All you need to know about IEM and a whole lot more…
What are in-ear monitors?
In-ear monitors (commonly referred to as IEMs) are discrete, often custom-moulded (custom-fitted) earphones that sit inside the ear canal to aid the performer in hearing themselves and others on stage whilst performing.
They are used as an alternative to floor monitors (wedges) and have a wide variety of benefits.
How do IEMs work?
IEMs work using wireless technology (via radio frequencies – high frequencies), much in the same way a radio stereo works. An audio signal (monitor mix) is sent from the sound desk to the transmitter. This transmitter then sends the signal wirelessly via an antenna to the belt pack receiver that the artist wears.
The belt pack which has its own antennas picks up and converts this radio signal back into audio. A set of earphones plug into the belt pack which allows the user to listen to and adjust the volume control of the monitor mix.
You will often see singers on TV during a performance reach behind them and adjust their volume throughout their set.
For stationary musicians, (e.g. drummers and keyboardists) wireless connectivity may not be so important, and they choose to opt for wired in-ear monitors. These work on the same principle, but without the wireless radio aspect and can be considerably cheaper and less troublesome in difficult radio environments.
When did musicians begin using IEMs?
For a long time, wedge monitors were the only source of on-stage monitoring. The first homemade in-ear monitors began to appear in the mid-’60s and early ’70s. It wasn’t until the ’90s, however, that they became a regular feature, when Jerry Harvey, an American sound engineer began touring with Van Halen.
The drummer complained that the intense stage volume was hurting his ears, making it difficult for him to communicate with his other band members. So Jerry began researching and experimenting with audio signal processing and ended up creating the first 2-way custom earpieces.
Using tiny speakers found in pacemakers, these were then placed into moulded impressions of the drummer’s ears, providing him with effective isolation from stage noise / ambient noise and a clear mix.
Why should I use them?
There are lots of advantages to using in-ear monitors, and they’ve become immensely popular with live performers. An effective solution to reducing feedback and the need for high volume, IEMs have eliminated the need for wedges.
They make communication between the band and the engineer/stage manager a lot easier. They’re also an incredibly useful tool to improve the tightness of live performances.
By allowing bands to play with a click track, and pan instruments so the musicians can hear themselves more clearly, they make a drastic improvement to the live mix. Below are the seven top advantages of using IEMs…
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of using in-ear monitors is that it gives you the ability to listen to your mix in stereo. This gives a much more natural sounding stage and it also means your mix doesn’t need to be as loud.
Stage volume and space
Another benefit is the lower stage volume. Without wedges onstage the front-of-house mix becomes a lot clearer without the stage noise spilling into the audience area and back into the mics on stage. It also clears up a stage, leaving more space for musicians to play and fewer things for them to trip over!
With a wireless in-ear pack you can move anywhere you want to and still keep the same sound. Stationary wedges produce a ‘sweet spot’ on stage; a place where everything sounds pretty good so moving around can drastically alter the sound.
When using wedges, room acoustics play a large part in the overall quality of the sound. With IEMs, on the other hand, you can expect more or less the same sound at each show. The isolation you get when using in-ear monitors means that room acoustics are removed from the equation. Hence, you don’t run the risk of bad sound due to faulty/cheap stage monitors!
Perhaps the most practical benefit of personal in-ear monitors is the ability to have direct control over what you are hearing. IEMs allow the performer to raise the overall volume directly from the belt pack. You may still have to rely on the monitor engineer to make fine adjustments here and there, but making complex hand gestures will be a thing of the past!
Another unfortunate side-effect of using on-stage wedges is that they are prone to feedback at high levels. This is every live musician’s nightmare. Most often, the only solution to reducing feedback is to alter the colour of the sound. In-ear monitors provide the solution to this problem, particularly for vocalists.
The artist can achieve a clean, loud mix without worrying about feedback.
Perhaps the most important aspect of using in-ear monitors is that it protects your hearing. Custom-moulded shells provide great isolation and cancel out any background noise and spill from the main PA system. This means you’re not constantly adjusting your levels. In-ear-monitors can greatly reduce the risk of developing permanent hearing damage.
Which are the best IEMs to buy?
There are many different brands of in-ear monitoring systems you can choose from. The lower-priced brand’s IEMs offer less customizability, but are a great option for beginners, with prices starting from as little as £50.
The upper-tier brands used by the pros offer custom moulded earpiece fittings and guarantee fantastic sound quality. However, these cost a pretty penny and can go well into the thousands!
Many artists who are after cheap in-ear monitors will opt for generic fit over a custom mould. Shure SE215s are often the favourite choice among musicians. Within a moderate price tag, they come with a range of different rubber and foam tips making sure the listener achieves the perfect snug fit.
If you are after custom moulded in-ear monitors then the price increases substantially. Firstly you will need to book in with an audiologist who will take impressions of your ears. Although this is not a lengthy process, the time it takes for the moulds to be made and delivered to you can be weeks. However, it’s certainly worth the wait, as you will have a set of totally unique IEMs that fit perfectly inside your ears, creating a tight seal and isolated sound!
There are many top brands of IEMs to choose from. Depending on your budget, the number of dynamic drivers (separate tiny speakers) you would like, and custom design choices, prices can vary substantially. Top brands such as Ultimate Ears, Jerry Harvey, 1964 and Cosmic Ears have a wide range, but always try before you buy!
You can book demo days, visit trade shows or book an appointment with an IEM company. One I would highly recommend is Custom IEM, as they can demo different brands and take the impressions for your moulds at the same time.
Are you keen to invest in your own in-ear monitors, but are looking for other experienced artists to collaborate with? Make sure to check out global marketplace network to meet like-minded people and accelerate your musical career!