Should I Use an Amp, a Monitor or In-Ears?

In-Ear Monitors

Q: I want to choose a new rig. I’m quite happy with my basses and my effects I own at the moment, and I am searching now for a way to amplify my signal. I have a very good, portable upper-middle-class halfstack, but I can rarely use it because I often do small gigs and it is a little bit too much there. But when I only use the stage wedges and no amp, my bass gets lost in the mix. When I use my amp, I still have to turn up quite loud to not get lost in the mix. What should I do? Buy another, smaller amp? Buy a wedge only for me and mix the bass and the monitor mix separately? Buy an IEM system? I have had no experience with this kind of monitoring and I would be the only one in my band who would use it. Would it be too much for small gigs? By the way, I love playing with headphones and i always like the studio sound more than the live sound.

I love your column and your bass playing. Your column stopped me from quitting bass and got me more jobs and gigs. Thanks.

A: First off, thank you for the kind words at the end there… you absolutely made my day!! I can’t tell you how much I loved reading that last sentence.

Now to your question… I am one who always likes to have the right tool for the job. My wife would be the first to tell you that I have too many suitcases, backpacks, and a variety of cabs and heads for any setting.

If you always have a sound person, my vote is for a wedge-style cab or a 210 or 212 cab that you can use primarily as your bass monitor and then let the FOH (front of house) engineer adjust the bass for the room.

That said, since I don’t know much abut your specific playing scenarios, I’ll talk a bit about each option that you presented.

Buy another, smaller amp?

This is the most versatile option as it allows you to dial in an appropriate stage volume without having to lug a refrigerator-sized cabinet everywhere you go. When you show up with a mid-sized cab (like the 210 or 212 option I mentioned earlier), it allows you to use the cab to fill the room if necessary or dial it back and just get a good stage volume and let FOH run the show out front.

Buy a wedge just for me and mix the bass and the monitor mix separately?

Many companies offer wedge-shaped bass cabs these days. You could also simply use a good quality monitor wedge or keyboard amp. I would lean towards the bass cab personally, but I have gotten a totally workable sound out of a keyboard amp. I have never been entirely satisfied with a standard monitor. I have run direct through stage monitors when sitting in with a band or at deep woods festivals that are light on backline (or when an amp dies earlier that day) and it’ll work, but the sound likely won’t feed your bass playing soul I don’t think.

Buy an IEM system?

If nobody else is using them in the band, this is probably more trouble than it’s worth. Not only will you need to drop some serious cash for a decent receiver and wireless unit, you’ll also need some very good headphones. In addition, you may run into problems with sound people who aren’t set up well to feed a mix to your unit. I don’t know about you, but I almost count on the fact that there won’t be enough separate mixes for everyone in the band when playing smaller clubs, and the bass player is usually the first to get hosed. It seems I may not even have a monitor half of the time on smaller local gigs.

That said, this is the best option for protecting your ears. Just be careful not to have your “ears” in and cranked when people are plugging things in and dorking around on stage while setting up.

So there you have it. Everybody has different needs, wants and desires when on the gig, and I like to be as self-contained as possible while remaining low maintenance for everybody else. If you have the “big rig” for the “blast-em outta their seats” gigs, you might just want to get a cab half that size for smaller functions. Any amp will play at low volume but you have to shlep it to and from the gig and there is sometimes a spacial constraint as well.

Personally, I have a 410 cab, powerful head, 2 smaller 112 cabs (so I can use one or both depending on the gig) as well as a light weight head and a light weight 112 cab. I can cover most any setting with that rig. I also have some good quality in-ears for those gigs, but I don’t carry my own receiver and wireless unit. I only play in one band that uses in-ears and all of the units get back-lined for every show so I only need my “ears”. I also carry back up ears, just in case (they do die eventually and I also had a pair stolen from a theatre in Mexico once before a show. That taught me to always have a back-up).

I hope that helps!

Readers, how about you? Share your stories and recommendations in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. Steve

    Bass for me is a whole body experience… not just your ears. Feeling the bass move your body adds sooo much to your playing. I feel flat and lifeless with iem’s or earphones. Bass…making bodies move!

