IEM Buying Guide
Over the last few weeks, a couple of people have contacted me about the possibility of using Wireless IEM’s (In Ear Monitors). I’ve answered a number of questions, and I’m always happy to advise like this, but I thought I’d share some of the answers as I see them, here, as a starting point.
Background: Firstly, let me be clear – I am a massive fan of wireless IEM’s. Before they were around, I always had serious issues hearing myself on stage, and this sapped my confidence as a vocalist severely. It also damaged my hearing, and pee’d off my band mates at the time, as every wedge monitor was set to “me me me” mode!
So I’m going to try and make this post more about what you should do once you’ve decided to go down the IEM route, rather than trying to convince you that they’re the ones for you! Never the less, it’s important to understand some basics.
There are two types of IEM system. Wired, and Wireless. These are fairly self explanatory in many senses, but it’s worth pointing out that a wireless system consists of three main components – Transmitter, receiver and earpieces.
Their uses vary dependant on needs – a drummer for example, doesn’t move around – so a wired IEM system is perfect. A guitarist who doesn’t move so much, would be fine on a wired IEM system, if you could use a multicore cable to get the signal up the same path as the guitar signal (otherwise it gets a bit messy).
But for the singer – especially one who likes to take a wander around in the audience, and on occasion, in the next room, wireless is pretty essential (as is a wireless microphone, if you don’t want to start lassoing people!)
From here on in, we’re going to focus on wireless.
Frequencies: Wireless IEM’s work on the same frequencies as wireless microphones. In short, in the UK, right now, I would recommend buying channel 38 equipment. For more information and background on this though, see the Channel 70 to Channel 38 page
Manufacturers: There are a number of manufacturers offering IEM systems at vastly different price points. They do however, generally fall into three distinct categories – budget, professional and tour grade.
Budget: LD Systems. Trantec. T-Bone.
Professional: Sennheiser Evolution Series. Shure PSM 200 series.
Touring: Sennheiser 2000 and 5000 series. Shure PSM 900 and 1000 series
Which should I choose?
Well that very much depends on several key areas.
Criticality: The first is how critical the monitors are for your performance. Personally, without monitors, I can’t hear myself properly, and a performance either can’t continue, or suffers from a lack of commitment (if I can’t hear, I can’t judge my vocal effort properly, and therefore risk straining my voice, so I tend to back off) – if they are as critical for you, as they are for me, the first thing to confirm, is that your kit operates at ch.38. Channel 70 stuff will work in many places, but the frequencies can be congested, and you never know when someone is going to stick something into the mix which cuts off your feed. The last thing you want is to lose your monitors mid performance, so buy something which operates in the right bands.
Budget: Secondly – the age old question of budget. Yes, in an ideal world, we’d all have professional level kit, but that’s not always possible. Expect to trade off stereo operation, operating distances. and sound quality within cheaper sets.
Range: and thirdly, range. One of the key differences between professional kit, and budget equipment, is the distance over which the unit can operate. Cheaper kit tends to work over about 8 metres before experiencing issues. Professional kit will operate around 30 metres away, and touring kit usually has to be able to cope with 100+ metres
There are two distinctive types of earpiece for use with IEM systems. Custom moulded, and off the shelf.
The first thing to be aware of though, is that in an ideal world, you’d want to be using an armature driver system in your earpieces. This is because their design allows earpiece manufacturers to design the earpieces to completely seal the ear canal – cutting out 25db SPL of the background noise – allowing you to hear the earpiece clearly at a much lower volume level. Whilst you can get away with dynamic speaker drivers, their design means that in order to get a good sound, they attenuate less in order to keep their sonic properties, which means that they offer less hearing protection.
Off the Shelf: Off the shelf products by Westone, Klipsch, Audio Technica, NOCS, Phiaton and a couple of others, offer a great solution for those who have a modest budget. I personally use Westone UM1’s at present.
Custom Moulded: For the ultimate level of professionalism, custom moulded monitors are the way to go. These are the flush fitting earpieces that you see pretty much every major artist using these days. There are a wide variety of manufacturers of these items, but there is a site called http://www.custom-inearmonitors.co.uk which seems to select from the top manufacturers and offer a comparison service.
Either way, you’re going to need impressions done to make these earpieces, and whilst they are expensive, they do offer outstanding sonic performance, and are not limited to use just when you’re on stage – it’s more than feasible for you to use these monitors on your iPod or similar devices when they’re not in use on stage – and they’ll produce a much better sound than your standard earbuds as well! You’ll need to go to see an audiologist to get these impressions made – the good news is that audiologists are becoming more common on the high street – the likes of Specsavers and Boots often have audiology functions within their stores, which can only be good for price competition.
What are IEM’s like to use? At first…..weird. They are entirely isolated – which can mean you don’t feel the energy of the audience. Personally I counter this by placing a condenser microphone somewhere near my standing position, and just mixing that into the monitor – it just helps me to hear what I want to from the audience more than anything. You can also get custom moulds with “ambient holes” which can give you a little bit of the audience back, whilst maintaining hearing protection.
IEM’s are expensive – that’s for sure – for a professional level system plus custom mould earpieces, you’re looking at over £1000 – but that cost, is entirely dedicated to protecting your hearing. You only get one set of ears, and protecting them will extend your performing life for many years….this means that they will re-pay themselves over the years! They also improve performance levels as musicians can hear themselves! Costs for custom moulds are also coming down, and will likely continue to do so as 3D scanning and printing becomes more and more cost effective.
My advice? Take the plunge – it’s better for your ears, better for your front of house sound, and easier to control. Really IEM’s are the future.