Making IEMs work for you

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.