by Gary Williams
If I had to define my experience with in-ear monitoring I would have to describe it as a "love-hate" relationship. When I buy a new piece of gear, like most everyone else I love that "instant gratification" factor. When I unbox that new keyboard or guitar, I'm giddy with excitement as I hear immediate results.
Of course, over time there is a learning curve on the higher tech toys, but for the most part, it never fails to make me cackle maniacally those first few hours as I push buttons just to see what happens. Come on now, don't judge me - we all do it.
So a few years back when I ordered my wireless in-ear monitor system, I couldn't wait for my next gig to try them out. The day came - I beamed as I handed the transmitter to the hired sound guy and gave him a brief description of what I wanted to hear and after some further direction, and a less than satisfying sound-check, my much anticipated in-ears were removed and I limped through the remainder of the show without a monitor wedge, straining to hear what stage volume bled over my direction. WHAT HAPPENED??? It wasn't supposed to be like this.
There were occasional attempts to resurrect the in-ears, all with less than gratifying results leading me to the obvious conclusions that they were a piece of junk and/or the sound-tech is the problem. After all, the problem couldn't be with me, could it? (dramatic pause) Naw!!!!! Well, maybe. Maybe my quest for instant gratification had caused me to set my expectations too high.
Too Much of a Good Thing
I am no gourmet chef. Okay, I'm useless in the kitchen (truth be told) but let's say for the sake of argument that I'm not. Now once the laughter subsides, consider this: the art of cooking has a lot to do with assembling the right combination of quality ingredients in the correct proportions. Mixing for in-ears is no different. I could fuss for hours trying to get the perfect mix with the unrealistic expectation that I can get it to sound like a "studio mix". That's just not going to happen. You can't build an in-ear mix the same way you would build a studio mix or even a front of house mix. The mistake most users make is that they put in their in-ears what they "like" to hear and not what they "need" to hear. Just because I love cheese, doesn't mean I need to put twice as much cheese in my dish as the recipe calls for. Some recipes don't even call for cheese and would be ruined if I tried to add it. Hard to believe - I know.
The adage "less is more" really applies here. Just because I want to hear lots of drums and bass doesn't mean I should. All devices have a threshold at which point you can't push them any further without distortion. When the drums and bass are cranked just to that point, the limiters on the monitor systems kick in and push everything down to prevent damage to your hearing as well as over-modulation of the RF signal on wireless units. If we mix everything up to that threshold in even amounts, it becomes a competition for the limited dynamic range of the system. Whoever is playing or singing the hardest or loudest becomes "king of the mountain" and pushes everyone else off. Gain staging is everything here. It's crucial not to dump equal amounts of everything in the mix. Here are some guidelines that have helped me achieve a functional and helpful recipe for my in-ear mix.
• Put first things first. Since I sing a lot, I want my vocal to be the thing that comes close to that threshold (and nothing else!). After a proper warm up (like that ever happens) sing at the most intense level you anticipate that you will be singing while you monitor your voice only in ears. Fade the aux level up on the mixer for your vocal channel just until you begin to hear that limiter kick in. You will know when you start to hear a little drop in the high frequencies. Roll the send level back just a touch. (hint) For singers who sing with a really wide dynamic range, running a compressor on your vocal channel at front of house will not only help your in-ear mix but it would help the house engineer keep your vocal from getting lost in the main house mix.
• Put just enough bass and drums in the mix to help you lock in for timing. I prefer a little bit of kick and hi-hat. I find that I usually get enough bleed from the snare coming through the vocal mics that I don't need any direct signal from the snare or toms. Try to minimize as much as possible here.
• On other instruments I lean more on the one's the play more of a rhythmic/harmonic function rather than a melodic one. A piano or an acoustic or rhythm guitar that gives a good reference to the chords is going to help me play or sing in tune or put my part in the pocket a lot better than the cool searing leads from the twenty-something lead guitar shredder. While I love what he plays, I can record the show and enjoy it later•for right now I don't need him at 110dB inside my head.
• Remember that everything you add to the mix makes the delicate balance more critical and exponentially harder to achieve. Ask yourself "do I need it to help me give my best performance?" If the answer is no, don't add it at all.
• If you have a spare channel(s) on your mixer, set up ambient mic(s) which are assigned to your monitor mix only. Mix just enough of the room sound in to get a sense that you're in the "space" and not making music inside a vacuum. Again, the idea is to add just enough.
• Make sure you stage the gain so that you don't overdrive the input of the transmitter on a wireless in-ear system. Most of them have some sort of clip indicator or level meter to let you know when you do this. It's better to keep the input low to keep that limiter from kicking in too much. If you need more overall level, push your earbuds a little harder from the receiver. Good earbuds that seal your ears well don't require that you crank them to ear-bleeding levels to hear everything well.
• Don't use cheap earbuds. The $20 earbuds you bought at the electronic superstore won't do the trick. I originally used single driver Shure earbuds and those did a good job. I recently upgraded to the dual driver SE425's and immediately noticed greater clarity in the high mids, and a lot more definition on the low end. I won't ever go back.
For rock solid performance, reliability, and ease of use, I would have to recommend the Shure PSM series of personal monitors. The entry level is the PSM200. While there are fewer frequencies to select and it's a mono system, for most this works well and unless you're running a huge digital front of house mixer with more auxiliary sends than you can shake a stick at, most likely you won't have the luxury of being able to run a stereo in-ear mix anyway. I would strongly recommend purchasing the PSM200 system without earphones, and separately purchasing the SE425 dual driver earphones. They're worth every penny of the difference.
If you really want it all, then the PSM900 system can be purchased packaged with the SE425's. The system has many more selectable frequencies, plus it is a stereo transmitter/receiver. The advantage of stereo is that it gives you separation so you can pan instruments that may occupy similar ranges in the frequency spectrum off of each other so things you want to hear don't get buried in the mix. I would place all vocalists at different positions from left to right with myself in the center to better isolate each part making it easier to blend. I recently performed at a venue that provided PSM900 systems on stage for each performer. After experiencing stereo in-ears it was a bit of a let down going back to mono.
Stereo is definitely a step I will be taking when I'm able to upgrade mixers to a digital console at church. Thanks to some great new digital mixers hitting the streets with some attractive price tags, that's going to be happening a lot sooner than I originally thought.
In conclusion, while using wireless in-ear monitors may be frustrating at first, with a little education, guidance, and patience you can get very satisfying results.
Gary Williams' background in music and production includes real-world experience as a musician, sound technician, worship staff member, systems installer and in audio, video, and lighting systems design. He is currently a systems design specialist for Truth Seeker/Geartechs during the week and leads worship on the weekend. Feel free to call Gary with questions about audio, video, lighting and music gear. He might even share some of his worship song sequencing library with you, if you're lucky.