IEMs: A Tale of Three Techniques

Left to right: UE7s, UE 18s, UE11s. 

Left to right: UE7s, UE 18s, UE11s. 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As I write this, I realize I have an enviable job; evaluating high-end custom in-ear monitors. A while back, I told you about the new 3D scanning process that Ultimate Ears has developed for taking virtual impressions of our ears. Before that, I told you about the very cool new 3D printing process they have been using for a while to print the shells. And today, I sit at my dining room table with four pairs of IEMs, trying to figure out the differences between them. 

For this article, I’m not going to focus on the sound, but rather the fit. I finally have the trifecta of IEM production, three completely different ways to make custom-molded IEMs. I have been waiting for this ever since my friend Mike Dias told me about the 3D digital scan in January at NAMM. 

Setting the Table

About 5 years ago, I received my first pair of custom IEMs; the UE7s. Those were made the traditional way—an audiologist took an impression of the inside of my ears by squirting some quick-setting silicone stuff in there. It feels really weird and for some, is uncomfortable. I didn’t mind it, but it does feel odd, sort of like going underwater. Afterwards, the molds went off to the production lab. They created a positive mold of the negative the audiologist made. From that positive, they cast acrylic shells, and it takes no small amount of hand polishing and grinding to make sure everything matches properly. It’s not a perfect method, but it works well enough. Or did anyway. 

A few years ago, UE recognized there had to be a better way. They started to investigate 3D printing and developed a proprietary process that produces perfect, clear molds. The clear part was harder than you might think. In that case, they still took a silicon impression of my ear, but that impression was scanned and “polished” in the computer before being printed. Once it came out of the printer, it was virtually done. Just the slightest amount of touch up by hand and it was off for driver insertion. 

Knowing they were on to something with the whole 3D thing, UE also saw that one of the biggest challenges for people wanting custom IEMs was getting impressions made. It was inconvenient, and typically required a trip to an audiologist. And, not all audiologists know the proper procedure for getting a good impression for IEMs. But what if we could simply scan the inside of an artist’s ear with a Star Trek-like device? That took a little doing, but they did it. A few weeks back, I finally had my ears scanned, and a set of UE11’s printed. 

So I have all three methods—silicon impressions and cast shells; silicon impressions (3D scanned for printer prep) with 3D printed shells; laser ear scan straight to 3D printed shells. So, which is better? 

Getting scanned at the UE offices in Irvine, CA

Getting scanned at the UE offices in Irvine, CA

Progressively Improvement

As I suspected, as the process has evolved, the fit has gotten better. Fit is perhaps the biggest key for custom IEMs. If the fit is not good, the shells won’t seal to the ear, and the low end will be virtually non-existent. Moreover, if they don’t fit well, they will be uncomfortable. I have a set from another manufacturer that sound pretty good, but I can’t stand to wear them for more than about 30-40 minutes because they just don’t fit right. 

As I go through the progression of my IEMs, the first set don’t fit terribly. They are comfortable and I can listen for a long time with them. But they are a bit loose, and I sometimes notice they unseal. They are easy to get in and out, however. 

The middle technique, impressions with 3D printed shells fit really well. They are supremely comfortable and seal up great. 

The final set, well, that one is just amazing. Not only are they very comfortable, they really do seem to match the inside of my ears perfectly. They don’t take as much fiddling to get seated right; they snap right in and seal. I recently took a 4 1/2 hour flight with them, listening for 45 minutes before and after the flight, making for a total of 6 hours of IEM time. I could have gone another 6. 

Convenience for All

As the technology matures—and it’s doing so at a very rapid pace—Mike tells me he is looking forward to getting UE Ambassadors out in the field with scanners to make it easy to get virtual impressions for the entire band in one sitting. Rather than trying to line up an audiologist to come in and take impressions, everyone can get scanned. Because there is no cost for the scan, it’s easy to go ahead and do everyone on the team, knowing they can place an order at any time. 

My friend Duke had his ears scanned recently as well, and as soon as he got his new IEMs, texted me to tell me they were the most comfortable he’s ever worn. This is something I’ve heard from many people now. Mike also tells me the returns for fit problems has gone way down since they started down the 3D path. 

