Being pummeled by explosive stage sound and overly loud amplified music in tiny rehearsal spaces is kind of a bummer for the longevity of your hearing. And playing gigs where you can’t hear all the elements you need to in order to play your best can be like walking a tightrope blindfolded with an unbalanced load. We’ve all been there. It can be especially tenuous if you sing in addition to holding down the drummer duties, if you want to play to a click, or if you need to cue into and synch up with loops and samples. This makes the world of in-ear monitoring very attractive indeed.
There are many in-ear monitor (IEM) options available, and depending on your budget and needs, there is something in the mix for you. To get the gamut of possibilities from simple to extreme, I caught up with drummer Dawn Richardson (Tracy Chapman, Shana Morrison, Mental 99) who uses IEMs in her progressive duo with guitarist/tech maven Joe Gore, and I also got the lowdown on big-stage dynamics from touring front-of-house engineer and production manager Ryan John (Allen Stone and others). They provided some perspectives on what’s out there in the world of in-ear monitoring and offered tips on keeping a real feel while being sonically isolated from ambient stage sound, the audience, and one’s bandmates. John also shed some light on creating a good monitor mix and shared some tricks for dynamics processing.
Fig. 1. Different universal IEM sleeves.
There is a wide selection of universal-fit IEMs on the market, and acquiring one of these is perhaps the quickest way to get started with in-ear monitoring and easiest on the wallet. A variety of sleeves is available that each work to provide a good seal in order to significantly reduce ambient sound from reaching your eardrums the same way earplugs do. The sleeves may be foam (cylindrical or shaped) or single, double, or triple silicone flanges (Fig. 1). A set of the most affordable IEMs with a fixed cable from Sennheiser goes for around $60, and a set with a detachable cable from Shure can be had for as low as $100.
If you have the ducats, a customized fit can provide a better seal from external sounds as well as enhanced comfort. One could either upgrade a set of universals by commissioning custom sleeves to be made by a company that offers such a service, such as Sensaphonics, Futuresonics, or 1964 Ears, or by going all out and ordering a set of custom IEMs from Ultimate Ears, JH Audio, Westone, or any number of manufacturers that offer top-quality customs to meet a range of budgets – from as low as $175 to as much as $2,000 for a top-of-the-line, fully featured custom set. These can be molded out of soft silicone or hard plastic such as acrylic or PVC depending on your preference.
Richardson opted for a set of Futuresonics Atrios with custom soft silicone sleeves, which ended up costing around $400 total, and she is very happy with them. John, who has worked with many musicians and is a multi-instrumentalist himself, offered a two-fold perspective on the question of opting for soft or hard options: “Soft molds tend to be more comfortable, but they can flex in shape, so they never really sound as good because if the audio pathway through the IEM changes when the performer moves, it affects the audio. They also don’t respond well to sweat or sunlight – they get sticky and can actually begin to deform if exposed to the sun. The plastic molds could be a bit less comfortable because they’re hard, but at least they sound more consistent and they can withstand almost anything, including occasionally being stepped on.”
To get either custom sleeves or custom molds, you must get a full ear impression made so the company can tailor the product to your ears. You can get this done through an audiologist for around $50—$100, or you can acquire a kit to make your own impressions. Companies like Alien Ears and Big Bang offer such a kit so you can do it yourself if you dare. There is an instructional video on Alien Ears’ Web site on how to do it without damaging yourself.