In-ear monitors are a fairly new invention. They became affordable in the late 90’s but the idea has been in practice since the late 80s. Stevie Wonder’s sound engineer Chris Lindop conceived an arrangement for Stevie’s 1987 tour where they used a mobile broadcast station positioned outside the venue. The radio truck would receive a signal from the mixing desk in the venue and then transmit Stevie’s monitor mix over FM radio which he would then pick up on a standard walkman FM radio! This is probably one of the first examples of headphone monitoring. It even had a name – ‘wonderland radio’, and it could apparently be picked up by members of the public 6 miles away!
Today it is extremely common for musicians at all levels to use in-ear monitors at gigs. There are numerous benefits:
1. Lower overall volume at the ears (less potential for hearing damage)
2. More clarity of the sounds you need to hear (your own vocals for example)
3. More consistent sound from gig to gig as the effect of the room is negated.
4. Headphones can cut out the distracting ‘boomy’ sound that some venues have.
5. More likelihood of you being able to pitch your vocals correctly.
6. You look like a pro!
For years I played in bands using wedge monitors. These are ok but the quality of the mix is really impacted by the room you are in, the volume of the band and the quality of the engineer. Invariably I would end up with ringing ears the next day and will have lost my voice the night before from shouting to be heard over the monitors (much of this was probably down to loud guitar and bass amps!).
Since switching to in-ears I’ve noticed a massive improvement with ringing ears because I can have much less volume going to the ears with headphones.
How Does It Work?
I would like to walk you through the simple set-up we use with one of my bands. It is very straightforward, sounds great and gives people the ability to adjust the volume of their own vocals. This monitoring solution is for wired in-ear monitors. Wireless monitors get much more complicated and have more risk of drop-out. They do allow you to walk around the stage freely however which this solution does not. This is just how we do it at the moment; I’m not suggesting that this is the only way or the best!
1. For each of our 5 vocalists, their microphone is connected to one of 5 Samson s-monitors and then the xlr out is connected to the mixing desk. The vocalists keep their own s-monitor next to them on stage for tweaking later on.
2. We have all 5 vocalists, saxophone mic, kick drum mic, drum overhead mic, bass DI, guitar mic, keyboard and a room mic going in to our mixing desk. The drum overhead, bass DI, guitar mic and room mic do not go to the front of house mix, they are only there for monitoring purposes.
3. We send a ‘general mix’ of all mics and instruments to aux 1 and aux 2 on our mixing desk. The same level of each instrument will be sent to each of the 2 auxes. Initially we will guess the levels of all instruments just to get going. These levels will be tweaked later on.
4. We turn up the main aux 1 and 2 outs of our desk to a reasonable level.
5. We connect the 2 mono aux outs (aux 1 and aux 2) to the first of our Samson s-monitors via a dual-mono to stereo cable.
6. We then connect all of the other 4 s-monitors in a chain with trs cables. Each s-monitor is now receiving the ‘general mix’ as well as that band member’s individual microphone feed.
7. Band members plug their own headphones into their own s-monitor using a headphone extension cable. We try to keep cables tidy and out of the way.
8. We will then tweak the general mix at the desk so that everybody can hear the whole band at a good level. The room mic is an omni-directional microphone which captures something of the ambience of the room. We found that without this mic mixed in we felt quite ‘cut off’ from what was actually happening in the room.
9. Band members can now adjust the volume of the general mix and their own individual microphone separately in their headphones via the 2 volume knobs on their s-monitor. The benefit of this is that they do not need to ask a sound engineer to turn them up, they can do it themselves.
There are some downsides to this method. We cannot individually adjust elements other than our own microphone of our own mix without affecting everyone else’s mix. Also, if one of the s-monitors stops working, it will affect all other boxes down the chain from it. This has never happened so far, fingers crossed.
There are a couple of other considerations around using this method.
1. The general mix we get in the headphones is stereo. You can pan elements in the general mix by turning up/down the aux1/2 sends from that instrument’s channel. For example, if you want to pan one of the backing vocals hard left we would just turn down the aux 2 send from that channel to zero.
2. We still have 2 mono desk aux sends that we can use for other purposes. We may send aux 3 or 4 to another band member who might want a different mix completely. It is very quick to just set up the aux sends of channel 3 to the same as channel 2 and then tweak as they like.
All bands members just need to buy headphones (how much do you want to spend?!), an s-monitor and a headphone extension cable. This is about the cheapest way we could find to help us achieve in-ear monitoring at gigs.
It would be possible to use a different type of headphone amplifier to enable you to be able to adjust the volume of another microphone in your earphones too. For example, the Fischer Amps In Ear Amp 2 allows you to pass through (and monitor) 2 microphones as well as a stereo mix.
A step up from this would be for us to buy something like the behringer powerplay system where each band member would be able to completely control their own mix from their own unit wherever they are on the stage. There is a significantly higher cost associated with this method however and one we may invest in, in the future. Our current set-up gives us good, consistent, professional results so we are happy to stay with it for now!