How To Set Up In-Ear Monitors for Singers

In-ear monitors are a must-have piece of equipment for vocalists during live performances. Instruments, speakers, and a roaring audience create a noisy atmosphere. These high noise levels make it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for a singer to hear themselves during the show. These monitors let singers hear their own sound and the music clearly and perform better.

To set up in-ear monitors for singers, connect all audio sources to the mixer. Next, hook up outputs from the mixer to the transmitter. The transmitter sends the audio to the receiver, usually a belt pack worn by the performer. The in-ear monitor then receives the monitor mix from the belt pack.

Setting up an in-ear monitor is pretty straightforward, especially if you have basic knowledge of audio equipment. Read on to learn more about in-ear monitors and how to set them up for a vocal performance.

Singer with in-ear monitors

Know the Components

Before getting started, you need to understand the system that makes in-ear monitors work. You’ll need four main components:

  • Mixer
  • Transmitter
  • Receiver
  • In-Ear Monitor

Below, we’ll discuss each component in more detail.

Mixer

A mixer, also known as a mixing board or console, is a piece of equipment that allows users to tweak the audio to sound how they want it. All of the different audio components (instruments, audio, etc.) are connected to the mixer. It is essentially the “central hub” where sound effects, ambience, and other audio are added or adjusted.

Mixers have various knobs to control different aspects of the audio:

  • Treble knobs – Adjust high-frequency sounds
  • Bass knobs – Adjust low-frequency sounds
  • Mid knobs – Adjust everything in between

During a live performance, the mixer receives audio from different sources (i.e., vocals, guitar, keyboard, etc.). From the mixer, users make adjustments to the audio levels. The mixer combines the audio components into fewer outputs.

There are analog mixers and digital mixers available in both full-size and compact versions.

Analog mixers are generally easier to use than digital mixers. Each control has its own function, making the mixing process pretty straightforward. These systems are ideal for those inexperienced with mixers or for those seeking a less expensive option.

Digital mixers are superior as they have more capabilities. They let you save all your settings and apply them with a single click, allowing for a consistent live performance every time. They make recording the first monitor mix a breeze. 

Transmitter

Transmitters send the mixer output, also known as the monitor mix, to the receiver. With a general monitor mix (a single audio mix that everyone in the band uses), you will only need one transmitter. However, many musicians prefer to have a customized monitor mix. In that case, you’ll need a transmitter for each custom mix.

A custom monitor mix is a mix of the song personalized to each band member’s preferences. Musicians who use a customized monitor mix will tweak their mix so that the audio from their voice or instrument is louder, with other band sounds in the background. Hearing themselves louder helps them stay on beat with their part and remain in tune with the band.

More advanced (and therefore, more expensive) transmitters are capable of transmitting multiple custom monitor mixers at one time. With these more advanced systems, you can reduce the number of transmitters you’ll need for custom mixes.

Mono allows for two monitor mixes from one transmitter, whereas stereo generally only allows one. Be sure to check your transmitter and receiver compatibility to ensure they’ll work together. 

Receiver 

The receiver picks up the wireless audio signal and transfers it to the in-ear monitor. It’s usually worn on a belt pack attached to a belt, pants, a guitar strap, or placed in a pocket. Receivers typically have volume knobs to adjust playback levels. There is one receiver per in-ear monitor. 

Each performer will need their own belt pack unless they’re using a system hardwired directly into the mixer (typical for stationary performers). Receivers come in many shapes and sizes and are available from dozens of different brands. Most belt pack receivers are about the size of a cell phone, but some are small as a credit card. Some of the top brands for audio receivers are Shure, Sennheiser, Audio Technica, and Fender.

In-Ear Monitors

The performer wears the in-ear monitor to hear the monitor mix and block out unwanted background sounds. Canceling noise allows the musician to better hear the music, despite the audience, instruments, and other surrounding sounds.

In-ear monitors fit securely in the ear, just like a typical earbud. In fact, some musicians use standard earbuds in place of in-ear monitors. These, however, are considered inferior due to poor sound quality. Monitor earpieces are made explicitly for live performance quality. Nevertheless, regular earbuds or headphones can be a temporary fix for musicians just starting until they can buy a better in-ear monitor system.

Today, most in-ear monitor systems are wireless; however, wired systems are less susceptible to interference. The in-ear monitor cable connects directly to a 3.5 mm stereo jack on the belt pack on wired systems. 

