How to Create an In-Ear Monitor Mix

Going from floor wedges to in-ear monitors is a difficult step for many worship bands. Wedges are forgiving and “breathable.” You feel like you, the band, and the congregation are all in this together. When you switch to in-ear monitors (IEM’s), all of a sudden you hear every tiny mistake—every tonal discrepancy and every missed beat. They can also feel “claustrophobic”—like you are in a tiny little closet and disconnected from the rest of the band and congregation. Ultimately, I firmly believe IEM’s are a better way to go, if you have the option to do so. They make your band tighter, rhythmically and part-wise.

But I have found that most musicians have no idea how to go about constructing an in-ear mix, and therefore never actually achieve any of the advantages that IEM’s offer. We were recently playing at a different church and the front-of-house (FOH) engineer said we would be starting with the normal Sunday band’s in-ear mix, “so it should be really close already.” I was appalled at the guitarist’s starting place! It was guitar, click, and a little bit of vocal—and that’s it. No drums, no keys, no bass. No wonder their guitarist did not like IEM’s! But he was not really to blame. In talking to him, he had no clue how to actually construct his mix.

I hope this article will shed some light on how to go about setting an in-ear mix that is useful and encourages your band to get tighter. These are a few things I have noticed over the years that may help set you on that path. Most of these concepts assume you will not have a separate monitor engineer, but that your FOH engineer will also be running monitors for you.

 

First Things First: Front of House Mix

It is important to first briefly note that you will need to work closely with your FOH engineer. Not only will they be the one dialing in your mix, of course, but the way the sound system is tuned will determine how good your mix can be. That is because you will most likely get the same EQ in your IEM’s for each instrument that is going to the house. That means that if the system is not tuned well, and the engineer is having to compensate with EQ on the board, it could really mess with your mix.

For example, if the system is not tuned well and your subwoofers are not as loud as they should be or not crossed over properly, the FOH engineer may need to add a ton of low-end EQ on the kick drum to get it to thump, which then translates to an overly boomy kick drum in your ears that lacks attack and clarity.

Thus, the sound system being tuned properly is the only way your IEM’s will ever sound good. If things sound EQ’ed properly in the house but not in your ears, then the system is not tuned well.

Additionally, making sure the FOH engineer has every instrument properly gained on the way into the console will help keep levels balanced.

 

How to Listen and Where to Start

Listen to records on your IEM’s when you can, and start trying to dissect how records are mixed. How loud is the vocal compared to the kick drum? Where are guitars panned in the stereo field? How much reverb do they put on the snare? Dissecting mixes helps you learn the relational balance of instruments. This of course does not mean you have to set your IEM mix like that, but it gives you a good starting place to reference. Ultimately, you will want your IEM mix to resemble a mixed song—that is the only way you will hear what the whole band is doing and learn where you need to fit into the whole.

For example, when I started from the guitar player’s mix at the other church, I had no clue what our keys player, Dietrich, was doing because he was not in the mix at all! How would I know if he and I are playing parts that clash with each other? Having his keys in a decent balance against my guitar helps us play better together and prevents overplaying.

So, where do you start an IEM mix? I recommend starting with the kick drum and letting your FOH engineer set it at an even place for the whole band as a starting point. The kick in modern music is going to be a pretty loud element, so have the FOH engineer set it at unity (i.e. zero decibels boosted or attenuated) on the send coming to each musician. Then, turn up your IEM pack until it is at a comfortable level. There are probably not many things that will be louder than the kick drum—snare drum or vocal will probably be the only real competitors—so this should buy you plenty of headroom for everything else. In other words, most things will be quieter than the kick drum, so your FOH engineer should not run out of level to able to send you things.

Then, as you sound check each subsequent instrument, have the FOH engineer slowly turn them up to where they feel right in relation to the kick drum. This means you should try to leave your IEM pack set at the same volume until the initial sound check is finished, then adjust to suit how loud you want your overall mix. Turning your pack up and down as you sound check each instrument will throw off your sense of how loud everything is. For example, if you turn up your pack to get more snare drum instead of asking the FOH engineer to send you more snare drum, it will make the kick drum seem much too loud later.

 

An Efficient Way to Set Mixes for the Whole Band

There is nothing more infuriating for a FOH engineer than eight people on stage screaming at him or her while randomly pointing at instruments. Musicians, remember: the FOH engineer cannot hear your mix, so they are guessing a little bit. It is like painting with a blindfold on. Be merciful and gracious as they help the whole band dial in their mixes as well as make it sound good in the house. It is going to take some time.

