An Expert Breaks Down In-Ears
“I can’t hear” is a common theme onstage for all musicians. When worship occurs onstage, musicians struggle with several road blocks outside of just playing their instrument: their voice or instrument causing a physical issue such as losing tune, band members not playing their parts correctly, and the sound from their wedges (Doing what?). So little information is available to our crews on Thursday night rehearsals and Sunday mornings when it all starts for that weekend that too many variables can be violated to create a cacophony of signals that disrupt the presence of God, which is the reason we come to be on the worship team. We all know that the worship team cannot be a soloing stage in which others admire their talent; it is a platform to tap into the heart of God and usher the people in front of His throne room, when they have just been in an early Sunday morning argument with the kids rolling out of bed.
Even if the Worship Pastor has an experienced team overall, he might also have many problems to reconnoiter as to each musician’s fit within the whole. Does the new worship team member, whether he is a Sound Engineer or drummer, understand the function and direction of this church? Is he a clanging gong against the harmonies trying to be created onstage? Or is it that pesky channel upon the sound board that keeps distorting the bass in the 10:30 service? These are all the concepts running through the mind of the Worship Pastor when he or she steps onto the platform, even if his face betrays a calm. Joe Montana, Quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1989 Super Bowl against Cincinnati, exuded that type of bucolic nature noting that the comedian John Candy was in the crowd. Noticing Candy created a chuckle in the huddle for his teammates allowing them to traverse 93 yards to their eventual Super Bowl win. I met a worship leader years ago, Garo Nargiz, who could do that with everything that occurs on stage. There are also factors that can reduce the stress in the whole worship team so that Joe Montana’s calm doesn’t have to be a regular occurrence.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH ON STAGE HEARING?
Firstly, I have been on stage hundreds of times singing solos, and also on worship teams many more times, so I understand the problems hearing what you need to hear. Specifically, there is a “Dueling Banjo Effect” of sorts every Sunday morning. After a few songs are completed, the Worship Pastor or Sound Engineers will institute a sound check, or being a question and answer period, wondering who can hear what. “I can hear the bass too loudly but can’t hear the violin,” complains the keyboard player trying to note the violin’s harmony. The bassist will ask to have the drums louder in the mix, and so on.
Once all is completed after several rounds of “Dueling Banjos,” including battery checks, the Sound Engineers must check the auditorium to find out if the volume is correctly playing in the house. But most worship volunteers do not realize that the Head Pastor might have tasked the Sound Engineers to reduce the overall volume to a pre-determined limit, because he is tired of hearing the complaints from the crowd that “it is too loud!” Once those limits for the people who listen and are supposed to enter into worship with our Lord is exceeded, the complaints rain down upon the staff of that church.
But I have noted in church after church a common theme: even with a perfectly set sound for the house, the background singers reach for their ears being slightly off pitch and missing the pickups, because the drummer hasn’t been caged effectively or the wedges are still not loud enough to accomplish hearing the singers part clearly enough. Sometimes even when all is loud enough for the worship team, the electronic sound reverberates off the back walls and creates feedback. If you want to drive an audiologist mad, talk to him about feedback. Churches have significant problems with feedback over the years when speakers or wedges are concerned, but so do audiologists. Feedback is present when the volume is too highly set in relation to the microphones and the speaker distances, be they hearing aids or wedges on stage. Get your mics too close to the wedge, and the hum will stop a service lickety-split. It also happens inside of the hearing aid where the ear and the hearing aid device must separate by the plastics of the mic and receiver. One remedy for the Sound Engineer is to turn down the volume produced by the microphone that effectively reduces the power that a wedge has for the musician to hear what he or she needs to hear.
SO HOW DO IN EARS HELP?
I personally receive this question by many patients who see our brochures and more who believe that they have figured out what they know by internet searches. Some understand part of the technology but most do not realize what the technology actually accomplishes in the ear. Almost all of the tech companies who create In-Ear Monitors do not hire Audiologists. But the opposite problem occurs when most Audiologists around America don’t really understand what happens on stage for the musicians. It becomes the blind leading the blind, and the engineers building these devices don’t really understand what the problems are inside of the ear.
In-Ears are customized or non-customized devices that send the signal by a 3.5mm cable of anywhere from 3-4 feet to the ear after the wireless belt pack with its concomitant signal is sent by the church’s sound board on a special frequency. Many churches live with those wedges as discussed above, because they are cheaper than fitting all of their worship team with In Ears when as many as 20 to 30 musicians could grace the entrances of the churches yearly. That’s a lot of money to dole out. Some churches, in turn, purchase non-customized In-Ear technology, headphones or In Ear receivers that have roll up plugs screwed onto them, so that they can cancel the wedge problem down to maybe one for the soloist who comes to that church for any one Sunday.
