If you’ve recently attended a concert, you might be wondering why the singer was wearing earpieces. Were they allowing them to hear something you couldn’t? Were they delivering a slightly altered version of what you were hearing?
The earpieces are called ‘in-ear monitors’. They provide the singer with a direct source of sound, protect their hearing and allow them to customize their stage mix. They also allow the singer to listen to things that the audience can’t hear (such as metronomes or backing tracks).
Keep reading for a detailed account of monitoring systems, overview of their benefits and an FAQ:
Overview of In-Ear Monitors
At a concert, the speakers are facing the audience, meaning they’re facing away from the stage. Therefore, instead of hearing the sound directly from the speakers, the singer ends up hearing whatever’s being bounced off the walls of the venue. This can be extremely difficult to follow and make it difficult for the singer to do their job.
So, how do we solve this? Enter in-ear monitors.
In-ear monitors are earpieces that provide the singer with a direct, clear source of sound on stage, allowing them to perform to the best of their abilities. They also offer a range of additional benefits, which I’ll explain in just a moment.
If you’re a huge nerd (like me) and want a technical overview of an in-ear monitoring system, check out this spec I found on Amazon.
Additional Benefits Of In-Ear Monitors
Singers tend to rely heavily on one particular element of the arrangement in order to navigate the song effectively. For example, they might need to hear the kick drum very clearly in order to stay in time. Similarly, most singers will want their own voice at the forefront of their monitor mix to ensure they’re pitching the notes correctly.
In-ear monitors allow each musician on stage to customize their mix. For example, the singer might have their voice nice and loud in their monitors, whilst the bassist follows an instrumental version of the mix. This allows everyone to play (no pun intended) to their strengths by ensuring they have a mix that’s well-suited to their needs.
By nature, professional singers spend a lot of time in ear-splittingly loud environments. Without adequate hearing protection, they’d be placing themselves at substantial risk of permanent hearing damage. Whilst earplugs can effectively protect a singer’s hearing, they limit their ability to hear the mix clearly.
In-ear monitors allow for the best of both worlds. Due to the fact that they’re custom-molded to the singer’s ears, they’re very effective at blocking out external sound. This allows the singer to hear a crystal-clear mix at a sensible volume instead of subjecting themselves to the ear-splitting volumes from the PA.
The front of house sound is very dependent on the shape and size of the room a band or artist is performing in. This means that singers will often be subject to a completely different sound on each night of a tour, which can easily throw them off. Furthermore, the sound can be very different at different parts of the stage; for example, the singer might struggle to hear the guitarist if they’re stood directly in front of the drum kit. This can severely limit their ability to move around on stage and still perform effectively.
In-ear monitors allow the singer to hear a consistent mix no matter what venue they’re playing in or where they’re stood on stage.
Metronome (Click Track) Use
When performing live, nerves can often cause singers to start off a song at completely the wrong tempo or accidently speed up/slow down over the course of the song. Whilst this may work well for certain songs, it also runs the risk of coming across as unprofessional and poorly-prepared.
To circumvent this, many singers employ a metronome (commonly known as a ‘click track’). This is a device that produces an audible ‘click’ sound at a pre-set tempo, which the singer listens to in order to stay in time. To prevent the audience from having to listen to the click track, it’s delivered to the singer via their in-ear monitors.
Similarly, metronome use is essential if the singer is using pre-recorded backing tracks in their set. Without a metronome to keep them in time, it’s almost-guaranteed that the backing tracks will be out of time with the actual performance.
Sometimes, you might see a drummer wearing earpieces even though the rest of the band aren’t. sound ‘robotic’. This is to inject a bit more of a live feel into the performance by having just the drummer play to the click track, whilst everyone else plays to the drummer.
Why Do Singers Take Out Their Earpieces During A Performance?
There are three primary reasons why a singer would take out their in-ear monitors during a performance:
- Poor monitor mix: Before a performance, singers will usually take part in something called a soundcheck. This is where they run through a short portion of the show in order to set the front of house level and in-ear monitor levels. However, singers occasionally won’t have the opportunity to soundcheck before a performance, meaning monitor levels may be set in a hasty or unsuitable fashion. In this situation, many singers find it easier to perform with the live sound instead of their monitor mix.
- Faulty monitors: Occasionally, in-ear monitors will become faulty midway through a performance, leaving the artist unable to hear either their monitor mix or the live sound. In order to keep performing, they’ll take their monitors out and attempt to play to the live sound.
- To hear the crowd: As previously mentioned, in-ear monitors block out all external sound. This can make audience participation difficult to execute due to the fact that the singer isn’t able to hear the crowd. Similarly, they may simply want to savor the moment of thousands of people singing along to their music. Sometimes, an artist will only wear one earpiece in order to hear both their monitor mix and the crowd at the same time.
When Did Singers Start Wearing Earpieces?
Homemade in-ear monitors began surfacing in the early 1970’s, with sound engineer Chris Lindop further-developing the technology in the mid-1980s. However, in-ear monitors didn’t come into mainstream use until the mid-1990’s, with rock band Van Halen being the first band to make use of modern-day in-ear monitors in their live performances (source).