So, it is important to create an efficient workflow to build everyone’s monitor mixes. Here’s how we do it:

  • The FOH engineer tells the band through a talkback mic what instrument he wants to hear. We start with kick drum.
  • As noted above, the FOH engineer has set kick drum at unity in everyone’s ears. Each musician turns their IEM pack up until kick drum is comfortable.
  • When we move on to next instrument—for us, snare drum—we first let the FOH engineer do what he needs to do in the house, then when he is ready, we hold a hand up high (just like you did in school when you had a question) if we want more snare drum. The FOH engineer will go around the stage, usually left to right as he is looking at it, and turn up the snare in each person’s ears until they put their hand down. They may have him turn it down a little if they overshot it.
  • He goes through each person across the stage for the snare drum.
  • Once he has the rough balance of the snare drum, we move on to the next instrument and repeat the process again.It is occasionally helpful to play a couple of instruments at a time as the mix is built to keep a reference of the relation of multiple instruments. Specifically, our drummer, Philip, will play kick and snare as we get the bass guitar dialed into our IEM’s. He will also play kick and snare as we dial in the click.

This is an incredibly efficient and sanity-keeping way to set your mix on the first go around.

 

The First Song and Making Adjustments

After the FOH engineer has the rough balance for your IEM’s and everything he or she needs for the house, run the first song. Here is my advice for determining what adjustments are needed for your in-ear mix while the band is playing the first song:

Be cognizant of what is going on

This may sound somewhat passive-aggressive, but I really mean it. No one knows what your in-ear mix sounds like but you, so no one can know how to adjust your mix but you. During the first song, start making mental notes of what changes you need. Do not be the one guy who, when asked what changes they need, has no idea or has to really think about it. Notice it as you play that first song. Is the click too loud? Is the lead singer’s vocal being drowned out by the cymbals? Be aware of what your mix sounds like and how it can be better. “Um, I think I need … let’s see … ” is a waste of time. Listen while you play and be ready to communicate what adjustments you need.

Ask, “What can I turn down?”

It is hard to get used to thinking in these terms because our tendency is to think, what don’t I hear enough of that I can turn up? But if you can force yourself to think about what is too loud instead, it is going to make your life and your FOH engineer’s life much easier in the long run. Why? Two main reasons: 1) He or she only has so much headroom before they cannot turn it up anymore, but they have tons of room to make things softer, and 2) turning everything slowly up and up means your pack will eventually start distorting. So, take the time during the first song to think about what is too loud, instead of what is too soft. Although it is not always possible, turn things down before you turn anything up.

This applies with EQ as well, although sometimes changing the EQ may not be possible if the FOH engineer’s EQ is also going to the house. But if your vocal seems muddy, try asking for less lows and low-mids rather than asking for more highs.

Learn how much a decibel changes things

Although it can take a while, learn to listen for changes in terms of decibels. Need just a tiny bit less bass guitar? Maybe it is only one or two decibels. Need a lot less? Maybe it is up to six decibels or more. Speaking as precisely as possible to your FOH engineer will make their job easier. In other words, “I need some more guitar” is not very helpful. “I need three decibels more of my guitar,” however, is helpful. This takes quite a while to learn, and you will not get it right the first time. But eventually, it will become second nature and is by far the most efficient way to communicate with your FOH engineer.

Make adjustments

Once you have run the first song and made mental notes on what you need turned down (or up, if absolutely necessary), go in the same rotation as you initially did and have each person tell the engineer all the changes they need. So, for example, the first musician may say, “I need click down 2dB, guitar up 1dB, and vocal down 5dB.” Give the engineer a moment to do that, and let him call on the next musician when he or she is ready. Repeat the process after the second song as well, and you should have a solid mix in no time.

 

Some Other Thoughts

Here are a few other considerations as you dial in your in-ear mix:

Stereo panning

If you cannot run stereo IEM’s, it is probably not worth it to switch yet. Mono in-ears (i.e. everything in the center all the time) are usually more infuriating than using wedges. Use panning to your advantage. Do you actually need the keyboard louder, or could you pan it to one side to stay out of the way of something in a similar frequency range (guitars, for example)? Maybe try panning the keyboards at 9 o’clock, and keeping your guitar at 3 o’clock. Have two acoustic guitar players? Try panning one hard left and the other hard right.

Use crowd mics

Crowd mics are extremely important. With IEM’s, they are the one thing that connects you with how everything feels in the room to keep it from feeling claustrophobic.

Leave both ears in

It is potentially damaging to your hearing to play with one IEM in and one IEM out. There are some technical reasons why, but it is sufficient to say it is not good for you. Leave both in-ears in, or take them both out. If you are having trouble hearing the audience sing, turn the crowd mics up in your ears. If you find yourself taking one out because your voice sounds too “closed-in,” try asking the FOH engineer to put more reverb on your voice.

Have a way to save your settings

Save your settings after every rehearsal time and build upon it. Over time, you will have a great mix. If you have a digital board, this is easy, but if you have an analog board, take pictures. No need to start from scratch every single time.

Have solutions

Finally, telling your engineer that your mix does not sound good is not helpful and will probably only strain your relationship with him or her. Offer solutions or at least diagnostic reasons why it does not sound right. Remember, he or she has no idea that the cymbals are way too loud until you tell them. Be patient and communicate as fully as you are able.

Kyle Lent

About Kyle Lent

Kyle Lent serves as the Creative Director of Albums for Austin Stone Worship, leads worship with Aaron Ivey, and loves producing records for other artists in his spare time. He lives in Austin with his wife Annie and his two daughters, Norah and Josie.