So if you’ve been on the fence regarding custom IEMs, the time is now. The fit is better than ever, and it’s easier than ever to get perfect impressions. To see the process, check out the video we shot a few months back. It’s really pretty cool.

Roland

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3.5 Ways to Mix Monitors, Pt. 5

Image courtesy of Roland Tanglao

Image courtesy of Roland Tanglao

Hey, guess what? We’re back with more on monitor mixing! As it turns out, there was another .5 way I should have mentioned. Whether I should have titled the series 4 Ways to Mix Monitors or 3.5.5 Ways to Mix Monitors is open for debate. Still, I stand by my original 3.5 ways to do it, but I want to mention another method that might be helpful. 

This was mentioned in the comments by Andrew last week, and as soon as he mentioned it, I thought, “Do! I should have mentioned that.” So here we are. 

Splitting the Board

One of the cool things about digital mixing consoles is that it is very easy to double patch your inputs. So easy in fact, if you have the channels, you can actually create a second complete copy of the input set on the desk. Let’s say you have a 32 channel board, and you use 12 channels each week from the stage. You could double-patch every input to two layers of the console. The top layer could be your FOH mix, while the second layer would be your monitor mix. 

Why would you do that? Well, the primary reason is to build custom EQ and effects for monitors and FOH, separately. Sometimes, the EQ you do for FOH doesn’t work well for monitors, and visa-versa. A board split like this makes it easy to keep both happy. 

Upsides

As mentioned, being able to set separate EQ and compression for the monitors can be a real boon to the musicians. It also frees up the FOH engineer to make decisions based on what is best for the room without being worried that it’s going to mess up the musicians. While audio is usually a compromise somewhere, it’s nice to not have to compromise this. It also has the added benefit of separating the monitor sends from FOH. By putting the channels for monitors on a separate layer (or on separate channels, depending on the board), it reduces the chances that you’ll accidentally mess up the FOH mix when you meant to adjust a monitor mix. Sends on faders can be your best friend or worst enemy. 

Downsides

While the added flexibility is good, it also adds complexity. This may not be good. For beginning engineers, or those new to digital, this can be confusing. Or not. It depends. You’ll have to assess your team before deciding to go this route. Obviously, it burns channels, double in fact. Depending on the console, it can either be easy or hard to logically split the channels out; again this is something you need to assess. It also could mean a few more button presses to get to monitors, which may slow you down a bit. 

Is It Right For Your Church?

That is the question. Like every other method we’ve talked about, there are pros and cons, and not every method is right for every setting. In this case, you obviously need to have the spare channels, and the ability to manage two copies of every input. If you are setting a completely different stage each week, this could get tedious fast. But if you have a very similar or the same band configuration each week, this may be a Godsend. 

OK, I think we’re really done now. Unless anyone else has any crazy ideas on how to mix monitors!

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3.5 Ways to Mix Monitors, Pt. 4

Today we wrap up or series of how to mix monitors. We have previously considered a dedicated monitor console, personal mixers and mixing from FOH. Today, we’ll look at what is the .5 of the 3.5 ways of this series. I chose not to call it a fourth way because it’s really a hybrid approach. Or hybrid approaches. 

FOH + Personal Mixers

You see, you don’t have to commit 100% to any one method. You can combine them. For example, when we made the transition to personal mixers at Coast Hills, I put the band on Roland M-48s but mixed the wedges—yes, wedges for a while—for vocalists from FOH. We then moved the vocals to ears, still mixed from FOH. Finally, we bought some more M-48s and everyone on stage was mixing themselves. Except for big events, when I again mixed vocals from FOH as we needed all the M-48s for the larger band. 

Monitor Console + Personal Mixers

Sometimes, you can combine a monitor console and personal mixers. I know several churches that do this. They use the monitor console to create stems for the personal mixers. Chances are, there are a few direct channels in there, but mostly, there are sub-mixes. Moving these mixes to another console means you can customize EQ, effects and other processing in a way that works great for IEMs without effecting the house. You can even create multiple universes of personal mixes and send different stem mixes to them. Being able to do this from a monitor console makes life much less complicated. 

