If you’ve ever helped long-time stage wedge users make the transition to in-ear monitors, you know it can be a delicate and potentially frustrating process for all concerned. If they’ve had a bad experience – a distressingly common story – it can be hard to persuade them to try again.
But with skilful handling it can be done successfully. Here are some tactics that I deploy to make it a positive experience all round.
First, help artists get excited about the benefits of IEMs so that they talk themselves into trying them. The “3 C’s” are a great selling point: clarity, consistency, and control over level. Singers won’t have to push their voices quite as hard and musicians will hear greater nuance in their playing. Consider what matters to them and talk in terms of what they value, not why it’s good for you!
Next, make sure the set up is optimized before letting them near an IEM pack – any hiccups at this stage can startle IEM newbies and put them off for life. Make absolutely sure that the wireless/RF transmission is rock solid, that you’ve correctly identified the send with pink noise, that all settings on the pack and transmitter are where you want them (and are consistent with your own pack and transmitter), and that it all works properly – both packs and monitors.
Speaking of gear, try to use the same model of ear monitors (generics or custom molds) as the artists wherever possible. The listening experience should be faithful to theirs. Over-ear headphones don’t do the same job; and don’t try to do it with your PFL (pre-fade listen) wedge, which offers no appropriate frame of listening reference.
Be gentle – don’t throw them in at the deep end. Designate a time to “play around” with artists in a non-pressured, unhurried environment as far as is practical. A two-song sound check is not the time to try new things.
Devices & Support
Custom molds are wonderful but good ones aren’t cheap, and they’re also a commitment. Rent a quality generic set first before committing to purchase molds, and don’t ever use off-the-shelf earbuds intended for cell phones – they’re not the same thing sonically and they also need an effective seal for stage applications. Without this you can do damage by turning up the level to get some clarity, when what’s needed is lower level and better isolation.
Whatever monitors you use, get the best quality the budget can bear. As with vocal mics, IEMs are pivotal “close-up” tools for artists so it’s worth their investment.
When artists first insert their monitors, help them – don’t assume they know how to do it properly. Show them how to squeeze the generic foam, or gently pull the ear lobe to set a custom mold in place. Offer a dab of lube for molds and encourage them to use it each time, because new users can get sore ears.
Further, show them how the cable goes over their ears. Also demonstrate to them a sensible volume level on the pack and ask them not to fiddle with it – at least for now – so that you can get the mix set up correctly.
It’s common for newcomers to want “one ear in, one ear out” – don’t let them start this very bad habit! To demonstrate why, have them put one ear in and turn their pack up to a comfortable level. Then, without letting them touch the level, have them put the other ear in. They’ll be shocked at how loud it is, but with only one monitor in, that poor ear is still receiving the same very high level.
In addition, those new to IEMs often find it disconcerting not to be able to hear sounds outside their head. Set up a talkback mic at the desk (ideally for all band members) and use it to reassure them that they can communicate effectively.