Note to you that this is a long post, with many sections. And while I will aim to cover all the options and keep impartial it may not happen. Also I am writing this post more from my musician side rather than a technical perspective, although they naturally collide, (apologies if you wanted to know whether to invert the polarity of your Lead Vocals cause they can’t hear enough low end – I may cover that in another post).
People like to hear themselves. And I would say that Musicians enjoy knowing that they are singing/playing in tune/time!
Okay maybe not enjoy.. Maybe require!
Its very much a necessity of anyone trying to lead a band / worship group / congregation or even just a singer/songwriter at the local coffeeshop-esque venue.
Many of us have ‘grown up’ on Wedges, speakers on the stage floor, aiming back up at the musicians. There are several different options to look at here; namely..
The term active comes from the fact that these boxes have an active circuit inside them, they could also be called Powered wedges. These have the amplifier and speaker crossover built into the box, meaning that you will need to plug in both power and signal cables. Usually IEC or Powercon for power and XLR or Jack for signal. Some models have link outputs for signal and power, so its easy to use one power run / signal run (if you want them on the same feed).
The good thing about these is that you don’t have extra amps to try and hide away – especially if you are tight for space. Some monitors are small enough to be attached to a microphone stand. Most powered wedges have a attenuator for volume, and some have a little EQ to make the speaker have more/less low end, etc. This can be useful for small gigs, where you can plug directly into the monitor, and then just link out to the in house PA.
The Mackie above also has Phono inputs for a iphone, etc to play backing tracks from. I wouldn’t really recommend doing this unless it was your last resort, as you are taking control away from the Sound Engineer – who is there to make you sound awesome, and has a better idea of what things need to sound like in the room.
Passive comes from there being a circuit inside the wedge that doesn’t require power. These monitors require an amp or whole amprack depending on the amount you have. Only one EP5 / Speakon cable needs to run out to these which can cut down on running long power cables for one little speaker. On the box there is no control, its literally a case of plugging in the cable, turning the amp on & up, and letting the sound tech do his/her thing. This is better in almost all situations – as with the digital age – setting can be saved, and recalled quickly and easily. Meaning no messing with parameters that could hinder a performance.
The picture above shows that one vocalist isn’t limited to just one wedge. For larger bands and events, it may be prudent to have several wedges for one person. Putting the vocals solely through one feed, and other instruments through other feeds can help to separate the mix out, and add clarity.
If your venue has a large enough stage for the drummer to have a wedge, have you considered pairing this up with a sub?
It’s common to see a drummer being ‘kicked’ in the back by the power of the sub, allowing him/her to feel the music, and what they are playing. Many drummers will have InEars, and then a drum fill in the same way Side Fills are used to give ambience and power to the listener.
Many touring acts use a combination of Wedges and In Ears, or InEars and Side Fills. This helps to give ‘life’ to the performance, as many are used to feeling the wall of sound hitting them, which you don’t get with IEMs. It also means that if the IEM’s fail for any reason, then the show can go on. It also helps to fill out the stage with sound so there are no dead spots between monitors. These normally get used in larger venues, as to not overpower the main PA for the Audience.
InEars – IEMs (In Ear Monitors)
So what if you could have monitors that only you could hear?
Like strapped to the side of your face?
GOOD NEWS! You can!
I will point out that if you aren’t used to having InEars, or haven’t used them effectively – then they take a lot of getting used to. We transitioned over last March, so have had around a year of regular weekly use.
As a rule, you can’t put a metronome in a wedge, (for obvious reasons!) but more and more people are using them, it helps to stay tight as a band, and allows cues to be given without the audience / congregation’s knowledge. This was a main factor for myself moving to InEars, it has definitely stretched me as a player, and has forced me to keep better.
Another great reason to move across is if you regularly get feedback from wedges, usually from mics being pointed at monitors, or wedges to loud / mics with too much gain.
