What You Need to Know About In-Ear Monitors
Why In-Ear Monitors?
Back in the late 80’s, artists such as Stevie Wonder and Van Halen grew increasingly frustrated with the way on-stage sound was monitored at their live shows. When playing stages the size they were, wedges and side fills ran extremely hot. These high monitoring volumes provided a range of issues for both the artists and the band members. Firstly, moving in the wrong direction led to deafening feedback. One wrong step in front of the wedge could potentially lead to a blindingly loud squeal from the monitors. Secondly, having a speaker in front of the artist limited the space they could move while still maintaining a way to hear what they were singing/playing. Lastly, standing in line of a blaring monitor night after night led to significant hearing damage. To combat these issues, leading monitor engineers developed the in-ear monitor; a set of custom-molded headphones attached to a wireless monitoring pack that allowed for isolated and controlled sound to live musicians. This first iteration eliminated all fore-mentioned issues. Vocalists and players could now hear themselves clearly while monitoring at a reasonable volume. In addition to the increase in clarity in monitor mixes, artists now had the freedom to move all over the stage without running the risks of mics feeding back and losing their monitor mix. Lastly, in-ear monitors provided a concrete way for musicians to protect their hearing without the frequency loss traditional hearing protection created. Unfortunately, this convenience did not come cheap. To get a pair of custom in-ears to cost thousands of dollars, leaving them accessible only to the upper echelon of performing musicians.
As technology has developed in-ears monitors have become increasingly more affordable! Consumers can now get a respectable pair of universal fit in-ear monitors for less than $100 and pair of custom-molded ears for as low as $250. Because of this drastic drop in price, in-ears are becoming the preferred way of monitoring for many smaller touring bands and churches alike. While a full system is still a substantial financial investment, the cash required is a worthwhile cause to many up and coming musicians. The clarity, isolation, consistency, and protection are amenities that have become too appealing for musicians to pass up!
Custom or Universal?
When deciding what type of in-ears to purchase, there a multitude of options to take into consideration, the first being whether you want universal or custom-molded ones. The main appeal of universal fit in-ear monitors is the convenience, both from a financial and a practicality standpoint. A pair of entry-level, single driver monitors, such as the Shure SE-215, costs $99.99. Pairs like these are a perfect way to enter into the world of in-ear monitoring. Picking up a pair of affordable universal fit monitors before investing in a set of custom fits is always a good idea. While in-ears solve a slew of problems, they do create a few of their own. The biggest of the problems being that wearing a pair of in-ears should completely isolate your mix, which means that you lose the room sound and the only thing you are hearing is your monitor mix. Because of this, many vocalists and players complain about feeling out of touch with the audience or feel that their mix is suffocating the energy that comes from a live room. Because of this and a handful of other issues, it is wise to figure out whether those are sacrifices you are willing to make before taking the dive into a pair of custom-fit ears. Once you have tested the waters and know that in-ears are for you, it may be time to step up to a pair of custom fit ears. Having the custom fit, more than anything increases both isolation and comfort. Because the monitors are molded to the exact shape of the inside of your ears, in theory, there shouldn’t be any change in pressure or isolation while moving your mouth (moving your mouth changes the shape of your ear canal). Because of this, you will have a clearer and more isolated sound from your in-ears.
When deciding which route to go, there really is no wrong answer. If you are still trying to figure out whether using in-ears is something you feel comfortable with and prefer over traditional wedge monitoring, it would be wise to go with a more affordable set of universal fit monitors. If you know that in-ear monitoring is something you have been using universal fit ears for a bit and are looking for a clearer mix and more isolation, then custom fits are the way to go!
How Many Drivers and What In-Ears to Choose?
Before we get into how many drivers you need in your in-ears, let’s go over what a driver is! The driver is basically the speaker that goes into the in-ear monitor. There are two main types of drivers that are seen in headphones and in-ear monitors. First is the traditional moving coil design? It is essentially a tiny speaker that pulses back and forth in a vertical fashion in order to create sound. The problem with these is that they are big. There simply isn’t enough space to fit more than one or two into a small in-ear monitor. To combat this, the balanced armature driver was created. This is a small box that creates sound by pulsing horizontally instead of vertically. This smaller design allows in-ear companies to squeeze more into a single monitor. But why do we need more than one? The more drivers that are in the monitor, the more frequency separation occurs. With a single driver, all frequencies are pushed out of a single place, which can result in a muddier and less articulate mix. As more drivers are added, the range of frequency coming out of each driver is lessened, creating a more separated and articulate mix.
While having the most articulate mix may sound like a fantastic thing, that is not always the case. It is a common misconception that more drivers = better in-ears. More drivers = more frequency separation. When choosing the number of drivers you want in your in-ears, the most important factor is what you need to hear in your mix. This is typically dependent on the instrument you are playing. In addition to how many drivers you select, you should pay close attention to what types of drivers you are choosing and how those drivers are voiced. Using 64 Audio’s line of products as an example, we have put together a guide of what types of in-ears work best for what you are playing.
Bass players and Drummers:
As bass players and drummers, the most important frequencies are going to be the lower frequencies, so you will want to select a pair of in-ears that have a substantial bump in low-end. The 64 N8’s are a great choice for players looking for a robust low end.
The guitar is an instrument that covers a very wide frequency range, consequently, guitar players will want to pick a well-balanced monitor that allows them to hear all parts of the neck equally. The 64 A4t provides a very balanced and flat mix, meaning that you will get a great coverage of all frequency ranges.
Depending on the range of the singer, vocalists typically sit somewhere between the mid-range to the upper mid-range of the sound spectrum. Because of this, you will want to select something that really highlights the mids and the highs. The 64 A6t is a fantastic selection for vocalists as they offer “detailed highs and smooth mids”.
As an engineer, you are not honing in on just one frequency range, you are in charge of monitoring ALL frequency ranges. Because of this, you want a pair of in-ear monitors that create a well defined and articulate picture of the sound the band is putting out. Because of this, the 64 A18t is the perfect selection. This set of ears boasts 18 drivers per ear, allowing for the ultimate in articulation and clarity.