In-Ear Monitoring and the Holy Grail!

When I was 12, I watched Gregg Bissonnette’s Private Lesson video.  He made a big deal (and rightly so) about always wearing earplugs.  You only get one pair of ears and when you lose parts of your hearing they’re gone forever.

You only get one pair!

You only get one pair!

I know so many musicians with tinnitus or other permanent hearing damage and it’s not something I want to acquire. Since that time, I can only recall two occasions where I’ve played the drums without some kind of hearing protection. The first was a function gig where I just forgot them.  After the first set my ears were ringing so I went to the bathroom and stuffed them full of paper.  The ringing lasted a day or two and I was worried it wasn’t going to go away. The second time was at a friend’s rehearsal space.  He went out for a while and I played his kit but didn’t have earplugs.  I played quietly at first and was surprised at how nice it was to play without anything in my ears.  It had been so long that I’d forgotten how sensitive the cymbals were.  I could just barely touch the ride cymbal and it was so bright and crisp.  Even my expensive custom moulded earplugs that are supposed to evenly attenuate across all frequencies don’t really do that.  You always lose some of the brightness.

How I Used To Work…

In the practice room I’d usually put on some Vic Firth Drumphones.  They actually make my drums sound pretty cool and boomy, but the cymbals don’t sound natural, and the drums don’t sound like they actually sound.  But, they reduced the level and allowed me to practice without hearing damage. Sometimes I’d use my earplugs but that was actually my least favourite approach since they still take the shine off the cymbals and don’t make my drums sound boomier. (boomier in a good way) On Stage is where I usually had the best set up.  I’d have custom moulded in-ear monitors and all of the close-miked drums and the rest of the band would go through a mixer by my side.  I could make my own studio mix of what I wanted to hear and it was great. The one thing missing from the equation was what the drums sound like if I took them (the in-ears) out.  It’s hard to know what you’re really playing on the drums when all you hear is the close-miked signal.  It’s not natural to listen to the snare drum with your ear right up against it.  Also, in this scenario, if the hi-hat sounds too loud, you can’t tell if it’s because you’re hitting it too hard, or if it’s because it’s too loud in the mix.  It’s difficult to get the balance right. To counter this I’d set up a mic above my head pointing at the drums.  This allowed me to dial in some of the ambient sound I’d hear if I didn’t have anything in my ears.  It also allowed me to hear the audience and stage vibe. Sometimes it was a pain to get this mic in the right place. Sometimes there wasn’t room to fit it behind me. Sometimes it sounded very unnatural.  It was the closest I could get to the ideal solution of being able to recover some of what I lost the minute I blocked my ears.

What Do I Really Want?

Earplugs are fixed attenuation and reduce the crisp highs more than I’d like. In-ear monitors are dependent on the mic set-up you have available and the best you can hope for with ambience is one or two fixed mics. What I really wanted was to be able to stick a microphone in each ear and dial that into the mix.

Enter Sensaphonics…

I was discussing my dilemma with Jonathan Mover at the Iridium in New York.  I’d just done 6 weeks of touring using my new Shure SE535s.  I told him that I liked them but I couldn’t use them without setting up a mic for ambience.  He told me I ought to check out the Sensaphonics 3D Active Ambient system.  He was VERY enthusiastic about it – telling me that Dennis Chambers used it for everything and that Gavin Harrison (a man I know to be very particular when it comes to sound) had tried them out and ended up convincing all of Porcupine Tree to switch to them.

Bass In Your Face

What I’d been missing that the Shures had fixed was the low end.  With in-ear monitors it’s critical that you have a good seal for the system to deliver any bass at all.  My previous IEMs had lacked that seal and the Shures provided it by using expanding foam tips.  I wasn’t convinced that another pair of custom moulds would give me what I needed. I was also aware that when I smiled or grimaced, the seal with the custom moulds would break and let in more ambient noise and reduce the bass.  When my expression returned to normal, the seal would form again but I didn’t want to feel restricted on stage. I’d spoken to people who used the hard acrylic IEMs and they’d told me they experienced that problem.  That was enough to put me off the custom fit. Mover told me that the Sensaphonics were softer silicone earpieces and that he’d had his made slightly larger than the impressions to fix that problem.

