Why Do Musicians Wear Earpieces When Performing?


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If you have been to a live concert in recent years, you must have noticed an earpiece in the singer’s ear. Does that help them hear better? Or maybe it’s less damaging to their hearing? Why do musicians wear earpieces when performing?

Earpieces, alternatively known as in-ear monitors, are used by singers to monitor the sound of their singing and the sound of the band. Compared to speaker monitors, it can help with hearing loss, reduce vocal strain, and prevent microphone feedback. 

Every musician who wears in-ear monitors primarily listens to their performance most of the time with a lesser amount of the rest of the band.

So, the lead singer will listen to the vocals they are singing while a drummer will hear the beats of the drum that he is playing and other things such as backing tracks and click tracks.

While performing, it is essential for the band members to hear their performance instantly. For a long time, hearing themselves was done by wedge monitors. Wedges were floor monitor speakers facing the performer and reflecting the music towards them.

Wedge monitors sound good but caused ear fatigue due to loud noise and took a lot of space on stage. Later, as technology improved, sound engineers started looking for an alternative to wedge monitors, and we got in-ear monitors.

Nowadays, every performer, most likely including your favorite singer, wears an earpiece on stage.

It got me curious about the pros and cons of earpieces. What is the impact of earpieces on ear health? Why do some singers pull out earpieces? I have tried to research and compile every piece of information for you.

Stay tuned with me till the end!

Can singers hear the audience if they have earpieces?

A few singers believe that IEMs cause the lack of ambient noise, creating a gap of isolation between a singer and the audience. In-ear monitors reduce -26 dB of the surrounding noise, which is very significant, and one might feel that the performer does not hear the audience at all.

With the help of in-ear pieces, the singer’s voice is prominent, this helps singers take care of their notes and pitch, and hence live performance gets ten times better.

For some stage performances, the audio engineer puts 2 – 3 audience mics and then blends them into the in-ear mix to help the singer get some ambient noise. The mics on stage pick up the audience’s voice so the singer can connect to the audience.

Some in-ear monitors come with a built-in ambient feature.

In-ear monitors with this feature come with a controlled hole in their shell that allows the user to adjust how much surrounding noise they want to hear.

If the hole is fully plugged, the in-ears won’t let any noise enter. If you remove the plug, the stage and crowd noise will reach your eardrum through a -12db filter. To use or not to use this feature completely depends upon the musician’s choice and comfort.

What do drummers hear in their earpiece?

In-ear pieces help cancel out external noise from the audience and ensure that drummers hear the mix only they want to hear.

Most concerts tend to be so noisy that drummers have difficulty hearing their fellow bandmates and drums.

But in-ear pieces are essential for drummers for one other reason- click tracks.

Bands use a click track when they want to play in time with prerecorded backing tracks. In fact, this is one of the main reasons drummers wear earpieces. The click track works more like a metronome which helps the drummer maintain the tempo throughout the performance.

It can be explained as a click sound that maintains the beat for a layman. As drums are the most important instrument to keep up the beat, the drummer has to hear the sound of a click track.

When too much sound on the stage gets directly to the ears, drummers tend to lose the beats, but with the help of in-ear monitors, the drummer can listen to the click track and get the beats on point.

Billie Eilish is no stranger to in-ear monitors.

She also uses a lot of backing tracks that are prerecorded, making a click track in her drummer’s in-ear-monitors a necessity. But does Billie perform live with her brother Finneas? Read my recent article here to find out exactly what his role is, what he plays live, and how much of what you hear is a backing track.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Are in-ear monitors noise-canceling?

Yes, in-ear monitors tend to reduce up to -26 dB of the surrounding noise. In-ear monitor’s primary job is to eliminate the ambient noise in loud environments and provide clean sound for the audience and fellow musicians.

Apart from noise cancellation, in-ear monitors have another important job: to allow the singer to listen to things that the audience can’t hear, such as metronomes. In-ear monitors also help musicians listen to different audio from different sources while performing live on stage.

But they do also block outside noise.

In a typical in-ear monitoring system, there are three operational modes: 

  1. Stereo mode
  2. Mono mode 
  3. Mix mode 

Mix mode allows the performer to receive additional feedback from different modes and adjust their volume according to their need.

Singers tend to follow one particular instrument to get the best audio quality on stage.

For example, one lead singer might need to hear the kick drum to stay in time. At the same time, any other lead singers would like their voices in the monitor mix to avoid any background noise.

Tool is one band known for their pristine live performance. 

But do they use backing tracks or any form of autotune to get that sound? Read my recent article where I take a hard look at Maynard and company. I get into all of that and more.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Why do singers always pull out their earpieces?

In most cases, if a singer removes their earpieces during a concert, it is either due to a malfunctioning earpiece or, more likely, they simply want to hear the audience better.

Popular singers like Beyoncé and Demi Lovato pull out their earpieces in some concerts.

And Beyonce pulled out the earpiece at the presidential ceremony. Sometimes back, one of my favorite singers, Demi Lovato, did the same in an AOL concert in New York. The “Sorry Not Sorry” singer looked visibly frustrated and threw out the earpiece.