It makes a huge difference using Apple’s Headphones, compered to the inexpensive Shure SE215’s which are a great budget Single Driver model.
Professional musicians and serious audiophiles will have up to (and possibly beyond) 6 drivers with a load of crossovers in their IEM’s and can spend up to £2k per set. These are something that you do not want to loose. While I would love to try out a pair of these, they are custom made to fit the individuals ear canals – and rather like fingerprints, each persons ear is different! <– Fun fact of the day right there!
From reports I have heard, once you go there, you can never go back!
Most of the difference in the lower range models is the Isolation between what you are hearing from the world around you, and what you are hearing from the product inside your ears. Basically put, the better isolation you get from the world around you, the better you can hear what you need to hear, and therefore the quieter you can have your pack set. This helps to prolong your hearing, and stop you getting ear fatigue as quickly.
Obviously being so isolated in your own little world comes with its own issues. Like not being able to hear people speaking (who aren’t mic’d up) or instruments, etc, that aren’t in your mix. I didn’t realise how much I was missing of the general ambience of the congregation and ‘room noise’ until I added in a mic dedicated to picking up the room noise (reflections of the FOH / reverb of the room) and congregation singing. This became especially helpful during spontaneous worship where one thing would lead to another (all off the mic) and I needed to follow / direct them.
Many people think that taking one of the ears out is a good compromise, as this gives you the best of both worlds. What they don’t know (or maybe do and don’t care) is that doing this but it can damage your hearing more! This is basically because your brain can’t work out which ear to listen to, so everything seems quieter, so you end up turning your IEM Pack up considerably.
On the Ear vs In the Ear
As I’ve just stated above, a major positive with using InEars, is that it isolates you from the world, and allows you to get a custom mix of whatever you want.
By on the ear, I mean like the picture above, this variety of headphone has a couple of different sub categories; Open Back, Closed Back. This is to do with how much of the sound gets out and how much ambient noise they let in. You don’t really want to be letting the metronome out either, and unless your a drummer, they don’t really look the part.
I would always advise more isolation, but if you have time to play around, see what works best for you. It maybe that these feel more comfortable to you.
The most basic IEM. This feeds the same feed to both the Left and Right Ear. It is a great way to get your team on InEars, the downside being that most performers will feel isolated and disconnected with only a mono mix, as we have stereo ears, so we are used to a stereo image coming to us. This can be helped by using an ambient mic to pick up room noise and audience participation.
Positively, it takes up less space on your mixing console as well, as you only need one Aux send per person, rather than Stereo where you need two.
Here is a small mono wired IEM pack, and my version that I built next to it. (mine is blatantly the black mass produced one!)
This gives the option to pan your voice all the way to the left or have only the keys in your right ear, etc.. Its predominantly used for stereo imaging – to allow the mix to feel wider and more spacious inside your head. Its something I noticed when I swapped from mono to stereo.
Depending on the desk you are using depends on whether you essentially send two mono signals to one stereo pack (like most analog desks) or whether one Aux send is the level and the other becomes a pan. All digital desks I have come across use this second method, as do a couple of large analog consoles (Soundcraft MH4).
Sharing InEar Mixes
Now if you are on a tight budget, or don’t have enough free Aux’s on your desk, then sharing a feed between several musicians is an option. This is done by using a Headphone Amplifier – which are more commonly found in Recording Studio’s for sending the takes to the artist(s) performing them.
While this is a good way to let everyone in the band hear a mix, though it comes with a compromise as different peoples requests can’t be fulfilled. Depending on the setup of the rack, you can have the mix in either mono or stereo. Each send would then have a separate volume control for the user. Stereo versions sometimes give the option for the user to pan their overall mix between Left and Right.
Certain headphone amplifier models also allow an alternative input to be fed to the ears. This would be useful to add a metronome in, and then let the people who wanted it add it into their own at the required volume. Allowing the drummer, bassist, and keys player to have it, while the vocalists didn’t.
