In-ear monitors can reveal more detail in your mixes, help you make better decisions and more. Here’s why every mixer needs a pair of IEMs in the studio.
Most mixing engineers consider a pair of boutique studio monitors to be the gold standard for mixing. And why not? They’re big, loud and impressive. However, speakers can’t do everything—and that’s why a pair of high-quality in-ear monitors (IEMs) is an essential tool for mixing.
From their exceptional sonic accuracy and superb detail to purely practical concerns like noise isolation and portability, read on to learn all the ways IEMs can help you make better mixes.
No Room Treatment Needed
Even the best speakers in the world can only sound as good as the room they’re in. Each dimension of a room (length, width and height) resonates at a specific frequency, causing buildups in the low to low-mid frequencies that can alter the frequency response of your speakers. Additionally, hard surfaces cause higher frequencies to reflect and bounce around the room causing a phenomenon called comb filtering, which can make your speakers sound thin and hollow.
However, when your monitors are in your ears, none of this matters. IEMs let you hear the purest sound possible, with no influence from the acoustical quirks of your room, so you’ll never have to worry about second-guessing what you’re hearing. