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Finding The Sweet Spot: Getting The Desired Vocal Sound In IEM Mixes

The goal is to protect the artist's hearing while giving them a “balanced, clear mix.” Louder isn't better.

After many years as a front of house and studio mixer, I find myself these days as a monitor engineer, where I’ve had the honor of working with many amazing and talented artists such as Enrique Iglesias, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera and Tears For Fears.

Even though these artists cover a vast variety of styles and genres, they all have one thing in common: The desired vocal sound in their in-ear monitors (IEMs) is very similar. The goal is to protect my artist’s hearing while giving them a “balanced, clear mix.” Louder isn’t better.

About 15 years ago I remember going to the opera for the first time, “Madame Butterfly” if memory serves me right. I was on a balcony with great seats, eagerly awaiting the start of the show.

When it began, the first thing that came to my touring engineer mind was how quiet and far away everything sounded, but within seconds my brain and ears had a meeting and I realized that I could indeed hear everything clearly. This blew my mind! I was able to hear the breathing of the vocalists as well as the smallest details of the orchestra, including the faintest notes of the glockenspiel, winds and strings. All of this as clear as water. My ears zoned in as if I was listening to a hi-fi version of it.

Keeping It Down

I use this as an example every time artists and musicians I’m working with want to listen to their IEMs at a loud volume. If you start loud you can only go louder as the show progresses. Not good.

But if you start low and then turn up the volume a bit if needed it will seem like a lot. This is hard to get used to but incredibly efficient when trying to protect your ears and have a great experience with IEM mixes on stage. “Start low…you can always go a bit louder if desired. If you start loud…” – well, you get the picture.

The question of why an artist like his/her vocal so bright, and/or, way too loud has a relatively simple answer. But to start, we need to understand that what we listen to at monitor world is not what the artist is listening to. Their perspective is completely different.

Although I’ve been a mix engineer for over 20 years, I’ve also had the experience of playing in bands where I’ve worn IEMs as well while singing and playing instruments. I believe this has helped me understand what singers and musicians might need on stage while wearing IEMs. (Plus they’re the best tool to protect our hearing.)

First, they’re the ones performing, which means they can hear themselves (via resonance) through the bones near and around their ear canal, where we as monitor engineers do not. We only hear the end result of what we send to their IEMs (EQ, compressors, ambience).

Second, they’re wearing plastic earpieces that block sound from entering their ear canal. Although you can still feel vibration and hear low frequencies, mid and high frequencies levels are very attenuated, to a point that often feels as if you’re 100 percent blocked from the outside world. (The “muddy” sound of LF buildup that occurs when the ear canal opening is blocked is called the Occlusion Effect.)

I actually consider them “ear plugs with sound coming out,” which as noted earlier, is great for ear protection when used properly. What does this mean? Well, normally when we listen to a vocalist through studio monitors, a PA or stage wedges, we search for a clear but warm vocal sound, and as an IEM mixer, we can also achieve that with no problems at all.

Making The Connection

The difference is when the singer is wearing IEMs, there are many additional factors to consider, such as the volume of the bodypack IEM receiver, the EQ curve of the whole mix, and more importantly the EQ curve and compression settings for the vocalist’s channel itself, regardless of the microphone being used.

Understanding how the human body reacts to sound, especially when plugged up with some “plastic things” molded to the ear canals, is key to understanding this process. I always tell my artists: “Imagine that you just put in ear plugs, and now turn up the volume slowly until you can hear yourself clearly – but not loudly.”

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