Image credit: Unsplash 

Ever wondered why singers and other professional musicians wear earphones-like earpieces while performing on stage? The reason is simple, to hear themselves better in the sound mix. The earpieces that singers and professional musicians wear are called in-ear monitors. 

With in-ear monitors, singers and musicians can directly hear their sound output. This helps in synchronizing themselves well with the rest of the band and therefore deliver a good performance on stage. 

If you are new to professional sound setup and mixing, it’s a good step to understand the basics of monitoring before moving on to learning about in-ear monitors. 

Understanding the basics of stage/live sound monitoring

Setting up a proper live sound for stage performances involves intricate and advanced processes that professional audio engineers are experienced with. However, as a beginner, it’s good to start with understanding the basics. 

To look at things from a basic point of view, live audio engineers set up the direction of live sound flow to two directions, one to the audiences, and the other to the musicians performing on the stage. 

For directing the live sound flow towards the audiences, live audio engineers use PA systems that comprise speakers and subwoofers. And for directing the live sound flow towards the musicians performing on the stage, audio engineers use stage monitors. 

Here is a simple diagram that illustrates the basics of live sound flow. 

The traditional practice of directing the live sound flow to the performing musicians on the stage is using wedge monitors. Audio engineers usually keep wedge monitors on the front edge of the stage facing the musicians. It’s common to see a couple of wedge monitors stacked together on the stage to strengthen the sound flow toward the performing musicians. 

Image credit: Unsplash

Although wedge monitors are commonly used, they have several disadvantages which can be compensated using in-ear monitors. These include limited mobility of the musicians, inconsistent sound quality, and hearing health. 

How do in-ear monitors work?

On a basic level, in-ear monitors are similar to standard earphones in the sense that they channel sound directly to the ear. However, professional in-ear monitors are different from standard earphones in terms of internal design and functionalities. Professional in-ear monitors have multiple dynamic sound drivers whereas standard earphones have only one sound driver. 

With a combination of multiple sound drivers, professional in-ear monitors can deliver the level of sound quality and dynamics that only professional wedge monitors can offer. 

Image credit: Ultimate Ears

Image credit: Ultimate Ears

However, it’s not just the in-ear monitors that suffice for monitoring. Almost all professional in-ear monitors are designed to work in tandem with an in-ear monitoring system that includes a transmitter unit and a receiver unit (body pack) to which the in-ear earpieces connect. 

Image credit: Shure

The transmitter unit receives the live audio signal which is already mixed by the monitor engineer/mixer man and sends it wirelessly to the receiver unit (body pack). The receiver unit then sends the signal to the in-ear monitor earpieces. 

Watch this short video clip by Shure to get basic clarity on how in-ear monitoring systems work in live situations. 

2 different types of in-ear monitors

Although professional in-ear monitors serve the one single purpose of monitoring live sound directly to the ears, there are several types of models available. Check out and learn about the three different types of professional in-ear monitors below: 

1. Standard in-ear monitors

Standard in-ear monitors are one of the most common types. They are commonly available at low to mid-range prices. Depending upon the price, a standard in-ear monitor can have single or multiple dynamic sound drivers. 

Image credit: Shure

High-quality professional standard in-ear monitors such as the Shure SE846-CL have interchangeable audio cables, interchangeable audio adapters/converters, and extra rubber tips of different sizes. 

Image credit: Shure

2. Custom in-ear monitors (custom-molded)

Custom in-ear monitors are similar to standard in-ear monitors. What’s different about custom in-ear monitors is that they are specifically designed and molded for a particular person’s ear. Custom in-ear monitors are a step above standard in-ear monitors as they are better at isolating background noise and delivering a better quality of the live audio mix. 

Custom in-ear monitors such as the Ultimate Ears 7 Pro are designed for bespoke fitting. Customers generally have to get their ear scans for impressions. The company will then use the digital impression to make the ear tips of the in-ear earpieces precisely fit on the customer’s ear. 

