Why Do Singers Wear Earpieces When Performing?

Wearing in-ear monitor while performing
Wearing in-ear monitor while performing

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Answering all of your questions about the in-ear monitors worn by singers and performers.

If you’ve been to a concert, you likely noticed singers and band members wearing some pretty interesting earpieces.

For those who aren’t familiar with the obstacles present in live monitoring scenarios, the useful role these in-ear devices serve won’t be apparent.

So, let’s get into why singers wear earpieces on stage. We’ll be going over the benefits they offer, the types of earpieces they use, and finally, why you’ll sometimes see singers take their earpieces out during a performance.

Monitoring Methods for Singers: Earpieces vs. Stage Wedges

A singer wearing in-ear monitors while performing.
A singer wearing in-ear monitors while performing.

Earpieces, also known as in-ear monitors (IEMs), are a live monitoring option for singers and performers. They’re an alternative to stage wedges, which are speakers that face up towards a singer while they’re performing.

Wedge monitors at a live show.
Wedge monitors at a live show.

When on stage, a singer needs an effective way to monitor their performance aside from the main speakers facing the audience.

While the audience hears the main mix as intended, a performer behind the main speakers hears a warped version of the mix as it reflects off the surfaces of the venue.

Earpieces allow a performer to hear their own performance without the obstruction of acoustic reflections. This helps them make sure they stay on key and on tempo, as they hear all instruments, including their own, clearly throughout the performance.

Monitoring refers to listening to your own performance in real time. This allows performers to hear themselves clearly when on stage.

Stage wedges, on the other hand, must compete with these acoustic reflections as they lack the sound isolation offered by in-ear monitors. This can lead to issues with phase interference and masking, which results in a loss of clarity when monitoring.

Stage wedges are a preferred monitoring method for plenty of singers and performers. It ultimately comes down to matters of preference.

The Benefits of Using Earpieces on Stage

Red Velvet members perform together on stage. (From: Youtube/KBS Kpop)
Red Velvet members perform together on stage. (From: Youtube/KBS Kpop)

Now that we have an idea of why some singers wear earpieces when performing, let’s go over more specific benefits in a little more detail.

Isolating the monitor mix from the audience mix

When you attend a concert, the audio you hear is the main mix. It’s well-balanced and optimized for the audience’s enjoyment. Meanwhile, the band and singer receive a mix intended to meet their monitoring needs.

Earpieces offer a simple solution to ensuring a monitor mix stays cleanly confined to the performers’ ears. Since IEMs are worn and produce sound directly into the performers’ ears, no one else can hear what’s being played with them, which is the problem with stage wedges.

Stage wedges are just speakers in front of the stage, angled towards the performers. Because of that, the sound they produce can technically be spread around. This carries the risk of creating acoustic reflections from the monitor mix that can mix with and degrade the main mix.

Isolating individual monitor mixes from each other

Earpieces also help singers and performers isolate each of their custom-tailored monitoring mixes from one another.

A monitor mix can be balanced in a way that helps each performer focus on their particular part.

A singer, for example, might be following the melody played by the lead guitarist, and ask a mix engineer to turn up the lead guitar in their monitor mix. A bassist, on the other hand, may need to hear the kick drums louder than others.

Wedges can be problematic here in the same way they can cause issues with the audience mix: they loudly bleed sound into the open air and obscure the other monitor mixes that are competing for presence.

Because of this, the mixes in the stage wedges usually just remain similar across the whole performance. It wouldn’t matter whether or not one or two performers can’t isolate what they need to hear the most.

Using a click-track

The ability to use a click track when performing with earpieces is perhaps the most inarguable benefit they have to offer.

A click track is simply a metronome track that helps performers stay rhythmically in sync with one another during a performance. It’s sent to performers in their monitor mixes, but thankfully omitted from the audience mix.

Needless to say, musicians who opt out of using earpieces cannot perform with click tracks unless they want the audience to hear the obnoxious tick of a metronome come from a monitoring wedge in high-decibel horror.

Reduced risk of feedback

Earpieces are the safest means of monitoring when it comes to avoiding feedback loops.

Speaker monitors produce feedback when the audio from a singer’s microphone comes out of the monitor, which feeds back into the microphone, then back out of the speaker – looping in perpetuity as the audio engineer has a heart attack.

