You may have come across DJs who spin without headphones, opting instead for what look like earphones. These are called in-ear monitors (IEMs), and while they aren’t used by a huge chunk of the DJ population, the few who do swear by them because they offer noise isolation and monitoring consistency that lie beyond the reach of standard DJ headphones.
What are in-ear monitors?
In-ear monitors, or IEMs, are special earphones used by modern touring musicians. IEMs fit inside the ear canal, giving excellent noise isolation even in the noisiest of environments such as a concert stage.
IEMs let musicians hear a “monitor mix” of themselves (whether they’re a vocalist, guitarist, drummer, and so on) without having to rely on having a big, bulky monitor speaker in front of them. This gives them the ability to have a consistent monitoring experience wherever they are on stage, and in whatever sort of venue they perform in.
Some DJs use IEMs for these same reasons. Furthermore, the noise isolation inherent in IEMs means that for DJs suffering from tinnitus or hearing loss, they can monitor at lower volume levels to protect their hearing since they don’t have to turn the volume up to hear their heapdhone cue.
If you’ve been curious and are thinking about making the switch from DJ headphones to IEMs, here are five tips to help you out.
Five IEM Tips
1. Be patient and don’t get frustrated
Going from years of using DJ headphones to in-ear monitors is a transition that will take some getting used to. It won’t be as easy as you think – the key is to enjoy (and endure) the process. It may seem awkward at first, especially since hearing your headphone cue and what’s coming out of the speakers ultimately relies on twiddling your mixer / controller’s headphone cue knob.
Fitting them in also takes a bit of time and practise – wearing IEMs isn’t as simple as donning a pair of headphones or earbuds. Since IEMs are meant to go inside your ear canal, there’s a slightly different wearing process to ensure a snug fit, and it isn’t advisable to remove them during your performance the way you do with headphones (more on that later).
Fortunately, the rewards will be there at the end, and there are numerous: one being that with IEMs, you can DJ in even the worst monitoring environments (or in bars without booth monitors at all). Plus, you’re also able to take better care of your hearing since most IEMs have good noise isolation, making them perfect for DJing in loud environments like festivals and club booths.
2. Do a proper “burn-in” of your IEMs
Those new in-ear monitors may sound even better after using them for a couple of days. Audiophiles call this “burn-in“, which is akin to a new car engine’s “break-in” period. The theory goes that the stiff speaker drivers become “looser” after being used for a few days, hence they sound better after the burn-in.
Proponents of this theory have all sorts of tests in order to do a proper burn-in: playing white noise / pink noise, playing your favourite album on repeat, and so on. Skeptics say that this is nothing more than our brain tricking us into thinking things sound “better”, but it wouldn’t hurt to do it (especially if it means listening to Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album or Burial’s Untrue on repeat).
3. Don’t leave one IEM out of your ear while mixing
There is great temptation to remove one IEM while you’re mixing a track in so you could hear how things sound on the speakers – after all, this is how we were taught to DJ with headphones. Don’t do it!
The process for mixing and monitoring with IEMs is a bit different: Instead of removing your IEMs in order to hear the house speakers / booth monitors, simply use your mixer or DJ controller’s headphone cue knob to adjust the blend between the track that you’re bringing in and the track that’s currently playing in your master output.
Doing it this way means you’ll never have to remove your in-ears during your entire set, and it also means that you’ve got complete monitoring control over what you’re hearing. In some cases, your monitoring is even more accurate because you can hear your tracks exactly as how they’re coming into your mixer. The disadvantage here is that you won’t be able to hear how you sound the way your crowd does on the house speakers, so it helps to set proper levels beforehand, or have a technician present who can do that for you as you DJ.
4. Opt for a longer IEM cable
Most IEMs come with a stock cable that’s long enough to go from your ears to your smartphone, but that won’t do if you’re going to be DJing with them. You’ll need a longer cable that goes all the way from your ears down to your mixer or DJ controller’s headphone output, and have enough slack to give you allowance to move your head around (DJing isn’t as fun if you can’t move).
If your IEM gives you the option for a longer cable, go for it. If not, you can get a basic cable extender on Amazon for a couple of dollars.
5. Practise, practise, practise
As mentioned in this article, IEMs take some getting used to, and the only way you’ll drop previous headphone monitoring habits (eg removing one ear cup to listen to your mix) is to use them consistently. Use your IEMs when you’re practising in your bedroom, use them at your pub / bar gigs, use them at your mobile functions / weddings, and so on.
The more you familiarise yourself with mixing using IEMs, the more likely you are to stick to using them properly at all of your gigs.
Using IEMs has its advantages and disadvantages. I’ve used headphones for a long time, and have made the transition to custom IEMs because I liked the idea of investing for my hearing protection as tinnitus was becoming more of a concern. I also prefer the sound quality I get out of them compared to my old DJ headphones, especially at lower volumes.
Ultimately, some DJs prefer one over the other, and the only way you’ll find out which one is for you is to try both.
Do you use IEMs? Have you been thinking of making the switch? Or do you prefer headphones? Let us know why in the comments below.