How to Seamlessly Transition to In-Ear Monitors

Step on most any church stage today and you’ll notice something went missing—floor wedges and monitors.

Floor monitors are slowly disappearing from church stages, as they are replaced by personal monitor systems, wireless packs and in-ear monitors.

While the benefits of transitioning to in-ear monitors are numerous, the path of transition can be difficult. If you follow a few simple steps, the transition can go a lot smoother for you and your team.

Why Is The Transition to In-Ears So Difficult?

Typically, transitioning from floor wedges to in-ears means you’re changing from having a trained audio engineer create your mix, to you having control over your mix. However, without proper mix training, your results will be less than optimal.

This leads to a band full of disgruntled musicians who dread the mention of any new “improvements” you’re attempting to implement.

Here are some steps you can take to help ease the transition for your team.

What’s in It for Me?

Let’s face it, we’re selfish creatures. We aren’t prone to embracing change unless we see a clear benefit for ourselves. As the leader, you must cast the vision for your team about how much better using in-ears will be for the team, including the audio engineer. There are many benefits of using in-ears, but let’s discuss three in detail.

1. Get your own mix. Gone are the days of trying to get the perfect monitor mix for three singers sharing one floor wedge. Switching to in-ears allows each person to get their own individual mix. Customize your mix exactly the way you need it with in-ears. You can hear exactly what you need to hear and have as much of (or as little of) any part as you want to hear. Your in-ear changes don’t affect other people onstage, and you can create a mix that allows you to deliver the best possible performance.

2. Protect your hearing. A stage can be a loud place, with amps and drums blaring, amplified by other floor monitors pointed directly at your ears. Using in-ears can help protect your hearing. You can remove floor wedges, which keeps the music from blaring in your ears, and a good set of custom in-ears will also block other outside noise, further protecting your hearing.

Especially for drummers, who are housed behind the loudest instrument onstage and then often placed behind a piece of glass that further reflects and amplifies the noise, using in-ears can provide great benefits. Using in-ears, you can create a great drum mix, and then cut out all the outside noise that can destroy your hearing long-term.

3. Get great guitar tone. The age-old battle of amp volume vs. stage volume can be remedied with in-ears. If you’re using in-ears, you no longer need your amp to hear your guitar. Use a Radial SGI Studio Guitar Interface to move your amp offstage into a closet, crank it up so you can get the best your tube amp has to offer, all while keeping the stage silent. You get great tone, the stage volume is gone, and everyone is happier, including the audio engineer.

Train Your Team

In order to overcome the biggest struggle of using in-ears (lack of knowledge), it’s important to train your team well. The transition to in-ears will fail unless there is deliberate training beforehand. Don’t just take away all the monitors one day and expect everyone to suddenly get it.

Teach Your Team the In-Ear Gear

Spend time teaching your team all about the gear you’ll be using. Schedule dedicated time (outside of rehearsal and soundcheck) to walk through the gear you have, and also spend time talking about how they can create their own customized mix.

Walk through how to soundcheck with ears, how to dial in a great mix, make adjustments to the mix, and if you’re using some type of personal monitor mix system, how to save the settings of each mix. If you have people on your team who are more experienced, pair them with less experienced team members to help support the training.

If there are training videos online explaining your specific in-ear gear, share those videos to your team so they can review them beforehand and reference them after the initial training. If you have the time and resources, consider creating your own videos customized for your team, walking through the gear in the context of how you do things.

In-Ear Mix Essentials

While creating a great in-ear mix can seem like it requires expensive gear, tons of plug-ins, and years of experience, a great in-ear mix really comes down to applying a few basic principles. I call these in-ear mix essentials. Think of them as layers or levels of a pyramid.

Start with yourself. Make sure you have enough of you in your in-ears. Work with your sound engineer to make sure that you have enough to get an accurate picture of what’s happening at front of house (FOH). If your personal in-ear volume level is too loud, you’ll under-sing or play too softly, because you’re afraid you’re too loud. If the volume level of your in-ears is too soft, you’ll over-sing or play too loudly to compensate for a lack of volume. Get your level correct so you can (somewhat) match the dynamic at front of house.

Next, make sure you have enough pitch and timing reference from the instruments. I suggest they should at least be equal to each other in volume, but lower in volume in your in-ears than you. For pitch, choose an instrument that will always be in tune (e.g., a keyboard rather than an acoustic guitar). For timing, click is great if you’re using it. If not, then kick, hat or snare will suffice.

Now that you have enough of you and a good balance of timing and pitch reference, add in complementary parts. If you’re a singer, create a good blend of other singers. If you’re a drummer, make sure you’ve got plenty of bass. If you are one of (many) guitarists onstage, make sure you’ve got plenty of the other player(s) so you can blend parts well. Again, make sure they are all less prominent in your mix than you and your primary pitch and timing reference instruments.