When In-Ears are worn in both ears and with custom molding, they allow the musician to hear all that he needs in his own mix without bleeding into another’s sound. Therefore, the stage can be nearly silent (other than the acoustic sounds, the instruments, and the voices make that don’t really affect the sound for the congregation in the house. Feedback is dead; just as in the song, “The Wicked Witch is dead.” The Sound Engineers are free to set the controls effectively enough for the individuals without fear of reverberation either.
CUSTOM MOLDING AND WEARING BOTH EARS
An issue that always comes up when considering In Ears as to whether it is needed to spend the money on the custom molding. American Airlines, like many industrial plants around the USA, has to worry about sound abatement and workman’s compensation cases for their workers and take it very seriously. After a thorough discussion with their plant managers, they mentioned that when a patient has a threshold shift (meaning that the plant’s noise has caused the employee to lose more hearing), they always perform a study to know what the problem is. They test the non-customized plugs (the rollup plugs provided) and reported that they should be able to reduce the ambient noise to 15-17dBSPL. This is about what we could expect with non-customized ear protection, but how does that affect the musician on stage?
The musician is subjected to a significant amount of noise damaging (but probably wonderful music) that only can see less than this affect upon the person’s ears. Since 15-17dBSPL is a very small amount to reduce the outside noises on stage, the volume is raised to compensate for the loss of sounds heard in the ears increasing the risk of more hearing loss. Also as all humans move their mouth (not a big deal for a worker on the line but huge for the singers in which move their mouths more than any speech requires the Temporal Mandibular Joint – TMJ), Slit Leak venting want is a big problem to overcome without customized molding. Slit Leak Venting is the sound that comes into the ear when the jaw is opened widely enough to change the shape of the ear canal to the non-custom In Ear placed in the ear. Slit Leak causes loss of sound that the musician needs to hear her music snowballing one’s desire for higher volumes in the ear and more sound damage to the inner ear called the cochlea, leading to permanent hearing loss.
Custom molding, when the impressions are taken deeply enough in the ear canal, allows the Audiologist to send the correct anatomical information to the manufacturer to create a correct seal in the ear up to as much as 31dBSPL of sound abatement. I have had patients in my office with quad driver, non-custom In Ears report that they paled in comparison with a new set of dual drivers I made for them. This effect is noted by the casting that I make. Also, all of the online manufacturers will stipulate that you could send in an impression that you can make at home on your own. DO NOT DO THIS. Two reasons for this dangerous practice: 1. You can easily damage your ears by a poor impression on yourself. 2. If the impression is poorly made (which is frankly 95% of the time when do-it-yourself molding kits are created), then you foot the bill for new In Ears because they will not warranty it for remakes. Check the fine print, but all of the manufacturers of In Ears recognize what I already know: that no one can make impressions yourself (or even on a friend). I would never try to make a mold of my leg for a knee brace so that the manufacturer could create a custom knee brace for me. It is made by a professional.
Lastly, taking out one ear to hear the acoustics of the musical event is common on stage by most singers but relegates the unprotected ear to significant hearing loss. I tell my patients this analogy: Hold up both hands and tell me which of your hands you can easily do without. It is the same with damaging one ear while hearing with the other. Life isn’t the same with a severe, permanent unilateral (one-eared) hearing loss. You don’t want it! Learn to have both In Ears placed in both ears correctly and listen to the world electronically.
WHAT ARE DRIVERS?
Engineers love to load people up with their terminology. Many Audiologists have the same problem with the engineering mindset as the rest of us have, they are too technical. They want to know how everything works before they will believe the information presented related to hearing loss and the hearing aid technology that might go into their hearing aids. But, we need these types of minds. They are the creativity that makes electronic parts function. Engineering speak spreads its wings over the In-Ear Monitor technology as well when a musician gets on the web to find a new pair.
Drivers are the most logical choice for us to delve into. These are the speakers inside of the customized headphones that you purchase. It is the main reason for the price difference between a lower end In-Ear set and a higher end set of In-Ears. Drivers come in several configurations to make the music sound more clean and powerful. Generally the more drivers, the more the sound quality is separated for that new Praise piece you are putting on for your church.
Single drivers must send the whole range of music through one receiver. No matter how good that driver is, the sound is focused through that one receiver. When you split to two drivers, now the highs are separated from the low pitched sounds (or the bass and the treble). The crossover frequency, the pitch where they are separated, is set by the manufacturer. If it is set at too high of a pitch range with a two driver, then it requires the low pitch driver/receiver to accomplish that music and potentially saturate (distort) the bass. Each manufacturer of In Ears has their own thought process regarding the correct crossover frequency when multiple drivers are placed inside of the In Ears.
The next portion of this conversation will be the most controversial but you must remember that I have “no dogs in this fight.” What’s that mean? I don’t make any manufacturer’s In Ear Monitors and am not paid to represent their brands. My job is to give the patient that I see the best sound for his or her needs onstage. The largest numbers of receivers that really can be placed within an In Ear is truly six. Some manufacturers try to tell you that they have eight or twelve, but the reality is that they are sitting two receivers from one port sitting back to back, or what I would call a push-pull set of receivers based upon the past.