    • Mike

      Couldn’t agree more. The bass needs to be felt as well as heard. One solution my sound guys provide me is a Buttkicker Sonic Shaker mounted on a floorboard I stand on. Dialed in right and you get floor shaking simulation with everything that comes from your bass. This is a great compliment to IEMs. An awesome sound guy will take care of FOH so I can be in my own world with IEMs and a Buttkicker. On the flip side, I have an 8×10, 4×10, 1×12 and 1×10 to handle whatever the gig calls for.

      Based on my experience, my 1×12 (neo magnets) paired with a 1000 watt D Class amp is a great all around set up. Light enough to haul around for small gigs, yet the sound can be massive enough to handle a large hall or outdoor stage.

    • jpbergmans

      There is a company in Germany called TecAmp who sells what they call “A Pleasure Board”. It does exactly what Mike describes.

      The link is here below:

    • Very true. I’ve started using IEM because my whole band is using it and we have had trouble with hearing everything. Most clubs we play aren’t used to a six-piece metalband with keys. I do always bring an amp, but get my own mix through my IEM. So then I hear everything but also feel the vibrations. I mean, eeeeveryone feels the bass, right? ;).

  2. Rob

    I have a TC Electronic BG115 (1×15 inch) combo. They also make it in 2 x 10 and I believe 2 x 12 all roughly the same price. It’s light enough that I can carry it with one hand, put my bass case on my shoulder, and bring my stand and cable bag in the other hand. One trip in and out. We have sound for every show and play generally mediumish small type gigs. This works perfectly for me and I can almost always dial the sound to where I need it on stage. If I were ever to start playing larger halls I’d probably need to get something bigger, but this has gotten me by just fine for the last 3 years or so.

  3. Steve

    My p Lu gig these days is church. We have a great (brand new, spent plenty) FOH/IEM system. Silent stage, mix via my iPhone, etc. I bring my bass and plug in. So nice, and so easy on my ears. I wish every band I played in on the past used them.

    I know there’s the hole “need to feel it” camp out there and that’s fine. I can feel the 4 18″ subs via FOH pumping just fine.

    For home practice and small fill in gigs I have a little Genz Benz shuttle stack that does just fine.

  4. Kirk Bolas

    Mark Bass makes a relatively powerful, toneful yet compact combo that’s great for small venues or for hearing yourself within the context of the mix coming out of the floor wedge/side fill monitors. I’m looking into getting one myself. I currently use a GK 500 watt class D head and a Neo 2×10 cab. I have a home built 18″ cab that I run with the 2×10 cab for large venues. With all that said, I prefer DI into the board and that lightweight Mark Bass combo should allow me to hear myself while going DI and saving my back in the long run. Granted, my current rig isn’t that heavy or cumbersome, but I’d rather carry just my bass in one hand and the combo in the other. I guess it’s equal parts of getting old and a bit lazier.

    • I have that combo – it’s a CMD102p and it’s gorgeous. Lightweight, powerful, can be tilted like a wedge monitor and the DI is good enough for FOH. A bit pricey but I don’t see a reason to switch to another amp in the coming years.

    • Mike Matthews

      Or wiser – Ha Ha.

  5. Sam Madden

    I have a Aguilar preamp on my pedalboard and just backline as my personal monitor.

  6. Fretlesscountry

    I had the same issue a couple of years ago and ended up buying a second hand nemesis 2×10 combo, it came with a compression button (pretty decent) and an XLR direct out which I gave to the PA guys. I actually managed to go to gigs on a taxi with this rig, very useful, portable and still shakes the stage enough to rock it. cheers from Chile

  7. I have a similar setup to Damian. I’ve got a small 250W 1×12 combo for small to medium sized gigs, a 550W head wit a 2×12 cab for medium/large gigs, as well as a pedal board/ears set up for gigs that require that. I will soon be adding a small preamp/DI pedal to my board which will allow me to get the sound of playing with an amp for those gigs, but even as it is now I still get a usable tone.

    Basically what it comes down to is getting together with the groups you are performing with and decide together what the best approach is. Band leaders will usually have a preference of what they would like you to use and then it’s a matter of working out what you can actually afford to do.

