We’ve all seen artists on TV and stages wearing earpieces while performing. You’ve probably seen artists and musicians fiddle with them or take out an earpiece, and you may have wondered to yourself: what the heck are they doing?
We’re going to go over what those earpieces are, what they do, and why artists wear them. Stay tuned.
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What Are Musician Ear Pieces Called?
The earpieces that artists wear on stage are called In-Ear Monitors (IEM).
In most small venues and in many situations artists and musicians still use stage monitors. Stage monitors are smaller speakers placed on the ground in front or beside a musician. Monitors are positioned so that the musician can hear themselves and the rest of the band.
The stage is a noisy place! Audience members don’t realize how hard it is to hear up there. You have noise from drums, amps, and the audience to contend with. It is especially hard for singers, who get drowned out by the rest of the band.
Stage monitors allow musicians to amplify their own instrument and voice so that it can be heard over the racket. It also allows them to hear the other instruments on stage at a level that makes it easy for them to play.
In-ear monitors take this one step further.
How Do In-Ear Monitors Work?
In-ear monitors allow you to ditch the stage monitors by using earbuds to monitor what’s happening on stage. In-ear monitors have several advantages over stage monitors:
Reducing Stage Volume
Having fewer stage monitors on stage reduces the overall volume of the band. This allows those on-stage to hear themselves better and it often helps the front-of-house engineer to achieve a cleaner mix for the audience.
Better Imaging For The Performers
In-ear monitors allow each performer to choose exactly how much of each instrument they hear. If they play guitar, they can have their guitars nice and loud and have the keyboards tucked back in the mix.
If they are the vocalist, they can have their vocals nice and loud, while the rest of the band is a nice mix in the background.
You can also pan the band (left or right) in your ears. This means that no matter where you are on-stage, you get to hear the band the way you want to hear them.
The best part about in-ear monitors is the fact that you can have generally the same mix every night. The monitor engineer will set up the mix and make minor adjustments as the location of the show changes, but generally, everything stays the same.
When using stage monitors, the results are different every night based on the size of the venue, the layout of the venue, and the type of stage monitors provided.
So, getting a consistent mix for the musicians is challenging. It's a little easier to do with IEMs.
What Are In-Ear Monitors Made Of?
In-ear monitors are basically earbuds, with a few important differences.
Regular earbuds have a single driver in each headphone. In-ear monitors usually have three or more drivers in each headphone. These drivers are small so that they can sit inside your ear and produce low frequencies.
In-ear monitors are usually made to form a seal with your ear, so that you do not hear noise from the outside. Some professional models are made from a custom ear mold that is designed specifically for your ear.
What Are Artists Hearing In Their In-Ear Monitors?
Primarily, artists hear themselves in their earpieces. However, they also hear the other players on stage.
Many artists use backing tracks of synthesized instruments and sounds that are easily made in a studio. This allows bands and solo performers to add instruments and sections to their live performance that would otherwise be impractical or impossible to perform. Choir parts, synth parts, horn sections, extra backing vocals, and more.
These backing tracks are piped out to the audience, as well as the performers. Often, the drummer is responsible for triggering these backing tracks, so they will have them cranked in their in-ear monitors.
Many acts also use a click track for live performance. This helps smooth out the tempo and helps the band play with backing tracks. It may also help with choreography and syncing up with lights and other performance elements.
Finally, in the case of this famous video where Beyoncé pulls out her in-ear monitor, she was listening to her pre-recorded voice. This makes it much easier for her to lip-sync in time with the pre-recorded music.
This not a slight on Beyoncé – almost all award shows are canned performances. She is still an amazing singer and performer!
Pros & Cons Of Using Earpieces/In-Ear Monitors
Musicians and artists will debate the merits of in-ear monitors vs. stage monitors. What works for one artist, may not work for another. If you are wondering whether to get in-ear monitors, here are some advantages and disadvantages to working with in-ear monitors.
Let’s start with the advantages:
Better Sound Quality & Imaging
In-ear monitors are very advanced in 2020. Some of the professional models have eight or more drivers per earpiece and be specifically molded to your ear. They sound amazing. They create a seal within your ear that can block more than 30dBs of outside noise.
Getting crystal clear sound on stage is rare, as anyone who has ever played live will tell you. Stage monitors can cause feedback and phase issues. In-ear monitors never cause these problems.
Stage monitors are often cranked up loud so that musicians can hear themselves play over the noise of amps and the crowd.
Long-term this causes ear-fatigue and hearing damage. You cannot reverse hearing damage. It is with you for life. This is why many artists switch to in-ear monitoring as their career progresses – they want to protect their ears.
