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IEMs: Stick It In Yer Ear

Steve LaCerra • January 2020On the Digital Edge • January 13, 2020

The difference in using in-ears versus stage wedges can be a revelation in clearer hearing for most artists. Image: Sennheiser

I remember very clearly the first time I used in-ear monitors. I was playing drums in a cover band that performed a lot of classic rock songs, some of which had complicated vocal harmonies. Though we didn’t spend a ton of time rehearsing in general, we did spend time rehearsing harmonies, and we were pretty good at singing them. At the time, IEMs were mostly for the rich and famous, which we were not — and still are not. I had a pair of universal fit Etymotic Research ER4S earpieces and decided to try them on a gig. It was easy enough, because I was playing drums (obviously from a fixed position) so I wouldn’t need to purchase any wireless gear. I ran a long extension cable from the headphone output of our Mackie mixer to my drum kit and plugged in.

The author found that these basic Etymotic ER4S earpieces provided a quick solution to an age-old problem for drummers.

‡‡         The Worst Seat in the House

A quick side note: If you ever want to hear the worst sound in the house, sit next to the drummer where you can have the displeasure of hearing all of the crap that spills off the back of the guitar and bass amps, plus the cacophony of wash from all of the wedges that are pointed in your general direction. I figured using the Etymotics had to be better than what I was hearing from the stage, and I was right. It was a revelation. I realized that while our vocals weren’t as bad as I thought, they weren’t as good as I thought, either. I’ve been an in-ear believer ever since.

When I hear that a performer is reluctant to try IEMs, I do what I can to help them past it. A colleague of mine was lamenting that his lead singer won’t try in-ears, so he’s still using a pair of wedge monitors blasting a mix in his face at ridiculous stage volumes. The artist’s rationale is that his audiologist friend says that the worst thing you can possibly do for your hearing is put in a pair of earphones and play them at loud volumes. Fair enough. I’m not an audiologist, but somehow, I think that a pair of 15-inch wedges in front, and a Marshall stack directly behind your head blowing SPLs that dry your hair faster than you can say “where are my ear plugs?” has got to be worse.

‡‡         Buds Are Not Your Bud

The confusion comes in the form of misunderstanding the role of in-ears. Audiologists often don’t understand (and completely miss the point of) using IEMs — as do many performers. The entire concept of in-ears as a means of hearing conservation hinges first and foremost upon using an earpiece that seals off the ear canal from stage noise.

Imagine that you’re on a train, listening to music from your phone through the stock pair of “ear buds” that came with the phone. Aside from the fact that these earpieces are God-awful, they provide no isolation whatsoever from outside sound. Let’s suppose that when the train starts a-rolling, the SPL inside the cabin is in the low-90 dB SPL range (though it certainly could be higher). In order for you to be able to hear your music at all, you’ll need to push the earbuds to an SPL higher than the noise floor — which in this case is very high. It’s a simple exercise of signal-to-noise ratio. You’ve created a situation where you’re playing music at deafening levels just to rise above the noise floor of a moving train. It’s no wonder that when I take the NYC subway I am often treated to hearing leakage from those buds worn by unsuspecting folks trying to listen to the pop artist du jour above the din of the train (that’s before I put my plugs in).

‡‡         Don’t Muff It

What if you wore a pair of hearing protection earmuffs over the earbuds? The typical noise attenuation of safety muffs is in the vicinity of 25 dB. That puts the noise level of the train at a manageable SPL in the low-70 decibels. You can now turn the volume of those earbuds way down and still be able to hear the music above the train noise because you’ve lowered the noise floor.

Quality IEMs operate the same way, except you don’t have a pair of cumbersome earmuffs over your head messing up your coif and masking your good looks in front of all your adoring fans. When fitted properly, most in-ears provide a similar level of isolation: around 25 dB. That reduces the background noise to safe levels, so that you and your monitor tech can carefully dial a mix into the earpieces at levels lower than you’d be exposed to if you were using wedge monitors.

‡‡         Champagne and Roses?

Of course, not all in the world of IEMs is champagne and roses. A big issue that needs to be addressed is proper fit, and that doesn’t necessarily mean custom molds. A bit of experimentation is required to find the right generic tip or custom earmolds to maximize isolation. Other concerns include cost (a good in-ear system can cost north of a grand), RF coordination and a monitor tech qualified to do the gig. Those details can be addressed in the future, but for now, have your artist read this so they can open their minds and their ears. You’ll both thank me.

These Jerry Harvey Audio JH-16 earpieces are offered in both universal- (shown here) and custom-fitted versions.

Steve “Woody” La Cerra is the tour manager and front of house engineer for Blue Öyster Cult.


Advantages of In-Ears: The Big Picture

Working with performers who hate the idea of in-ears? Leave this issue where they can see it, open to this page, and maybe they’ll take a hint.

• Performers will hear themselves clearly, with the ability to more accurately discern pitch.

• Eliminating wedges on stage reduces the overall stage volume, making it easier for musicians to hear themselves.

• As in-ear mixes are isolated, you won’t hear your neighbor’s wedge mix, and vice versa — which helps eliminate volume wars.

• Your FOH engineer won’t need to worry about sound from wedges leaking into vocal or instrument microphones.

• The front of house mix will be cleaner, because the house system is not competing with spill from wedges into the house (and remember that audio from the wedges is rarely in phase with sound from the house P.A. system).

• A performer will more easily be able to hear transients, improving timing and the ability to “lock in” with other musicians.

• Crew members can leave those heavy double-15 wedges at home, saving room on the truck and avoiding extra wear and tear on their backs.

• When performers move around the stage, their monitors move with them.



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