  8. DB

    I use a 500watt MarkBass 121p 1×12 combo. I use it for small shows just by itself. I also have a 4×10 cab that I use for bigger shows. I put the 1×12 combo on top and point it at me for my personal monitor and the 4×10’s are just for stage volume and to rumble the place. The FOH sound comes from the line out on the 1×12 combo. Super easy.

  9. BC Anagnostis

    I’ve run into that situation you’re describing in reverse. I’ve got a BA115 from Ampeg that’s my go to rig for everything. It’s got an XLR out to run to boards for bigger gigs, and it’s compact enough for everywhere else I play(most of my gigs are small clubs). I’m still searching(and saving up for)a couple of 4x10s or a 4 and a 2×10 for those medium to larger stages, and a good dependable amp to power them.

  10. Scott

    I switched to IEM’s about 3 years ago and I’ve never been happier in my life. The trick is the right IEM’s. Mine are custom molded four way models. I also have resisted going wireless, opting for a high quality headphone amp. I feel like the FOH subs are in my head, they sound huge! Somebody mentioned a Buttkicker, I have used one before I got my current IEM’s and I found it to be really hard to control. If its level was to high when playing a five string below a D it would literally shake my eyeballs in their socket.

    At forty six years old I have tinnitus and am starting to have some loss of hearing. With IEM’s it’s a wonderful thing to get a great mix in my ears, grab the master and just turn it down and have that same wonderful dynamic range and quality at a lower volume.

    I have the opposite problem of the OP, I’ve got set of gigs this summer where we are opening and I’m going to have to go back to using a bass amp. So I’m panicking to see how little I can get away with for a series of outdoor gigs. The thought of guitars and cymbals crashing in my head makes me sweat!

    Mr. Erskine has it right (duh), a 210, or a couple of 112 with a light weight amplification system is the way to lighten the load. Before IEM’s I was a big fan of multiple 112’s cabinets and found it to be the most versatile bass rig this player owned. I love 12’s!

    • I run a 1-12 (eden head and cab) as my bass monitor and love it; however, I would really like IEMs. I tried a cheaper brand ($500-ish) and they never sounded good – distorted all over the place. What dollar amount are we talking to get “high quality” IEMs?

      • Scott

        I went with 1964 Ears Quads.

      • Geri O

        I went with 1964 Quads as well, but good results should be easy to come by with IEMs in the $500 range. Are you getting a good seal in your ears? That’s crucial to getting a good full sound. If so, then look at other components in the signal chain. I was in pro sound before I returned to playing bass again and unfortunately, you need just a little PA savvy to make IEMs work well, but it’s easy stuff to figure out. Cheap (not your problem) and bad-fitting molds give players a very bad taste of IEM monitoring, followed by improper settings on the mixer. And I’m thankful that I don’t feel body-shaking amp levels to play well. Actually, to me, the Quads are a little too bassy, but that’s an easy problem to solve…:)

  11. Nice laid out question and a great answer. I must admit that this bit puzzles me:
    “I have a very good, portable upper-middle-class halfstack, but I can rarely use it because I often do small gigs and it is a little bit too much there.”

    What is “too much”? If it’s portable, the stage volume should be very easy to dial down.

    Personally I use a 115+210 stack (usually placed in the band rehearsal room). At home I use a 112, 4 ohm cab. This gives me the flexibility to play almost any gig. I can choose 112, 210 or the stack to match any gig, and I can move any combination alone. What is key is that it is powerful enough to match the drums on stage, and it is. If we have to put drums in the monitors at significant levels, the same can be done with the bass.

    As long as I play with a live rock drummer, I use the stack on all gigs. At quieter gigs, I have both used 210 alone and 112 alone. But if I didn’t need a home amp, I think that 210+115 would provide all the flexibility that I need. I have, however, wanted to try out the new, reasonably priced K cab series from TC Electronics. Using 212 and 210 stacked vertically would bring the upper elements closer to ear level.

  12. It’s all about application. What is your profile as a member on stage?

    I recently went with an IEM, but only use the left ear, so I can still talk/hear band members on stage on my right. As long as I can get a nice mix in one ear, I’ll leave the FOH sound technician to ensure that the room has a good mix. I’m wireless with bass and vocals, so a fixed wedge or personal monitor on a stand won’t work for me. Years ago when I was tethered, the wedge worked fine.

