Reliable monitoring is essential to performers on stage, allowing them to blend their musical contributions with the other players – keeping them in time, on pitch, and able to creatively interact.
Traditionally, this function was performed by low-profile loudspeakers aimed generally toward the areas where the performers were active, with level control, sufficient coverage, bleed into open microphones, and feedback all issues that needed to be overcome. Another issue, especially with acts performing at high levels, was/is a contribution to hearing loss.
I first became aware of in-ear monitors, and wireless delivery of the mix, more than 20 years ago when I was asked to check out a prototype from a company called Garwood, based in the UK. The system consisted of a transmitter and a commercial stereo receiver unit (as I recall it was from Sony) operating in the FM band, with a pair of ear buds for monitoring.
In talking with some sound engineers for corroboration, I heard that a handful of singers were trying the system but rarely the other players, and that not hearing other musicians and the audience “live” was a common objection. (It should also be noted that Future Sonics was another pioneer of this approach at the time.)
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and in-ears and other personal monitoring solutions see wide usage. Let’s explore how manufacturers and engineers are pushing the boundaries of monitoring.
Monitoring a performance and what the rest of the band is doing while wearing in-ear monitors has a number of advantages over monitor loudspeakers. Typically, the performer has personal control the level of the mix via a wireless beltpack receiver or other interface, and unless the level controls and limiters are overridden, that level will be safer than the uncontrolled output of stage monitors and additional sound sources.
So there’s less potential for hearing damage as well as listening fatigue, but still enough level to stay present with the performance. And no matter where the artist moves on stage, the mix will remain consistent and much cleaner.
That mix can be even more highly controlled, either by the monitor engineer or by personal monitor-mix stations where the performer can select exactly what they want to hear at which relative levels, and make adjustments on the fly. With the mix going straight from the board into the ears, personalization of a mix is much more refined, and can make achieving a satisfactory mix faster and easier.
For the engineer and audience, having fewer or no monitor wedges lowers the level coming off the stage into the house, so that the house loudspeaker system isn’t competing with the stage for attention. This can be further enhanced with isolation boxes on instrument amplifiers, along with side/rear-firing them, and similar methods. Also, either having no wedges on stage or having them at lower levels to supplement in-ear monitors will help with gain-before-feedback as well as mic isolation.
A major part of performing is making the connection with the audience, and that energy is part of the “live” feeling that can be compromised by wearing isolating in-ears delivering a clean personal mix. An early and ongoing solution to this problem is adding side-stage audience mics to feed applause and other ambient sounds into the monitor mix. Pulling out one ear bud or loosening them to hear what’s going on can defeat the benefits of hearing protection and a more consistent mix.
Engineer Sean Quackenbush (O.A.R., Robert Randolph) with part of the Sensaphonics 3D Active Ambient IEM system.
Performers also need to interact on stage, and this includes being able to talk with each other during or between tunes. Artists also want to communicate with techs and the monitor mixer during a show. With in-ear monitors sealing the ear canal and attenuating ambient sounds by 20 dB or more, that communication can be much more difficult.
A solution from Sensaphonics addressing these challenges is the 3D Active Ambient IEM system. Each custom earpiece contains a microphone, and what it “hears” can be added to a monitor mix at any desired level.
The beltpack has a toggle switch that goes between a performance mix with your preferred ambient level mixed in, and a communications mode that brings up the level of the mic and dials down the monitor mix for those necessary conversations. Another approach is found in the JH Audio Ambient FR earpiece, which has an “ambient bore” to let in an attenuated version of outside sounds.