So, your church has decided to move away from floor wedges.
Maybe they need to decrease the stage volume or reduce clutter, so the stage looks cleaner for livestreaming. Whatever the reason, you are faced with the challenge of buying or using in-ear monitors.
The world of in-ear monitors is relatively new and unfamiliar to most folks. It has its own language and buying process. If we are talking custom in-ear monitors, it might be the first custom anything you have ever bought. Hopefully this primer will help you understand some of the unique language and reasons in-ear monitors are so beneficial.
What Are My Options?
You basically have three options when it comes to non-wedge monitoring: headphones, a universal fit in-ear monitor, or a custom in-ear monitor. Notice we said the word “monitor” and AirPods, generic earbuds, or Beats are not on the list. A monitor is designed to help you hear yourself and others on the team where an earbud or consumer earphones are made for listening to music in a relatively quiet environment. From a technical sense, they generally lack headroom.
Headroom is how much “space” lives between the loudest sound in your mix and the ability of the speaker to reproduce sound. In short, how loud can the loudest sound be before distorting. Your off the shelf earbuds are designed to work with a very even sound source. On stage, we have kick and bass that take up a lot of space. A good monitor will provide enough headroom so your mix doesn’t distort.
Back to our 3 options, headphones offer great sound, but they can be distracting to both a live and a livestream congregation. They are a fine sounding option, but due to how they look, most churches would prefer you use something more subtle.
In-Ear Monitor Benefits
That brings us to in-ear monitors. Monitors that go in your ears. What are the benefits of in-ear monitors (sometimes referred to as IEMS)?
There are many advantages to in-ears, but the two most important are long term hearing health and “right model for the right need”.
A good in-ear monitor is first a good earplug. By reducing outside noise, your monitors don’t need to be as loud and are much safer for your eardrums. Safer listening levels mean you keep your hearing longer!
You can also get an in-ear monitor with a sound tailored for your particular instrument or need. If you are a bass player you have different needs than a vocalist and your IEMS can reflect that. This is truer of custom in-ears as universal fit models usually need to be…well… universal.
Often, a church will purchase several universal fit in-ears to have on hand for the team to use. Generally, they will be in the “adequate but not outstanding” category because they need to work for a drummer and also a vocalist. Tip: if your church does this, please make sure to keep your tips from week to week or use a fresh set of tips each week.
What Is a Custom In-Ear Monitor?
A custom in-ear monitor is a monitor that is designed to fit your ear and your ear only. When you order a set of customs (as they are often called) you will visit an audiologist who will take an impression of your ear that will be used to make your monitors. That sounds like a lot of hassle, but it’s worth it.
There are lots of reasons to go custom over universal but here are our Top 5 reasons to go custom.
You can get a model that is designed for your exact needs. Bass players have different needs than vocalists and custom in-ear manufacturers generally have options to fit your exact needs.
A custom in-ear has the most noise reduction potential and will be safer for your long term hearing health.
They are custom made for you and will not fall out no matter how much you move. The amount of time we spend worrying about universal fit models falling out, pushing them back in, and adjusting them is worth exploring the custom route. Some peoples ear anatomy makes it difficult to keep a universal fit monitor in their ear. If you find that no matter the size of tip, universal monitors keep falling out, a custom fit monitor would be helpful.
You can pick out colors to match your personality. I get this question often, “What is the least distracting color?” Here is the thing, there is no truly “invisible” option. I have found that when the color is subtle, people stare and try to figure out if there is something in your ear. When the color is flashy, they say oh, there is something in their ear and move on. So flashy can be less distracting in the long run – so go wild and let your customs reflect you.
Custom in-ear monitors can’t be shared. This is healthier for your ears and, let’s face it, far less gross. Sweat and wax will inevitably get in the ports of in-ear monitors. Even if you are getting new tips on universals each time, that sweat and wax is still in the ports and tubes.
What’s All This Talk About Drivers
When we say driver we are using a technical term for speaker. Most in-ear monitors are made with moving coil drivers, balanced armature drivers, or a combination of both.