This is the cheapest and simplest to setup, literally plugging in a Signal cable into a box like the one below. Some need a power supply, but most run off a 9v battery. It works in the same way as the sharing version, but is a single unit, that gives each artist a volume knob, and if its stereo (like the one below) they can pan between Left and Right for their overall mix. Nice an simple to use, and doesn’t require much training to get sound coming through them.
This can be slightly more complex to setup depending on your area, and what radio frequencies you / others are using. Its best to consult an Integrator / Professional if you get stuck. There are different legal frequencies for different parts of the world. So if you are looking to take it travelling with you, its best to check that you aren’t breaking any laws. For the UK there is currently a License free zone for Radio Mics / InEars, outside of that zone, you have to buy a license for the frequencies you use. Again its best to check what you are getting before purchase with a professional.
Now obviously running around a stage with a wired mic or guitar lead to all sorts of issues – especially if you have a big stage. As the majority of performers move around, Wired IEM’s would be a bit pointless, especially with a wireless mic. Thankfully IEM’s can be wireless as well. In a church setting, it may be of use to have main instruments like acoustic and electric guitars on Wireless belt packs for ears and signal.
What I use..
I personally use Stereo Wired InEars for Church stuff, as I’m never more than 5m from my laptop running Ableton Live + Guitar Pedalboard. I can’t really justify the need to upgrade to wireless for my InEars, especially as my guitar is wired. I made my life easier though, and combined my headphone extension cable, and guitar’s jack cable into a makeshift loom, this was I only have one cable to trip myself up with. I also did the same for my wife’s XLR and headphone extension cable, saving her having a tangled mess when singing.
My next monitor related upgrade would be to better headphones like the ones below,rather than the generic fitting single driver ones that I have currently. I have custom moulded tips on my generics, and have tried the DIY kits, but they haven’t been too successful for me. Neither of which have been particularly comfortable, and tend to stay in my ear, rather than on the headphones. I cannot wait for the day where I can just slot the headphones straight in, and feel like they aren’t really there.
My little rig is built around Ableton Live and a Focusrite 18i8 Audio Interface. All Audio goes through this setup, and then out to FOH and our Ears, its easy to transport (all fits in a medium sized foamed Peli) and has enough expandability / flexibility. I shall probably write a post about it shortly explaining why things are run like they are, and improvements you & I can make.
Maybe you don’t use any monitoring at your local venue / church. Or have monitors, but they aren’t really ‘set right’. My suggestion would be to work with the Sound Tech to come up with a solution where;
A – Everyone is aware that the monitors aren’t meant to be a reflection/duplicate of the Main PA, but giving the musicians the essentials to perform and stay in time & tune. If you don’t have any monitoring, get a couple of quotes from a local supplier / integrator. Most will come and advise you free of charge.
B – The level of the monitors doesn’t overpower the Main PA, this gives rise to all sorts of problems with muddy / unintelligible sound, feedback issues, no control over the main mix for the Sound Tech.
C – When asking for things in your monitors – whether IEM’s or Wedges, be specific about whether you want more or less of said instrument, and whether the WHOLE mix is too loud/quiet.. This will save a lot of miscommunication and time in soundcheck. Asking for some reverb in your ears (if you have effects) can also help to give you the ambience to feel less isolated.
D – If your wedges (or guitar amps) point at your ankles and you keep turning them up to hear them, why not try angling them towards your ears! its amazing how many times I see people stood with their toes touching the front of the wedge, and expecting to hear it 6ft away. Either raise the whole wedge ofd the ground to be closer to ear height, or angle it up. Sound checks are a great time to test this out, it could make your performance better.
E – Do you have a graphic Equaliser over the Aux send? If you seem to be getting a lot of unwanted feedback (whistling from the speakers) then it’s probably worth investing in one of these to ‘ring out’ the room and get rid of some of the standing waves in your venue. If you don’t know how / what to do, its best to contact a professional.