Thursday, 14 June 2012

To Hear or not to Hear, that is the question?

Every musician at some point in their lives will perform on a stage where they either can't hear themselves or the rest of the band. When this happens it immediately sucks the life out of your enthusiasm to play, what should be something that is incredibly fun and rewarding immediately becomes frustrating and irritating.

A musicians monitors can make the difference between a good performance or an amazing performance. If there is a separate sound engineer mixing monitors, their job is more important to the integrity of your performance than the front of house sound engineer. They have the hardest job on the stage as they have to keep the stage volume as low as possible, while also trying to make sure the artists can hear.  

There are two common types of artist monitors, each has advantages and compromises, neither is perfect.

Foldback, Wedges, Monitors or to some just foot-rests, are the most common solution to the problem of hearing on stage. They are easy to deploy and are fairly flexible. 

The primary problem with foldback wedges is noise. Wedges add an enormous amount of noise to an already noisy stage. By the time your drummer pounds their cymbals, bass player thrashes their 1000 watt amp and the guitarists point their 200 watt quads at their knees, the noise levels bouncing around on stage can be insane. Far louder than the front row of the mosh pit. When you add a row of monitors along the front, it often turns into a noise war with each wanting more volume from something to compensate for the 'more me' everyone else wants. 

While this scenario usually generates a lot of on stage energy it is very bad for two important reasons. 

The most obvious is ear damage. Usually not discovered until you crawl into bed at 4am with the all too familiar and distinctive rinnnnnnnnnng in your ears. Ears are a musicians most important asset and its ironic few musicians pay the real consideration to ear health they should. Often the level of deafness a musician achieves is joked about or indicates some sort of right of passage. Personally I find that blatant stupidity.

The second problem that is less often thought about is quality. 

All that noise bouncing around the stage gets into vocal and drum mics and results in a muddy background din through the PA. This makes you sound like a school band rehearsing in a garage. The sound engineer is going to have no control because if they need more vocals in the mix what they really get when they turn up the vocals is more noise. 

So in summary, wedges usually make for great energy but average sound unless you are very careful about controlling the onstage volume level.

The more modern solution to the problem of noise is In Ear Monitors or IEMs. 

IEMs consist of high quality earphones that go in your ears and provide your own personal mix via a wired or wireless signal from the mixing desk. 

The advantages of IEMs are fairly obvious, you can run the overall level at a much quieter volume while hearing everything crystal clear. 
Often IEMs are so good that it feels like your are in a recording studio. The stage noise can be so low that the quality of the mix you and your audience hear can be like listening to a CD. Herein lies the problem with IEMs. When you plug those earbuds in, it's easy to feel like you are in your own little bubble and go into dreamland, completely forgetting the audience is there and completely forgetting you are on stage to perform, not to self indulge in your own awesomeness. 

This can sometimes result in a disconnected performance where the audience does not feel like you are really all there. 
There are some solutions to these problems, the most common and damaging to your ears is to use one IEM and one wedge. This is supposed to give you the clarity of IEMs with the energy of wedges but it has one serious drawback. It is likely to damage your IEM ear significantly more than if you were to just use wedges set to 11. 

Due to an unfortunate trick your brain plays on you with one earphone in and one off, you think it is much quieter than it really is and turn up the volume on your IEMs to damaging levels without even knowing you are doing damage. 

Try this for yourself by plugging in your iPod with only one earphone. Then turn it up to the loudest volume you think is safe to listen at long term. Now put in the other earbud. You will be shocked how loud it is. In fact I would be surprised if you can bare it for more than 2 or 3 seconds. Remember the volume hasn't changed, its simply a trick in your brain. If you only take one thing away from this article it should be to never, ever, ever just use one earphone.


The better and easier alternative is to use an audience microphone. 

Put up a high quality consensor mic and point it out to the audience, then add it to the mix in your IEMs but not to the PA mix. This will allow you to get all the benefits of IEMs while still being able to hear the enery of the audience. 

The latest trend and more expensive option is to purchase IEM systems that include built in ambience microphones. These allow you to adjust the ambient noise level right from your belt pack. These systems are amazing but are also very spendy as they are targeted at the high end. 

I personally recommend IEMs and also recommend investing in some high quality custom moulded earbuds. I'll talk about that more another day but when using IEMs I always recommend keeping in mind that you that as amazing as it sounds in your ears, there is still an audience out there in the dark that need to be entertained.

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