Why Do Singers Wear Earpieces (In-Ear Monitors) on Stage?

by Sam-SoundGear.   Last Updated On September 26th, 2022.

When you watch a singer perform, most of them, always have a kind of earbud or earpiece in one ear. What is the purpose of these earpieces and what are they listening through them? Are these earpieces necessary, and are there alternatives to use on stage? This post explores why singer wears earpieces while performing, and much more about in-ear monitoring. Enjoy.

Long ago, for a singer to hear what is playing or singing clearly, wedges were used. Wedges are floor monitor loudspeakers that are wedge-shaped and placed on stage facing the singers so they can hear themselves better. For a long time, wedges were considered the best way for singers/performers to hear themselves better. However, they presented hearing health problems, sound quality, and hindered the mobility of the singers on stage.

A smaller and much effective solution was needed, and this came in the form of in-ear monitors. 

In-ear monitors soon became popular for musicians who perform live except for the singer Franc Ocean who prefers to wear headphones. Instead of having stage monitors/wedge speakers taking up performance space, IEMs are more convenient with far more benefits. Unlike earbuds, in-ear monitors sit in the structure of the ear creating a better seal against the ear canal.

If you want to know if earbuds set off metal detectors, read this article here.

Here are some top reasons why singers wear earpieces on stage:

1. Better Sound Quality & Consistency

In-ear monitors create a better fit into the ear, this seal blocks out most ambient noise and delivers better sound quality into the ear. Unlike wedges, in-ear monitors also allow a performer to hear a personal mix of stage instrumentation and vocals for live performance. They can also be custom-fitted to an individual’s ear for better comfort and a higher level of noise reduction.

Sound consistency is also one of the advantages to use in-ear monitors. Sound reproduction in a live stage will depend on the shape and size of the room a band or artist is performing in. Thus, for different stages, performers will be subjected to different sounds. Sound will also be reproduced differently on different parts of the stage, which can limit free movement around the stage. Calibration is needed to solve these problems. However, in-ear monitors do not need to be calibrated every time you change location or perform at different parts of the stage.

2. Hearing Health

According to the BMJ-British Medical Journal, musicians are four times more likely to develop noise-induced hearing. They are also likely to develop tinnitus (see here for the best headphones for tinnitus) by 57% as a result of their job. Thankfully, even if they develop tinnitus, they can still use headphones and continue working on music.

Sudden changes in sound or listening to music above 85 dB for extended periods, among many other factors, influence the overall hearing health of performers.

Stage speakers/wedges are more likely to cause hearing damage compared to in-ear monitors. In-ears block out the amplified sound of various instruments. This allows a performer to hear the mix at a lower and safer level. While earplugs can be used in conjunction with wedges/PA, they limit the ability of performers to hear the mix clearly.

3. Mobility

The size of stage monitors can take up a lot of space, which in turn reduces performance space. They also have a lot of wires and require performers to be in front of them. All these factors limit the ability of singers and musicians to move around the stage freely. In-ear monitors allow the stage to be free of stage clutter, and the performer can move around freely without worrying about the quality of the mix.

4. Eliminate Feedback

Feedback, on stage, happens when an amplified sound from PA speakers or wedges is picked up by a microphone and is amplified again, and again. This can be heard in the form of a sustained ringing tone that varies from a piercing screech to a low rumble. Whenever you have a microphone, amplifier, and speakers, you have the potential for feedback.

When a mix is played directly to the singer’s ear via in-ear monitors, feedback is eliminated leaving the mix clean and sound engineers can concentrate on making it better for both the musicians and audience.

5. Individual Mixes & Metronome (Click Track) Use

A click track is an audible metronome that performers listen to through their earpieces to help keep them in sync. When performing live, band members listen to clicks via their in-ear monitors to help keep them in perfect time even when they are far apart on the stage for more precise performance.

6. Highly Portable

Unlike a 50-pound wedge, in-ear monitors are small and very portable. This gives them an advantage over a load of giant speakers, which are an inconvenience carrying around. Setting up and configuring these speakers at every venue can also be a setback and time-consuming. In-ear monitors eliminate this hassle and make them a problem of the past.

An in-ear monitor system comprises of three main components, i.e, the transmitter, the receiver, and the ear-pieces, or in-ear monitors.

The transmitter is used to send the mix/audio to be performed to the receiver. The transmitter is also known as the monitor mix. The receiver can be worn as a belt pack and is used to receive the audio mix from the transmitter. The transmitter will have a volume knob where the singer/performer can get the volume level to the desired point. The IEMs are plugged into the receiver.

For singers or performers who move around the stage, investing in a wireless in-ear monitors system is the best choice. For keyboardists, drummers, or performers who are stationary, a wired system is a good way to go. 

For in-ear monitors or earpieces, you can get either universal/generic or custom-fitting ones. If you’re on a budget, universal IEMs are a good place to start. They are designed to fit most ears and range in different sizes.  

Custom molded IEMs, or CIEMs, are the way to go if you’re on a bigger budget. They are made from a mold of your ear and offer the best comfort level even when used extensively.

While in-ear monitors help deliver the best performance on stage, sometimes performers/singers can take them out during a performance. Why do they take them out? Here are a few good reasons for this:

1. So They Can Hear the Crowd

While there are advantages of wearing in-ear monitors such as sound isolation, which protect hearing health, they can also block out fan noise. This makes it hard to execute crowd participation when you cannot hear them. When a singer wants a direct connection with an audience, removing the earpieces is one way to go.

Some will only wear one earpiece, which helps to hear both the crowd and monitor mix at the same time. In bigger venues, setting up microphones to pick up the sound of the crowd and relay it to the singer is another way to keep the singer connected without removing the earpieces.

2. Poor Monitor Mix

Before a live performance, singers usually perform a soundcheck, where they plug in and play a few songs to get the right sound levels for both the audience and what the musicians will be hearing on stage. During a soundcheck the correct mix is checked, proper volume is set, and the stage monitor sound systems are checked to make sure they are producing clear sound.

When a singer does not have time to soundcheck, monitor levels might be set too high or in a hasty fashion. In the occurrence of this situation, a singer will find it easier to perform along with the live sound instead of using their in-ear monitor’s mix.

3. Faulty Monitors

Midway through a performance, in-ear monitors might fail to leave the artist unable to hear the monitor mix or live sound on stage. This will necessitate the singer to take out their earpieces and try to play along with the live sound.

Wrapping Up

Earpieces offer several benefits when used by singers on stage. From delivering better audio performance, protecting against ear damage, to offering better mobility on stage, their advantages are clear. Compared to traditional methods such as the use of wedges, using in-ear monitors is a step in the right direction, and a good investment for singers, musicians, and performers alike.