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Situational Awareness: Are In-Ear Monitors Always The Better Option For Musicians?

Some examples of performances that might actually benefit from using stage monitors rather than IEMs.
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I’m a huge fan of in-ear monitors, so much so that I teach about the benefits of earphone monitoring in my classes and we collectively always come to the conclusion that IEMs are simply the better option.

I mean, what’s not to love? Better timing references for all users, making bands sound tighter and more rehearsed. Better sonic image in the stereo field. Better sound for the audience because of the reduced stage volume levels that clear up sound interference. The ability to use click and supporting tracks for more options and accuracy. The list is long and appealing.

But is it the end-all solution, making stage wedges and side fills a thing of the past? Is there still a place for users who swear by loudspeakers on stage for monitoring without feeling ancient and out of step with the world?

As with everything in pro audio, there are always situations that demand different approaches, which holds true for monitoring as well. If my experience in my beloved field of interest has taught me anything, it’s that there are no absolutes and we always have to gauge every situation on its own merits. So, let’s think about a few examples of performances that might actually benefit from using stage monitors rather than IEMs.

Telling Signs

The first one that I always think about is a traditional jazz band trio or quartet. In my opinion, jazz bands that are used to feeding off each other’s performances don’t usually need a lot of additional monitoring.

In fact, adding too many sound sources can actually hinder musicians from hearing the subtle sonic nuances that enable them to get inspiration for their improvisations. A telling sign of such ensembles is the attention they give to their positioning on the stage. They can “self-mix” by carefully defining their position on the stage and adjusting their levels within their playing style and in their gear to create an optimal listening environment. To put them on IEMs means isolating them from the very surroundings that feed their creativity.

In these situations, I always prefer wedges and place the same level of care and attention to the position of those loudspeakers as well as their sound, which should be there to complement and not to overtake the sonic image on the stage. And just to clarify – although I’ve noticed this approach most commonly in smaller jazz ensembles, I’ve also encountered some blues and rock bands with the same approach. Yes, they’re rare appearances in the wild world of live sound, but I can confirm that they’re out there.

The second example that comes to mind are ensembles of a classical nature where members need their hearing apparatus to control not only their playing, but also for intonation. While IEMs are extremely beneficial when these instruments are played in conjunction with other reinforced musical instruments, they can be very confusing for artists staying in the classical world.

All of the sudden, the musicians lose the referential combination of hearing the sound from their instruments as well as feeling the vibration that that instrument transmits through their bodies because it changes the timing of the vibrational aspect by (usually) adding latency, which is inherent in IEM systems run through digital mixing consoles.

Using wedges in such situations can be more useful and user friendly, albeit if done in a bit more unconventional way. Particularly on larger and/or open-air stages, I’ve found great success in treating monitor loudspeakers more as simulators of walls of a room.

For example, try setting up wedges from three sides (left, right and in front of the artist), adding not only the instrument but quite a bit of room reverb as well. The aim here is to recreate the feeling of playing in a room that would provide the artist with the reflections that would be acoustically used to get the correct dynamic and frequency content for their musical expression.

Common Thread

What about solo singers in acoustically rich spaces? Or instrumentalists who incorporate their acoustical environments in their interpretations? We can quickly find a common thread here.

When encountering musicians who rely heavily on the acoustical environment for their performances, consider if wedges can be effectively used to retain that connection with their surroundings. Further, support their choice by carefully reinforcing only those elements that might need a bit of help to shine through. Pay attention to the frequency content as well as the time domain of what’s being put through those monitors by first determining what’s missing and how to recreate an environment around the act that can aid their performance.

The same mentality can come in handy even when using IEMs. Always consider what the environment is providing and what needs to be added. For example, a change in the configuration of subwoofers can either fill the stage with low frequencies or reduce them immensely. That change can definitely influence the way those IEMs need to be adjusted to provide a consistent sonic experience from venue to venue.

Another point of clarification: I’m not claiming that everyone who refuses to use IEMs over wedges does so because of the listed benefits. Some are reluctant about IEMs for reasons that have nothing to do with their acoustical environment, and it’s important that the monitoring engineer knows the difference and helps them transition. In fact, I’m giving an entire presentation on how to help clients transition to IEMs at this year’s Live Sound Summit online event.

Hopefully, what I’ve presented here can serve as a gentle reminder regarding the importance of appreciating the differences between artists and their settings, and adjusting stage monitoring approaches accordingly. Especially because I believe that the most important role monitor engineers can play is making sure clients are comfortable and providing an environment that can not only support, but – in ideal circumstances – enhance the creative energy transfer from performers to their audiences.

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