Everyone has seen them. Many have used them. Few really understand them. In ear monitors, IEM, became the rage a while ago and have trickled down so the average working musician can use them if they so desire. But, what are the pros and cons really?
At the top pro level, the name acts we see on TV, the audio quality of the systems is top notch providing everything one needs except, maybe butt shaking extreme low end. As one moves down the financial scale, quality suffers a bit but can still be quite acceptable. When performers at this level try in-ears for the first or second time they usually find it disorienting. Sounds are close and clear; the audience is gone as are the drums except what’s leaking into the vocal mikes. Just like modern efx pedals that take hours to set up and learn, working with in ears takes time and practice. Consider a cheap (think $15) audience/ambience mike mixed into the IEM. This isn’t unknown at top pro levels but never seen with local bands. Once some time and effort is expended, IEMs yield 3 major benefits:
1. Better performances in terms of pitch and timing
2. Elimination of feedback from all sorts of monitor issues
3. Reduction of noise exposure and possible hearing loss.
That last point deserves closer examination. Just because you have things in your ears doesn’t stop hearing loss. At this point, there’s only one device that can actually tell you how much sound pressure is being delivered to your eardrums. It only works with 2 brands of monitor and runs about $300; as much as the monitors you bought almost. So, what to do? Option one is to guess and hope you don’t keep them too loud for too long. The only other way around spending $300 is some studied listening. Using a variety of music you know and a sound level meter or at least a $1.99 app on the iPhone, listen and measure. When you’ve gotten pretty good at guessing the sound level, try applying it to the IEMs. Or, you could just guess.
so lately I’ve been working with a group which varies from a trio to 6 piece band. Wherever we go, we get compliments on the sound, many of which are along the lines of, “it was just the right loudness”. Mind you, the real, measured levels vary from around 93 to about 105 Db. That’s right, I adjust the level to the venue and audience. For the older crowds, we don’t kill but you know there’s a good band playing. For the college age venues, we’ll kill you with the best while providing a high quality mix.
SO, why is there always the push to play LOUD? There’s the argument that certain guitar amps sound better loud but today most (if not all) of that sound can be achieved in the early stages of the amp and then the master volume turned down to a useful level. At larger concert venues (say 3000 and up) it probably makes no difference. But how many bands play to much more than a few hundred? In those venues, the loud guitars and drums force a minimum level that may be inappropriate for the audience. If not, vocals are lost. So who exactly is deciding and why? I’ll post my thoughts later but would like some feedback (verbal not audio) on the issue.
Being a good sound professional on a local level is a lonely endeavor. There seems to be no end to self-proclaimed experts and a similar string of bands who “do our own sound”. Rare is the local guy (more rare lady) who really knows their stuff and applies it to the benefit of talented local acts and venues. There are many colleges offering degrees or certificates in the field and some are certainly quite good. However, what’s a local band to do? It seems years in the business is no guarantee of quality. They could ask for one of those degrees or certificates but that’s not always going to exist outside major entertainment centers. A good sound pro is like any other sideman for a band. Best is solid recommendations by trusted colleagues. Second is the audition. Why shouldn’t a band ask for a trial run either at a practice setup or one-off job that’s not critical? At a minimum, a good, all-around sound pro for a local band should be able to:
1. Mix the music in the style the band wants. Not everything is rock n roll.
2. Get the sounds, vocal and instruments the band likes. If you’ve got a crap amp, a good sound pro should tell you.
3. Find and either fix or patch around several common problems
4. Get a good, feedback free, monitor mix (mixes). Within reason.
For bands that say “we do our own…” I absolutely defy them to accomplish those 4 fundamentals with any consistency/quality.