Finally, add in everything else. Keep in mind, add only what you want (need) to hear. Just because it’s onstage, doesn’t mean you have to have it in your mix. Oftentimes, I find that adding “extra” parts quickly leads to a muddy mix. Make sure you can hear plenty of the leader, or whoever is the primary vocalist, so you’re always on the same page.

Subtractive Mixing

After getting a grasp on mix essentials, you should teach your team the basics of subtractive mixing. Essentially, there are two ways to get more of something:
• Make that part louder
• Decrease the volume of everything else

If you’ve maxed out your volume, there is no more “more.” So you should start to turn other things down.

Turn everything else down, and increase the overall gain of your mix. If you’re using an in-ear pack, turn the volume of your pack up after you turn everything else down. That gets you more of you. Next, start to slowly add parts back in, using the mix essentials we discussed earlier. Again, if you run out of “more,” then start reducing parts until your mix clears up.

Show Them What a Good Mix Sounds Like

This might be one of the most difficult tips to accomplish, but show your team what a good mix sounds like. Walk through the mix essentials and subtractive mixing, and then create a mix in front of them.

If you can create a “virtual soundcheck” (playing back pre-recorded tracks from your live performance) with your digital mixing console, play back stems of your performance and create a mix in front of them. Build a mix using the mix essentials. Let them put in their in-ears and experience what it sounds like. Create scenarios where you show them how to “fix” their mix.

One of my favorite ways to do this is using the “mirror-mix” feature of the Digital Audio Labs LiveMix CS-DUO mixer. You can “remote” into another mixer and adjust their mix for them. This can be a huge benefit in training and can really help in the moment to fix in-ear woes as well.

Make Sure You’re Set Up Properly

Along with training your team well, you’ve got to make sure you’re set up properly, with the correct gear and configurations. Here are a few tips that will help take your mix to the next level.

1. If at all possible, use a stereo in-ear setup. The difference between a mono and stereo in-ear mix is similar to a movie that transitions from black and white to color. In stereo you can hear things in a completely new way and have an even greater opportunity for clarity.

Think of it this way: When you’re mixing in mono, your means of adjusting each part is through volume exclusively. You can turn something up or down. When switching to a stereo in-ear mix, you now have pan as well as volume. You can turn a sound up or down and move it left or right in the stereo field. Now you can create more space in your mix for each sound.

As a general rule of thumb, I like to keep myself (unless I have a stereo signal, i.e., keys or dual amps) and any low-end content in the center of the mix.

Next I pan any stereo content (stereo keys, stereo guitar) equally across the stereo field. This makes the stereo content feel “wider.” I make sure to pan each sound so that it occupies its own space in the stereo field.

For the remaining instruments and vocals, I pan them according to where they are onstage in relation to me. The guitarist to my left goes to my left ear. The vocalist to my right gets panned to the right ear.

Use these suggestions as ways to start your mix, but adjust the panning of sounds until it works for you and feels right.

2. Add an audience response mic. Because quality in-ears seal out all ambient and stage sound, switching to in-ears can make talking during a set feel like telling a joke and having it fall flat. No response. Complete silence. Is the congregation engaged and singing back? Adding in audience response mics can make the room come alive.

Commonly referred to as ambient mics, these microphones help you “hear” the room. Try setting up a shotgun microphone onstage. Direct it towards the congregation to capture the room, and feed it to your in-ear mix. It can really help keep you stay connected to the congregation.

As you talk, you can judge the congregation’s response based on what you hear. Also it can help you feel like you’re in a room, not a dead box. Be careful, though; if you have too much of the room mics in your ears, you’ll feel like you’re swimming in reverb, and your mix can quickly become muddy.

3. Use effects as needed. Singing with in-ears might be the trickiest setup to get used to. Never done it? Stick your fingers in your ears now and talk. It’s not easy!

Singing with in-ears can sound bare and uncomfortable. Adding in reverb to vocals really helps your mix not sound empty. Again, be careful not to drown your mix in ’verb, or you’ll have a muddy mix.

Finally, to help with dynamics of vocals, consider using a compressor. Work with your sound engineer to get the settings just right so that what you hear in your ears matches the dynamic they hear at front of house.

4. Get custom in-ears. Last, but certainly not least, make sure your team has a great set of custom in-ears. While universal in-ears are a great entry point, using custom in-ears allows you to really take advantage of the seal and ability to block out extraneous noise.

Why buy custom in-ears? If you’re looking to cut down on stage noise and get the most clarity, custom in-ears are the way to go. There are various driver combinations available, so make sure to pick a configuration that best suits your needs.

Having a great in-ear mix is one of the best ways to get a great sound at front of house. If you’re an audio engineer and you’re not happy with the sound you’re getting, spend some time with your team to make sure they have the right in-ear mix, and it will instantly improve what you hear at front of house.

If you’re about to transition your team to in-ears, take the time to explain the benefits, properly train them, and make sure you’re properly set up, and you’ll have a great transition!

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Will Doggett
Will Doggett

Will Doggett is a musician, sound designer and educator based in Austin, Texas.