IEMs - not the hero we want, the hero we need

Wedge lovers - why you need to jump to IEMs
IEMs are the hero we want and the hero we need!

Often when I discuss the PA company with prospective clients, the subject of monitoring is a hot one. Being able to hear yourselves, the rest of the band - and often "the click", is not a luxury for professional performance shows, it's a stone cold requirement. Of course, using a fold back wedge gets certain things in the mix firing back at you so you can hear a little clearer, and you're not relying on others' amps or the PA (that you're behind!) for hearing the band.

As well as running Prestige and engineering for Prestige, I have been a performing musician since 1998. Mostly in pub and function bands up until 2016 when my work transcended to purely theatres and corporate hotels.
As a vocalist, I clearly remember sore throats; not being able to hear my vocal over guitar amps that kept going up and up and up; pushing that little bit harder because I thought I wasn't coming across to the audience. And then when we brought in monitors - it was actually still more of the same: I could still hear my vocal a little more, but I'm still pushing to get myself over everyone else in the band.

The move to IEMs happened when we started taking the bands in a more professional and formal direction. And I won't lie - it was a struggle to start with. Suddenly having to balance everything in your ears was a little tricky; the mix shifting a little as the IEMs shifted in your ear and breaking the seal from the outside world for a touch; having some things in your ears and not others, and the feeling of disconnect from the audience - there were hurdles to get into.

But a couple of magical things happened over time - my vocal performance got much better, I started to think about performance a lot more, and I relaxed into my mix and gained a better connection with the music.
Not to mention that we were bringing more and more 'track' elements in, so IEMs become a necessity so we don't get lost. Furthermore, we augment the click with ' instructions' to cue us into sections, so the performance is always consistent.

In terms of a pros and cons board, there are way more pro's to using IEM's than cons, there's no doubt!! But the Cons can easily be mitigated with commitment and understanding.

So let's just look at the pros of using IEMs first:

1. Vocalists - your tone, tuning and performance will increase

It's no hyperbole! Your tone and tuning are based on control and performance. This, I always felt, was compromised by relying on a wedge or the PA to hear your vocal. You 'push' harder to hear yourself over the band, and this affects the tuning and affects the tone. And the physical effect is a sore throat, and probably lower stamina either over the course of one gig, ore over the course of 2-3 days.

Since committing to IEMs, the physical effect on my singing apparatus is minimal - I can quite happily do 2 or 3 consecutive nights of difficult vocal (as long as I have enough rest!).

But it's the tone and control that increase the most. Because I can 'pump a little more' vocal into my ears, and have it just over the band, I can relax back into the vocal and emote much more than I could when I was using physical monitoring. Vocal tone is nicer - it sounds nicer and it feels nicer. There's just so much more clarity.


If you're someone who loves effects - and I am one of them - pumping just the right balance of verb and delay into your band and vocal mix can have an enhancing effect as well. Working with the verbs and the delays to get the effect throws right can be considered part of the performance. The downside here is that you'll get effects during your chat, unless the engineer has a way to kill the effects completely on all busses, but that's an administrative job for the engineer to get over!

Obviously we've been talking about lead vocalists so far, but everything chatted about applies to BVs too. And vocal harmony groups, where you'd probably want to hear the blend clearly as well as your part in it…. And probably with a little effect in there too.

2. Musicians - it's also better for you too

For the rest of the band, you just need to be able to hear yourself and everyone else to be able to stay in time and to be able to react to what the others are doing.

I've heard in the past that musicians complain that they need to hear the 'stage sound' to be able to work with the other musicians properly.

It's a difficult argument to buy. Your job, as the band, is to perform for an audience…. And the sound coming from the stage and arriving at the audience is paramount. If there musicians were only concerned about hearing each other 'in order to work together', all amps would be facing in towards each other in order to hear each other and you'd only be playing to yourselves, not to the audience. Thus the sound from stage would be compromised.

If you're making that argument because we want to hear the details, you're making a case for IEMs!!! With the right mix (and the right engineer ensuring clarity in the instruments), you'd hear each other with the kind of clarity you need. What you might miss, though, is the 'weight' of the sound hitting you in the space, and you may love the size that comes from the volume of thebans in the room. But everything in life is about compromises. You may miss out on a the grandious sound of the band in the room, sure, but you can make up for that with a little FX, possibly a little compression on your bus, and possibly a little more volume into your ears.

Certainly that's what I find, anyway. If the energy from the band feels little underwhelming in my ears, it's often that it's just a little too quiet in my head!

And I certainly don't find that the people I work with have any trouble in jamming via in ears!

Here's a capture of the KEYS IEM BUS for Seriously Collins "Mama".


