Singers wear earpieces, also known as IEMs (in-ear monitors), while they perform as:
- It allows them to hear their own voice more clearly in noisy environments
- They protect against hearing damage
- They can provide a timing aide like a metronome beat to stay in time
- It allows a different custom mix to be played for each band member. It may emphasize the vocals for the singer while the bass player may prefer a louder drum beat in theirs
- A handy side effect of wearing earpieces is that feedback is cut right down. More detail on all these reasons is below
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Why Do Singers Wear Earpieces
Earpieces are becoming increasingly popular for musicians in place of their trusty stage monitors (otherwise known as wedges).
The wedges were smaller speakers that were placed at the front of the stage but pointed back at the musicians so they could hear their own music over the noise of the crowd.
The only purpose of the wedge was to allow the band to hear themselves in what could be a very noisy environment, such as a gig.
These wedges, however, had a few drawbacks. They had a nasty habit of producing feedback between the speaker and any microphone that was too close to it, you know that high-pitched feedback sound that really grates.
Also, custom mixes which are achievable with IEMs were unattainable, to such an extent, with stage monitors. And if the band could only afford one stage monitor then they couldn’t get any customized mixes at all. Don’t worry I’ll explain custom mixes below.
Most importantly, they also wouldn’t protect the musician’s hearing, in fact, they would only add to the noise of the room.
The modern-day earpieces are molded to the individual musician’s ears and provide an extremely secure seal thereby cutting out an incredible amount of noise (with active noise canceling they are extremely effective).
That being said some of the higher-end IEMs do allow for ambient noise to come through and that is customizable.
So let’s look a little bit more in-depth at each of the reasons given above for why singers wear earpieces:
Choice of playback mixes
At a gig, each member of the band will have their own set of earpieces.
The audio engineer can cut and mix the feed to each set so that it matches exactly what each band member needs to hear to perform to their best.
If the singer can’t hear his vocals very well the engineer will boost the vocal range frequencies and push that to the singer’s earpieces.
The singer will usually favor listening to one particular instrument above all others and will have that, and his voice emphasized.
The singer could also choose to have a backing track played through his earpiece.
If the bass player needs a little help with the timing elements of the track he may rely on an increased drum feed or metronome tick being fed to his set.
All band members can choose the level of volume that they want to hear during the performance, this leads to greater comfort for the musicians during the two hours or so they are on stage.
Protects against hearing damage
Musicians have long woken up to the fact that they need to protect their hearing if they want to be able to sustain their musical careers.
Artists that have already been around a while like, Ozzy Osbourne, Nil Young, Phil Collins, and Pete Townshend have reported that their hearing has degraded over time.
This could potentially be put down to the fact the IEM was not available during the earlier part of their careers.
Only becoming available commercially during the 80s, when the Van Halen sound engineer came up with the idea in an effort to help out the drummer of the band.
IEMs cut down considerably on the audio levels needed by the band to perform to their best, thus protecting their hearing.
Provides a metronome beat
Some artists like a constant beat to keep them in time during the performance or even when recording. A metronome beat can be provided with any customized sound that is preferred.
On occasion, you’ll see just the drummer in the band wearing the IEMs. It’s usually the case that they are keeping time to a metronome while the rest of the band keeps time with the drumbeat.
While feedback from the wedges can sometimes be quite painful to listen to, on occasion it can be a lot more subtle.
Some low-frequency feedback can be fed through the microphones on stage and end up being output through the speakers that the audiences are listening to.
This can have the effect of reducing the clarity of the output of the speakers.
All of this is alleviated with earpieces as they don’t provide any feedback loop at all.
They are mobile
There have been a lot of advancements in music technologies over recent years, with instruments such as the guitar being hooked up to wireless packs which allow the performer (we all know what guitarists are like) to prance about on stage to their heart’s content.
The only problem with this is that if they were using on-stage monitors they would have to stay in front of their personal speaker to get the effect.
Earpieces, in conjunction with these advancements, allow the full mobility of the musician across the stage.
