Its something we’ve all said and, as guitar players, hearing properly on stage is a difficult thing to achieve. If you’re playing a small venue chances are you won’t be able to hear your amp very well and will have drums and cymbals crashing right in your ear. If you’re in a larger venue you might be so far away from the other players that all you can hear is your amp.
The answer…in ear monitors? Maybe.
In ear monotors or IEMs have been available for a fairly long time now, but only recently have decent quality system become available for the average working musician. Systems like the Shure PSM300 give superb quality and when paired with good quality earphones like the Shure SE535’s (read my review here) create an excellent in ear solution, and one that I depend on every night.
The good stuff
MIX – The main advantage of IEMs is that you get a mix of exactly what you want to hear. Dependant on the console you use you can dial mixes down to the individual frequencies you want to hear. Don’t want to hear a certain instrument or vocal? No problem. Want a stereo feed for panning effects? Easy. Want your instrument in your left ear and everything else on the right? All possible with IEMs.
VOLUME – Another huge advantage of using IEMs is it helps keep stage volume down which is always a concern these days. By having band members use IEMs it means that wedges and sometimes side-fills are not needed. This then means that feedback problems are cut down and cleaner FoH mixes are achieved due to less mic bleed. As a guitar player it can also mean a totally silent stage if you’re not using a real amp and instead doing everything on in ears. Which can be a somewhat disconnected experience.
FREEDOM – One thing I’ve noticed on IEM’s is the freedom it gives you to work and move around a stage and venue, especially if you go wireless with your instrument too. You are able to move literally anywhere on stage and still hear a perfect mix, as long as you stay in range of the transmitters.
SAFETY – If playing regularly at gigs and stage volume, switching to IEMs is probably the best thing you can do for your hearing. Guitar amps, drums, cymbals and loud foldback all create a hostile environment for your ears which soon does a lot of damage. Using IEMs to control your sound you can reduce volume and protect your hearing, so long as you are monitoring at a sensible volume.
The not so good stuff
DISCONNECTED – The biggest disadvantage I have experienced with IEMs is the way they make you feel disconnected from both the crowd and what is happening on stage, you’re in your own little world. There are a couple of ways around this. The most popular that I see being used at large scale venues and events is to have crowd mics. These microphones capture the noise from the crowd and then blend it in to each musicians mix so they can hear as little or as much of the crowd as they want. The other way, and this is what I tend to do, is for musicians to wear just one earphone. This way you can get a decent mix of whatever you want to hear in the IEM but also get all the crowd and venue noise from the other ear. I find this really useful as it helps you understand what the crowd are hearing and gives a really big but detailed sound. You get all the bass and power from hearing the PA but also all the detail you need from the IEM.
INTERFERENCE – Dependant on the system you use, drop outs, pops and interference can be an issue with IEMs. The first system I had unfortunately developed a fault where the receiver pack would loose its connection to the transmitter and just emit really loud static, sometimes mid song! This is extremely rare though, and since having there unit replaced has never happened. You may experience pops and interference with IEMs. These noises don’t happen too often but can be off-putting. The higher quality system you use the less chance you have of running into these problems. Wireless technology is getting better all the time which means that IEM systems are improving in quality and reliability also.
POWER – Battery consumption is a major concern when using wireless systems, not least of all because of its effect on the environment. Using my current PSM300 system I will get 2 nights of shows out of a set of AA batteries. 6 shows a week means I’m using some 24 batteries a month! Some manufacturers do offer power solutions though, such as Shure’s charging stations and rechargeable batteries.
So should you switch to IEMs?
For me IEMs are a solution for certain applications and venues that I play at. It is not my preferred way to play. I feel much more comfortable with a loud amp and wedge monitors, but that comes with its drawbacks. Not least of all possible hearing damage. IEMs have some definite advantages but for first time users the switch can be a difficult one to get used to. If playing regularly on large stages and high volume I would definitely say consider making the jump to IEMs. Just be sure to use a quality system and earphones, you’ll be surprised what you can hear.