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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Losey

IEM Basics for Churches (In-Ear Monitoring) | How-to #6

Updated: May 2, 2023


If you are in the market for in-ear monitoring, or IEM systems, you know things are about to get better. The ways of physical speaker monitors are largely behind us. For churches large and small, it’s for the better. There’s less chance for feedback, a dramatic decrease in stage volume, and the possibility of more complicated and coordinated productions executed with ease. People on stage can have full discussions without the audience hearing what is happening. But this blog post is not to argue for IEMs, this is to tell you a little of what you need to know to prepare yourself for it.

Find Suitable IEM Earphones

There are too many bad options when it comes to choosing IEMs. Some people are looking for a cheap solution that will just get the job done. Can you just use your old 2005 wired earbuds? Please don’t. Not only will the sound bleed sound back into the microphone but you will find that they cannot reproduce live sound well. So please get real IEMs meant for monitoring off of a reputable site (not Amazon, Wish.com, or Alibaba).

You can spend as little as $30 on IEMs but they will be complete garbage. Some people swear by them and I’ve given a few a fair shot. I found them each to be at the same level of terribleness. When you spend too little, you get cheap drivers that can’t stand up to the low-frequency and even mid-frequency reproduction without breaking up and sounding muddy, garbled, and unpredictable. If they last long enough without becoming shorted out, disconnected or otherwise, the drivers will end up getting worn out because of the regular humidity that lives inside your ears (gross I know). If you want something decent, spend at minimum $100-$200 but be prepared for options to go even higher than $3500.

I briefly mentioned drivers. What is an IEM driver? It’s actually pretty simple. A driver is just a speaker but in this case, it’s in your headphones. When you have your regular old theater room TV speaker, they tend to come in two-driver and three-driver configurations. When one speaker has to carry the full range of frequencies, they don’t sound as good, tend to have lower volume outputs, and have less accurate representations of the audio. When you break up that audio into specific frequency bands and send each of the bands to specially designed drivers, you get more intelligible and accurate representations of the original audio signal. Of course, sometimes it’s also louder but the point is that you have less distortion and more clarity. Now just pretend that it’s all miniaturized and in a tiny little headphone instead of a TV theater speaker.

At this point, you probably may have guessed that the cheapest of the IEMs are single drivers. I actually preferred them but not for reasons you may have thought. I was not in the market for IEMs because I was performing on stage. I was mixing monitors for up to 16 people at one time. I needed the lowest common denominator of headphones that was reliable enough to be consistent from week to week. So I just bought some Shure SE315s and they lasted me a good 5 years. I bought them for about $100 and they allowed me to mix monitors accurately and reliably. If they sound good in my headphones, they will definitely sound good in the other more expensive ones. If I bought expensive ones, everything would’ve sounded good to me but not necessarily to everyone else.

Assuming that you’re looking into IEMs for vocalists and instrumentalists, I would recommend 2-3 drivers but you can buy as many as 7, 8, and 9-driver configurations if you have a ton of cash. I find that to be excessive but then again, I also buy my t-shirts in bulk from a warehouse.

If you are a bassist or a drummer, I would stick with a minimum of 3 drivers if your budget can swing it but if you are a singer/vocalist. 1-2 will do you just fine. Just keep in mind that whatever you choose, the number of drivers will affect how you mix your monitors.

The second most important function of IEMs is to completely seal out as much stage noise as possible. This protects your hearing, especially if you’re a drummer, but it also keeps your mix as the primary focus of your attention. If you have any bleed in your IEMs, you risk having to compensate by increasing volume and risking hearing damage anyways. There are two ways to keep extraneous sound out. You can get universal fit IEMs or custom mold IEMs. Custom-mold IEMs are more expensive, yes. But they also give you a perfect seal every time. But those take a bit of time to get made. You have to go to an audiologist, get custom ear molds like you would for hearing aids, and send them to the IEM company for manufacturing.

With universal fit IEMs, you have to choose ear foam size, whether you like rubber, plastic, tree shapes, or other fancy inserts. I actually wanted to use rubber tips because even though I had an ear injury as a child and have significant scarring. This makes universal fit earbuds painful but being able to quickly remove and put IEMs back in was very helpful for me while mixing monitors. If I had to remove my IEMs too much I would get frustrated with the memory foam tips you have to squeeze to get in your ear canals. Custom ones tend to take an extra second or two to put in and I didn’t have the money for them at the time anyway.

At the end of the day, it comes down to your budget and application. I can personally vouch for a few companies for a reliable choice: Shure 315s and above, Westones, and 64 Audio.

A Brief Overview of Mixing IEMs

Ok so you bought your IEMs and it’s your first time using them. What should you expect? The first thing you need to know is, it can be a little disorienting singing with click tracks and metronomes played directly into your ears. Make sure you have plenty of practice. Not just by listening to music through your IEMs though. Also, make sure you sing along and play your own vocal mic into your ears if you have the capability. When you are monitoring your own voice there is a tendency to hear much more low end as well as whatever the mic hears as the sound is piped back in through your monitors. Some people try to compensate by trying to overpower the “head” sound of the mic. The “head” sound of your voice is what you hear when you plug your ears with your fingers and talk. It’s muffled and it tends to cause a few problems if you aren’t used to it or don’t know how to compensate for it.