In old hearing aid technology, we had the struggle with receivers who could not accomplish the gain (volume) for a patient with a severe to profound hearing loss in his hearing aids. So the manufacturers placed the receivers back to back to gain an advantage so that one was in essence, pushing in the sound and the other portion of the receiver was pushing out the sound. It was known as a Class B receiver. The more advanced the technology got, the more that when went back to this basic idea with higher definition sound quality to accomplish more volume for that speaker. When we have six speakers, they are sitting very close to one another and giving the musician two crossover frequencies for two drivers for the highs, two drivers for the mids and two drivers for the low pitched sounds. Now, the variation might change between manufacturers as well as the crossover frequency setting, but the receivers are relatively the same as the hearing aid manufacturers utilize for their hearing aid products. Do you see why a good Audiologist be actively involved?
HOW MANY DRIVERS SHOULD I HAVE?
If you are a musician who has good pitch variation, or a good musical ear, you probably are never going to like single driver configurations from any of the manufacturers. Dual drivers that are custom made for your ears past the second bend of the canal (that means they are very deep and can only be made by an audiologist) will seal off the ear canal to obtain that nearly 31dBSPL of sound abatement will be effective for some of the patients I deal with. The more discriminating the tastes, the more drivers you may want to choose, as we stated before.
But, the type of music played and the volume with which it is performed also have an active role in the amounts of drivers one might choose. If your worship band plays in a Seeker-Friendly church, then the volumes for the house are dramatically louder. Two large churches in Tulsa who have this feel with Seeker-Friendly concepts bring the house to more than 105-115dBSPL. I mentioned to one of the pastors that churches are at high risk for Noise Induced Hearing Loss claims for Workman’s Compensation when you damage employee’s hearing in 3-10 minutes at those volumes. Silence was met on the other end of the phone line to that comment. I am not trying to make a judgment upon that church concept, but those musicians must use anywhere from three to six drivers upon their In Ears to be able to hear upon the stage. Smaller venues, such as churches with a slightly calmer sound from the stage, might need only dual to triple drivers to accomplish the task, especially if the drums are caged all around or using digital drum sets.
One cannot put an absolute upon the number of drivers based upon the instrument he plays. The bassist doesn’t always need four to six drivers, and the singers might need the four drivers. Audiology has a term called Difference Limens. It’s the ability to hear one pitch from another and one loudness from another loudness. Someone who has no pitch ability, the monotone singer in the back of the church that loves Jesus with all of his heart (these people should challenge all worship team members to play to the Lord with all of one’s heart, mind, and will), has a very wide Difference Limen. On the other hand, a singer with perfect pitch has a very narrow range for her Difference Limen. Did you know that Romans 3:22 actually uses a term very similar to describe the unrighteous and the righteousness that Christ brings in our lives? The word Distinction has something to do with Difference Limens that were only discovered by Psychologists and Audiologists in the 20th century.
CONCLUSION TO IN-EARS
All In-Ears at this point are wired and are not wireless. I get asked that question many times. Bluetooth is too big and requires a battery to drive it which deletes it from common usage inside of the In Ears at this point until we have a lithium (heat based) power source that recharges from the heat from your skin.
In-Ears need to be serviced by your Audiologist probably about every six months to clean the wax from the ends of the receivers so that they will not be killed while onstage. Also the wiring that most of the manufacturers is a critical flaw. Manufacturers who use a two or three pin male plug to the faceplate of the drivers are very susceptible to damage. This is another controversial topic because many manufacturers will be severely unhappy with my comments. But I am the one who has the patients in the doors with broken wiring and damaged components before their next gig. Westone and a few other manufacturers utilize an easy spinning plug in that does not break and can be changed out by a new $30 cord.
In Ears can save your hearing. Early in my career, a railroad was going out of business with their employees flocking to our door to utilize their hearing aid benefit before it went away forever. I had a father of 55 and a son of 20 in my office. The son would complain that his hearing fluctuated dramatically when he got off work that night to the next morning; whereas his father didn’t notice much change anymore. This was the dramatic case of Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS) for the son that moved his hearing from perfect levels to a massive hearing loss, and then it recovered for the next day. His father had Permanent Threshold Shift (PTS) which is why he had a Moderate to Severe, Sensorineural (inner ear) hearing loss and needed hearing aids. Neither were using their hearing protection very well. TTS turns into PTS when any sound over 90dBSPL is bombarding the ears, be it rocking for the Lord or buzz saws. They both have the same effect which is why In-Ears are passive noise protection as well as allowing you to hear the mix in your ears.
Scott Young, Au.D., CCC-A
Dr. Young has worked with private practices, ear nose and throat groups, and manufacturers fitting more than 15,000 patients successfully with hearing aids. He is also a singer and a songwriter, as well as a published author. He is an expert with In Ear Monitors as well.