Image credit: Ultimate Ears

Watch this short video clip from Ultimate Ears to learn how digital ear impressions are taken in order to custom design the in-ear monitors for bespoke fitting. 

6 important benefits of in-ear monitoring

Many professional and studio singers/musicians have made the switch to in-ear monitoring. The reasons are obvious, in-ear monitoring systems work well in lowering the odds of live audio issues that musicians traditionally faced. 

Here are the 6 important benefits of in-ear monitoring: 

1. Better mix clarity

The biggest benefit that professional in-ear monitors have over traditional wedge monitors is better audio mix quality. It means a world of difference to performing musicians when the mix of the live audio is clear and of high-quality. 

Achieving high-quality and clear live audio on wedge monitors is a feat that only experienced and highly-skilled mixer engineers can practically achieve. This is because live audio is dynamic as compared to studio audio. Considering the fact that musicians get to hear their individual mix when using in-ear monitors, there is practically no issue of crossover of volume as traditionally faced with wedge monitors. 

2. Option to adjust the mix volume

When using wedge monitors, performing musicians do not have the option of adjusting the mix volume as per their convenience. This, in turn, can cause them to face issues hearing their mix while performing. 

However, this is not the case when using in-ear monitors. Almost all professional in-ear monitors are designed to be used with a receiver body pack that has a dedicated volume control knob on it. The volume knob makes it easier for musicians to adjust the level of the mix as per their changing requirements on the stage. 

3. Lower odds of feedbacks

One of the common issues performing musicians have to deal with is audio feedback. Wedge monitors can give off unpleasant and high-pitched audio feedback when vocal microphones and instruments such as guitar come in close proximity to them. 

In certain situations where the live audio volume is very high, audio feedback can be jarring and can temporarily or permanently damage hearing. With professional in-ear monitors, performing musicians can steer clear of this issue. This is because in-ear monitoring works at low voltages and low volume levels. 

4. Freedom to move around the stage 

Performing musicians can afford to make very little movements on the stage when using wedge monitors. This is because wedge monitors have a specific sound firing range. By moving away from the sound firing range, performing musicians will find it difficult to properly hear their mix. 

With professional in-ear monitors, there is no sound firing range as the audio mix is directly sent to the earpieces. As a result, musicians can move freely on the stage and not worry about losing their audio mix. 

5. Hearing protection 

Performing musicians, especially musicians who regularly tour every year, stand at a higher risk of temporary or permanent hearing damage. This is because the stage volume is often very high when using wedge monitors. And the constant exposure to high stage volume levels can impact hearing and lower hearing health. 

Many professional musicians choose in-ear monitors solely for hearing protection. Well-designed professional in-ear monitors can isolate background noise/stage noise up to 30 dB. The background noise isolation not only ensures hearing protection but also adds clarity to the audio mix. 

6. Stereo audio option

It’s a highly challenging task to achieve true stereo audio when using wedge monitors. This is because other wedge monitors that are in close proximity interfere with the volume levels of a particular musician’s wedge monitors. 

Although many performing musicians choose the mono audio mode when using in-ear monitors, there is the option of choosing stereo audio by turning on the stereo mode on the in-ear monitoring system’s transmitter unit. 

In-ear monitors aren’t just reserved for professional musicians

There is a common conception that in-ear monitors are just reserved for professional and performing musicians. However, this is only partially true as non-musicians can also use in-ear monitors for listening to music. 

A general rule of thumb for non-musicians who are planning to buy an in-ear monitor is to avoid going for models that have four or more sound drivers as they are overkill. For listening to music, an in-ear monitor pair that includes one or two sound drivers is good enough for a high-quality audio experience. 

Here are some of the in-ear monitor models that are well-suited for non-musicians: 

1. Sennheiser IE 100 PRO – check it out here

Sennheiser IE 100 PRO comes as an unmistakable choice for you if you want to buy a high-quality in-ear monitor pair for high-performance audio. This model delivers dynamic highs and lows while ensuring optimum wearing comfort.