Stage monitors take up a lot of space, and they only work when you are standing right in front of it. They are also heavy and require a lot of extra wiring.
With in-ear monitors, you can use a wireless system. Your headphones are wired into a wireless receiving pack, and you can move around the stage as you please.
There are plenty of reasons to use in-ears, but some musicians don’t like them. Here are a few reasons why in-ears may not be right for you.
Not Appropriate For All Venues
Sound techs at small venues will tell you right away that it is annoying when some hot-shot band brings a full in-ear monitoring setup into their small venue.
Reason being, an in-ear setup usually requires completely rewiring the inputs on the sound board and setting up a new mic for the in-ears. Unless you have your own sound tech, this is tedious.
Frankly, some venues are too small for in-ears. Partially, because they cause disconnection with the audience. Which brings me to my next point.
Disconnection From Audience
Because in-ear monitors are noise-isolating, the artists can’t hear feedback from the fans fully. Many artists and musicians complain about not being able to feel the energy from the crowd when they cannot hear them clapping or shouting.
Many professional in-ear monitor engineers will set up a couple of mics pointed at the audience to fight this feeling. This allows the engineer to pipe in the sound of the audience in the IEMs.
Wireless systems use radio waves to transmit sound – this can introduce issues with interference that can make the sound quality lessen or drop the signal altogether.
Usually, this is fixed by changing frequencies.
In-ear monitors are an investment. In-ears themselves start at around $120 for a pair and go up and over $1,500 for high-end equipment.
You will need a pair for every member of the band. You also need wireless packs and a ton of batteries to go with them. Typically, you need an extra mixing board just to send individual mixes to each in-ear monitor. You will also need a wireless transmitter.
All of this comes with a somewhat hefty price tag!
Why Do Some Singers Take Out Their Earpieces/IEM?
You’ve probably been at a concert or seen a show where the singer removes one or both earpieces. Knowing that that is how they hear themselves, you may be wondering why they are doing this.
Here are a few reasons why the singer is pulling out their earpiece:
If the in-ear monitor is not working properly, most artists will pull it out rather than suffer through it, because it is distracting. If the earpiece is making noise that it shouldn’t or is dropping out, it may be best to just remove it.
In-ears can also slip out when the singer is moving, singing, dancing, and sweating. They can also be itchy.
These physical sensations are annoying, and sometimes singers will just pull the earpiece out rather than worry about it falling out or causing them further discomfort.
The most common reason a singer will pull out their earpiece is problems with the mix. Mistakes happen, and sometimes a musician will end up with a terrible mix in their ears.
The mixing engineer could be at fault. It can also be problematic when another musician turns up their instrument or presses the wrong button.
A bad mix can be disorientating on stage. No wonder singers don't like it.
They Want To Hear The Crowd
Finally, artists will often pull out their earpiece just so they can feel the energy of the room. It is exciting to hear a room full of fans clapping and singing and shouting. They want to feel that, and sometimes that means pulling out an in-ear.
When Beyoncé took out her earpiece while singing the national anthem, it's possible she wanted to feel more of the energy of the crowd.
Do Artists Use Earpieces In The Studio?
Using in-ear monitors in the studio is a personal choice. Artists who are used to using IEMs onstage may be more comfortable using them in the studio.
Many artists prefer using over-ear headphones because they are more comfortable. Sometimes, over-ear headphones are better for the studio because they allow for a little bleed from the rest of the band.
Using in-ears in the studio is fine, and if you feel more comfortable with them, that is okay!
Be warned that when you are singing in the studio with in-ears, it can sometimes be harder to sing perfectly in tune. Something about having your voice piped directly in your ears can alter your perception of pitch.
I would also not recommend trying to tune vocals while using in-ears. You are much better off using speakers – even crappy speakers – to tune vocals, because again, headphones seem to distort your sense of pitch.
What Do Musicians Listen To In Their Earpiece When Performing, Final Thoughts
If you can afford in-ear monitors and they make sense for the types of shows you are playing, they can be a huge advantage. The extra mobility, clarity, and the consistency alone are worth having.
That said, they are not for everyone. Smaller artists will almost certainly have no use for them. Some musicians just hate using them!
It also doesn’t make sense for all genres. Storytelling folk artists will probably not benefit from using in-ear monitors, as they rely on interaction with the crowd.
On the other hand, artists using heavy backing tracks or artists playing with a DJ will benefit from using in-ears. Large bands using backing tracks will also benefit from using in-ears.
And finally, if you are in the audience, you now know what the artist is doing when they are fiddling with their ears. They are trying to make their in-ear monitors more comfortable!