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To Ear or Not to Ear?

We all know that in-ear monitoring units have been out for a few years now, and it seems like the thing to do for band monitoring. There are several positives

We all know that in-ear monitoring units have been out for a few years now, and it seems like the thing to do for band monitoring. There are several positives and several negatives for in-ear monitoring versus floor wedges and we will explore a few of those now.

You get what you pay for
Simply put, the better the unit the better it will sound. Why? It has to do with the companding circuitry used to transmit all that audio into wireless format. Companding is a form of compression that is used to make the sound fit into the bandwidth used for wireless transmission. There is also compression used to limit the dynamic range of the input of the transmitter (raw audio in) and the output of the receiver (output to ear buds). Different priced units have varying levels of this and the more you pay, the better it sounds. Done properly, you should have the effect of listening to your band like listening to a good recording on your Walkman or iPod.

Where to put your money
The best set of ear buds you can afford a good start. The sonic difference of having dual driver units or high output units will be instantly noticeable to the wearer. Next, you’ll want to invest in the best transmitter and receiver package you can buy. If you are just getting into “ears” want to find out if they will work for you, suggest getting a basic intro package planning on upgrading to better buds and transmitter as soon as it is feasible.

Who benefits the most
The musicians that get the most performance out of in-ears are lead and backup singers, drummers, bass players, keyboardists, and acoustic guitar players. I have seen rhythm and lead guitarists use them also, but in general, most electric guitar players don’t like the “boxed in” feeling and the tone coloration of their sound. Also, many high volume players who use the sound of the cabinet to make their guitar feedback prefer not to wear in-ears. Usually these are players that do not sing or sing minimally in the band.

Loud rock bands also seem to need augmentation in the form of additional floor wedges and butt shakers or bass floor pads for drummers, bass players, keyboardists and some lead singers. Groups that have become used to an “aural bath” of sound seem to use the in-ears to get better coverage and more “me” when they sing.

In-ears are pricey, compact and may require more gear to support them; however, they are extremely light and can save a band lots of cost in transportation – not to mention backbreaking lifting! Wedges are nice because, if need be, several performers can hear one wedge. If you have an in-ears setup fail, you might have trouble adjusting to your backup plan (wedges).

A wedge setup requires an additional EQ and power amp channel, plus a couple of wedges. That adds up roughly to $800- $1200 for one or possibly two performers, if you can share. Four monitor mixes with eight wedges, two amps and four EQs will run you about $4000-$7000, depending on the quality of the gear you buy; in addition, the setup will weigh about 500- 700 pounds.

A great in-ears setup may cost you and your band about $2500 per musician (i.e. a DBX IEM digital processor and a Shure PSM700 with good earbuds) and maybe another monitor mixer board and some special cabling from the front of house to your snake head. You can get into in-ears for as little as $400 per system (GALAXY system), and you might be able to have two receivers share one transmitted mix to save cost. Another way to cut corners is to buy the earbuds and to use a small mixer beside you to drive your ear buds – this works well for keyboard players, drummers and bass players.

Be aware that in-ear systems are not a cure-all, but just another tool that we can use to get our music across to our fans. Most systems out there are combinations of in-ears and floor wedges. So, get some cash together and start experimenting on what works best for you and your bands. The future is here, so get on board and have fun already!

Andy Anderson
Concert Sound