Remember that time you had a great live sound experience with wedge monitors? You could hear all your cues without turning up the volume to eleven. The monitor engineer responded instantly to your requests. And there was zero feedback.
No? You’re not alone. In-ear monitoring arose out of the need for a safer and better-sounding onstage experience. Read on to learn more about what it can do for you.
#1–Superior Sound Quality
The expression “garbage in, garbage out” applies here. If you’re using wedges and can’t hear yourself unless you turn up loud enough to damage your ears and interfere with the house mix, then nobody wins. Alternatively, in-ear personal monitors deliver consistently clear sound to you onstage, regardless of your venue’s limitations. When you can adjust your performance to reflect what you hear, it’s a better experience both for you and the audience. Your confidence as a performer will get a big boost too.
#2–Optimal Volume Levels
When using wedges, monitor engineers often end up in the middle of a volume war between the amplified and the unamplified. Singers, acoustic guitarists, and keyboardists can’t hear themselves over amplified electric guitarists and bassists, let alone over the drums. So, they ask, “Can you turn me up?”
“Maybe,” is the best the engineer can offer due to the limitations of power amplifier size, power handling of the speakers, and potential acoustic gain. If the room has bad acoustics, then peace is even less likely. With an in-ear personal monitor system, you’ll get studio-quality sound in a live-sound context. You can choose what you hear, and your engineers aren’t stuck waving the white flag.
#3–Elimination of Feedback
You know the sound of feedback: that intense buzzing whine that sends your hands to your ears. But what causes it?
Feedback happens when amplified sound from a loudspeaker is picked up by a microphone and re-amplified. This often occurs on crowded stages where microphones and monitor loudspeakers are too close together. When your whole band asks the engineer to turn up their mics, feedback is inevitable. In-ear personal monitor systems make this scenario moot. They seal the “loudspeakers” in your ears, breaking the feedback loop.
Chronic exposure to the high sound pressure levels of wedges can damage your ears permanently. Earplugs can help, but even the best plugs alter frequency response enough to muffle the audio. In-ear monitors both protect your ears from outside noise while simultaneously delivering only the sounds you need to hear. With the controls in your hands, you can adjust the volume to a safe level. It’s by far the healthier option.
#5–Reduced Vocal Strain
The most powerful singer is no match for an amplified guitar turned way up, or even a drum kit as-is. When singers can’t hear themselves over the stage mix—which often happens with wedge monitors—they push their voices too hard, damaging vocal chords and shortening singing careers. In-ear personal monitors allow you to hear yourself clearly when you sing, and you won’t have to scream over guitar amps and wedges. In addition to your own vocals, you can include in your mix as much or as little of the other instruments as you want.
A distinct advantage of most in-ear monitor systems over wedges is the ability to listen in stereo. Our ears are made for stereo listening, so a stereo mix is more like a natural listening environment. When you’re able to listen to a natural-sounding mix, you’re more likely to listen at a lower volume. This means healthier ears over the long term.
#7–Clean Audience Mix
Wedges are directional at high frequencies, but they become omnidirectional at low frequencies. Why that’s bad: when wedges are turned up, low-frequency bleed from the backs of the units can muddy the house mix and make vocals unintelligible to the audience, especially in smaller venues. When you use in-ear monitors, the front-of-house engineer can concentrate on delivering the best possible audience mix without having to factor in bleed from the stage mix.
If you play an amplified instrument or drums, then you’re no stranger to schlepping gear. Amps weigh around 55 pounds each. Wedges weigh about 45 pounds each. The more of those you have, the larger the vehicle you need, and the more you’re spending on gas. A complete in-ear monitor system fits in a briefcase, with no extra schlepping, vehicle space, or gas required. Plus, getting rid of wedges and speaker cables gives your stage a cleaner, more professional look, which matters if your gigs are weddings, worship services, and corporate events with different aesthetic standards than the average night club.
When you use wedge monitors, you’re limited to a sweet spot onstage where the mix sounds as good as it gets. Move a little to the right or left, and things go downhill. Why? Because loudspeakers are directional. Using in-ear monitors, on the other hand, is like using headphones: the sound goes where you go. So, if you want to play to the crowd on either side of the stage, you hear the same mix wherever you go.
Perhaps the most empowering part of in-ear monitoring is having direct control over what you hear. You’ll still rely on the monitor engineer for fine adjustments, but you can adjust the volume using the knob on your bodypack, and you can choose different mixes yourself.
If you use a stereo mix, you’ll hear the same thing in both ears, but you can pan left and right to hear more or less in either ear. If you use a system with MixMode®, you’ll hear a summed mix in both ears. From there, you can use the bodypack controls to adjust the balance of the sound sources. For example, you might want vocals and guitar in the left ear, and drums and bass in the right.
Shure Personal Monitoring
Check out our entire line of personal monitoring systems on shure.com. If you’re just getting started, or you’re running your own sound in clubs or at a church, PSM®300 might be the right option for you. For large pro tours, PSM®900 and PSM®1000 are more appropriate. We also offer a wired personal monitor, P9HW, for drummers and keyboardists who want the in-ear sound quality but don’t need the mobility of a wireless in-ear system.
P.S. Huge thanks to Shure Systems Support Manager Gino Sigismondi for doing the heavy lifting in writing this with me.