  13. No expert here, but here’s some observations from seeing guys from France, to New York, to some of the best players in the town I am in:

    I find most guys at the top of their field in large-stage situations pump themselves with an 8×10 stack and are standing right next to it. They are usually fed into the house mix and once in a while I get to hear the actual stage volume, which is not too bad most of the time and physically bearable, despite the gigantic amp behind them. So unless you’re doing gymnastics on stage (some music calls for the performance aspect), most guys are standing/sitting right in front of their cab and have a large unit, even at the Blue Note in New York, to hear themselves well. I noticed Stephan Crump of the Vijay Iyer trio uses a 4×10 on some sort of thing to have it right behind his head, so it’s on like a riser that looks like another amp (might be a 15). Also, that particular trio uses several monitors onstage (maybe two for each band member) to be able to hear one another as best as possible, even at loud volumes. That’ll probably be my next investment, monitors, as suggested by Damian above. Other guys will use smaller amps, maybe 2×10 on some sort of rock-back arrangement so it’s aimed at their head. It keeps the stage volume lower and the direction of the sound on the bassist. Plus, running that through the house avoids the hassle of controlling the volume in the back of the room.

    Hope this helps!

  14. For small gigs I use a 212 GK-Neo cab and for festivals or bigger gigs I use a Neo 410 with a Neo 212 powered by a 700 rb GK head. More than enough headroom.

  15. craig

    It’s been a while since this article was created but I’ll put in my $0.02. I play in a duo and my buddy loves loud monitors and won’t use earplugs. I have a bit of tinnitus so can’t risk that. With foam earplugs singing is weird because you hear the sound in your head so much louder than everything else it’s hard to sing harmonies for example. Our board has two monitor channels so I bought the intro level sure IEM for $110 CAD and a headphone amplifier with cables since I don’t move around. I put mainly vocals and his guitar and a bit of the backing (we use midi). Everything else I get through bleed from the monitors and FOH. I keep the in ear volume low and set it with FOH and monitors off so I don’t set it too high. My buddy wanted to keep both monitors for the punch so they are Daisy chained and their amplifier is bridged so they run off one channel. I turned my monitor away from me towards him. With this setup I turn my rig lower or turn it away from me a bit. I can hear the vocals really well which is the most important thing and it’s very easy on the ears. The IEM work like ear plugs to block out the sound and I’m able to keep the volume level at my area of the stage lower. The biggest drawback is the bass doesn’t have great definition to me so it’s not as satisfying. Saves my ears though. You need your own monitor mix. Cost under $200 CAD. My amp is a TC electronics RH450 with an eden 212 cab. The cab is a bit bulky to move but I love the setup. Was a bit lacking for a 5 string but I decided to go back to 4 string anyway. I also have a TC 210 cabinet if I want to bring something more portable to other rehearsals. In stoked to try out the eden 115 xlt and gk800rb I just picked up for $300 CAD (jealous much?) ;) Should be killer with the 212 xlt biamped. I’ve never owned a fridge but to me 810s have incredible punch even at low volumes, but of course you need a certain amount for the punch to kick in. I’d get an 810 if I was willing to move it.

  16. Jack Blackwell

    I play in a variety of situations and groups. Being a bit hearing impaired to start with multiplies my need for “more me”. I currently use a Rolls PM351 with my IEM’s hardwired. My bass, vocal mic and whatever monitor mix I can get go into it. The Rolls lives on my pedalboard. In my perfect world there’d be a transmitter with a small enough footprint to stack in the Rolls but so far no luck. I think there’s a large untapped market for personal wireless monitors for the many of us that don’t play with the same folks all the time.

  17. Kalle

    The latest tool and best utility pedal I’ve ever tried is the DSM Noisemaker OmniCabSim Deluxe. A cab sim which can be used in so many ways; direct to PA allowing the bass to sound alive and full, as monitor, or as a way to EQ the amp to better suit the room you’re playing in, etc.

    So far I’ve only used it for direct recording, as well as during rehearsal connecting it to the PA. I haven’t used it live yet. But I’m thoroughly impressed with the sound and versatility of the pedal. It has forever changed my way of looking at solving how to get a good and consistent bass sound, no matter what situation.

    Best of luck!