Many musicians are making the switch to in-ear personal monitors instead of open-air speakers. The attraction is clear: better sound quality and a better mix, with less noise and clutter on stage, all from a device you can carry around in your pocket.
But the transition from wedges to “ears” can be rocky, and if you don’t work through all the possible issues beforehand, you may find yourself hauling the wedges out of the closet and putting those earbuds on eBay.
The single most important thing to understand about using in-ear personal monitors is that it’s different from using an open-air speaker. If you approach in-ear monitoring the same way you’ve approached using a wedge, you’re almost guaranteed disappointing results.
THE IMPACT OF ISOLATION
With open-air speakers, the musician can hear sound from lots of different sources: his or her own floor wedge, voices and acoustic instruments, guitar and bass amps, and everyone else’s wedges. With in-ears, on the other hand, the musician is far more isolated from those other sound sources. This isolation in some ways is the benefit of using personal monitors, but it also means that the musician is far more dependent on the sound quality and the mix coming out of the in-ear monitors. Because there’s nothing else that the musician can use for reference, the sound has got to be right; in other words, in-ears are less forgiving than wedges.
So for starters, make sure you buy good earphones. There are a lot of choices at a lot of different price points, but make sure you select something that is made for musicians and performance. Also remember, these are called personal monitors, and not everyone in your praise band will necessarily like the same model. If you can, it’s worth trying out a few different models, ideally when you’re playing or singing (not just listening to your mp3 player).
The second issue that is highlighted by the intimacy of a personal in-ear monitor is the need for high quality content. Unfortunately, mixing for personal monitors is more difficult than mixing for open wedges for two reasons. First, because the in-ear mix is really all the musician can hear; every little adjustment made to the mix can be heard much more clearly. With a wedge, the musician can hear all those other sound sources, so slight adjustments to a wedge mix will get lost in all the other sound. With personal monitors, it’s like the engineer is suddenly mixing with a much more sensitive knob.
The second challenge on the content side is that, while most musicians require only a single floor wedge, you should NEVER monitor with just one earphone. Aside from the loss of quality, you can damage your ears by using only a single earpiece, as your brain will no longer give you reliable information about how much volume you’re pushing into your ear canal. Many users are tempted to pull out one earphone, and that’s a sign that the content isn’t right. But it’s important to resist that temptation and fix the content instead.
TWO EARS, TWO EARPHONES, TWO MIXES
The first step is to start working in stereo. Yes, you could send the same mix to both ears, but humans are supposed to listen in stereo, and our brains are programmed to process the sounds coming to our left and right ears separately.
It may be tempting to say, “Well, I’ve always had just a mono monitor mix.” But first, remember that, with a wedge, every musician is still “monitoring in stereo,” because he or she can hear spill from other wedges and all the amps and acoustic instruments. With a personal monitor, you’re effectively removing all of those other sound sources, so if you want to preserve the stereo experience, you need to provide a stereo mix.
The second thing to remember if you’re thinking about going mono is that the two most common complaints from musicians trying out personal monitors are (1) feeling cut off, isolated, or disoriented and (2) not getting the right mix. That first complaint is greatly reduced by providing stereo content, which is what the brain expects.
The second complaint is also ameliorated by monitoring in stereo, because a good stereo image makes it easier to hear similarly pitched instruments or voices. When a guitar and a keyboard, for instance, are layered on top of each other (as they have to be in a mono mix), it’s much harder to hear them distinctly. But if you pan each signal slightly to the left or right, you can hear them clearly-without turning anything up louder!
The problem is you’ve just doubled your technical staff’s work load-two mixes for every person instead of one-and you’re holding them to a more exacting standard, because mixing for personal monitors is less forgiving than mixing for wedges.
PERSONAL MIXING FOR PERSONAL MONITORS
That’s where the idea of a personal mixer comes in. The concept is quite simple: instead of relying on the musicians’ trying to tell the engineers what they want, a personal mixer allows each musician to dial it in exactly.
The other nice thing about a personal mixer is that musicians can change their mix whenever they want. Over the course of a performance, things change: the drummer starts playing louder, you need a little more piano to help lock your vocal pitch, and so on. That’s true whether you’re using personal monitors or wedges, but remember that one of the differences between the two is that every change is magnified in a personal monitor. That means that a change that might not have been such a big deal when you were using wedges really ought to be addressed when you’re using in-ears. With a personal mixer, musicians can go ahead and make that adjustment without having to get the engineer’s attention and explain what they need changed.
However, even with personal mixers, there’s an important role for engineers to play. The first is the obvious: mix FOH! But equally important is organizing and preparing the monitor feeds. Personal mixers can be given any audio content you want, but if the engineer doesn’t make sure the audio sounds good before it goes into the personal mixing system, there’s nothing the musicians can do to fix it. So the engineers need to take care of all the EQ and processing on each channel, just like they’ll do for the FOH mix anyway.
In addition, engineers need to select the right content to send to the personal mixers. With traditional monitoring, auxes or buses are used to provide different mixes to the different musicians. With personal mixing, a combination of inserts or direct outs plus auxes are used to send content to the different musicians. Unlike a traditional monitoring system, the same content usually goes to all the personal mixers.
The goal is to give musicians enough control so they can get a great mix, but not so much control that they’re distracted from playing. A good personal mixing system doesn’t ask the musicians to become engineers.
So an engineer might, for example, provide a direct out or insert on the lead vocals (pre-fader) but a stereo submix of the drums (maybe supplemented by a separate kick drum channel). The idea is not to provide all the different drum inputs to all the different musicians, because most musicians want “more drums” or “less drums”; they don’t want to worry about balancing tom 1 and tom 2, and so on. The engineer’s job in this example is to make a great sounding submix of the drums so the musicians can just turn the drums up or down.
It’s important to plan out the system and think through what content musicians want to control precisely and where they’ll be best served with a submix. In most cases, it’s good practice to shoot for the fewest number of channels possible-use submixes whenever possible-because that will keep the musicians focused on playing not mixing.
As ensembles get larger, it’s likely you’ll start developing divergent (but overlapping) lists of what different musicians want to control. Everyone, for instance, wants a lead vocal channel, but while the drummer and bassist may want to control the kick, snare, hi hat, and overheads independently, the singers may want every vocal mic broken out. Providing independent control over all these channels to everyone will result in confused musicians trying to find the channel they want to adjust or unable to get a good sounding mix.
The solution is to build a “multi-zone” system, where different musicians get different sets of content. In this example, the drummer and bassist would get a submix of the vocal mics but lots of drum channels broken out individually. The singers, on the other hand, would get a submix of the drums and all the vocal mics broken out. This allows both sets of musicians to control what they need while still keeping it simple.
CUT THE CORD?
One of the other frequently asked questions is about wireless. There’s no question that it’s nice not to be tethered with a cable, but going wireless adds two things: cost and hassle. Both are well worth it for musicians who need to move around and who aren’t tied down by other things already.
As with the earpieces and the mixers, make sure you get a good system and make sure the system supports stereo use.
Like other mixing and production tasks, you’ll get better at working with personal monitors with a bit of experience. Bass shakers for the bassist and drummer and ambient mics to provide a bit more audience feedback are common enhancements for more advanced systems. With a little patience at the outset and good system planning, you’ll soon find yourself wondering how you ever got by without personal monitors!