Cutting Through The White Noise Of In-Ears

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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.

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Fig. 1. Different universal IEM sleeves.

Stick It In Your Ear

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.

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What’s Shakin’

There are two types of transducers used for IEMs: dynamic drivers and balanced armature (BA) drivers. Dynamic drivers (moving coil) are like little speakers and are typically less expensive. They require a vent in the shell because there is a diaphragm that has to move some air, which tends to result in a more powerful bass. This type is slower to respond and generally not as accurate as the balanced armature design.

Balanced armature drivers are tiny and don’t require outside air to produce sound, so no vent is required and they have a tighter response. This design offers greater accuracy and speed, therefore more detail, but it lacks the bigger low end of air-moving dynamic drivers. Multiple drivers improve this because crossovers can split the audio into two or three frequency bands, taking the pressure off one driver to represent all the frequencies. This increases efficiency and results in a more natural sound. Some companies feature multiple BA drivers for each frequency range for their higher-end models and several companies offer a hybrid model with a dynamic driver for the bass and BA drivers for midrange and highs.

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(Left) Fig. 2. Example of a simple wired IEM setup employing a small personal mixer.

Wired Or Wireless?

Once you have your earpieces set, the next step is figuring out what sort of system is best for your situation. The simplest and lowest cost option is going for the wired approach by getting a little mixer to set beside your kit, sending a stereo monitor mix of the band from the house system into two of the channels, and plugging your IEMs into the headphone jack. This is the method Richardson employs with her duo, Mental 99, where she takes a simple stereo feed from Gore’s laptop into her Mackie 1202 to hear and cue off the loops he creates while sending it to their PA through the main outputs. You could also send other sound sources such as a click track, your vocal, or perhaps an ambient mike into the other channels to set up your own personal mix while adjusting your overall volume with the “control room/phones level” potentiometer (Fig. 2).

To use the headphone jack of a standard mixer rather than one specifically designed for IEM use, you’ll likely have to adapt. Typically IEMs have a cable terminated with a mini plug which you can use for receiver belt packs and personal listening devices, so you’ll have to use an 1/8"—1/4" adapter, or do what Richardson did with some help from her tech geek bandmate: They delicately modified her cable to give it extra length and terminated it with a 1/4" connector. This MacGyver maneuver requires a bit of finesse and even more bravery (because you’re hacking into the cable of your relatively pricey IEMs).

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(Left) Fig. 3. Shure P2TRE2 PSM200 Personal Monitor System is a basic wireless setup with IEM bodypack receiver and transmitter.

If you don’t wish to be hardwired to a mixer, wireless is another way to go. It means spending more money, but it can tie you into the rest of the band if everyone is using in-ear monitors too. You’ll be sporting a receiver body pack into which you’ll plug your IEMs, and there will be a transmitter to which the soundperson is sending an auxiliary monitor mix dialed up to your specs (Fig. 3). You can have either a stereo mix of the band or a mono mix of the band plus your vocal, your click, or whatever you wish that has a mike on it through one of the transmitters.

There are fixed-frequency wireless options, which cost less but offer only one frequency, and then there are frequency-agile systems that feature multiple operating frequencies – though not all frequencies are necessarily available at the same time. The price increases with more flexibility. More fully featured options offer automatic-scan mode and selection of the best available frequencies. True diversity systems employ two radio receivers and two antennas to help prevent dropouts and increase signal stability. Diversity systems have one radio receiver and two antennas.

Each transmitter can get a separate mix, and multiple packs can be used per transmitter by simply setting the packs to the respective transmitter’s frequency. Transmission of wireless signals has a limited bandwidth, so a compander is incorporated into the system. Compression is employed at the transmitter to limit the bandwidth for wireless transmission and expansion at the receiving end. This can affect the sound somewhat, but not necessarily in a bad way. Another thing to keep in mind when going wireless is that FCC regulations currently do not allow wireless in-ear monitors or microphones to operate in the 700mHz band (698—806mHz) because bandwidth here is at a premium.

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Degree Of Control

Once you’re set up with a wireless system of choice, it can be a bit scary to leave your ears at the mercy of the sound engineer – especially if they haven’t worked with IEMs before. Any mix moves they make should be subtle, but subtlety isn’t necessarily everyone’s strong suit. When in doubt, use the limiter incorporated on the receiver pack to protect your ears, or insert a limiter on the channel(s) where the monitor mix is coming in if you’re concerned about getting blasted by a careless or un-indoctrinated soundperson.

If you really want to wrest all the control of your monitor mix into your own domain, then you can go all out, drop a wad of cash, and commit yourself to hauling more than just your drum set to gigs. A lot of drummers tend to get into audio engineering because they’re good listeners and gear geeks in general. So here’s the scoop to having it all.

