The ability to hear your live performance onstage, and adjust it accordingly, is one of the hallmarks of professional musicianship. When you can hear yourself, you’re more likely to stay in tune and in the groove. Today, there are two ways to monitor – stage or floor monitors (also called wedges) and in-ear personal monitoring systems.
Introducing the Wedge
Back in the 1960s, someone discovered that musicians could hear what they were playing onstage by using a version of the FOH system with the speakers turned around and facing them. This eventually evolved into the now ubiquitous floor wedge monitor that offered a lower profile and could be placed directly in front of the performer. The era of the floor monitor (or wedge) was born.
Just about every musician and sound engineer has plenty of experience with floor monitors and for good reason: they’re everywhere and what everyone is used to using. But as far as advantages go, that’s about it, other than providing a place for the guitar player to put his foot during a big solo.
Now the disadvantages: floor monitors are the primary cause of onstage feedback. They’re also the primary cause of musicians’ back problems and overcrowded vans. Unless you have a couple of loyal roadies, carrying those 40-lb. behemoths will get old in a hurry.
Finally – and this won’t be the last time you hear this from us – floor monitors increase the risk of damage to your hearing. Most musicians like to turn their monitors up to hear themselves better, which, if done too much and too often, can lead to serious and permanent hearing loss.
The in-ear personal monitor is without a doubt the more effective of the two types. Developed in the 1980s and once thought to be affordable only to globetrotting, arena rock acts, technological advancements and wider usage have brought prices down and have made in-ear personal monitoring systems accessible to just about any performer.
In-ear personal monitors direct the sound precisely where it needs to go – in the ear – compared to loudspeakers that direct sound to an onstage sweet spot, directly in front of the musician. They also offer:
- Virtually no chance of feedback
- A better house mix, since stage monitors aren’t there to bleed into the microphones
- Greater mobility
- Reduced vocal strain – singers aren’t competing with the sound coming from floor wedges
- Cleaner, less cluttered stage
- Lower stage volume – protecting your hearing
- Portability (most systems weigh about as much as your old Walkman®). A single rack of equipment, handling the monitoring needs of the entire band, can replace the heavy amplifiers and speakers in a monitor system.
- Artist control of mix and volume; better sound quality and stereo imaging
A critical component of any personal monitor system, make sure you don’t underestimate the importance of the sleeve. It’s essential to getting the most of the personal monitoring experience.
Made from rubber or foam, these “sleeves’ attach to the end of the earphone and are the only part of the system that makes direct contact with your ear. For this reason, they must be comfortable, secure and isolate correctly.
Some systems come with a collection of these sleeves in various sizes. Since everyone’s ears are different, finding the right sleeve is one of the most important aspects of getting the best sound from your system.
Consider these tips when selecting earphones:
- Select earphones that come with a number of sleeve options such as foam (black foam sleeves, pictured right) or rubber, as well as different sizes – small, medium and large. Make sure everyone who will use earphones try on all the various sizes and types to get the best fit. Foam sleeves often provide superior sound isolation.
- Consider custom-molded sleeves. Talk to your audiologist or contact a company that can create a custom version from a mold of your ear canal. custom-made ear sleeves are generally made of silicone and start at about $150.00, depending on the provider.
How to Select the Right System:
Ask Yourself These Questions:
Wired or wireless? One system or several? Will an entry level personal monitoring system serve your need or will you need a more advanced one? You can start to get at some of these critical purchase decisions by answering these questions.
1. How many people will be using in-ear personal monitors?
While lead singers and drummers are two of the most obvious choices, everyone onstage benefits from the ability to hear their own sounds without the “volume war’ associates with floor monitors.
Ideally, everyone in the band will be in-ear, not only from the standpoint of lowering stage volume and improving the performance, but this isn’t always possible. Cost is a real consideration, and so is the pain of change. Personal monitoring is a new concept to some musicians.
Tip: Maybe the best place to start is with the band members who are usually the ‘volume war’ combatants.
2. Will users be stationary or will they want to move freely around the stage?
One you’ve determined who is going to use in-ear personal monitoring, you’re ready for the wired or wireless decision. Wired systems are less expensive and may be sufficient for a drummer who remains seated, but a wireless system may be required for a singer or lead guitar player. It’s hard to imagine Mick Jagger or Keith Richards tethered to a cord or cable. Tip: Consider using both wired and wireless systems, based on your lineup and their needs.
3. Can band members share monitor mixers or will they need to have their own?
How many mixes are you using now? Will individual personal monitor users need to have a personal mix or can they share an overall mix?
Everyone sharing a monitor mix will be listening to exactly the same mix. As long as they all agree, sharing a mix is the easiest and least expensive way to provide in-ear monitoring for a group.
Tip: When two or more band members share the same mix, they each need a bodypack receiver. But … you’ll only need one wireless transmitter to send the mix to them.
Lead singers, guitar players and drummers often want to be able to isolate their own sounds from the rest of the band or add unique sounds (such as a click track for the drummer). In these cases, the ability to create a personal mix is preferable and worth the added cost and effort.
4. Mono or stereo?
In mono, both earphones reproduce the same audio. It’s not ideal, but it’s a more economical option.
In stereo, the earphone product delivers the most accurate monitor sounds. These include a Left and a Right signal and enable lower listening levels by separating sounds spatially instead of by volume. If you can afford the stereo that most systems provide, go for it.
There is also dual-mono in which you get a different mono mix in each ear, or MixMode®, a Shure solution, that allows you to hear two separate signals in both ears. With it, you can control the blend or the relative volume levels of these two mixes with the balance control.
Tip: Make sure that you present mixing console has the ability to transmit a stereo mix (stereo aux) before choosing this feature.
What’s your budget?
Here, you will need to separate fantasy from reality. The good news is that with the increased popularity of personal monitoring systems, there are an ever-expanding variety of options to meet almost any budget.
Hearing Conservation & Personal Monitor Systems
One of the primary benefits of in-ear personal monitoring, right up there with being able to hear your own performance, is a measure of protection against noise-induced hearing loss.
Gig after gig exposure to stage monitors producing SPLs of 85 decibels and higher can produce permanent hearing loss. A University of North Texas study estimates 30-50% of all performing musicians – and this includes classical musicians – suffer from it. Here are their tips:
Tips for short-term prevention of hearing loss
- Listen to music at moderate loudness levels
- Reduce exposure time to sound levels above 85 decibels
- Reduce repeated or cumulative exposure
- Protect yourself from exposure to hazardous sound environments
- Use ear protection in noisy environments
- Rest your ears between exposures to loud sounds
Tips for long-term prevention of hearing loss
- Get a baseline comprehensive audiological evaluation
- Follow up with annual checkups
- Know the symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss:
- Temporary threshold shifts
- Ear discomfort after exposure to loud sounds
- Ringing and buzzing in the ears
- Difficulty hearing in noisy environments.
How does this relate to the use of in-ear personal monitoring systems? Just this – the hearing preservation benefit that you will receive by saving your ears from blasting stage monitors will be completely erased by setting the volume of your personal monitor system too high.
Now that you have the basics, it’s time to make some decisions. Who’s first – singer or drummer? Wired or wireless? Mono or stereo? One mix or many? With today’s affordable feature-rich systems (Shure PSM®300 is a great example), working musicians can reap the benefits and roll like rock stars.