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Re-Tooling In-Ear Monitoring

Ambient Noise Isn''t So Bad After All

There''s a new approach to making in-ear monitoring systems. Often viewed as the ultimate solution for performers who are concerned about stage monitor volume that can lead to hearing loss or feedback from open mics, in-ear monitoring systems are an expensive yet effective way to eliminate ambient stage sound. Originally, the idea was to give performers a clean, ambient-free monitor mix. This eliminated many a wedge on large and small stages around the world but not without a downside: many performers found themselves out of touch with the crowd or unable to converse with bandmates on stage. A well-designed system can cut out so much ambient sound that it can be disconcerting, making you feel like you''re in some kind of vacuum.

Some monitoring system manufacturers are beginning to address this problem. For example, Ultimate Ears has introduced monitoring systems with filtered holes in the earpieces that allow a bit of ambient noise to reach your eardrum. They come with small plugs designed to block the holes should you want to block a maximum amount of ambient sound. Of course, some performers have had holes drilled into one or both of their custom-made earpieces or wear just one at a time.

Sensaphonics hopes to solve the not-enough-ambience-problem with its 3D Active Ambient system. It has tiny microphones built into the ear monitors themselves, giving performers an adjustable signal of their surrounding ambient sound in addition to the monitor mix. The microphones offer full fidelity and natural binaural directionality. Their signals are combined with the in-ear mix in a connecting bodypack, then sent to the earphones'' speakers with zero latency. As a result, the sense of isolation is eliminated, allowing musicians to hear their amplifiers, the audience and each other. The protective function is still intact too, with custom-fit 3D earphones providing up to 37 dB of isolation.

Legendary guitar maker Paul Reed Smith is now using the Sensaphonics 3D Active Ambient system when playing with his band.

“The 3D lets me hear everything acoustically, just as I would without earphones. The only difference is now you can control the volume coming from the stage and add in any amount of monitor mix,” says Smith. “They’re an excellent way of protecting your hearing while still having a natural feel for the crowd and the amps, which is really important for guitarists … I specifically use the 3D as hearing protection. It can be 125 dB on stage, but I’m listening to 95 dB of full-range, beautiful-sounding audio, with or without a monitor mix.”

Sensaphonics president Michael Santucci comments, “It’s very cool to have a guy like Paul Reed Smith adopt the 3D. He knows the issues that guitarists have with using conventional in-ear systems, so it’s very gratifying to hear how the 3D helps him hear what he wants to on stage.”

Calls to engineers at Shure and Sennheiser reveal that both companies are aware of the new approach but neither manufacturer has a product on the market that addresses the problem with a built-in microphone -- not yet, anyway. They point out that variable control of ambient sound is as simple as having your monitor mix engineer use an on-stage or near-stage microphone to add the right amount of ambient sound to the in-ear monitor mix.

It''s important to note that many performers hate having an extra wireless pack on their bodies. Regardless of new approaches to controlling ambient sound, some musicians avoid in-ear monitor systems altogether. For those who don''t mind, however, being able to control their own ambient mix right there on the spot might actually be the ultimate solution to hearing what they want while protecting ear drums and avoiding feedback problems. Ambient control could be the next big thing in in-ear monitoring systems.

For more information:

Sennheiser Wireless Monitors

Shure Personal Monitor Systems