A moving coil (sometimes called dynamic) driver is the kind of speaker we are most familiar with. A circle made of some material that moves in and out when you put a signal to it. The benefits of using these in a monitor are that they are inexpensive and do a pretty good job at reproducing the low end. They are larger than the balanced armature drivers so it is difficult to have multiple dynamic drivers in one earphone.
Most custom in-ears are made with balanced armature drivers, originally used in the hearing aid industry. They are smaller than a dynamic driver so designers can fit many drivers into a single ear. They are also quicker with less mass so they can have great clarity and punch.
Here is where it can get technical. With multiple drivers, we can divide up the frequency range and let each driver work where it is designed to excel. You might see the word crossover which is a group of electrical parts that divide up the frequencies so each driver is reproducing a smaller part of the whole sound.
We can also stack the drivers to get more efficiency and headroom (mentioned earlier). The more drivers working on the same frequency will double the efficiency of that driver network. This is essential for bass players and drummers since low frequencies need the most headroom.
Because there are so many potential combinations of drivers, it is difficult to compare one monitor to another, even if they have the same number of drivers. A six driver model can be 2 low, 2 mid and 2 high OR (like we prefer to do it at Alclair) 4 low, 1 mid and 1 high. Both have six drivers but how they function will be entirely different.
Are more drivers better? Absolutely not. For example, Alclair Audio makes a 5 driver for drummers with 4 low-end drivers (massive headroom) and 1 upper-end driver. They also make a four driver with 2 low drivers, a mid and a high that is designed to be flat and even. Is the 5 driver better? Not if you are a guitar or keyboard player.
Keep this in mind when comparing one company to another. The number of drivers is less important than what those drivers do for you. Including what they do to your wallet.
Questions We Get Asked
What about ambience?
Ambience (letting some outside stage noise in) is tricky with in-ears. It can compromise the noise reducing capabilities of the monitor and the low-end wants to leak out making the sound muddy. For your hearing health, we always recommend using microphones on stage fed back into your in-ears to provide the ambience you need. That said, there are some good options on the market that consider these things in their design.
Can I take one ear out to hear the congregation better?
Not if you want to keep your hearing! To hear yourself, the ear with an in-ear will need to be louder than the sounds in the open ear due to how your brain processes information. This is very dangerous for your ears and worse for that one ear than having no in-ears in.
Will I feel “closed off”?
You might at first. We recommend the mics on stage trick (mentioned above) to help with this. The more you use them, however, the easier it will get. Before long, your brain will pick up on other non-audible cues from the band and congregation and you won’t even notice that that closed off feeling.
Can they be repaired?
Absolutely! Make sure you get a pair with a replaceable cable (those tend to wear out over time and some people are harder on them than others) and a good repair policy. They will most likely need new tubes at some point from wax buildup. Also, balanced armature drivers don’t like to be dropped and can get “unbalanced” easily. Most manufacturers can repair them quickly, look for one with a generous warranty and repair policy.
How much can I expect to spend?
A great set of universal monitors will be in the $250-500 and higher range. Customs can be more expensive because they are…well… custom. Manufacturers can only make make one at a time, often with significant “by hand” work. They can range from $350-2500 or more. Expect to pay between $50-100 for your impressions (some manufacturers will do free impressions if you are near them).
There is far more information about in-ear monitors than we can ever cover in a single article, but we hope this is a good primer. Many manufacturers have chat features, are available on social media, and will answer emails. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them to ask about what model is best for you. Let them know your budget and what you play. Ask about the warranty and repair policy. Most manufacturers are eager to help!
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About the Author
Andy Swanson is a California expat currently residing in Charleston, SC, Andy has a keen desire to help people flourish in their areas of giftedness and passion. With a resume that includes Nintendo, Bayer, Digital Audio Labs, Alclair Audio (and others still covered by NDA), Andy has a lifetime of useful (and perhaps double that of non-useful) experience to share.