How To Effectively Use In-Ear Monitors

In-ear monitors are a crucial tool for all kinds of live performers. But how do you choose the ones that are right for you, balancing price and functionality? Matt Vanacoro shares his experience.  

So you want to keep your hearing well into your ‘golden years’? If you’re a musician, investing in a good pair of in-ear monitors can help you stay in tune as well as protect your ears from harmful sustained sound levels. Regardless of which brand and model you go with, there are some factors at play you’ll want to be aware of before you plug up your ears.

Choosing The Right One

In-ear monitors range in price, like most musical gear, from reasonable to obscene. Like many other things in life, you get what you pay for. If you spend less money, you’re likely trading off features or sound quality. The trick here is to determine what you, as a performer, can live with. Higher end systems may have significantly more range, to the tune of hundreds of feet, but is that something you really need to invest in if you’re playing club dates 15 feet from your mixing board?

On-pack remote mixing is something else that often differentiates the low end units from their more expensive brethren. I’ll be honest, when I bought my first system, this was a ‘must have’ feature for me. I wanted to be able to mix in ‘more me’ right on the belt pack, regardless of the sound guy’s desires. I found, however, over the course of a few years of use I didn’t utilize that feature much, as setting it up required a lot of time and an extra out from our mixer - something I didn’t necessarily have. When I ‘traded up’, I ditched this feature to save some cash and haven’t missed it - although to be fair I usually work with some pretty decent sound guys.

Picking Your Earbuds

Another area where you have some price vs quality control is the earbud choice. Many in ear monitor systems utilize a standard 1/8” headphone jack, so you can start simple, then upgrade your buds as you use the system more. There are also systems that include disposable / changeable foam buds that attach to the drivers so multiple people can utilize the same headphones in a sanitary way.

For me, getting a tight seal in my ear was more important than the absolute highest audio fidelity (gasp!). I opted to utilize some of my earbud budget to get custom ‘molds’ that were sculpted to my ear canal. It wasn’t particularly expensive (some companies will even do it for free or subsidize your audiologist visit if you purchase their headphones), and it only took a few minutes. I now have customized molds that block out just about all outside noise. This allows me to keep the pack at a more reasonable volume, saving my hearing (and extending battery life).

Getting Your Mix

This is one area where you can’t afford to skimp. A bad in-ear mix will leave you feeling isolated and simply unable to perform. You’re blocking out the sound from the outside world, so it’s important to get a good sound check, and make sure you can hear everything you need to in your mix. The first time you use your system, it’s going to likely take longer to get your mix than a standard floor wedge, so prepare for that. If you’re not happy with the mix, you can always pull out one earbud and listen to the ‘outside world’ with one ear, and your own mix in another.

Fortunately, every time you use your system, you’ll get faster at ‘dialing it in’. Utilizing in ear monitors is yet another case for also utilizing a digital mixer - you can save your mix and only require minimal tweaking during sound check!

If the isolation from the crowd and stage feels strange, you can always ask your sound crew to mix in a ‘crowd mic’. You can use any mic you may have lying around, bus it to your in-ears and keep out out of the mix, and voila - you’ve got controlled stage volume in your ears.

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Matt Vanacoro is one of New York’s premier musicans. Matt has collaborated as a keyboardist in studio and on stage with artists such as Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Mark Wood (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), Mark Rivera (Billy Joel Band), Aaron Carter, Amy Regan, Jay Azzolina, Marcus Ratzenboeck (Tantric), KeKe Palmer, C-Note, Jordan Knig... Read More

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