Attack of the Killer Monitors

killermonitorsWhether it’s wedges or in-ears, vocalists must avoid extreme monitor levels. Bill Gibson explains how.

When you add up the volume from all the instruments on stage and compare it to what the singer needs to hear in order to provide an accurate and inspired performance, it too often adds up to overly loud monitors.

Really loud monitors are likely to feedback, which is really really loud.

Developing a Safe Stage Monitor Level

Singers and instrumentalists should do everything possible to avoid extreme monitor levels.

The first step in this process is learning what to look for—and what to ask for—in a monitor mix.

The most common phrase onstage in sound check is goes something like this, “Can I hear a little more of me in the monitors?”

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Save this request.

Start by listening for what is in the way of what you need to hear and then ask the sound operator to turn that down in your monitor.

Often the guitar conflicts with the vocals in the mix or the synth sound is in the way of everything else.

Ask the sound operator to turn those things down rather asking for more of you.

Here are just a few of the benefits of minimizing the ingredients in the stage monitors:

1. You’ll be able to hear yourself better than if everything keeps getting louder

2. You’ll be able to hear the sound from the front-of-house system in the room better, which results in a more powerful feeling sound and ultimately a more inspired performance

3. Uhh…and…oh yah…YOU’LL AVOID HEARING DAMAGE

In-Ear Monitors

In-ear monitors are both more and less dangerous when compared to stage monitors.

On one hand, the performer is in control of the volume—if he or she wants them louder, up they go.

One the other hand, if he or she wants them quieter, down they go.

Since you are in control of your monitor mix and volume, you must learn to set up a good mix that is inspiring and not dangerous.

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Developing a Safe In-Ear Monitor Level

Whether you are using a personal monitor, such as the Aviom system, or a mix sent to you by the sound operator, learn to ask for less level from the mix ingredients that are conflicting with what you need to hear to provide an excellent performance—the same as what I just described regarding stage monitors.

Using this approach you can easily build a mix that is just right and not too loud.

In addition, once you think you have the right mix, turn the overall level down just a little.

A Personal Experience

Here’s my personal experience with in-ear monitors as a drummer.

I use in-ear monitors regularly and I knew I was on the right track one day when I was playing and needed to listen to the drums acoustically to check for an unusual sound.

As soon as I played the drums with my earphones out, I realized that the kit was really loud!

Even though I had been in a long rehearsal, my in-ear level was much quieter than the acoustic sound of the drums.

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So instead of damaging my ears, I was protecting them.

In-ear monitor should serve this purpose—and they can.

Choosing In-Ear Headphones

It is important that in-ear headphones close off as much of the ambient sound as possible.

The ear buds that come with an iPod or other MP3 players are insufficient for a performance environment—they need to be ridiculously loud to compete with the outside sound pressure level.

For live performance, headphones should either have rubberized plastic inserts that seal off the ear canals or custom molded ear pieces made specifically for the user.

It is only with this kind of isolation that the monitor can be reduced to a safe volume.

Beware of Distorted Monitor Systems

At home, in headphones, or in the recording studio it is well worth investing in an accurate amplification and monitor system.

When a manufacturer states that a monitoring system can attain a specified volume or power level, they might be painting an incomplete picture.

The distortion specification is extremely important because a distorted waveform is much more taxing on the ear than a clean and accurate waveform.

As an enthusiast or professional you will help protect your hearing by listening to music through a top-quality monitoring system that exhibits a stellar sound quality and very low distortion specifications.


Bill Gibson Headshot 2 copy

Bill Gibson, President of Northwest Music and Recording, has spent the last 25 years writing, recording, producing and teaching music. Bill is a best-selling author and has written over 30 books about recorded and live sound. His recently released 6-volume set, The Hal Leonard Recording Method is already receiving high praise for its user-friendly approach.


  • rebelmc

    Bill, a point about making iem's work in a band with only a few vox mics open and rarely instrument mics: I have both moulded and rubberised foam type inserts, but never use the expensive moulded 'cause they are just TOO isolating – I actually like and need a little 'spill' around the inserts – I still have mainly my vox for pitch and I have backing vox volume controllable on the belt pack, and band sound/audience controllable depending on how tightly screwed in the inserts are. I'm always fiddling with the damn things, but that's the only way I get what I need…

  • Bill,

    I'm a huge fan…your insights are always valued. I've only been using in ear monitors for a couple of years. I absolutely love it! My greatest struggle is that the soundman will typically want to control everything and usually sheds attitude when I ask to have him run a separate “house” signal to my live rig, especially if it's a good distance. All in all, I don't budge. I do find that I sing more accurately with in ear monitors but I suppose any singer does a better job when they can hear correctly.

    I fully agree with beginning monitoring a performance at a nominal level so that it doesn't get turned up to dangerous porportions. Gain staging is key in almost any singal..right?! Start at the beginning and work your way up…common sense! The most difficult aspect of in ear monitors, when I first started using then, was the isolation from the audience. However, with time one just learns to improvise and come across in a natural way.

    Early in this article there is mention made of conflicts between guitar and vox. No doubt, they hug similar frequencies. I've noticed a lot of local singers using multi-fx or guitar oriented fx processors for their vocals. Not only are many of these presets geared for different instruments but their EQ structures are as well. One think I truly love about by TC Helicon hardware is that it is specifically taylored to the voice. Immediately there is a noticeable difference when singing through my Voice Live 2 vs. anything less. You definitely get what you pay for.

    I look forward to future articles from you and putting them into practice!

    Namaste,

    Brian