By keeping monitoring signals contained to the performers’ ears, earpieces won’t send audio into a microphone. This reduces the risk of entering into a feedback hellscape.

Hearing protection

Since in-ear monitors seal into the opening of ear canals, they offer earplug-like hearing protection that also allows singers and performers to monitor themselves at relatively safe listening levels.

Health experts say that noise exposure above 85 dB can cause hearing damage – yet rock concerts can reach levels as loud as 120 dB! For many musicians, the hearing protection provided by IEMs is essential to protect their way of life.

Earpieces can protect a singer’s hearing in a two-fold way. Firstly, they attenuate the high-volume sound environment of a music venue. Secondly, as a result of this attenuation, the monitor mix from the earpiece is audible to the performer at a reasonable listening level.

Performers who use monitoring wedges, on the other hand, might find themselves in a loudness war between their monitoring mix and the reflections from the speakers facing the audience.

Following stage directions

Earpieces allow a production crew to communicate directions to singers and musicians throughout a performance. They can receive a heads-up from pyrotechnicians before they set off an explosion, or receive performance cues from stage directors.

This behind-the-scenes view of a performance by Joe Bucci will give you a clear picture of the sorts of directions a performer may receive over an earpiece.

Without an earpiece, a performer may have to memorize all of these directions in order to enact them during a performance. This is easier said than done in the adrenaline-fueled environment of a live concert. It also won’t be useful if there are any sudden changes needed during the performance.

What Kind of Earpieces Do Singers Wear?

Wearing in-ear monitor while performing
Wearing in-ear monitor while performing

Now that the question of why singers wear earpieces has been answered, you might be wondering what kind of earpieces these are. As previously mentioned, these earpieces are officially called in-ear monitors, or IEMs.

In-ear monitors are, in layman’s terms, souped-up earbuds – not the $5 kind that you can buy at a corner store. They sit deeper in the ear canal and are usually equipped/designed with technical flourishes like multi-driver crossover systems or sound-enhancing acoustic chambers.

There is an enormous range of IEMs on the market, from the entry-level Truthear x Crinacle Zero: RED to the high-end Noble Audio Sultan. If you need IEMs for a performance, we recommend earpieces with balanced sound signatures like the Shure SE846 or the affordable Sennheiser IE 200.

Performers can also get custom IEMs for a more snug and comfortable fit. These are made to shape from a performer’s ear impression that they send to the manufacturer. Check out companies like 64 Audio and Empire Ears if you’re thinking about custom IEMs.

Why Do Singers Take Out Their Earpieces?

Now that we understand why singers wear earpieces, let’s answer the question of why they sometimes take them out during a performance – or opt out of them altogether.

Technical malfunctions

Live sound set-ups are complex and fickle. Small mistakes can lead to big problems, like malfunctions in a singer’s earpiece. If you see a singer removing their earpiece midperformance, there’s likely something wrong with what they hear in their ear.

K-Pop fans might remember Red Velvet member Joy collapsing on stage in a 2016 concert. During the show, Joy clutched her ear in pain, fell, and ran offstage. Fans speculate she may have been shocked by her earpiece.

They feel removed from the audience

For some singers, in-ear monitors can make them feel too far removed from their audience. Conner Youngblood had this to say about using in-ear monitors during his performances:

“I’m not really an in-ears guy… I hate the idea of hearing something different from how the audience hears it.”

While the isolating qualities of earpieces have their technical benefits, some performers find they detract from audience immersion.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do singers plug their earpieces into?

Singers and performers plug their earpieces into a receiver often worn around the waist. This receives its audio from a transmitter in the audio booth.

Are in-ear monitors good to use for casual music listening?

In-ear monitors can be great for casual listening. Plenty of people who don’t perform listen to music with in-ear monitors.

When did performers start using in-ear monitors?

Stevie Wonder may have been the first performer to use in-ear monitors when he started performing with them in the 1980s.

💬 Conversation: 3 comments

  1. How do you get the sound in your ear as well as sent out to the audience. Is there a special way to hook up you sound system. I am an ameture with no assistance.

  2. So if I put a pre recorded y track or song, the ear peace, pick or is sent to my ears for the start of a song track.

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