In-Ear Monitors: How To Do It Cheap

Posted on January 31, 2011 // Section: Blog

In my experience as a worship leader, monitoring is always a sensitive subject. Everybody wants to hear more of themselves, and if you’re not careful, the stage monitor volume soon muddies up the room mix, and nobody can really hear themselves very well. It’s a headache for musicians and sound engineers alike. If you’ve been lucky enough to use in-ear monitors, you know how awesome they are, and they eliminate lots of problems.

Now, the churches where I lead worship don’t have huge budgets for an Aviom system or something like that, but we have figured out a way to use in-ear monitors on a very, VERY modest budget.

Before we start, I should point out the two biggest flaws in this system:

  1. It’s not wireless
  2. You can’t get an individual mix for each musician (though you can get 4 individual mixes)

But here are some reasons that it’s great:

  1. It’s cheap. Really cheap. This is the biggest draw by far. Literally – under $200 and you’re set.
  2. You can use it as a hybrid system, meaning you can have traditional wedge monitors and in-ear monitors.

Equipment you’ll need:

  • A mixer with at least four aux (monitor) mixes. I’m assuming you probably have this already. If not, you probably don’t need this type of a setup anyway.
  • A 4-channel headphone amp. We use this Behringer Powerplay Pro amp. It costs $120 new, but you can get it used for much less.
  • Heaphone extension cables. As many cables as musicians. I’d shoot for 20 ft cables just to be safe.
  • 1/4 inch to 1/8 inch adapters, in case your extension cables have a 1/4 female end on them.

Setup:

  • Set up your headphone amp at the back of the stage, and run each aux mix (these are your monitor mixes from the board) into the auxiliary inputs for each channel on the headphone amp. If you’re running a 4-channel headphone amp, you can support 4 monitor mixes. The Behringer model I linked to above gives you 3 individual headphone outputs per channel, so a total of 12 musicians chan share 4 monitor mixes (but you can’t have more than 3 musicians on one mix). If you want to go all in-ears, you’re done. Just have your musicians plug their headphones into whatever channel they want to use for monitoring.
  • For a hybrid system, you have a couple options. You can take one of the outputs from any of the channels on the headphone amp and run that to your wedges. Or, you can take one of your aux sends and run that to your wedges, and the other three (or however many) to your headphone amp.

Our Setup

We have multiple churches using the same facility, and we rent the place out often, so we wanted a very flexible system. I’ll walk through what we do with each monitor mix, and how we’re planning to use it.

  • Aux (monitor) mix 1: This goes straight to two wedges on the font of the stage. For groups that don’t want (or don’t know how) to use the in-ear system, they just monitor with mix 1 and they’re all set. If we have vocalists that don’t want to use the in-ears, they can listen to the wedges.
  • Aux (monitor) mix 2: This feeds the first in-ear mix. We’re using it mainly for a vocalist mix, and for the lead. We can have 3 musicians on this mix.
  • Aux (monitor) mix 3: This is the 2nd in-ear mix. Used for keys and guitars. Three musicians max on this mix.
  • Aux (monitor) mix 4: This feeds the 3rd in-ear mix, and the back set of wedges. This is a rhythm section mix – the drummer and bass player are on this one. We’re using wedges and in-ears here because we want the drummer to have a wedge and an in-ear mix. We use V-Drums, so moving some air with a big speaker is a good thing, but having the mix in the drummer’s ear is also helpful. We can do both.

We can control the levels of the wedges via the power amp. If everybody’s using in-ears, we can just turn them off completely and have minimal stage volume, or turn them on to accomodate those who don’t want to use the in-ears.

You might want to make sure to invest in some kind of limiter on your aux mixes. The danger in this system is there is nothing to keep a really loud sound from blowing out people’s eardrums.

  • jeffrey dodson

    Thanks for the advice I’ve recently started to use this. One setback I had was I accidentally bought adapters that were not trs or stereo so we had sound in only one ear piece but it was a cheap fix to get the right ones. Works great so far haunt used it live yet only in practice.

  • Brian

    Hey Brian,

    I have the same headphone amp and love this idea. But, someone told me I might also need to use a compressor/limiter on the front-end of that to keep any volume spikes under control. Do you feel that to be the case or think it would ever be a problem?

    • http://www.brianwahlmusic.com Brian

      Hello!

      This is pretty wise advice. If you don’t have a limiter inline with your headphone amp, you run the risk of blowing your ears out with a pop or something – like if somebody drops a microphone or you get some crazy feedback.

      The feedback thing is less of an issue than with wedge monitors because those put out a good deal of sound that gets feed back to microphones and such. With in ears, you’re not putting that sound out.

      But – if you’ve ever heard a loud pop in your monitors from somebody unplugging a guitar or keyboard or something (or some equipment malfunctioning), you’ll hear those in your in-ears, too. The limiter will protect you from that.

  • Erik Lindeen

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve been using Aviom systems for 8 years but now I’m helping to plant a church and we don’t have the money to do that so I’ve been on the hunt to figure out an affordable option for now. I HATE floor monitors so I want to do in ears as soon as possible.

    • http://www.brianwahlmusic.com Brian

      Best of luck! This system is working well for us so far. We still run our floor monitors though – not all our musicians prefer in-ears.

  • http://www.themissionchurch.us Joe

    So cool! Thanks for this post. I’ve been searching for a while for a way to do in ears cheap, and this is the best solution I’ve come across!

    Any suggestions on a brand or model of limiter to check out? Definitely interested in saving ear drums :)

    Thanks again!

    • http://www.brianwahlmusic.com Brian

      My pleasure, Joe! I’m not the guy to ask about a limiter, though. I don’t have any experience with hardware limiters.

      We don’t use one, and haven’t run into any problems yet. Better safe than sorry, though.

      • http://www.themissionchurch.us Joe

        Follow up question..my board has 2 Aux sends…Can you split them so the 1 Aux channel is feeding 2 mixes?

        Thanks again!

        • http://www.brianwahlmusic.com Brian

          Hi Joe

          Not sure on this one. I’d think that would work without any problems, though.

        • Bryce Haney

          Yes you can all you have to do is just buy a Hosa y cable and there you go!

        • http://www.brianwahlmusic.com/ brianwahl

          Thanks, Bryce!

  • http://www.kidzturn.com Sam

    My home church is using the Rolls “more me” system. http://www.rolls.com

    The basics:
    Send one “general monitor mix” to a distribution box (PS16).
    Give your musician/vocalist a “More Me” mixer (PM50s). Their mic/instrument plugs into this mixer, then the signal passes through to your system.
    Connect a line from the distribution box (PS16) to the Monitor input on the “More Me” mixer (PM50s).
    Plug in a set of headphones, and use the 2 knobs to set the volumes of the “General Mix” and the “My Mic/Instrument” signals.

    A PS16 is around $54, and you only need 1 to send signal and power to up to 8 PM50s mixers.
    A PM50s mixer is around $48, and each person wanting their own mix would need one.
    If you have an instrument and mic, the PM351 will do both for $85.

    The cables coming from the PS16 need to be STEREO, because they supply power to the units as well as the general monitor mix.
    http://www.monoprice.com has great prices on all types of cables an adapters!

  • Todd

    I’ve recently incorporated this system and was wondering if anyone else is experiencing a bit of distortion w/ louder signals (ie, when vocals are stronger)? I am running a Behringer Compressor/Limiter in front of it. Any advice would be helpful. Thanks.

    • http://www.brianwahlmusic.com Brian

      Hey Todd,

      We are still running this, and we don’t typically struggle with distortion. You might watch your levels both at the board (are you clipping the vocal channel on the board) and the levels going into the headphone amp. It’s easy to send a signal to the headphone amp that’s too loud. If you’re clipping, the level meters on the headphone amp will show red. Since you’re running a compressor/limiter in front of the headphone amp (good idea, btw), you could be clipping that as well. If I were in your shoes, I first check the level going into the compressor – is it too hot? Then I’d use very moderate compression and limiting. Really high compression and limiting can cause distortion. Finally, make sure you’re not clipping the headphone amp. Good luck!

    • BH5

      Same with me and it sucks i’m going to get the Soundcarft EPM6 mixer with 2 aux outs and on my vocal channels i’m adding a compressor using the inserts

  • Jb

    What brand/model of in ear headphones do you use?

  • RobHampton

    Hey Brian, great tutorial and setup. I’ve done something very similar at my church and thought maybe you’d be interested. If you want to add the flexibility of instrument/vocal control check out the Rolls PM50S or PM351 – it gives you the ability to run instrument or mic IN and OUT passively while giving control to turn it up in your own mix. We also made cables like this so as to not have separate instrument and headphone cables making a mess…
    http://www.rockonaudio.com/image_gallery.php?page=CAB-001&i=1

  • Dario

    Hi Brian, great tutorial. We have a berry berry tide budget and what I had to do to solve our drumer and bass player monitoring problems was to use a car FM transmitter ( $15 at amazon) to modulate my Aux output mix and they will bring their mp3 player or iPod and tune to the transmitter (88.5 or something close to it) frequency. it is not perfert but works for now.

    • http://brianwahlmusic.com/ Brian Wahl

      That’s pretty interesting! I’d never have thought of doing that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cody.patterson.1044 Cody Patterson

    Yes this works great, I came across this article to late but it is very simillar to what we did. We are using the 8 channel behringer headphone amp that all the team members have their own channel for the most part. We have a 6 aux board so sometimes we have to double on a channel most of the time we just run everyone with their own. It is working great and I prefer this solution to having the avioms on stage or a controller on stage.

  • Alec

    Hey. Quick question. What did you use to run the aux mixes from the mixer to the headphone amp?