In-ear monitor systems are a great way to control stage volume and craft a better main mix.

There are three primary things that a good in-ear monitor system does:

  1. Reduce the volume and acoustic energy on stage
  2. Give the performer on stage control over their own monitor mix
  3. Reduce microphone bleed and feedback problems

In-ear monitors (sometimes called IEMs or personal monitors) can reduce or eliminate the need for stage monitors by providing each musician or vocalist with their own set of earbuds or headphones. Most systems will allow custom mixes for each monitor channel, depending on the mixing console and other system components.

Option 1 – Dedicated Hardware

There are several manufacturers that supply in-ear monitor systems. These systems can connect with an existing mixing console, or they can be digitally integrated with a complete sound system depending on the requirements.

The concept is to have all of the inputs on stage available for each individual to mix their own monitor channel as they like it. (This eliminates those “more of me in the monitor” requests to the sound booth!)

To do this, there will need to be an audio matrix created. This can be done in some digital mixing consoles or with dedicated personal monitor system hardware.

Companies like Aviom, Digital Audio Labs, Pivitec, Roland, and many others make systems that will connect to a mixing console and create a mixing matrix, with the performer on stage having their own basic audio mixer and headphone volume control.

Digital mixing consoles from Allen & Heath, Behringer, Presonus, Yamaha, and others provide an option to deliver personal monitor mixes with remote mobile app control.

There are also wireless monitor system options from companies like Shure, Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and more. These types of systems use a wireless transmitter that sends audio to the wireless beltpack and headphone amp on stage (just the opposite of a wireless microphone).

Option 2 – Do-It-Yourself In-Ear Monitors

A dedicated or built-in monitor system is very robust and convenient, but some churches find that it is outside their technology budget allowance.

Fortunately, there are some easy DIY ways to create your own personal monitor system on a tight budget.

NOTE: A DIY monitor system does not always allow for full control of every instrument or vocal at every monitor location, but it can be a great way to convert your normal stage monitor mixes to in-ear monitor mixes.

One of the most cost effective personal monitor devices is the Rolls PM351 or the PM50S. Either one of these products allows you to equip a vocalist or musician with a dedicated headphone monitor controller.

Here are the steps to connect this to your system:

  1. Connect the aux/monitor output from the mixing console to the monitor input of the headphone mixer on stage.
  2. Connect the microphone and/or instrument to the headphone mixer.
  3. Connect the “pass thru” output of the headphone mixer to the appropriate direct box or mixer input channel.
  4. Connect earbuds or headphones to the headphone mixer.

[OPTIONAL IMAGE with a layout with this configuration]

The aux/monitor feed from the console will be mixed as usual, with various instruments being turned up or down in the mix based on the needs of the performer.

The advantage with this particular setup is that the performer on stage can now adjust their own level independently of the other channels in the mix, giving them greater control over what they hear.

Selecting the Right Earbuds or Headphones

It is important to select the earbuds or headphones that will work best for the musician or vocalist using the personal monitor system.

Some musicians like drummers or bass players may prefer headphones, while vocalists will definitely benefit from wearing quality earbuds that fit securely in the ear.

It is important to use quality in-ear monitors if you expect good audio from your personal monitor system. Do not expect great performance from cheap earbuds or headphones.

When using headphones, it is best to choose a closed-back earcup design. This reduces the effect of ambient noise and it allows the musician to monitor at lower listening levels.

An example of a good set of closed-back headphones is the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro or the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x.

Earbuds can work in some cases and true in-ear monitors provide the best fit and performance. There are universal fit models available as well as custom molded options.

Custom in-ear monitors provide the best fit, reduction of ambient noise, and high-quality sound.

The biggest issue when using earbuds or universal fit monitors is to get a tight and deep fit in the ear canal, especially for vocalists.

Earbuds that don’t fit deep enough will cause occlusion or that “voice inside your head” effect.

For those on a tight budget, try the MEE Audio M6 Pro earbuds.
The next step up in performance and quality is the Shure SE-215 earphones.
The Sennheiser IE80 and Westone UM Pro30 are high-performance universal fit options.
And there are several professional options for custom molded in-ear monitors from Alclair, JH Audio, and Ultimate Ears.

Tips for Musicians and Vocalists

Some churches adopt a hybrid approach to using personal monitor systems, using traditional stage monitors for the vocalists and in-ear monitors for all musicians. This can be a good option if there are budget limitations or the singers will not use in-ear monitors.

Musicians that need to monitor low frequencies, like the bass guitar or drums, may benefit from using very high-quality in-ear monitors that produce better low frequencies or adding a tactile transducer to the personal monitor system.

A tactile transducer (or “bass shaker”) is essentially a subwoofer that vibrates the seat or platform where the musician is sitting/standing, allowing the musician to “hear” the lower frequencies through the bones in the body. ButtKicker and Clark Synthesis are two popular manufacturers for these types of devices.

Mixing for In-Ear Monitors

One of the biggest complaints when transitioning to a personal monitor system is that the musician or vocalist cannot hear what is going on in the room or on stage the same way they could hear with normal stage monitors.

Fortunately, this is a problem that can be fixed.

The best way to overcome this issue is with the use of a pair of condenser microphones on stage to pick up sound in the room and send that to each personal monitor mix. Just don’t send the room mic signal to the main loudspeakers or you’ll get feedback.

Placement of the room mics can be important. Simply placing a microphone at the sound booth location or at the back of the room will probably not sound too good in the monitors.

Since a performer is used to hearing what is happening on and around the stage, it is often best to place an Omnidirectional and cardioid pattern condenser microphone on either side of the stage. This provides a more realistic ambient sound in stereo that the performer is used to hearing.

This brings up another important point: when possible, try to mix in-ear monitor systems in stereo, panning across the left and right channels. This provides greater space and separation in the monitor mix.

Be Patient and Practice

It may take some time to get used to using a personal monitor system, especially for singers.

Try to resist the temptation of pulling out one earbud and leaving the other in. This is often used as a quick fix for ambient sound or mixing issues, but it can cause a dangerous increase in the volume level of the earbud that is still inserted.

Instead, practice getting each monitor mix dialed in, place room mics in different locations to get the most realistic ambient sound possible, and simply spend time using the system during rehearsals.

When used properly, in-ear monitor systems should lower the overall volume on stage, improve the quality of the main mix, and better satisfy the monitoring needs of the people on stage.