I Got Burned by In-Ears: Solutions

I Got Burned by In-Ears: Solutions

For the variety of complaints by users of in-ear monitors, there are often easy fixes that often end up satisfying the musician.

The use of in-ear monitors in the church setting has increased dramatically over the last several years. However, there remains a group of worship leaders and musicians who opt to stay away from IEMs because of bad experiences in the past.

Spending time with your musicians, training them with some proper mixing techniques can help alleviate the poor mix.

I have heard many reasons over time of why different people don't want to wear in-ears. Below are the most common complaints and some hopefully simple solutions to solving the issue of being burned by in-ears.

"I couldn't get a good mix."

Audio engineers love for the musicians to use in-ear monitors. Using IEMs greatly decreases stage volume, thereby creating clarity in the front of house mix. With the most common use of IEMs being with a personal monitor mixing system (such as Aviom, Allen & Heath ME, or Digital Audio Labs Livemix), the probability of a poor monitor mix is greatly increased.

The majority of musicians are not audio engineers. There is a reason why certain people end up on stage and others behind the console.

While it is important that both musician and tech understand what each other are doing, we each are skilled in a specific field. When personal monitor systems are implemented, musicians are frequently left to fend for themselves on how to mix. 

Consequently, they often are not satisfied with the mix they hear through the in-ear monitors. Spending time with your musicians, training them with some proper mixing techniques can help alleviate the poor mix.

Another solution to a poor in-ear mix is to do away with the personal monitor system. Instead, deploy a monitor console with a dedicated engineer. This scenario is normally cost prohibitive for most churches. However, a quality monitor engineer will provide the most comfort and confidence any technical team can offer to a musician.

"I can't hear the congregation."

Another common complaint from worship leaders when using in-ear monitors is that they cannot hear the congregation. This is a significant problem since those wearing IEMs are to be leading the people out in front of them.

Not being able to hear the congregation introduces a feeling of isolation. It inhibits the effectiveness of the worship leader to connect with the "room" during worship music.

This problem often causes musicians to only wear one in-ear monitor. Wearing only one IEM greatly increases the chance for hearing damage to the musician. It also often points to a lack of connection with the congregation as well as the ambient sound of the worship space.

Overcoming this problem can be relatively simple. A good stereo pair of ambient room mics sent to the in-ear system will solve this problem. Generally speaking, installing two shotgun microphones either on stage or above the worship platform area, aimed at the congregation, works best. The shotgun microphone allows the greatest pickup of voices in the room. At the same, it rejects the ambient sound of the band and the sound system.

"The mix is good, but it all sounds muddled."

A third common complaint when using IEMs comes in the form of "muddy" sound or a lack of clarity. This is normally the result of trying to run mono IEMs, rather than stereo. We now live at a time where nearly everyone uses ear buds at least once a day. The music we listen to day in and day out through those ear buds is almost always delivered in stereo. This gives "space" and clarity to the sound. Using an in-ear monitor that doesn't afford this space and clarity, will only lead to an unpleasant experience.

Stereo in-ears will allow the musicians to experience the music they are playing more similarly to what why are used to hearing every day. Again, this will take time to help and train the musicians in how to use stereo panning properly. It's important for the sanity of the musician on stage that the placement of different instruments in the in-ear mix stereo field is similar to what their eyes see on stage. 

For example, if the worship leader is standing center stage with the lead electric player standing to his right, don't pan that lead electric to the left in the worship leaders IEM. Try to lay out the stereo image for each mix to match where the brain expects the sound to come from based on visuals.

"I don't like the way they fit in my ear."

This seems to be a simple problem to fix, right? You can just try a different pair of ear buds. It isn't always that simple though. Having worked with a wide variety of musicians, I have seen people who enjoyed wearing the buds that came with their phone all the way up to custom molded ear buds and everything in between. 

When starting out with someone new to using in-ear monitors, my suggestion is always to start with what they are most familiar and comfortable wearing. This normally means using the ear buds that came with their phone or portable music player. As audio engineers, we know that these will not produce the best sound, but there is a level of comfort for the end user that must be appreciated. 

Once the musician is comfortable wearing the ear buds while playing their instrument, it could be time to introduce a slightly more sophisticated in-ear monitor. My preference is to start with something in the $100 range, like a Shure SE215 or Westone UM Pro 10. These certainly are not the only models in this price range, but seem to strike a good balance of cost and features. Moving up from here in price will increase the number of drivers (sound quality), but may or may not increase the comfort of the ear bud.

A final step up would be to start looking at custom molded ear buds. You can find just about any feature you want in a custom molded in-ear. You can even find some that have built in ambient microphones with a sensitivity control on the ear bud itself.

Whatever complaints you receive from musicians about using in-ear monitors, there is almost always a solution to the problem they are experiencing. However, we must always keep in mind that, as technical ministry staff or volunteers, our role is to serve and support the worship leader and his team for the sake of creating the best worship setting possible.

If your worship leader simply won't be comfortable using IEMs, then your job is to make it sound as good as possible with wedges on stage. If you face other challenges with in-ear monitors or have questions about any of these, please contact me. I would love to dialogue about creative ways to improve the way we support worship ministries in our churches.


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