by Craig Anderton
We know that in-ear monitors can help protect your ears…but maybe it’s time for the next generation of IEMs
The two scariest words for a musician: Hearing loss.
Before designer earplugs became commonplace, when I was touring and doing the six-nights-a-week-for-six-weeks thing, I stuck cotton in my ears. Since then, I’ve always prioritized protecting my ears, and I think that’s why I can still hear over 10 kHz at an age when many people can’t hear half that.
Well…the big limitation of in-ear monitoring is that the same sonic isolation protecting your ears is also isolating you from other band members, the acoustics, and the audience. With in-ear monitors, you don’t know if the room has horrible slapback echo, whether the audience was applauding politely or flipping out, or if your bandmate said “take the solo, my keyboard’s having a problem.”
The “solution” for some musicians is taking out one of the IEM earpieces—but now you’ve lost the hearing protection that IEMs afford. ASI Audio’s solution is including binaural mics in your earpieces, with outputs that feed into a body pack, whose settings are controlled by an app (in addition to louder/softer switches to set the mic levels in your IEMs). You can dial in how much of the outside world you want to hear, as well as process it—for example, adjust EQ to pick up more low end if you want to make sure you hear the kick and bass.
APPLICATIONS OTHER THAN LIVE SOUND
It might seem this is for live sound only, and with the current dearth of gigging opportunities, is therefore temporarily not relevant. However, there are two other very pertinent applications. One is in the studio, when you’re recording drums, loud guitar amps, or other loud sound sources. Those levels can be just as bad as playing live (if not worse, due to the proximity). The other is rehearsals. Again, spaces are usually tight, instruments can be loud, and unlike good studios, the acoustics may be pretty awful—with hard surfaces that bounce high frequencies around mercilessly. Even symphony orchestras aren’t immune to producing potentially damaging levels when recording or rehearsing.
SO, DOES 3DME WORK?
When I first tried using the system, I have to say I thought the IEMs weren’t sealed properly because I could hear everything that was going on around me. Oh, right…that’s the point! When I turned down the mic volume, I was back to having earplugs in my ears. The whole concept of having “earplugs with a volume control” takes a little getting used to compared to earplugs that are either blocking everything, or out of your ears and blocking nothing.
A major contributing factor to the realistic sound is that both the IEMs and the mics sound good. Just listening to music through the IEMs was pretty darn glorious, so I took a walk outside while listening to music from my iPhone (using a lightning-to-1/8” dongle to feed the 3DME bodypack’s input). Usually when taking a walk using conventional isolating earbuds, I have to be very careful to keep an eye out for what cars and motorcycles are doing. With the 3DME, I could dial in the amount of outside world sound I wanted, which made walking around safer. Of course, I doubt whether people would buy the system just because they like taking walks while listening to music, but it’s a welcome bonus for me.
As to blocking out noise, given the current gigging situation, there’s no way I could try it on stage. However, the pandemic doesn’t prevent me from turning up guitar amps in my studio REALLY LOUD, and again, when you add in the mic signal you think it’s probably leakage. Nope. Turn down the mics, and the amp fades into the background.
In addition to using the 1/8” monitor output jack on the bottom of the bodypack as a pass-through, it also outputs the mic signals. So if you want to record binaural ambiences in stereo, patch the jack into something that can record, and you’re good to go. Of course, tiny mics that fit in earpieces aren’t going to sound like vintage condenser mics, but they give a good account of themselves.
There are a few changes I’d like to see, in addition to the lower limiter threshold mentioned earlier. There’s a pop in the IEMs when you turn the unit off, and although the company says the level isn’t unhealthy, it is unpleasant. So, I’ve just gotten into the habit of removing the IEMs before turning it off. Also, I realize IEMs expect you to plug into a box with the monitor feed and a volume control, and 3DME is no exception. But I do wish there was a level control on the bodyback for the incoming monitor level, not just for the mics.
As to the cost, the 3DME costs about twice as much as a good pair of wired IEMs. The question you have to ask yourself is the price of your hearing. All IEMs help in that respect, but the “earplugs with a volume control” is a unique and interesting feature. The 3DME does stress hearing protection, from the built-in limiter, to the fact that you don’t have to remove one of the IEMs to hear what’s going on around you. I suspect for many people, the extra expenditure will be seen more as inexpensive insurance than an expensive IEM. For others, their budget will dictate what is or is not affordable.
ASI Audio is a new company, but it has the Sensaphonics lineage behind it. The 3DME is a quality product that solves a significant problem with IEMs, so I suspect we’ll see more and more musicians wearing these on stage, in studios, and when rehearsing.
See full review at craiganderton.org