Once you’ve practiced in a low-stress and non-live situation, you should probably follow a couple of “guidelines” to keep yourself in the best position. The first guideline is:

Always Keep Both Earphones In

This is very important. It’s one thing to have a quick monitoring issue, pop and ear out to gather your bearings, and put the earphone back in. No big deal. It’s another to practice only having one ear in. When you listen to things with one ear, your brain is going to tell you it’s too quiet because most of us have two ears and our brain wants us to turn our head so we can focus on what it’s hearing specifically. This is impossible while wearing headphones because the other ear will never hear anything if it’s out. Due to this limitation, our brains think we need to compensate by turning it up, and up and up. I have had two friends blow their eardrums because they kept turning IEMs mixes up with only one ear in. Don’t let that happen to you.

I know that we like to hear the energy from the audience so it can be nice to listen to them as reference. Honestly though, how often are audiences good references for anything? Ever tried to have an audience clap on time without speeding up? The additional problem is that when we have one ear out, the slap-back from the back wall gets us out of time with the rest of the band. It takes time for the sound to go from the speakers, travel all the way back there, and return back to you. Depending on the size of the room, it can be enough to get you off a whole beat or two. If you are still more comfortable with only one ear in, or if it just sounds strange, we need to shift focus to mixing our IEMs more appropriately.

Sometimes in order to save money, or when it isn’t possible, churches use mono, or single-channel monitor mixes. This means that you can’t pan channels left or right and you aren’t able to put as much “information” in your mix. This is not a huge issue, it’s just another restriction that you need to manage and plan for in your monitor mix. Of course, you might have a stereo option but choose to prefer a mono mix anyway. I don’t recommend it but you have a right to be wrong. Just kidding! (not really)

I’ve written all this and we haven’t gotten to singing your first word or playing your first note. Here it is. When you first get to the rehearsal space and you personally have set up, make sure your individual input channel fader is set to -5db on the board. This gives you plenty of physical room to go up or down on overall volume. Sing and play as loudly as necessary and turn your IEM pack up or down until it’s comfortable. Ideally, this means you shouldn’t have to adjust your personal channel during sound check. If you do have to turn yourself up too much, it’s a good indication you messed up somewhere.

Now that you can hear yourself well, you can filter every other IEM mix decision through a two-part filter. That two-part filter is:

Be In Tune and On Time

In other words, only putting the bare minimum in your monitor mix so that YOU can be in tune and on time. Anything else you decide to have in there is your choice but it also has the potential to get in the way. Those extraneous channels may prevent you from hearing yourself when you need it most. Since this is all live, almost anything can happen. Unexpected things like feedback, unintentional wrong notes, the drummer missing a beat, and the guitarist’s string snapping, all happen often. I’ll just go through the standard checklist of a typical rock band at church and my suggestions for mixing them in as a vocalist.

Click track: Yes.

Drums: If click track is in there no drums.

Bass: Definitely not.

Electric Guitars: Yes and panned if possible but not prominent. If there are two mics on one amp, choose one.

Piano/Keys: Yes but low and panned.

Backing tracks: Yes and if it’s consistent throughout, then make a lot of the other instruments less prominent because the backing tracks rarely make mistakes in timing and hitting notes.

Acoustic guitar: No unless it’s your instrument and there are moments when there is nothing else playing.

Lead vocals: Yes and panned.

Background vocals: If this is you then yes, but otherwise, no.

Again these are just suggestions, but they are darn good suggestions. If you are having a hard time following along with the rest of the band or not feeling confident, use the on time and in tune guideline. It will fix a lot of your problems, even ones you didn't anticipate.

One final note for mixing vocals in your monitors. Generally speaking, most churches do not have the capability to EQ monitor inputs aside from a general high pass filter. This means you may have a difficult time hearing other male vocals if you’re male, and other female vocals if you’re female. The solution to this is intentional panning (if possible). Set up vocal panning to reflect the way other vocalists are physically around you. If you have a vocalist to your furthest on your right, pan them as far right as possible. Maybe there’s another person between you and them—pan them 50% right. It may seem strange, but when your brain is trying to interpret where they are, it may help that the panning reflects to where the vocalists are in reality.

Possibly the hardest adjustment you will make is that you have to listen to your own voice. If you haven’t before, it’s quite uncomfortable and revealing. Don’t be quick to assume that your in-ears are making you sound bad…

...You Might Just Sound Bad.

That’s a hard pill to swallow. Now that you are listening to the unfiltered/no FX version, you can make changes in real time. Are you sounding a little pitchy? Make the adjustment. Are you sounding a little nasally? Make the adjustment. Gone are the days of not knowing how you sound or finding out on a recording later. Remove all excuses for yourself and understand exactly what is going on while you sing. You job is to do make sure your sound as you hear it sounds as good as possible for the audience. Even if you think your mix sounds empty, or there’s not enough energy, trust your FOH engineer to take care of that for the audience. Don’t just add something else in to make it sound more “full.” If there is a perceived issue with fullness, your mic, a tinny sound, or there is a problem with anything you’re doing, FOH (ideally) will let you know. After a few weeks, you’ll get more comfortable and your performance will be better for it.

In Conclusion

  • Get IEMs that suit your instrument and purpose on stage.

  • Keep both ears in.

  • Stop turning everything all the way up.

  • Only put stuff in your monitor mix that keeps you in tune and on time.

  • Let FOH do their job when it comes to a mix sounding full.

  • Do your job fixing your bad sound.

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