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Emeli Sandé using a Sennheiser IEM system Credit: Richard Minter

It’s All in Your Head

The technology may be entering maturity, but audio quality and accessibility have made in-ear monitor systems commonplace on stages small and large. Jory MacKay explores the current market for IEMs.

LIKE ANY good origin story there are a few different claims as to how in-ear monitor systems (IEMs) first got their start. The most accepted (and entertaining) story, revolves around a sound engineer named Chris Lindop who, during his time touring with Stevie Wonder in the late 80s, used a standard FM Walkman receiver and ear buds to tune into Stevie’s own broadcast standard ‘pirate’ FM radio station, Wonderland Radio. As the story goes, Stevie’s personal radio station was so powerful that while he was performing at a show in Wembley, the owner of a trucking company turned on his radio in Hampstead (about six miles away) and picked up his monitor mix. What started as a patchwork and expensive way to allow a bit of freedom on stage dawned a new age for live productions. Over the past few decades the transition to wireless IEM systems has not only benefited artists by giving them increased on-stage mobility with a sweet

24 March 2014

spot that quite literally follows them as they move (it’s in their ears after all), but roadies and monitor technicians no longer have to wrestle with cumbersome, feedback- inducing stage wedges. It seems almost

commonplace now for massive artists to employ elaborate stage designs or ‘remote stages’ out in the back-rows of the audience that wouldn’t have been possible years ago due to the PA being hundreds of feet away from the musicians’ ears. Yet it’s not just live musicians who are benefiting as IEMs make elaborate theatrical shows such as Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group possible. “The use of IEMs continues

to grow, and with productions becoming more ambitious, freedom of movement is critical to that,” comments Alan March, Sennheiser product manager, Professional Division. “It really started to take off in the late 90s and early 2000s when you began to see IEMs become more acceptable and used in touring,” adds Tuomo

Tolonen, manager of Shure Distribution UK’s Pro Audio Group. “But it’s kicked off since then with more affordable systems coming out. “The benefits of in-ears are

clear. The most important one is that the accuracy of your monitoring is better because the levels that you are listening to don’t have to be stupidly loud. I’ve also heard many artists say that after switching to IEMs they actually perform better because they’re able to hear what they’re singing or playing more accurately.” “Today, from a technological point of view, the major advantages are probably in the realms of RF in that the channel counts are considerably higher. “Early on it was a bit of a

novelty, but today it isn’t uncommon to see higher number channels of in-ear sends than there are radio mics on stage.”

BANDWIDTH BATTLE An increase in IEM channel count clearly means an increase

in demands on other areas of the signal chain. While desk manufacturers need to provide the number of mixes necessary for individual performers, more importantly, availability of RF spectrum becomes a concern. “We’re living in times where

spectrum is becoming a critical commodity which is being eyed zealously, especially the UHF spectrum, by other users, particularly the mobile phone community,” adds March, who along with Tolonen, makes up part of the steering committee of the British Entertainment Industry Radio Group (BEIRG) with the goal of ensuring that there will be enough spectrum to maintain and grow the industry. “We’ve been operating in an

environment for the last 45-50 years where there has been plenty of spectrum, but as we’ve seen with the sell-off of the 800MHz band, and now the increasing traction to release the 700MHz band for mobile services, if and when that band is effectively sold off we’re going to hit a crunch point.

“We’ve made that point very,

very clearly to Ofcom [the independent regulator for the communications industries] in the UK and other international groups and there is ongoing work happening where regulators are looking at alternative frequency bands for this equipment in the future.” “With any wireless system

RF interference is probably your biggest nightmare,” says Tolonen. “If you do everything correctly, co-ordinate everything right, get your antennas set up correctly and something happens mid-show that is out of your control, say somebody else turns on a system that interferes with yours, well yes, that will make the channel go away.” This issue with availability of spectrum begs the question of why not follow the lead of wireless microphones and start to make the switch to digital? “I can see a lot of people

and regulators saying, ‘oh well, when it comes to spectrum, digital is going to be the answer’, and it’s not,” explains

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