3. Production polish

If you're someone who loves to experience the gig as well as play it, it's easy to mix the band in your head so it's closer to a mixed live record than a generic band mix. Mixing in the punch of the drums, the drum effects and the vocal effects, for me, make the gig so much more enjoyable to play. I can hear everything early - the kick, the snare, the hats, the bass, the guitar, the keys, the vocals…. nothing is unbalanced and perfectly enjoyable, whilst being serviceable for me to hear what I'm doing and where I am in the song. You can hear in the IEM Keys Bus example above.

I also love pumping in a little of the FOH mix, which opens the mix up a bit more…. Kinda like M/S processing on a mix bus.

There's no doubt that some players just like things dry - I can only imagine it sounds like a 70's record! - but it's all about what makes you connect with the music and your performance. But that's the advantage - possibilities and flexibility.

I couldn't get that with Wedges.

4. To Click or not to Click

Love it or hate it, professional performances will likely require the use of click tracks. You'd think that this would be most important for drummers, and that no-one else needs to hear it, but there are songs where other instruments will kick things off… and it can be aesthetically pleasing for the song to not use HiHat cues.

Using a click track opens up more opportunities too. Recently, the internet was in uproar when IEM audio from a Taylor Swift concert made its way into the public space, and people found out that her band were using vocal cues in their click tracks. I can tell you that I makes an epic amount of sense! It's something we've been using for a long time. Where the Click track also has synth, TVs, or percussion elements alongside it, a musician taking the band off on the wrong course (either by accident or on purpose) will have the rest of the track elements continuing like nothing happened, causing all sorts of havoc.

Whether you use clicks or not, or tracks or not, will absolutely be down to your product. But "the click" is a key consideration when playing professionally today.
And you can't run those through wedges…..!

5. Less stage sound = an easier life for everyone

The biggest administrative problem with wedges is that they are speakers pointing back at the band. And speakers are one of the two key components for feedback.

Feedback occurs when speakers pick up their own output through the microphones, which then starts a snowballing effect that culminates in squealing.
Simply - the more speakers involved in your show, the more opportunity for feedback. And why can this happen…? Because musicians are calling for 'more me in the wedge'. Why…? To hear themselves!!!
More volume from a microphone (or maybe even a guitar pickup - especially acoustic guitars) increase the chance of feedback.

Of course, engineers have been fighting against this for years, and the cure is largely good gain staging and 'ringing out' the wedges to reduce the frequencies that each wedge is most susceptible to in the wake of 'more me' in the monitor. But what does that cost….? Time. It's more time and effort to ring out a monitor. And times that by the number of physical monitors on stage. And it may also not guarantee that the job is done when people are calling for 'more me' during the set!

The bottom line, it can take a huge amount of time to get a wedge monitor array right.

6. … where as IEM mixes can be saved. And what else is saved at the same time….? Time!!!

One of Prestige's mantras is 'constancy'. Our engineers are using a very specific gain staging protocol that means the amount of signal travelling down every AVB bus is always the same from show to show.
This is a huge time saver for the engineer each show - the dynamic controllers largely react the same way from show to show, so there's no need to keep rebuilding a compression or limiting profile, but a huge advantage is that IEM mixes, once set, largely don't need to be touched very much. In fact, I can go for a few shows without needing to touch my monitoring mix!

Where the signal travelling into the monitoring mixes is always the same, once your balance is set, there's little reason to change it unless you're finding that you need to due to other factors or you just want to refine it.

And this, I find, is one of Prestige's huge USPs in bands having a consistent PA/Engineer solution - the time that is saved by not having to build IEM or holdback mixes for the band at each gig saves, probably, an hour per set up.

Here's an example of DS:UK's load in and set up:

3pm Arrival and Load in

4:30pm Ready for Line and then Sound Check

(And note that this is a 6pc band where Sax plays keys and percussion and the 2nd guitarist uses multiple instruments)

Band will run a selection of songs to include Sax, Bvs, Resonator, Track elements, so that the FOH Engineer can get comfortable with the balance in the room.

5:30pm Usually finished.

Seriously Collins is fairly similar, although it's a larger band with two drum kits, 6 ways of RF and usually stand up Brass players to manage. Arrival is usually 2pm, and often done by 5:30pm (although we're working out how this can be refined down).

During the warm up songs, the band are usually refining their mixes using iPads. (Presonus' mixing system is not problematic with 10-12 people connected to the desk, controlling their own mixes).

To be fair, a contributing factor is the fact that the Stagebox and the IEMs are all pre-built and pre-connected and the guitar players are all using computer based amps (Kemper, MacRack, Helix). There are many things that we all do to make our lives easier without compromising the FOH sound. But we've found that where time is lost most is dealing with monitoring mixes - especially for 10 people. Where the mixes are pre-built, pre-saved, and everyone can have access to their mixes to change and refine - it's such a time saver. And this all translates to not needing to arrive at venues too early, and having time between wrapping sound check and the show to relax.


