Photo by sergio_leenen
Q: I play on a weekly gig and I use in-ear monitors. Things sound fine during sound check, but I don’t realize I need something until I’m lost in the middle of a song and find myself unable to find the keys or guitar in my monitor. This happens fairly regularly. I’ve even had most of my bass taken out of the monitors, and it still seems to happen. I don’t know if its because theres too much or too little going on in my mix… or maybe it has to do with where I’m standing on the stage? I’m sure I’m not the only one that this has happened too…any thoughts or advice?
A: In-ear monitors (IEMs) are an entirely different experience than playing with a wedge monitor (or no monitors). For those who don’t know, using in-ear monitors is literally just replacing loud (and large) floor wedge speaker monitors and with headphones. This does the house and stage a lot of good by keeping the stage volume down, which makes life much easier on the front-of-house sound person. It can also save the hearing of the musicians as we actually listen at much softer volumes through headphones than we would in front of amps with wedges competing for sonic space (often, next to a drummer). In fact, there really is no need for amps on stage if you have a quality sound system, a good in-ear rig and competent sound men/women.
You will also find that the majority of people who use an IEM system frequently will have custom molded in-ear headphones with multiple drivers to deliver a fantastic level of audiophile sound quality.
The biggest complaint from musicians is that IEMs produces a sound that doesn’t sound live. It almost sounds like you are listening to a recording, but this is something that one usually gets used to pretty quickly. Guitarists especially have a hard time not hearing that amp sound that they’ve spent years refining.
One thing which helps is to crack (or un-seal) one of your ears, allowing you to hear the room and stage a little better. It’s amazing how different music sounds when you can’t hear the ‘air’ in the room. I’ve come to like it because it reminds me of being in the studio and for whatever reason, when I have the studio headphones on, I play with more intention and clarity. I trim the fat, so to speak.
Back to your question. I have a few suggestions:
1. Talk to your sound person.
I assume that you have someone manning the in-ear mix while you are performing? Just like with a person in charge of a monitor mix, you might have to flag them down. Don’t be afraid to point to the piano player and then point up to indicate that you want more of the piano in the mix, for example. If they are the type to keep their head down, you should speak to them before the gig and mention that your needs are shifting during the performance, and request that they keep an eye out for you, in case you need something.
2. That’s what sound checks are for
There are times when we have to find the best balance. Every song is different and may require a little bit more or less of this and that but you have to find a balance that serves all songs, or run the risk of driving your sound person nuts by requesting he change everything every 5 minutes.
If you find the perfect balance for the piano on the ballad, but it makes it just a hair louder than you’d like on the heavy hitting song? Might be time to suck it up just a little bit for the greater good.
Use your sound check time to try and refine the balance you have going. If you make good use of your sound check, and everyone plays the way they are going to play during the performance, you should be close.
3. Less is more
I have found that I prefer my monitor mix (in-ear or wedge) to have as little information in it as possible. When I’m given a wedge, I generally start with nothing in it and gently add what I need, and nothing else. When people add everybody to the mix, it creates clutter on stage, which tends to be overcome by more volume from the amp, which requires more information in the wedge, which can quickly spiral into a sonic hell for everybody involved.
When you are using in-ears however, you will definitely need a few things in there so you aren’t flying blind. I would argue you still don’t need everything. My tendency is to only add what I need to hear and play the songs well. On a pop gig, I usually have lots of drums and bass, touch of percussion, enough piano and/or guitar to discern harmony and hear solos and vox.
Again, most levels are lower than you’d think in my mix. just enough to tell what’s going on and hear anything that I might need to react to. My main focus is on pocket and form, so it’s mostly bass and drums for me.
On a jazz gig, I likely wouldn’t be using IEMs. The monitors would ideally be a good balance of everything in that setting, because a jazz gig requires a more conversational approach to playing. When I have a wedge for a trio gig on a larger stage, I tend to put just a touch of piano in there and nothing else. Jazz is best served when you can control the volume from the stage. Actually, I think most music is best served that way.
You also mention where you are standing on stage. If you are using molded plugs, this is not an issue. The only thing I can think of is that you may still have your amp too loud and yes, if you are in front of it, you could be obscuring the information a bit. In-ears are there to make life quiet and to make the stage quiet. Turn the stage volume down (or off, if you have a good sounding bass and DI).
I can’t imagine taking the bass out of an in-ear mix as you mentioned. If you’re using good headphones with any kind of isolation, you wouldn’t hear yourself well at all. Some people do like to use over the ear headphones with poor isolation (i.e. a lot of “bleed”) so that they can get the reference mix in the headphones but still hear the amps and room. That is a different scenario which requires its own approach with regard to mix and stage level.
I’m sure many of you readers have some IEM experiences to share. Let’s keep the discussion going in the comments!