In-Ear Monitors: Challenges and Solutions

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Here’s a letter from the “other side” of in-ear monitors. Seemingly in the rush towards implementing new technical tools for worship leaders and musicians, we forget that many of these teams are made up of individuals with unique needs and preferences.

The following is a letter that was sent to TFWM detailing the “not-so-great” side of in-ear monitors. We opted to run this to open the dialogue about in-ear monitors. IEM’s are clearly a game-changer for so many houses of worship- but there are still some challenges we need to overcome before adopting some technologies. It is important to get the proper feedback from people beforehand.

Dear TFWM:
After four years playing professionally in a band using in-ear monitors I was aghast when my church worship leader said our praise team was going to invest in the same in-ear system. Here’s how I learned in-ear monitors are not for me.

First, a preface. When I want to hear every nuance of recorded music the first thing I reach for is a set of headphones. This has been my preferred listening mode for decades. Also, I am very wary of excessive volumes. It’s easy for a rehearsal to become a volume war where the clear losers are your ringing ears. In-ears seem to be a logical way to get control of your mix, save your ears, and make everybody happy.

I want to be happy.

When the secular band I’m in made the switch from floor wedges to an in-ear monitor system we were supplied with a Yahama digital board, Aviom A16 mixers plus transmitters, and Shure E5 headphones. The band even went so far as to have ear molds made in order to get a perfect fit in our ear canal. We were embracing the new millennium and we were riding the bandwagon. All the pros were going to the in-ear system, all the critics were raving.

Our sound man was giddy. The only instrument on stage making any acoustic sound was the drums. Gone were the guitar amps, the bass rig, and the keyboard monitor. He had nothing to compete with for total sound control.

I struggled from the beginning. To begin with, the personally molded headphones were not making a good seal and every time I sang certain vowels the ambient sound of the drums and the mains came rushing in with great ferocity. Also, I discovered I preferred to mix my monitors not just for each song, but during the songs. In the days of floor wedges I did this without knowing it by proximity. If I wanted to hear the drums better during the bridge I’d take a step closer to the drummer. Those days were gone. With two hands on my guitar I found I was committed to whatever mix I thought was good at sound check. Trouble was I could never find a mix I was content with for more than 30 seconds.

To have control of any mix requires isolation. The in-ear system does this very well. The problem for me was the in-ears made me feel isolated. It didn’t sound like I was playing with real people. The intimacy of live performance was gone.

In the band I was in the minority. The sound man remained a confirmed believer in the in-ears and the keyboard player loved the way his digital keyboard sounded. Everyone else managed to adapt and overcome. After a few months I gave up the struggle and tried not to spoil the party everyone else was still throwing over this new tool. But I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t content. I was frustrated.

I may be the only one around who looks at in-ears suspiciously. I still consider myself convince-able as to their over-all superiority to traditional wedges (my ears never rang after rehearsal with in-ears). However, during my four years with in-ear monitors here are some observations I have made about the disadvantages of the system.

First, a musician’s job should be to play music, not mix their own monitors. One would assume that given a good sound check everyone would set their personal levels on their personal mixers, save them and be ready for worship. But give musicians something to twist and they’ll twist and twist and twist. I am a twister, and I know I’m not the only one.

Second, sound through headphones has no spacial quality, it lacks depth, dimension and life. I’m not talking about reverb. The human ear is accustomed to hearing subtle details which add clarity to sound. We’re accustomed to hearing sound directionally. I miss that.

Third, balance is a struggle, but I believe it is a necessary struggle. Where one fits in the monitor mix is more than a matter of volume, it’s an issue of paying attention to all the music. Balance and listening across the group are often developed late in one’s musical life. Someone yells, “TOO MUCH GUITAR!” and you learn to point your amp the other way. You learn how to hear yourself in the context of other musical elements. And you learn to be patient and to compromise. If you haven’t got this skill, in-ears will cover up the biggest symptom but you may never learn to balance. In-ears allow you to be as selfish as you want.

If you’re a worship leader considering an investment in an in-ear monitor system I hope you’ll consider carefully. There’s no magic piece of modern technology that will make everybody happy.
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