Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Monday, July 12, 2021

In-Ear Monitors: Don't Use Just One! (Updated)

  I use custom ear molds with Sensaphonics ears and the Shure PSM 900 Wireless System. 

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Anyone who has ever performed live knows you need some kind of stage monitors that will help you sing accurately and deliver confident performance magic. The mix of instruments and voices, the sonic envelope, ambiance and volume of sounds you hear in your monitors can make or break your performance, because your vocal apparatus responds to what your ears hear. Hearing too little of what you need will usually result in pushing your voice excessively, which can lead to vocal fatigue and damage as well as limit vocal control. Too much monitor sound, or the wrong mix of sounds, can sabotage confident breath support as well as control, and can cause you to sing out of tune, among other issues.

In my career, I have most often used stage wedge monitors, but finally made the plunge and got a set of in-ear monitors to use myself and to be able to advise my students.

Personally, I really love hearing the whole room when I perform, and getting ready for my first in-ear show I wondered how I would do with those monitors inserted in both ears, isolating me from the sound I'm so used to. I actually ended up LOVING them!! 

We've all seen artists on stage, even on the major music award shows, with one in-ear monitor dangling on their neck. When I asked several singers and doctors about wearing them in just one ear, and received conflicting advice. However, the jury is now in: For the safety of your hearing,

...never use just one!

I got to chat with the real expert on the subject of in-ears: doctor of Audiology Michael Santucci, who was manning his Sensaphonics booth at a NAMM event. When I asked him about using just one side of these monitors, he stated in no uncertain terms that it creates a serious risk to hearing to use just one in-ear. He explained why, but rather than try and call that up for you verbatim, here is Michael Santucci and Mike Dias of IEM manufacturer Ultimate Ears, explaining it in Mix Magazine:
Santucci explains: "One danger from too much isolation comes when musicians decide to “fix” the problem by wearing an earpiece in only one ear. When players take one out, their brain loses its ability to do binaural summation, where two ears together add up to a 6dB increase in your perception of loudness. If you're hearing 90 dB in both ears, your brain thinks it's hearing 96 dB. If you take one ear away, then that one ear has to go from 90 to 96 to sound like 96. And now the other ear is open and getting bashed by the band, the P.A. and the crowd. So this loud sound coming into the open ear causes you to turn the other ear up even more. In terms of ear safety, using one earpiece is a dangerous practice — it could actually be worse than using none at all.”
Mike Dias continues the discussion: “There's a common misconception that an artist can use just one earpiece and still use stage monitors, but this results in the worst of both worlds,” says Dias, who offers a simple experiment to demonstrate this. “Have someone stand onstage with a beltpack using one ear and turn it up to a comfortable performing level. Now shut the beltpack off and run the stage monitor to a comfortable level. When you turn the monitors and the single earpiece on, the artist inevitably thinks the in-ear sounds weak and cranks it up to compensate. But when you turn the wedges off, the artist will notice that the earpiece is too loud. In the case of one-ear listening, you don't get the benefit of hearing protection and you don't get the accuracy benefit of the in-ears.”
I don't know about you, but I value my ears too much not to heed this advice from this authority. If you find yourself in the habit of dropping one of your in-ears on stage, and you have the budget, it might be worth an upgrade to ambient sound in-ears, which gives you the ability to 'dial in' just the right amount of ambient sound. 

Or, you might do like I do; put them in both ears but insert them just loosely enough that a little outside sound can leak in without them dropping out of your ears. BUT: Just know if you wear them loosely, you won't get nearly as rich a sound in your mix. It's really best, if you use them a lot, to work with a sound engineer BEFORE the tour to get your snugly-inserted in-ear monitor mix just right, and then rehearse with them that way so you get used to the feeling and the sound of snugly wearing your in-ears.

More In-Ear Tips:

  • Don't forget to clean them after every use! That wax build up can create problems.
  • Be careful how much bass you have in your mix. Bass overtones can cause you to be pitchy.
I really like the advice given in these Youtube videos I found:
  • from the Shure company...  https://youtu.be/Q_cQx6qd4VQ

  • from audio professional at Kettner Creative... https://youtu.be/bfWeA0FP62A

 Now what about you?

