Today, I want to enlarge on the topic of IEMs, with a focus on ways to enhance the experience for the performer while protecting their ears as much as possible.
It’s important to remember that IEMs are not only an excellent way to hear onstage; they also provide ear protection when used properly. However, the opposite is true as well: exposure to poorly set-up IEMs can accelerate hearing loss. An example of this is when you see vocalists performing with one of their IEMs pulled out. A closer look at this phenomenon is a good starting point for our discussion.
This situation is really the “worst of both worlds” and should be avoided. The musician has, for reasons I’ll explain, removed himself from the protective in-ear environment and is trying to get comfortable with a blend of the in-ear mix and the sound on stage. The problems are three-fold: the in-ear mix is now essentially useless, the onstage sound has probably not been set up for their vocal mix, and there is an increased risk of hearing damage.
Usually, the performer removes one of their monitors because the mix they are getting is completely out of whack, taking them out of the music rather than engaging them. Like a swimmer coming up for air, the performer does the one thing he knows will help. If you see this happening with your group, you need to take a look at your mixing techniques. First of all, allow time at sound check to set up a proper instrumental blend in their mix. The vocalist needs enough support from the instruments and other voices to get a tuning reference, but not so much that their voice gets lost.
Ask the performer which instruments they usually gravitate towards for a tuning reference and start your sound check with an emphasis on those. Remember, this is all about getting them comfortable in the IEM environment; that doesn’t necessarily mean you are building a CD-quality mix; rather, you are starting with the essential elements for the performer to feel comfortable and stay in tune. For some, this means a bare bones sound with dominant vocals, others want everything; experience will tell you what is needed.
Another factor that tempts performers to remove their monitors is the subjective feeling that the mix inside their head is very artificial sounding, removed from the “real” sound onstage. Again, the performer feels isolated and pulled out of the music. Most IEM engineers use ambience microphones to help their musicians stay connected to the stage sound. Usually, this is a matched pair of microphones, placed at stage left and right, and aimed in such a way to get a representative room sound. This is then blended into the mix, making it much more natural sounding. While you may not have the resources to purchase dedicated ambience microphones, any decent-quality stereo recording microphone will approximate the effect. Play with different locations until you have a couple of options to choose from.
Finally, avoid mixing to a level that irritates the performer; this is an alarm saying, “Turn it down!” Properly fitted IEMs, whether custom or generic moulds, can reduce the ambient volume by 15-20dB; this gives you all the latitude you need to build a comfortable, satisfying mix while minimizing risk of hearing damage. Never let your performer use standard ear buds as replacements for IEMs; they do not provide the isolation required for safe use of this technology in the live concert environment.
Fred Michael is President of Rocky Mountain Sound Production Services in Vancouver, BC. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via the Rocky Mountain Sound Web page, www.rmsound.com.