a fitting issue. Custom-fit earphones are developed particularly to an individual’s ears. If made of a soft, adaptable material such as gel silicone polymer, it is going to be very comfortable, while you can wear them for an extended period of time without “itchy ears” symptoms.

It makes sense to invest in custom IEM. Many universal earphones are often converted to custom-fit by adding a formed cover to replace the universal ear tips. Custom covers provide better comfort, a safer match, and higher isolation.

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Frank Edwards

Frank Edwards is the founder and owner of churchsoundtips.com and has over 10 years experience running sound in his local church. About Frank Edwards

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