Do you use in-ears on stage? How are they working for you? What tips can you share about them? I'm very curious! 

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  • At August 1, 2012 at 12:19 PM , Anonymous Leigh Ann said...

    Important advice, and it makes sense. I'm sure if you don't heed it, you'll regret it when you're older.

  • At August 6, 2012 at 3:19 PM , Anonymous Jack Kontney/Sensaphonics said...

    Great post, Judy! Just shared it on the Sensaphonics FB page.

  • At August 6, 2012 at 3:30 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    Terrific, thank you so much, Jack! And thank you for the great product:)

  • At March 13, 2016 at 10:46 AM , Blogger Mr. Goobers said...

    I had one in ear fall out during worship this morning and my ear is still ringing. Never making that mistake again. The band can go without my guitar for a minute while I fix it!!!

  • At March 13, 2016 at 6:38 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    HA... Mr. Goobers; glad you've decided that:) One must have good ears to continue as musician!

  • At July 20, 2021 at 1:26 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

    Thanks for this, Judy!

  • At July 20, 2021 at 10:04 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    You are most welcome!

  • At March 12, 2023 at 4:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Thank you for the article. I found it helpful. I actually own a pair of Sensaphonics in ear monitors and, although they're great, they have been very persnickety over the years and needed repairs many times. I've tried all the methods you've suggested, and I found that allowing them to loosely be in your ears sometimes works best. Obviously, if you have a fabulous mix with your properly fitted in ear monitors, it can be a wonderful experience, but as a singing guitar player, sometimes the best thing for me is to hear the music bouncing off the walls, so to speak. I think the thing that is missed at times is the assumption that people will automatically start turning up they're in ear monitors if they pull one out may not be true. I often times play at my church where everybody wears in ear monitors, and I will take one almost all the way out while I have one in properly. I never turn them up loud at all, and there are no wedge monitors blasting back at me. I think it's important to note that nothings going to go wrong with your brain to my knowledge by only using one of your IEMs. But if you crank up the volume on the one that's in and get blasted by a loud PA with the one that's out, you may be in for a problem.

  • At March 12, 2023 at 10:30 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    I hear you, Anonymous, but please read the scientific findings I quote in my article. Your brain is indeed involved in binural summation of audio volume. When people damage their ears over time doing things like habitually wearing in-ears only on one side, they can be unaware until it's too late to do anything about it. You are of course free to do it at your risk, but it's been scientifically demonstrated to be dangerous to hearing.

  • At April 2, 2023 at 12:55 PM , Blogger Mimi said...

    (reposting comment, I don't think my original comment posted)

    This is interesting. I'm guilty of using only one iem. However I usually have the opposite problem. I cannot stand loud noises directly in my ear. I keep my volume very low, otherwise it causes pain to the point it triggers a migraine. I don't know what to do, either my volume is too low I can't hear much or it's too loud it hurts. Can't seem to find a good volume balance. when I use both it's very uncomfortable that I prefer to torture one ear at time. I keep my volume low and sometimes turn off my volume or switch ears to give my other ear a rest. I don't have any ear pain problems with sound from speakers. I can enjoy concerts and loud music no problem. I do have very sensitive hearing that I often hear sounds other people dont. Sounds like a faucet dripping can keep me awake at night so I use white noise machine to cover up small sounds. I keep my ears generally clean, no excessive ear wax. I miss stage monitors so much. Sadly about 6 years ago, my church decided everyone use iem's for worship. It's been a very difficult change for me, years later and I still can't seem to adjust.

  • At April 2, 2023 at 1:04 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    Mimi, tell you what if I were you I would consult with an audiologist about getting your monitors right, still protecting your hearing because I assume you intend to keep singing and I hope you do. I imagine you're not alone in this paradox. If you do consult a doctor who specializes in in this and you get your solution, please comment back and let us all know! Thank you


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