Choose the Right In-Ear Monitor

Wired In-Ear Monitors

Wired in-ear monitors are easy to set up but do not allow for much movement. Drummers and keyboardists often prefer these monitors since they don’t have to move around much.

The best thing about wired in-ear monitor systems is that they eliminate the need for a receiver and reduce the likelihood of interference. This setup is ideal when you only need one custom monitor mix. For multiple mixes, you’ll need an aux output on the mixer for each personalized mix.

Wireless In-Ear Monitors

As mentioned earlier, standard in-ear monitors today are wireless. Vocalists and guitarists tend to move around the stage, so these in-ear monitors are ideal.

The most significant disadvantage of wireless in-ear monitors is interference. Interference happens when two sound waves share the same space (frequency). When those two sound waves meet, it causes sound distortion, volume issues, and other unwanted audio problems. Amplifiers and speakers are known to cause interference if in-ear monitors or microphones get too close.

Some equipment benefits from being on the same frequency, however. For example, transmitters and receivers work together; therefore, many advanced systems lock them into the same frequency to reduce interference and ensure sound quality.

Get the Right Fit

The most critical part of in-ear monitors is the fit. The right fit can mean the difference between the average audio output and clear, quality sound. Keep in mind that universal in-ear monitors are more accessible, whereas custom in-ear monitors take a while to create. Therefore, if you need one sooner rather than later, you’ll want to go with the universal option.

We’ll discuss each fit in more detail below.

Generic In-Ear Monitors

Universal earpieces are acceptable for those with a smaller budget. These earpieces are a one-size-fits-all system. Like today’s earbuds, they come with various pieces to ensure the user can find a secure fit. 

There are silicone and foam tips in different shapes and sizes. Some have a tip that sits inside the ear canal, whereas others fit into and over the entire outer ear canal. Some companies have attachments for earpieces that wrap around the outer ear for a more secure fit.

Unfortunately, universal in-ear monitors are not guaranteed to fit correctly. A tight fit can make a huge difference in sound quality and hearing conservation. That’s why so many performers choose custom-molded in-ear monitors.

Custom In-Ear Monitors

Personalized in-ear monitors are ideal when finances allow. These are higher-quality and are molded specifically to an individual’s ear. They create an airtight seal, making them more comfortable and allowing for superior noise cancellation. They provide up to 34 decibels of noise reduction and, as a result, can lessen the risk of hearing damage. 

Custom in-ear monitors are available in a variety of colors, even skin shades. These earpieces can range anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.

Set Up the In-Ear Monitor System

Once you’ve chosen the right in-ear monitor and have the perfect fit, you’ll want to set up the microphones and instruments. Having a basic understanding of audio equipment will help you during setup.  Some in-ear monitor systems can be sophisticated. There are different cables, inputs, outputs, and mixing. If you’re unsure how to set up the system, ask a professional.

Setup will depend on the equipment and the number of personalized monitor mixes. Here, we’ll discuss the general setup for in-ear monitor systems:

  1. Plug all instruments and microphone outputs into a front-of-house stage box.
  2. Use a splitter to separate the outputs using snakes and set the other connection to your monitor system.
  3. Start by sending all the audio sources to the mixer and plugging them in. Each instrument and microphone will need its own output so that they can be adjusted individually. If there are not enough outputs, you may need to pick and choose which components to adjust until you’re able to get a unit that has enough sends.
  4. From the mixer, plug the outputs into the wireless transmitter input jacks. Wired units need headphone mixers to convert outputs.

Here are a couple of tips for setting up an in-ear monitor system: 

  • Digital mixers are more complex and require more steps during setup compared to analog mixers. Keep this in mind during setup. They’ll need an internet connection, so check your manual for individual configuration instructions.
  • When using a wired transmitter, do not skimp on cost with the extension cables and always use tape to hold down the cords during performances. There’s nothing worse than a headphone cord coming loose during a performance.

Create Your First Monitor Mix

Before using your in-ear monitor system during a live performance, you’ll want to create the first monitor mix. Digital mixers allow for the recording and storing of monitor mixes. If you’re using an analog mixer, you’ll need to tweak each monitor mix during every rehearsal. For optimal quality and performance, digital mixers are highly recommended.

Once you’ve connected the wireless transmitter to its output, connect the in-ear monitor to the belt packs. When everything is powered up, the transmitter will send the audio to the receiver, transferring it into the in-ear monitor. 