What’s best about Sennheiser IE 100 PRO is that you can use it either as a wired earphone or Bluetooth earphone. Similar to professional in-ear monitors, this model comes with interchangeable audio cables and ear tips

Image credit: Sennheiser

2. Ultimate Ears 5 Pro – check it out here

Ultimate Ears 5 Pro is essentially designed for live performance. However, it can work perfectly for non-musicians for music listening requirements. What’s great about this model is you can choose it as a standard in-ear monitor or custom in-ear monitors. 

The fine-tuned sound drivers of Ultimate Ears 5 Pro deliver full-range audio for a professional-level audio experience. This model is also designed to isolate background noise in order to enhance the audio listening experience. 

Image credit: Ultimate Ears

3. Shure AONIC 215 True Wireless – check it out here

Shure AONIC 215 True Wireless is a wireless in-ear monitor model, as its name suggests. Although not a first of its kind, this model is surely one of the best in its class. It brings pro-level in-ear monitor audio experience in the true wireless domain. 

Shure AONIC 215 True Wireless delivers rich bass, punchy mids, and soothing highs. Apart from offering a good level of background noise insulation, this model also works well in ensuring noise-free clear audio calls. 

Image credit: Shure

4. Fender NINE – check it out here

Fender NINE checks all the boxes for in-ear monitors that are well-suited for non-musicians. Even if you are a performing musician and want to buy a simple and affordable in-ear monitor, you cannot go wrong with this model. 

Fender NINE comes with a wide range of accessories, including interchangeable audio cables, interchangeable ear tips, and a cleaning tool. 

Image credit: Fender

In-ear monitor usage insights and tips

Just like the way it is with many professional audio tools and equipment, it’s important to properly use in-ear monitors in order to achieve the best results. Here are some simple and handy yet highly useful insights and tips for using professional in-ear monitors: 

1. The audio mix isn’t entirely dependent on in-ear monitors

Sure, in-ear monitors play an important role in determining the quality of the audio mix. However, the audio mix quality has also got to do a lot with how skilled and experienced the monitor engineer/mixer man is. 

As mentioned earlier, live sound/audio is dynamic and the mixing that’s to be done for a live set depends on various factors such as the overall space of the venue, the PA systems used, and the complexity of the audio signal flow. 

In conclusion, it’s equal parts in-ear monitor sound quality and live audio mix quality that defines the overall finesse of the final live audio mix. So, if the live audio mix is not sounding right, it’s not the in-ear monitors that may be possibly bad. 

2. Avoid turning up the mix volume too high 

One of the most important in-ear monitors using tips to remember is to avoid pushing the volume of your earpieces too high. Doing this not only puts you at the risk of temporary or permanent hearing damages but can also affect sound quality. Turning up the volume too loud can cause the drivers to work harder and distort the audio mix that the mixer engineer is feeding to your unit. 

3. Keep the in-ear monitors clean

Caring for professional in-ear monitors is extremely important. Make sure to regularly clean your in-ear monitors in order to keep them functioning as new. Avoiding regular cleaning causes earwax to build-up on the sound holes/ports of the units and lower the audio performance. 

Regularly inspect the ports of the units and clean them using a professional cleaning tool. What’s good to know is many professional in-ear monitors come included with a cleaning tool. 

4. Check the replacement policy

If you are a performing/touring musician, it’s important to check the replacement policy of the in-ear monitors. Often, touring musicians end up accidentally damaging in-ear monitors the way they accidentally damage other equipment while on the road during tours. 

Therefore, it’s important to make sure that the in-ear monitor company can quickly send you an alternative unit or an entire pair at your request so that you aren’t at a disadvantage when performing on stage. This is especially important if you use or plan on using custom-molded in-ear monitors. 

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