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Fig. 4. An extreme solution for utter control: Your own multichannel mixer and splitter setup to take your monitor mixes completely into your own hands.

To be ruler of your sonic domain by making your own mix independent of the house system, get a multichannel mixer, a multichannel microphone splitter, and a few DIs so you can take all stage inputs to your personal mixer and send the same signals separate from yours to the venue’s PA from the splitter. You can horde the wireless transmitters by your kit, control the band’s mixes and your own independently, and be free from concern about the quality of the venue’s monitor engineer (Fig. 4). Of course, then you’ll be at your own mercy and will be doing double duty, and there are those out there who know what that means.

Mixing Dynamics For IEMs

Whether you’re doing your own mix or working with a monitor engineer, you should realize that your mix has to be right because it sticks with you in your ear, literally. We’re talking a speaker right up in your ear – so one has to be sensitive and judicious. Louder is never better. For a good mix it is essential to consider the importance of the stereo field. The sounds should be panned to correspond with the stage plot for a realistic experience and to give space to the mix so that each sound can be heard as opposed to coming through as a layered jumble of frequencies that lack clarity and definition. Obviously, a mono mix will not have the benefit of stereo separation.

John’s approach is to pan the drums according to player’s perspective; put the bass in the center; and place the vocalists, guitars, and keyboards and such to correlate with the position of the musician on stage. “It makes it easier to hear the center if you take the less important elements and put them in other places. And it becomes easier to focus on little things when they’re placed off center than when everything is sitting on top of each other,” he says.

He cautions to go light on gates if they’re used on the drums for a natural-sounding decay. Both Richardson and John agree that too much low end will muddy up a mix. “I end up high passing the whole mix just a little bit with a moderate slope at 60Hz (because in-ears can’t be putting out 30Hz anyways),” John says. “I high pass most of the kit except for the kick drum, and take the low mids out of the toms – even the floor tom – basically leaving them mostly as attack, because if I don’t it makes a mess of the whole mix. So it may not be a perfectly great-sounding mix and it’ll have less low end than you want, but that’s why people add in subs and Buttkickers, so you get that perceived low end back.”

Keeping It Real For Feel

Because IEMs cut out 25—30dB of ambient sound, a realistic feel can be challenging to achieve, such as feeling the bass vibrations and feeling connected to the audience and to other musicians on stage. “Drummers like to feel the kick drum,” says John, who plays drums himself. “In smaller rooms you don’t have to worry so much because you can often feel the low end through the subs in the house, or there’s enough acoustical support to feel that bass in the room itself. But when you do big outdoor shows like this tour we just did with Dave Matthews, they could almost not tell that the P.A. was on because it was so directional and they were so upstage of the downstage edge. In a place like that, you could use a sub or something just to get the deck to shake a little bit, and then treat that like a regular wedge and send to that just a mix of the bass guitar and some kick drum. Another alternative is a Buttkicker – it’s a motor, but essentially a speaker, so you still have to send a low-end mix of bass guitar and kick drum to it. I prefer those over an actual drum sub because there’s less onstage noise.”

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Because the sonic isolation is so great, Richardson is thinking of setting up an ambient mike to hear the stage, the audience, and what her bandmate may be saying to her. John, who has dozens of input channels at his disposal, sets up talkback mikes for all the musicians and sends those out to just the monitor mixes, keeping them out of the mains so that everyone can communicate discreetly onstage and stay connected.

To keep the band in touch with the audience, John will set up four audience mikes in larger venues: an XY pair at the front of the stage to get the folks on that end and two shotgun mikes on the sides of the stage pointing out at the crowd. This lets the band hear the audience reactions and can help inspire a better performance. To keep the crowd sound from mucking up the mix while the band is playing, John kills the audience mikes by essentially automating a compressor to cut out the crowd when the band starts up.

He does this by inserting a compressor on the audience mike channels and sending a mix of the band into the side-chain input to trigger compression on the audience feed as soon as the music starts. “When the band plays, you can’t hear the audience, but the second the band stops, the compressor will let go on those mikes and the crowd will come in,” John explains. He sets a pretty hefty ratio, around 8:1, and a fast attack with a slow release of 3­—4 seconds to trigger -40dB of compression on the crowd when the band plays.

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In the end, your best IEM approach is up to you and your wallet. On one end of the spectrum, you can get into in-ear monitoring for as little as $60 and a tiny budget mixer. At the other end you can spend upwards of multiple thousands of dollars on quad driver custom-molded earpieces and a fully featured wireless transmitter/receiver setup. And even more if you are driven to mix every sound source for your monitor mix yourself by incorporating a multichannel mike splitter and multichannel console with associated dynamics processing and effects gear. The downside of the latter is that you’d have to lug all that gear around and set it up before every gig – as if it isn’t challenging enough hauling a full drum kit and setting that up and tearing it down for shows.