Transmitters and receivers send audio through radio frequencies (usually VHF or UHF). UHF systems are less susceptible to interference or other audio issues. Make sure each monitor mix is using a different wireless channel to avoid frequency overlaps.

Keep in mind that the first monitor mix does not have to be perfect; you can tweak it during rehearsals and get the optimal mix after a few attempts. 

From here, the band and vocalist can start playing. After recording the monitor mix, each performer can decide how the mix needs to be changed based on their preferences. This process takes some time and will involve trial and error, but it is necessary to get everything just right.

Pros and Cons of In-Ear Monitors

Before in-ear monitors were the standard for sound quality, performers relied on stage speakers, often referred to as floor monitors or wedges. These systems cluttered the stage and increased the risk of hearing damage. In addition, floor wedges made it challenging to have individual monitor mixes. Sometimes, other musicians could hear another performer’s mix. To remedy that, they needed to angle the speakers just right.

Today, musicians and vocalists benefit from hearing their own monitor mix through in-ear speakers. They can listen to more of their side of the performance (“more me”) to ensure they’re playing quality music and staying in tune. 

Pros of In-Ear Monitors

In this section, we’ll cover the pros of in-ear monitors compared to stage monitors.

  • They eliminate interference and feedback. Traditional floor monitors have the potential to affect sound quality, making music sound poorly produced. This creates a frustrating situation for performers and the audience alike. Some artists consider in-ear monitors a necessity precisely for this purpose.
  • Wireless in-ear monitors allow for more mobility. Vocalists, guitarists, and other performers that move freely about the stage benefit from wireless in-ear monitors, as they do not restrict movement.
  • They are compact. Given their small size, in-ear monitors are easier to travel with. They fit in backpacks, purses, and suitcases with ease. Although floor monitors vary in size and weight, they don’t come close to competing with the miniature size of in-ear monitors.
  • Hearing loss isn’t a huge concern. Floor monitors repeatedly exposed musicians to high volumes of sound. In-ear monitors cancel out the background noise, making it easier to hear the mix, and reduce the likelihood of hearing loss.
  • They reduce stage clutter. Large, bulky monitors take up quite a bit of space on the stage, especially when there are multiple stage monitors for each band member. Vocalists need to move around the stage, but extra cords, wires, and equipment make it difficult. In-ear monitors eliminate the need for stage monitors, clearing up more space and reducing the number of hazards.
  • They cut down on setup time. With fewer cords and equipment, an in-ear monitor system takes far less time to set up than floor monitor systems.

Cons of In-Ear Monitors

Despite their advantages, in-ear monitors do have their shortcomings as well. Here are a few of them: 

They Create a Disconnect 

During a live show, vocalists or band members need to connect with their audience. This can make or break a live performance. 

In-ear monitors can create a significant disconnect from the crowd, which is the opposite of what a performer wants to achieve. That’s because they eliminate the sound of the audience, making the performer feel detached. 

Fortunately, there’s a middle ground. You can set up a dedicated microphone pointed toward the crowd to capture their cheers and feed that into the mixer. This way, the performer can adjust the playback levels to hear the crowd while also hearing their music.

In-Ear Monitors Can Fall Out During a Performance

It’s not uncommon for earpieces to fall out during live performances. Performers that move around a lot or extreme on-stage moves are more likely to have their earpieces fall. Once that happens, the monitor can be challenging to find, especially in the dark or on a stage already cluttered with cords and wires. Without an in-ear monitor, a performer can lose their place in a song and throw off the entire performance.

Beltpack Receivers Are Bulky

There are different belt packs on the market, some more compact than others, but generally, they’re not exceptionally comfortable. Performers that wear elaborate ensembles for their shows may find that belt pack receivers aren’t practical or don’t mesh well with their outfits. Sometimes there isn’t an ideal place to wear the receiver without it being obvious.

Conclusion

In-ear monitors have become the industry standard thanks to their many advantages. Setup is simple, even for those with limited audio knowledge.

To recap:

  • Connect all microphones, instruments, and other audio sources to the mixer.
  • Hook up the audio outputs from the mixer to the transmitter.
  • Power up the devices.
  • Once the equipment is connected and powered up, the transmitter sends the audio signal to the receivers, and the receivers send the signal to the in-ear monitors.