This adds more of a natural effect with the instruments seemingly surrounding you which could never be achieved by the mono output of the wedge. It can seem to be more natural to the musician.
Protection against vocal strain
When the band is in full swing and the drummer is really thumping his tubs the noise can be quite overwhelming for the singer.
With in-ears, the volume is directly under the control of the audio engineer, and the levels provided to the singer would have been worked out in advance at the soundcheck.
This means that the singer doesn’t feel compelled to raise his voice to compete with the other instruments. It’s the audio engineer’s job to balance the output to the audience speakers.
Of course, this means that there is far less strain on the singer’s voice than would otherwise be the case.
A uniform output
The touring band can come across many different venue types from vast halls to smaller more intimate rooms.
The walls may be concrete, there may be large curtains down one side of the room, and the doors at the back may be open or closed, in all a very mixed bag could be encountered at each gig.
Sound bouncing around the different environments could well sound different from night to night. Earpieces remove this issue absolutely.
They provide a uniformity of sound which is consistent night after night. It is totally independent of the venue.
In addition, even different sections of the stage can sound different. Can you imagine singing in one corner of the stage to the audience, and then going and standing in front of the drum kit, and how different that is going to sound for you.
In-ear pieces reduce this variance and give the singer consistent sound no matter where they are standing.
So why then would the singer take out their IEM during a performance
It’s usually because of one of three reasons
- On the odd occasion that the mix into the singer’s earpiece has been hastily prepped or not prepped at all, they can end up being fed a really offputting jumble of instruments and sounds which do absolutely no good for their performance. There are a number of reasons why the sound check may not have gone ahead, from lack of time to broken equipment.
- Equipment does become faulty over time. And it could simply be the singer’s earpiece has finally reached end-of-life. If this is the case they have to remove it if this is the case they have to remove it as the seal will still be in place and they won’t hear anything at all.
- Everyone loves a bit of crowd participation, but it’s extremely hard to accomplish when you can’t even hear the crowd. The singer may well remove one earpiece in order to hear the crowd and also hear the mix in his other earpiece. Sometimes, however, they just want to get away from the clinical sound of the earpieces and enjoy the moment of playing in front of a live audience. To get over this the engineer can introduce ambient microphones which point at the audience, and a little of the crowd noise picked up is fed back into the musician’s mix.
What is an In-Ear Monitor
They look like an earbud but with a lot more material that seals the middle and outer ear, which cuts off external noises to the inner ear. The inner section of the earpiece sits comfortably a little into the ear canal.
They are usually hooked up to a wireless pack attached to the musician’s belt or strapped onto the body, which receives signals from a transmitter attached to the mixing desk. The mix provided to the IEM will be one of the variants mentioned in this article.
When it comes to recording, IEMs are gradually replacing the high-end studio headphones as they become more and more reliable and high fidelity.
It is quite often found, that artists who regularly tour are more likely to bring their earpieces into the studio, while headphone use is more prevalent for those who do more recording work.
The gigging artist is much more likely to feel at home using his/her earpieces in the studio as they use them at the shows.
Disadvantages of IEMs
- In the great scheme of things, earpieces are very small. This means that over time a lot of them will go missing. Another few hundred dollars for a replacement set these costs can add up over time
- As they depend on wireless signals, any interference from other nearby transmitters can impact the clarity of the mix being sent to the earpieces. That is if they are not blocked completely.
- This can cause remoteness for the musician from the audience. The disconnect can sometimes be seen when the musician will remove one earpiece in order to get that live vibe going. At the end of the day taking out the earpiece for one or two songs is a small price to pay for the other benefits that IEMs bring to the party.
In-ear monitors have been around since the 80s, and they are now considered by many to be an absolute necessity when playing live music.
The hearing protection offered has probably saved many a career from ending early due to damage caused by excessively loud music.
As the costs keep tumbling for these professional bits of kit they are coming into the realm of the semi-professional musician who gigs at local clubs and bars.
So if you ever end up gigging then you should consider getting yourself a pair. Do you think the cost would put you off?