The earpieces that musicians wear on stage are called ‘in-ear monitors’ (IEMs). They are a type of earphones that offer hearing protection while also providing a personalized stage mix, which can include a backing track or click track for the musician to play or sing along to.
Musicians wear these earpieces so that they can hear themselves and their band, while also protecting their hearing.
Stages are very loud places. Traditionally, musicians had monitors on stage (referred to as wedge monitors) which would give them the balance of sound that they want to hear. These are still very frequently used with musicians who are not using IEMs.
The balance of the music for those wedge monitors is usually controlled by a sound engineer. The balance of the music for IEMs is controlled in the same way.
In-ear monitors are often custom-molded to the performer’s ears. These are referred to as custom IEMs and they provide the best hearing protection. Musicians can alternatively buy universal fitting IEMs, which are like regular earbuds. They tend to be cheaper and can be purchased off-the-shelf without requiring fitting.
In-ear monitors have become very popular in recent years because they have become cheaper, there is better awareness of hearing damage among musicians, and there is better awareness by sound engineers and musicians for how to use them on stage.
Even more so, IEMs are great for playing pre-recorded effects, back vocals, or other instruments because of the click metronome and the set track tempo, as a way to always follow the arrangement and not miss a beat, or incoming changes in the song.
Why Do Musicians Take Out Their Earpieces on Stage?
Musicians often take out their earpieces out because they simply want to hear the crowd and take in the atmosphere. DJs and producers sometimes take out their in-ear monitors while mixing so they can hear a clearer sound of the room.
So They Can Hear the Crowd
In-ear monitors are like putting very strong earplugs into your ears. This is very important because stages can be extremely loud and can quickly cause hearing damage and chronic ear-ringing for musicians.
In fact, they are far more effective than regular earplugs, because IEMs are usually custom-molded to the person’s ear (either via an impression or a laser scan).
IEMs come with a major disadvantage – they take some of the ‘vibe’ away from playing on stage as the musician doesn’t feel as close to the crowd. The IEMs usually takes you inside the world of music where nothing else comes through, this is why musicians sometimes take them off, so they can get back in the moment and enjoy it.
So they Can Mix
Some less established musicians and DJs use in-ear monitors. They sometimes take the IEMs out to set and mix the levels and then put them back in when they are happy with them. Think of it as a much-needed necessity, to get the required levels they need to take it off for a few seconds to get everything right.
Why Do Musicians Wear Earpieces on Stage?
This is for a few reasons:
Stages can be so loud that they can cause damage within short spaces of time of noise exposure if the amps are not properly controlled (check out our article on levels of noise exposure in concerts here).
Hearing issues often come over the space of a few years. IEMs allow musicians to monitor their performances at a much lower level.
However, if used improperly, IEMs can still greatly damage a person’s hearing.
Wearing IEMs can allow musicians to get a much better mix of the sound personalized directly to them.
The drummer might be interested in hearing more bass in the mix, the singer might want to hear their vocals better. The sound engineer can adjust each of these to personalize the mix.
IEMs are great for lead singers that want to run around the stage and jump into the crowd
Playing to a click
Quite a lot of musicians (particularly drummers) play to a metronome on stage. This comes in the form of a beeping sound in their ear.
This may seem like cheating, but it’s a very professional way to keep the music perfectly in time.
Music that is out of time often sounds very novice.
Another reason is that musicians often use pre-recorded material as a way to boost their live performance, and the click is a way of not missing certain time frames.
Musicians Using IEMs on Stage
Musicians on bigger stages often connect their IEMs to a wireless pack. This means they can run around the stage and into the crowd freely without getting tripped over by wires.
Also, it suits the live performance that much more. The freedom to move around and not be tense or stiff on stage just gives a more electrifying performance that the crowd can enjoy.
You can Wear IEMs too
IEMs are no longer reserved for wealthy and successful performers.
You can get universal fitted IEMs for very affordable prices.
Entry-level custom-fitted IEMs can now be bought for a few hundred dollars. Therefore, they are now a lot cheaper than they used to be.
In-ear monitors are an essential part of live music, they allow the musician to hear every note with pinpoint accuracy. This is why musicians wear them on stage, to monitor their performances and make sure everything sounds perfect.
IEMs are not only for professionals anymore as you can now get universally fitted IEMs for very affordable prices.
The reason why musicians sometimes take them off is that they want to enjoy the atmosphere and vibe of playing on stage.
They also wear IEMs because it helps them get a more personalized sound mix. They can make adjustments to their IEMs without having to rely on the sound engineer. A better monitoring system might give them a more enjoyable show, but it takes away some of the magic of playing live on stage, as you can’t hear the crowd that good.
If you play an instrument or sing, you might want to consider getting IEMs to help with your live performance.