Right - the Cons….

1. The expense

For individuals to buy IEM systems, they can be really expensive if you're doing it right. Cheaper systems can sound Ok - I've used LD's stuff before and it's ok, but good quality systems will really be starting around 500 quid, and I'm thinking of Sennheiser's XSW range. I've been using the XSW range for the last couple of years and, from a sound quality perspective, they're very nice. (I use Shure 535 IEMs). Now that we've built in a AC41 Combiner and directional active paddle and there's no RF issues to cloud the experience, they sound great - solid and open. The downside is that these systems don't have any of the admin flexibility - no squelch, no scanning capability and no networking. But - they *sound* good.

(I see many engineers arguing on forums about whether Sennheiser's G4s or Shure's top of the line PSM systems sound better, priced at upwards of a grand per unit - I'm someone who loves good sound quality and I have a great night each week monitoring through an entry level Sennhieser system!!)

Our second system has a bank of modern Sennheiser G4 IEMs, priced at around a thousand quid per unit. Having used these on shows as well, they, too, sound great! It is nice to be able to monitor and control the units via a network, and be able to scan the frequency spectrum in the space to find unproblematic frequencies to run on. Definitely convenient.

But when it comes down to it, it's an expense. Although, for good quality wedges (we use Yamaha's DXRs for wedges, mainly so that they can be re-deployed as FOH mains if one goes down at a gig), you're looking about the same price as an IEM system. Sure, there are cheaper - Alto, Mackie, Behringer…. they don't have the clarity or pleasant sound that a good quality speaker will give you.

Both of our systems have 4 wireless IEMs built into our affordable package price. Depending on availability, it'll either be the XSW's or the G4's. For the seated players, we have wired IEM systems, as they don't need to move around!

2. Disconnection from the audience

One of the biggest hurdles I needed to overcome was the disconnection with the audience. When you have earphones plugging your ears, you don't get the sense of space that you do when you're 'monitoring' the space naturally. It can also make you think that the audience aren't reacting to your show as much as you think they are. Often I'll be asking the stage manager or the FOH engineer "is it going down well?".

But, when you consider the Pros vs. The Cons, and the fact that this is an overcome-able hurdle, it becomes less important.

If you like lots of interaction with your audience, and you want to be able to hear them, it should be easy enough to set up a pair of mics at the side of the stage which can be pumped into your ears - just enough to hear interactions. Just having that little window into the outside world changes things dramatically.

You can also think about your performance a little more, and maybe even consider ignoring when people shout at you!! Locking down your script/chat; assuming that crowds are reacting when you're performing your call and responses. After a while, it just becomes a normal part of your performance - especially when you realise that it's happening as you expect it to.

A con? Yes - but a manageable one and one that becomes less of a problem with time and experience.

3. Difficult to balance mixes

Mixing isn't a natural skill for most, and the more microphones you have on stage, the harder it becomes to mix a tight and controlled sound. (It's the same for front of house, and why the likes of digital amp modelling on stage has become so popular). And this why we work with our bands to try and reduce the number of mics on stage where we can - and it's usually around the guitarist's - and move vocalists to where the instruments behind them aren't interfering too much. (Alternative mic choices can help, but the expense and subsequent affordability doesn't always make that practical.)

We've found in the past that the more microphones on stage makes IEM mixes harder to manage - the sheer number of open mics means more opportunities for bleed from other instruments. And where guitarists with real amps on stage are unable to control themselves when it comes to turning up their instruments during the shows without consulting the FOH engineer, this has a knock on butterfly effect across the signal chain.

However, as with each of these cons, there are ways to mitigate this. And it's simply with smart choices when it comes to the band, and smart choices in mixing in your ears.

If a musician struggles, the FOH engineer can always help, although you should be aware that it'll take more time. We can also, of course, supply a monitoring engineer to manage the holdback feeds for the band, obviously at the cost of the personnel for the day. However, this would become easier over time as the band/PA relationship crystallises and the monitoring feeds become consistent and predicable.


While there are some hurdles to get over with using IEMs, they are manageable and largely negate themselves over time with commitment.

The convenience of using IEMs in your shows is measured, really, in time saved; performance increase; and sound quality increase. And also, possibly, money saved - If you're paying venues by the hour for hire rates, it could save you an hour each side of the gig (and for some venues that's hundreds of ££££'s!).

They can take some getting used to - it was a good few months of gigs before I found my rhythm and a workflow that worked for me. But I'd never want to do a professional gig without them now. I haven't had ringing in my ears after shows for years, my performance is generally better, the wonderful sound in my ears has me enjoying my work more, and my stamina increases compared to fighting with wedges.

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