FOH + Monitor Console

I also know some bands who will put the band on personal mixers and mix the lead or leads from the monitor desk. Or, for really large events, when you’ve filled up the monitor console, you can always mix some from FOH. Routing can get tricky, and the musicians need to know who to contact for changes, but it can be done (I’ve done it, in fact). 

The overall point is, you don’t have to do just one. We have reached a great point in mixing technology where we have multiple, good choices on how to do the same thing. And with those many, viable methods, we can come up with the combination that serves our band, our budget, our congregation and ourselves the best. Mixing mixing systems (see what I did there?) gives us the best of all worlds. You don’t even have to commit to one configuration exclusively. Let’s say you normally have everyone on personal mixers, but you have a new vocalist this week. You might want to mix their monitors for a few weeks (or months) to help them get comfortable with how a good . I always held 2-4 aux mixes open on my console for the occasional mix or three that I might have to do for a new player or vocalist. 

Also, don’t assume that the way the big church down the street (or across the country) is doing it is the way you should do it. Carefully consider your needs and come up with the best solution for your church. Just because a lot of churches are going to personal mixers doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it. It also doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Weight the options and come up with the best solution. Hopefully, this series has helped.

Roland

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3.5 Ways to Mix Monitors, Pt. 3

Continuing our series in mixing monitors, we’re taking today about mixing monitors from FOH. In the previous two episodes, we’ve considered mixing monitors from a dedicated monitor console and personal mixers. Today, we’ll look at mixing monitors from FOH. Now, some might immediately discount the idea of mixing monitors from a FOH console as amateurish. However, my friend Andrew Stone does this, and few—if any—would call him an amateur. 

Making It Work

The basic premise of mixing monitors from FOH is simple; use the aux sends on the console to drive ears or wedges for the band. Often times, this is wireless ears, but wired can be accomplished with the use of headphone amps. Depending on the console, the mixes may be mono or stereo—this will be a function of how many aux sends are available. Again, depending on the console, there may be a bunch of returns in the snake or the outputs will come off a stage box. Digital consoles are making this easier to do as stage boxes typically have a fair number of outputs on them. From the output, you’re either driving wireless transmitters or headphone amps. 

Upsides

The biggest upside to this method is that every input—even local ones—are available for the musicians at any level they desire. You don’t have to worry about splits, or how to get the ProPresenter channels down to monitor beach. Whatever is on the console can go to the band. You don’t have to worry about channel limitations, musicians not being able to mix or how to fit everything in. Having everything centrally located, so to speak, can be a big advantage. Troubleshooting mixes is also easy. If you’re the only tech guy on staff, not having to run between two boards to solve a problem can be a real time and stress saver. But, there are some limitations. 

Downsides

While the biggest upside is that all your console channels are available, the biggest downside is often that you don’t have enough mixes. Small to mid-size consoles typically have between 6-16 aux mixes. And if you want to use effects, you need at least 1-4 of them for that purpose. On smaller consoles, you may have 16 auxes, but if you want to do stereo mixes—and I think you should if at all possible—you will have a maximum of 8 people you can mix for. But since you’ll have some effects running, you probably can only do 7. 

On larger consoles, you can do more, but of course, that means more to keep track of. The workload goes up when you have to keep 6, 8 or a dozen musicians happy plus keep FOH sounding great. This is not to say it’s impossible, it just takes a little more work. You have to be a bit more intentional during soundcheck to make sure you get the mixes dialed in right and quickly before starting on the house mix. 

Is right for your church?

Again, this is something you need to think about. On some levels, the lack of complexity is very nice. With everything in one spot, it’s easy to manage. But it does increase the workload on the FOH engineer. It is cost-effective, however. Personal mixing systems can be expensive, as is a second console. In any monitor situation, you need wedges, wireless IEMs or headphone amps, so when we take those out of the equation, mixing from FOH is the least expensive solution. It’s also not a bad way to start. For a young or growing or transitioning church, you can start off mixing from FOH, then add personal mixers or a monitor desk as money and personnel permit. 

Alright, so those are the 3 methods for mixing monitors. Next time, we’ll consider the .5 way. 

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