Here’s why:

  1. Lack of proper soundcheck: Usually, professional singers run a demo performance before the live show to check the in-ear monitor levels and sound quality. Sometimes this demo trial is not done properly, and sound levels are not set, which causes a lot of noise in the in-ear piece, and singers have to pull it out.
  2. Malfunctioning earpieces: Sometimes, the in-ear monitors are not properly tuned or don’t fit properly in-ear, which also causes the singer to take it out on the stage in running performance.
  3. To hear their audiences’ response: The earpiece cancels all the noise, including the audience’s cheers. Many singers feel it isolates them from the audience, and there is a major disconnect. Though there are other methods to listen to the ambient mix, some singers choose to pull it out.

On this note would you like to know why some singers sound different when they sing live? Brendan Urie of Panic! at the Disco is one singer that tends to sound a little different live.

But does that mean he uses a ton of autotune or can’t sing that well in real life? Read my recent article here to get all the details of both his recordings and live performances.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Are in-ear monitors the same as earphones?

In-ear-monitors are not quite the same as earphones. Construction-wise, in-ear monitors sit within the ear opening and are sealed against the ear canal walls. Earphones fit in the structure of the outer ear and are not sealed against the in-ear canal; they are of open construction.

In-ear monitors can give an isolated experience, whereas earplugs do let ambient noise get inside, disturbing the performer. Earpieces let the music directly pass into the ear canal, letting the singer listen to every minute detail of the music.

Constant exposure to loud music makes singers’ hearing health deteriorate.

Blocked out noise by in-ear monitors helps the singer perform better and protects against hearing loss and ear fatigue.

Earphones have more of a generic fit, are made for the masses, and can be used even by non-performers. They are lightweight and ideal for people who love to listen to music for long hours. Whereas if you are a performer or a budding performer, it’s better to use a wireless IEM system.

A big differentiating factor between in-ear monitors and earphones is that the drivers used in earphones come with dynamic drivers.

Dynamic drivers work fine with low frequencies such as bass and sub-bass but fail when it comes to higher frequencies such as treble. In-ear monitors use a combination of different types of drivers to handle all types of frequencies and produce clean audio.

In-ear earpieces are made specifically for audio monitoring purposes. They are made of expensive and premium materials like acrylic, metal, and resin with plastic, resulting in audio with more clarity and detail.

At the same time, most earphones are made of cheap plastic that gives poor quality audio compared to IEMs.

The noise isolation quality of IEMs makes their volume better, which is not the case with earphones due to the influx of a lot of external noise.

Many sound engineers and audiophiles suggest using IEMs to listen to the minute parts of songs that get lost in earphones.

Do in-ear monitors have good sound quality?

As a general rule, in-ear-monitors used by popular musicians are of very good sound quality. But traditional stage monitors with their much larger speakers would typically have superior sound quality.

But the audio quality of the in-ear monitor depends on many factors, the most important being how many drivers it contains and, of course- the brand. The IEM with one driver’s frequency range will differ from another IEM with three or more drivers.

With full-sized speakers, multiple drivers can handle a wide range of frequencies, and due to their combined impact, the final output is better audio. So in most cases, multi-driver IEMs are better than single driver IEMs.

Apart from drivers, three more specifications impact sound quality in in-ear monitors.

Attenuation: This indicates how the in-ear monitor blocks much ambient sound; a higher number means more sound is being blocked.

Frequency: It tells about the range of frequencies that IEM can pick.

Sensitivity: The lower sensitivity of the in-ear monitor depicts that you’ll require more power from the headphone amp to produce a given volume.

Impedance: The impedance is inversely proportional to the sensitivity; the lower impedance indicates that you’ll require less power from the headphone amp to produce a given volume.

Are earpieces safer than speakers?

As a general rule, in-ear- monitors are much safer than loudspeakers. The performer can also adjust the volume of IEMs according to safe listening standards.

There is no denying that loud sounds and noises are always a threat to the ears. Besides, prolonged exposure to the sound of more than 85 decibels (dB) can cause permanent damage to the ears.

But if we talk about a singer on a stage, the external sounds that the singer will receive from loudspeakers and floor monitors will be much more than the sound he will receive in his earpiece.

Moreover, in-ear monitors have the option to keep the mix the lead singers want to have.

Conclusion

There is a term for the process in which singers get real-time feedback about how they sound. It is called stage monitoring. This started with wedge-shaped sound monitors.

These monitors are used to face the performers and play the music back towards them so that the musicians can hear themselves better. It is good to note that The Beatles used the very first floor monitors.

As the shape of technology changed, wedges turned into in-ear pieces, which gave better audio quality. The journey of in-ear monitors has been amazing. Kudos to earpieces for playing up (pun intended) the course of music history.


Image by Pexels from Pixabay and Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Jeff Campbell

Hi, I'm Jeff Campbell, a former DJ, music journalist, musician, and music lover. I'm old enough to have seen all the cool bands and young enough to still remember them.

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