Guide to Choosing the Perfect In-Ear Monitors for Your Musicians

So much has happened in audio design since 1987, when Stevie Wonder first used an ordinary FM Walkman tuned to a nearby mobile radio truck to better hear his live monitor mix while he was on stage. Urban legend has it that when he played Wembley Arena in London, you could even pick up this “pirate radio station” miles away in Hampstead.

In the years that followed, especially in the last decade or so, in-ear monitors (IEMs) for musicians have developed to become a much more affordable and highly usable piece of live performance equipment. Today, an IEM system consists of an in-ear monitor plugged into a portable receiver about the size of a smartphone that picks up selected feedback audio via a transmitter wirelessly broadcasting over a UHF radio band.

For any sound engineer working with live musicians who are all vying for space in front of their wedge monitors, the ability to have IEMs help them tighten up their performance while increasing the quality of your house mix is welcome news.

Of course, sound travels more slowly than light and individual performers will literally hear things differently. So, the choice to use an IEM system can have a great impact on how singers and musicians perceive their performances. For this reason, the selection and use of in-ear monitoring systems should be carried out with the greatest assurances made to your performers that you’ll take all the necessary steps to make them feel confident using their IEMs.

How to Choose an In-Ear Monitor System

As music venues and sound systems have increased in size and complexity, musicians have been left to deal with the ever-present stress of trying to hear themselves accurately through the accumulated din of crowds, other instruments and backing tracks. Some of the more stationary musicians get the audio feedback they need, but especially for lead singers, whom the audience wants to see front and center, the freedom of wireless IEMs couldn’t have come at a better time.

But like going from one extreme to another, how singers hear themselves and the rest of their band using an IEM must be taken into consideration by both the performers and sound engineer — or else you run the risk of turning off your musicians to the concept from its very first trial run. Nowadays, enough of us have worn earbuds to understand what it’s like to suddenly block out all other sounds except for the signal coming through the earphones. For the IEM wearer, the results can cause a real sense of separation from the ambient noise surrounding him or her. And for singers and musicians, feeling separated from a live audience that’s directly in front of them can be disorienting, to say the least.

For the best results in choosing IEMs, keep the following three tips in mind:

  • They’re not a one-size-fits-all solution. Different performers will have unique requests regarding how much of themselves they can hear. Moreover, any RF dropout might adversely impact their signals and other individualized feedback. That’s why you should approach each IEM user with the idea that you want to listen closely to each in order to make it as comfortable an experience as possible.
  • Use high-quality earbuds. While we’re on the topic of comfort, it’s highly advisable to approach earbud fitting like you would a professional-quality hearing aid. If your budget allows, make use of custom earbuds created using a mold of the wearer’s ear. Here’s where comfort can really pay off!
  • Add in ambient sound. To help combat the separation musicians feel from the audience when wearing IEMs, set up a couple of mics to capture house sounds and gently add in just enough of this background noise to give a sense of connection to the room.

Illuminated Integration Is Your One-Stop AVL Source

For more IEM and audio design information, contact the team at Illuminated Integration. Fill out our contact form and start a conversation. We’d be thrilled to hear from you!

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