How Do You Know If It’s Right For You?

The big issue I had was spending what was going to be a lot of money on a system that I didn’t know would really work any better than my current set up.  When you buy generic fit IEMs you can sell them on, but when you’re spending money on something that’s moulded to fit your ears then nobody else is going to want them. Fortunately I got the opportunity to try out a universal-fit demo of the ambient system before handing over the cash.  It only took 3 songs to convince me that this was the Holy Grail of In-Ear Monitoring.

My Road Test

Here’s what happened… Dr. Michael Santucci (Mr. Sensaphonics!) lived near a gig I had in Chicago.  He offered to bring a demo of the ambient system for me to try out on a gig.  They don’t manufacture a generic fit version of the 3D Active Ambient system (yet!), but they had a sample one that they’d constructed using generic fit ear buds. The concept is simple – the earpieces have microphones in them and you can dial in how much of the outside world you want to hear. In Full Ambience Mode it sounds like you don’t have anything at all in your ears.  You can carry on a conversation and hear perfectly what’s going on around you at the same volume it would be if you took them out. In Performance Mode there’s a knob that you turn to gradually reduce that ambient signal in 4dB steps, or you can switch it off altogether and use them like standard IEMs. The only thing to separate these from regular IEMs is that there’s a belt pack mixer-amp that they plug into. I clipped the belt pack onto the edge of my pocket and started the show.  My gig pants are meant for jogging in and I should have clipped it to the waistband.  The beltpack fell off in the middle of the first song, pulling the earpieces out of my ears.  For the first time in a long time I remembered how loud my band is and I was desperate to get them back in.  I DEFINITELY NEED EAR PROTECTION WHEN PLAYING LIVE! The beauty of the 3D system is that you can turn down the world and the sound doesn’t change.  It’s the first time I’ve experienced this and it’s wonderful. Even if you had some earplugs that didn’t alter the frequency balance, you still wouldn’t have control over the level or be able to feed a click track or monitor mix into your ears. On a jazz gig where your playing level is lower anyway you can just knock 4dB off the ambient level.  On a rock gig you can take 12 or 16dB off.  But in terms of sound quality, everything still sounds the same.  It’s amazing.

The Custom Fit

After the demo gig I was convinced that this was the future of In Ear Monitoring.  I definitely wanted my own pair but I was still unconvinced that the custom fit was really going to fit.  I spoke to Michael at length about this and he explained that he’d been making and fitting IEMs for over 20 years.  If you get yours and they don’t fit properly then send them back within 30 days and they’ll remake them for you. I explained my issue about the seal breaking when I moved my face.  He told me to have a slightly open jaw when the mould material was being put into my ear, then to pull the faces and talk and do whatever I’d do on stage while it was setting. A week later I was at an audiologist’s office in Seattle getting impressions taken.  If you want to get your own IEMs you don’t have to live in Chicago.  You just check sensaphonics.com for a recommended audiologist, or just search google for “Audiologist Near Me”. The impression taking process is completely painless and generally takes less than 30 minutes.  A small piece of foam on the end of a piece of string is inserted into your ear canal, then the mould material is squirted into your ear.  You pull your gig faces and 5 minutes later the audiologist pulls out an impression of your ear. The impression is sent off to Sensaphonics and they make your very own pair of IEMs. When mine arrived I was still skeptical.  I was expecting to have to put up with IEMs that lost the seal when I moved my face.  I’m happy to say that no matter what I do, short of taking them out, I can’t break the seal.  The sound is fantastic – it’s a joy listening to music on them.  And playing the drums is like it was before I ever discovered earplugs – but without the ringing afterwards. I’m happy to say that I’ve found the Holy Grail and it rocks! If you want to get yourself some of these amazing things then head over to sensaphonics.com I warn you that they are expensive, and are probably not for everyone.  Over the years I’ve talked myself into buying more and more expensive IEMs and I can justify it because I spend half my life playing drums and I want it to be as enjoyable as possible.  It did hurt when I was handing over the cash because I wasn’t certain what they were going to be like.  Now I have them and have used them on a few gigs and in the practice room I couldn’t be happier!