Overcoming the Fear of Change
Transitioning from traditional stage wedge speakers to in-ear monitors (IEM’s) can seem like a daunting task. Change always comes with a certain level of anxiety. However, it doesn’t have to be that way, if you are making the switch for the right reasons, with the right expectations. As you consider going to an in-ear monitoring system, here are a few thoughts that should hopefully alleviate your fears.
UNDERSTAND THE BENEFITS
IEMs allow the musician to have an assigned monitor mix directly into their ears rather than from a speaker set up close by on stage.
If getting rid of ambient stage noise and raising the comfort level of the musicians is a goal your team is trying to achieve, then you are on the right path with considering IEMs.
The key to success is to know why you are transitioning to IEMs. In-ear monitors make it possible to lower, if not totally eliminate stage volume. This is a huge benefit in any worship setting, and can be crucial in a small church building. Plus, by using IEMs, musicians and vocalists can get a very accurate rendition of what they are doing, and therefore feel more comfortable.
As with anything else, there is a distinct learning curve involved, so the first lesson would be not to put yourself in a pressure-cooker situation where the products are bound to fail your expectations. For example, switching everyone from stage wedges to IEMs for the first time the day before Sunday service is not recommended.
When discussing In-Ear-Monitors (IEMs) you’ll often hear references to Personal Monitor Mixers (PSMs). They are two different technologies, yet they are closely linked.
A very natural compliment to IEMs is the addition of personal on-stage monitor mixers. We’ve all had the experience of asking for more of this and less of that in our monitor mix with varying results. This is where the beauty of personal mixers comes in. Imagine the benefit for both the musician and sound tech as everyone on your team can set and control what they hear. Personal mixers allow the worship team to make individual changes to their mix at any time. IEMs allow the musicians to hear isolated representations of their mix, as opposed to playing it through a speaker.
The other benefit to using IEMs as opposed to stage wedges is that you eliminate a lot of stage clutter.
Once you have a clear idea of the goals of switching to in-ears, you are ready to start weighing out some of the other factors.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT EARPIECE
This is a key to having a good in-ear experience. You have to choose your earpiece the same way you would choose monitor speakers. This leads to asking two questions: what sounds best, and what can you afford. There is of course a wide range of features, quality and price points just as with monitor speakers. You need to take the time and do the research on what will work best for you.
It can be very helpful to talk to some people who use IEMs before you decide on what you are going to purchase. Try to find a few teams that have been using in-ears for a while. This will help you get a list of different ear-pieces that people like, and help you understand the challenges you’ll face as you make the transition. It will also make you aware of certain characteristics that you should look for from different IEM manufacturers; bass frequency response, volume governing, mid range reproduction, etc.
Why not just use regular ear-bud type headphones? The problem with using iPod-type earbuds is that they generally do not provide enough isolation unless the stage is quiet. Remember, the reason you have in-ears is so that you can hear yourself. If you use your iPod earbuds and still have live amps or wedges on the stage, you have not solved any problems and will probably end up moving to another level of frustration.
Try to start with a set of professional level earbuds that have either rubber or foam ends which expand into your ears. These do a fairly good job of sealing out external sound. Some manufacturers offer custom ear molds, which can be extremely beneficial if you experience problems with the earbuds falling out. Many musicians swear by their custom ear-molds.
ALL OR NOTHING
Moving to in-ears is not just a new way to do monitors; it’s a whole new way to do music.
It is best to consider the all-or-nothing approach to setting up your system. Having some musicians using earbuds and others using stage speakers (wedges) is not optimal, and may add confusion. In most cases, the folks using IEMs will crank their volume to drown out the stage volume and end up doing more hearing damage than problem solving.
It’s a good idea to have a few rehearsals using only the IEMs, before you remove the wedges from the platform. Or if you have to, try to blend in IEMs for musicians during rehearsal with your engineer and see what the levels are like. This way you can experiment with the change gradually, instead of suddenly panicking your team on Sunday morning.
If you decide to move to using both IEMs with Personal Stage Monitors, everyone should be given a chance to familiarize themselves with the features of the entire system. It will most likely take a few rehearsals before people start feeling really comfortable. Try to arrange that the group perform numbers that have some diversity: keyboard or vocal solos, multiple harmonies, etc. This will give people a chance to determine whether they can hear all of the nuances they normally expect to hear from playing through wedges.
Bassists and drummers often have concerns about switching to IEMs. To get the right bottom end for the mix, “feel” is very important. Luckily, there are solutions for this, including products that reproduce the feel of low-end frequencies for both the bassist and the drummer via modules that bolt to the drum throne or to platforms that the bassist can stand on. Otherwise, some bassists have learned to adapt to the sound that particular IEMs produce, through the process of trying out different products until one turns out to be a fit.
As it is with any new technology, there is a learning curve and some purchases that will need to be made depending on your goals and what you want to accomplish. However, if you take the time to research and experiment, the technology will end up working for you and not the other way around.