Mixing In-Ear Monitors 101

A couple days ago, I got a question from Matthew Borge about mixing in ears. He asked:

Our church after a while of upgrading a lot of our stuff is finally in the place to consider some in ears instead of wedges.
Upon some testing with one or two people the sound coming from the board into the in ears is just so raw and hard to play with.
It’s not a bad signal, I can’t put my finger on it. It’s so tough.

When using in ears, what things should we do to get a good mix?
It can’t be as simple as just raw signals from mic’d instruments in our ears, can it?

I thought it was such a great question that I decided to turn my response into a quick blog post so that everyone could benefit from it! Here’s my advice:

Hey Matthew! This is such a great question! So the trick with in ears is to get everything sounding distinct enough where you can hear it all well. The issue that I see most often when people are unhappy with their monitor mix is that everything just sounds like a jumbled mess and it's hard to hear anything distinctly or clearly. Like you described, it's not necessarily that the tones are that “bad”, but it's just hard to listen to. My first piece of advice on that would simply be to pan everything that you can. Anything that's meant to be in stereo NEEDS to be panned hard left and hard right. That's things like keyboards, drum overheads, loops/tracks... basically anything that's coming in stereo needs to be stereo in the in ears. This will really help open up the middle of the mix for the things that should actually be there, which is typically kick, snare, bass, and your instrument/vocal. Even vocals and guitars (although not necessarily stereo) should get panned (at least slightly) away from the middle of your mix. Our brains just naturally focus on what we hear in the center, so if you've got 4 vocalists and they're all panned center, it's going to be SO hard to distinguish them from one another. The other big trick I'd suggest is to rethink the way you actually balance your mix. Start to think about what's the most important thing for you to hear (your instrument/vocals) and bring that up to a comfortable volume first. Then, start to bring up the other instruments around it. I like to start with those other center instruments like the kick, snare, and bass and get those to a level where I feel like I can hear them, but they're not stepping on my instrument or vocals. Then start bringing in your other mix elements. If you're a vocalist, you'll typically want to hear more "pitch reference" instruments like keyboards and guitars, whereas if you're an instrumentalist, you might want to start building your mix around the "rhythmic reference" elements like the drums and percussion tracks. Last but not least, we get to talk about EQ! This could be like an entire section (and it actually is SEVERAL sections in our Sound Guy Essentials course that you can check out at www.soundguyessentials.com) but to give the most brief/most helpful overview, your primary goal as you start out with EQ is to make things sound NATURAL. Listen to the instruments on stage and take note of how they sound. How does the singer's voice sound as you hear it live in the room (not through the PA)? How do the drums sound as you stand near them on stage? How does the guitar amp sound as you listen to it? Now listen through your in ears... does it sound the same? Odds are it doesn't! The microphone itself and the placement of the microphone will change the tone of the sound; sometimes dramatically. Your first order of business is to compensate for that change. One might even say... to "equalize" the differences between the tone you hear as you listen to the live instrument and the sound you hear through your in ears. On a typical four band EQ, with low, low mid, high mid, and high bands, I like to thing about those four ranges as corresponding to the terms "Thickness" for lows, "Body" for low-mids, "Presence" for high-mids, and "Brightness" for highs. Those terms might seem a little ambiguous... and they are. But you'll start to recognize common traits that are described by those words in basically every instrument that you come across in your mix. Either too much or too little of any of them won't be good for your mix. Remember, it's all about equalizing and balance. Start to experiment with it and you'll get the hang of it. I'd also definitely encourage you to check out Sound Guy Essentials because I think some of the EQ and balance techniques in there would help out a lot! Just let me know if you have any other questions about it as you start mixing them more. With a little work you'll definitely get there, so don't give up on it! 

Happy mixing!

-Johnny @ Worship Sound Guy