It’s an often asked question. People see famous singers using IEMs and wonder if they’re getting left behind with their good old monitor wedges. So what are the pros and cons of using each? Hopefully this will help you decide what’s best for you.
Save your hearing
One of the principal reasons to use IEMs is that they can save your hearing in the long term. I say ‘can‘ because it’s also entirely possible to do even more damage if used incorrectly. Using a limiter on the device and keeping it at sensible levels can protect your hearing. The worst tinnitus I’ve experienced after a gig was when using IEMs at way too high a volume, so it really is about how you set them up.
Create a quiet stage
My band employs a mixture of IEMs and monitor wedges. The drummer and one guitarist use IEMs or headphones, both guitars are routed straight to the PA removing the need for back-line amps, the drums are electronic, so the only monitors are used for my vocals and guitar and one other vocalist. The bass player uses an amp next to the drummer. I can’t tell you how great this set up is. Everyone can hear everything, and it’s not ear-bleedingly loud. So using IEMs can really contribute to the cohesiveness of the performance because no-one’s worrying about the fact that the back line is drowning everything out. Neither do you suffer from the continual volume creep as everyone turns their amps up to compensate. The drummer can also play to a click if necessary without it being audible in the stage sound.
The biggest complaint about IEMs is that they create a sense of isolation for the wearer. It’s nice to have your own perfect mix in your headphones, but if you have to interact with the crowd or the rest of your band, it can be difficult to feel involved. One way around this is to position ambient mics in the audience so you can still hear what’s going on out there on the floor.
It’s not advisable to play with one earbud in – that can lead to your free ear becoming fatigued and you compensate by turning up the monitoring, which then blasts your other ear!
If you have the aux channels available, it’s possible to create a stereo mix so you can position the instruments around you in the stereo field. This makes a huge improvement over a mono mix and allows the instruments much more separation.
A feature that allows you to have your own instrument(s) in one ear and the band in the other. You can then mix the ratio of your instrument(s) to the band.
One the best reasons to use IEMs is to prevent feedback which is usually caused by monitor speakers that are too loud being picked up by the mics.
All Earbuds Are NOT Equal
The quality of your earbuds is largely responsible for how good an experience you have with IEMs. You can spend a very little on crappy earbuds or a huge amount (up to thousands) getting individual moulds made for your ears. The quality varies significantly. The cheaper earbuds will often fall out of your ear a lot or not make a complete seal therefore allowing some bleed-in from external sound. I found however, that you can buy your own mould kits on eBay and create your own custom-fitting phones. These are very effective at isolating sound, are more comfortable to wear, and don’t fall out. If you get the seal perfect, it massively improves the bass response too.
One of the downsides is batteries. Expect to replace/recharge every 3 or 4 gigs. That’s not so bad, but if you don’t keep an eye on it, you’ll be running out of juice mid-song and that’s not fun.
Crosstalk and Signal Quality
Any device that used FM radio waves to transmit and receive on is susceptible to crosstalk from other radio signals. Usually, this isn’t an issue, but is something to check for when sound checking. You can always change the frequency band if there are problems.
Signal quality is dependant on the quality of the transmitter you buy. A good starting point for IEMs is LD Systems MEI1000 system which has a good all-round performance whilst not breaking the bank. We have 2 of these systems in our band and they work well.
Finally, you can walk around the whole stage and still hear yourself. Cool!
The list of benefits for these is shorter, but that’s because they’re inherently simpler beasties. There may be only a few points here, but they weigh a lot!
You can’t really beat the feeling of involvement that is retained by using wedges. If you’ve got your mix right, it will give you everything you need to hear, and you’ll still be able to get a good idea of the rest of the sound on stage, as well as the audience. Personally, I use a monitor wedge over in-ears (I’ve tried both extensively) because I really enjoy the gig more this way. I feel more involved with the rest of the band and with the audience. I can get my mix just how I want it, and angle it away from our other singer next to me, who does the same with his monitor. There’s a little bit of bleed coming across to each of us, but it’s negligible as long as they’re set at a reasonable level.
One single monitor wedge can be useful for multiple band members. In our band, our bass player relies on the mix coming from either my wedge or the other vocalist’s wedge. Doubling up this way can free up aux channels for more individual monitor mixes.
Usually, you can only hear the monitor properly if you’re right in front of it. Whilst this can be a downside if you like moving around the stage, it can also be good if you want to just ease off the amount of sound coming at you for a bit.
The main downside for using wedges is feedback. In a way, this helps you control the level on stage, because they really should’t feed back unless they’re too loud. A lot of wedges now have feedback cancelling circuits on them with a knob you can turn to eliminate feedback (at the expense of some clarity).
There’s a clear winner here in terms of bullet point benefits. In-ear monitors have far more benefits than using wedges. Having said that, the main reason for using wedges over IEMs for me is that it simply makes gigs more enjoyable. And when it comes to gigging, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? At the end of the day, it’s a subjective choice, so don’t feel like you should be using IEMs if you’re currently using wedges – there are no ‘shoulds’. Do what makes sense to you, and most importantly allows you to enjoy what you’re doing.