A few weeks ago I was having dinner with a friend who is both a player in a working band and a product guy for a major case mfg. The subject of in-ear or “personal” monitors came up and we got into a discussion of how many musicians reject them out of hand.

“I had a drummer come in as a sub,” Steph told me. “He was adamant about not going in-ear although that is what the entire band uses. I finally convinced him to give them a shot for one set which he did and proceeded to use them all night. He said afterwards that they were great and he could really hear for the first time onstage. I asked why he had refused earlier and he said that some people he knows had told him they weren’t very good.”

Rejection Prior To Investigation
Lots of musicians have opinions on personal monitors despite never having actually used them and it has been this ever since Marty Garcia first used a paid of Sony earbuds and some denture cream to address Todd Rundgren’s problem with being unable to hear consistently onstage. But personal monitors are becoming less of an oddity and more and more are the standard on pro stages. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.

Consistency: With personal monitors, your mix does not change as you move around the stage.

Stage wedges are—by design—pretty narrow in their dispersion of sound and there is a good reason for that. For a very long time in the sound world wedges were thought of and used as “vocal monitors.” Their express purpose was to allow the vocalist to hear him or herself above the amplified instruments onstage. A monitor with a wide dispersion pattern would be picked up in adjacent vocal mics and could be a cause of the dreaded feedback squeal.

As we progressed in the audio arena, expectations rose and before long wedges were joined by sidefills and stage volume mounted to the point where the house engineer was fighting with what was coming off the stage. And that leads to muddy, mushy sound that is just too loud. Use of personal monitors along with things like isolation boxes for guitar amps and drum “cages” can give the house mixer an almost studio-like environment in which to create a mix that works in the room in terms of both balance and volume.

Ironically, a quiet stage is also one were stage monitors can work really well. Tom Young has mixed Tony Bennett for more than a dozen years and uses four full-range PA speakers hung at each corner of the stage in an “X” configuration. His boss loves it and has even brought it into the studio for his last few recordings. But Bennett is not fighting a deaf guitar player with a Marshall cranked to 11.

“Personal monitors may be the utmost benefit to your personal sound; however, do not underestimate a well-brought-up array of wedge mixes,” says Garcia. Realizing the benefits of personal monitors hinges on things like the right engineer and plenty of sound check time as well as sufficient aux sends so each musician has his or her own mix. “The benefits of a wedge mix,” says Garcia, “come into play when you do not have the above and can easily move away from the wedge when the mix is not right.

Accuracy: Personal monitors can, when used right, give you a much better idea of what is going off the stage sound-wise and allow you to hear more of what your audience hears.

It also means a better idea of pitch and there are many singers who can’t deal with the isolation of personal monitors and take the “one in one out” approach so they can really hear pitch.

The place where accuracy can suffer is in terms of blend. Horn sections and harmony vocals especially depend on just the right amount of each ingredient to work. And a super-individualized mix can work against that.

Portability: Even with a separate mixer, the monitor rig for my 10-piece band fits in one rolling case and one six-space rack case. On gigs where the house can provide a sufficient number of monitor mixes, I only need to carry the rack case. Not too long ago, I met a noted monitor engineer then working with a former pop idol turned aspiring country star. I picked him up at the airport in Vegas and he had the entire monitor rig in two rolling rack cases. And this was for a national tour, not a bar gig.

In contrast, even a small bi-amped wedge takes up a couple square feet of stage real estate and weighs a minimum of 30 lbs. Cabling, amps and processors means at least one good-sized and heavy rack. Using a four-piece band as an example with one bi-amped wedge per person and running just two mixes means four wedges and a rack containing two stereo amps and one crossover/processor at minimum which will weigh between 80 and 100 lbs. Plus the wedges. This will fit in the back of my PT Cruiser but I am not going to be able to carry it onto an airplane.

Affordability: This is where most people think that personal monitors lose their edge. They are not cheap. But let’s take a look at it. Going all out on personal monitors with pro-level wireless and custom-fit earphone is going to cost in the neighborhood of $1600-2000 per person. That amp/processing rack is going to run in the three grand range for amps and processor and that is for mid-line gear. Even a decent bi-ampable wedge is going to be in the $600 range. Divide that among four band members and you are looking at about $1100 per person. So personal monitors appear more expensive.

But, if the mixer has enough aux send, the PM setup can do four individual mixes. What happens when we go to four wedge mixesw? Adding the additional amps and processor channels tacks another $400 or so on per extra mix so now, we are talking about a wash in terms of expense. If you go down market with a less expensive wireless and making at least the drummer wired as well as substituting those custom-fit monitors for pro-level universal-fit units takes it down to more like a grand per person. Bottom line is that the money difference between the two is not what it first appears.

Self-Preservation: Loud stages hurt performers and personal monitors allow the performer to control the volume of their mix. This is serious stuff. Ask Pete Townsend who suffers from a constant ringing in the ears called tinnitus after years of very loud rock shows.

Some basics: Remember that decibels (the unit used to measure sound) are not linear. In other words, 100 decibels is not double the level of 50 decibels. Every increase of just 6 dB results in a perceived doubling of the volume level. The generally accepted safe level tops out at about 85 dB for any significant period of time. A typical stage running wedges runs in the 100-110 range. Really loud rock bands can go higher. (A friend of mine used to mix monitors for Pantera and says the level at center stage was 120 dB every night.) If 85 dB is safe (and according to OSHA that is the safe level) and you are at, say 103, you have doubled the level three times. This does not mean three times as loud it means more like 8 times as loud. (Do the math. If 85 dB represents our base or “1” then doubled once is 2, doubled again is 4 and doubled again is 8 times the volume.) And the amount of time that is safe drops to just a few minutes.

Laurie Abdo is a Board Certified Hearing Instrument Specialist and the Hearing Aid Specialist at Ear, Nose and Throat Consultants of Nevada.  She has been a hearing instrument specialist in Las Vegas for 23 years. “Each time you are exposed to this type of noise, the hair cells in the inner ear are damaged,” she explains. “If you get out of the noisy environment your hair cells will recover somewhat and each day your hearing comes back–but not as good as the day before. Exposure to this kind volume can damage your hearing after only 30 minutes of exposure per day.”

Abdo and any other hearing specialist you talk to will advocate the use of earplugs that are custom made for musicians and attenuate  9 dB, 15 dB or 25 dB of noise. “The musicians earplugs attenuate all frequencies equally so the musician does not lose any of the integrity of the music.  A 25 dB attentuaion will take sound occurring at 110dB to a level of 85dB which is much less damaging to the ear.”

Custom fit personal monitors can cut ambient sound by 26 dB so they double as hearing protection. Abdo has found that musicians using custom fit personal monitors can hear comfortably at about 10 dB lower level than just using speakers.

Originally posted 2009-08-22 05:24:23.