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Church Sound: Why Switching To In-Ear Monitors May Be A Lot Harder Than You Think

While IEMs can bring a lot to out tech toolboxes, it’s worth considering some drawbacks that come with the transition, especially in the context of a church.
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Unless you’ve been asleep the last several years, you’ve likely heard of these nifty little things called in-ear monitors (IEMs). You know, those fancy earplugs that all the people on every stage seem to be wearing. And I’m sure you’ve also heard how IEMs will fill musicians with joy, fix all mix problems, and put an end to all those pesky volume complaints once and for all.

[Spoiler alert – they won’t do any of that. An actual complaint I once received on a comment card: “It’s so loud that everyone on stage has to have plastic things stuck in their ears. Maybe if they took those out they’d be able to hear better and you could turn it down!”]

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been helping bands and churches switch to IEMs for over 20 years now, so I’m a big fan of what they can bring to our tech toolboxes. But before throwing out all those monitor wedges, it’s worth considering a few of the not-so-insignificant drawbacks that come along with transitioning to IEMs, especially in the context of a church.

That Natural Sound

First, I think it’s helpful to review how we hear things “naturally” so we can better understand some of the challenges that IEMs present. In normal circumstances our amazing “two ears and brain” combo has the remarkable ability to hear things in a completely three-dimensional space and easily differentiate those sounds from each other based on their location and distance from us. Not only can we tell if something is to our left or right, but we can also differentiate front and back as well as up and down. And we can do this with an astonishing amount of accuracy.

The science behind this is fascinating, but I won’t get into all of that here, mostly because it’s way too hard for me to understand, much less explain. But suffice to say it’s super cool.

So, how does this apply to our situation? Well, when there are multiple sound sources on stage (drums, guitar/bass amps, an organ, monitor wedges, singers, etc.) it’s relatively easy for performers to adjust what they’re hearing simply by moving their bodies and/or turning their heads, or even changing their mental focus to a different sound source on stage. As long as things are at least close to the same volume, they can kind of “make their own mix” in their heads. It’s so natural to humans that we do it without even thinking about it.

But guess what happens when we put those IEMs in our ears? Yup, that nifty little trick that we do so easily goes right out the window. All the delicately nuanced natural sound that our brains use to decipher the world around us is replaced by two tiny speakers tucked inside our ear canals. Bummer.

Counting The Ways

And this brings us to drawback number one. With traditional wedge monitoring, everyone on stage is accustomed to hearing their own “unique mix,” and in transitioning to IEMs, they’re not going to be able to function as well without that. So, where you may have been able to get by with a wedge monitor mix or two, you’re now likely going to need to figure out how to get as many IEM mixes on stage as there are people performing there. For some churches this number can range anywhere from three to 30 or more depending on the week, so it’s no small challenge.

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There are a few different ways to address this drawback. Many churches use personal monitor mix systems (PMMs) with headphones or in-ear earphones to allow performers (in most situations) to create their own IEM mixes. But this solution brings its own set of problems.

The simpler (and cheaper) systems only provide 16 channels (which in my opinion is nearly never enough), so they aren’t able to deliver the granularity of control that’s often needed. The larger, more complex systems have more channels and control but at the expense of additional complexity. Since most of the time the performers are being tasked with controlling their mixes, this complexity is not always easily dealt with.

Another way to approach it is to do a mixture of PMMs and wedges. Maybe use PMMs for the band and serve the singers with a couple of wedge mixes. This can work, but of course, you’re right back to having wedges on stage. There’s also the problem of dealing with signal flow for two completely different monitoring systems, which adds another layer of complexity.

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