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KnowHOW: Training musicians to use IEMs

KnowHOW: Training musicians to use IEMs

KnowHOW: Training musicians to use IEMs

Gordon Moore looks at how IEMs can be one of the best improvements a HOW can make to its sound system

In-ear monitors (IEMs), whether wireless or hard-wired, are a useful tool for the house of worship sound mixer. They eliminate the acoustical conflict between the floor monitors and the house mix, reduce stage clutter and trip hazards and, most importantly, eliminate the human conflict between the sound mixer and the worship team regarding the mix each musician is hearing. IEMs can be one of the most significant improvements to a worship sound system.

The conversion, however, can be traumatic unless it is taken slowly and carefully with an attention to the implementation details. IEMs are a different way of hearing the worship team. To a musician accustomed to stage monitors, the change can be a jarring experience if just dropped on them suddenly. Instead of ordering the IEMs and suddenly showing up at the rehearsal (or, worse, the first service) and saying ‘here, use these’, develop an implementation plan for adding them to your stage setup.

Step 1: notification

Surprises can be upsetting, especially if the musicians have been working with floor monitors for a very long time. You must get the musicians to ‘buy in’ in advance of the change. When we added IEMs to my church, I probably talked it nearly to death in the months before we began the installation. I described what IEMs are: ‘they are earpieces you will wear to hear each other – just like the earbuds you are using with your music players’.

In our church, we have both wireless and hard-wired. Stationary musicians (such as drums, keyboards and guitars that don’t move around) would get hard-wired systems and the mobile worship leaders would get wireless.

Why hard-wired over wireless for a particular position? Hard-wired is cost-effective and a good use of church funds. Hard-wired is always more reliable than wireless and wires reduce demand on the wireless spectrum.

Why wireless? Mobility – the worship leaders who move around a lot need mobility without cables. Wireless also makes the stage safer.

Step 2: personalisation

Another important step in getting acceptance before implementation is allowing the musicians to decide what they want to wear for their IEMs. In my church, the bass player, drummer and keyboardist all wanted to wear traditional headphones instead of IEMs. In many HOWs, there might be an aesthetic reason for prohibiting external headphones, but it is hard to deny their cost-effectiveness. Be sure to establish a budget for the IEMs, earbuds or headphones. We had a tight budget in my church, so we chose midrange earbuds or headphones. A couple of musicians chose to buy their own personal choice and they paid the difference.

Buying the earpieces or headphones in advance also helps build acceptance of the upcoming change. Once a worship team member has their personal set in hand, they will be eager to give it a try.

Encourage them to wear it with their music player before the IEM system is installed so they can adjust the fit and get used to them – many IEMs that are not custom-molded will have different sized inserts that the musicians must sample to find the best fit.

Step 3: installation

Your gear has arrived. Install the IEMs and get the signal routing prearranged in the mixer. Set your gain structure properly. Do not have the worship team in-house at this time. Work only with the technical team and make sure frequencies are properly coordinated and that each IEM station is fully functional. Walk test the wireless IEMs with all other wireless systems up and running to make certain you do not have any frequency interference issues. Make sure the hard-wired systems are properly wired and have plenty of level.

Step 4: implementation

The big day arrives. Schedule a special rehearsal day for the worship team and make it clear that the purpose of the rehearsal is to get everyone trained on using their IEMs. You may even want to schedule them to come in small groups or as individuals at different times so you will have enough personal time to get them trained on controls and set up.

Begin familiarising them with their beltpack or personal workstation, such as setting volumes, balance, changing batteries, etc. Make them familiar with their personal unit. Be patient and take it step by step; remember, they are not technical people in general.

Step 5: training the musicians to mix for themselves

There are two types of IEM systems. The first is the personal mixing station. In this case, the musician has complete control over what they hear in their IEM, selecting from individual tracks. They don’t need to ask the console operator for any changes, they can make their own.

With this type of IEM, you will need more training time in the beginning but the system will save you countless hours later. The musician will have a hard control surface or, in the case on several digital mixers, an app on their smartphone that will allow them to make changes to their mix.

Explain to the musician that mixing is done in layers. They must first decide which signals they want to hear in the IEM. Then they must decide the importance of each signal. Explain that the IEM is not for them to hear the entire band and the final house mix. It is a tool for them to better coordinate their own playing with the key members of the band.

For example, I play guitar in our worship band. The first signal I need to hear is my own guitar. That is Layer 1 and it is the loudest signal in my IEM. Layer 2 is the worship leader’s (lead vocalist) vocals – I set his level up nearly as loud as my guitar and, because he is physically to my right, I set the balance for his vocals to be strongest in my right ear (my guitar is centred). I need to hear the drums and bass for the beat/rhythm, so I set them to be about the same level as the worship leader but mixed to my left ear. Layer 3 is the keyboard, also set to the left and a bit lower than the drums. The vocal back line is Layer 4, the lowest layer. I find that they are not critical to my playing and I only need to hear them a little bit (mixed far right). In many churches, there may be a track for the house mix so the band can get a sense of the final total mix – that should be the final, lowest layer.

Sennheiser's IE 40 Pro
Sennheiser's IE 40 Pro

Train the musicians to think in that manner – one layer at a time. The highest priorities will get the loudest levels and those layers that have close priorities should be mixed at nearly the same levels but with different balances.

Critical to this process is getting the musicians to understand that what they hear is under their control and has nothing to do with the house. If they need to hear more of themselves, they are not allowed to turn up their guitar or their keyboard feed. That will adversely affect the house mix. The only place they should make the change is on their personal mixing station. You may need to remind them that the IEM mix is different from the house and for their benefit only. As a musician, I can tell you it takes adjustment to remember that what I am hearing in my IEM has nothing to do with what the congregation is hearing. It’s an important concept to impress on the players.

A common problem will come with the complaint: ‘My instrument is up all the way and the others are still too loud – I need my instrument to be louder.’ The real problem here is not that the instrument is too low; they have all the other layers too loud. Ask them to try turning down all the other sources, taking them to lower layers, and then turn up the overall level. Believe it or not, I still have members of the band who will complain the level is too low, having forgotten that they have a level knob on the mixing station.

Once a musician has mastered their personal mix techniques, they will become self-sufficient and your workload will be much less.

The other style is a single-feed system where the sound system operator makes all the adjustments to the aux feed(s) that supplies audio to the IEM; responsibility for the mix remains in the hands of the mixing console operator. In this setup, you will set the aux feed to the IEM in the same way you would with floor monitors. Ask the musicians (one at a time) to indicate when each instrument’s feed (using the same layering technique) sounds right to them. Typically, I will monitor (solo) the aux feed for that IEM while I am working up the mix with the musician so I can hear what they are hearing. Be methodical – take each source one at a time (start with Channel 1 and work right) and work patiently with the musician until they are hearing the mix they want to hear.

Be patient, be prayerful and work with your band for the best possible mix for each IEM. In time, they will never want to go back to stage monitors. In the meantime, mix well and be blessed.

Gordon Moore is the director of technical ministries at Rio Rancho United Methodist Church in Rio Rancho, New Mexico and president of Lectrosonics Inc.

This article was first published in the March-April 2019 edition of Worship AVL. Subscribe at

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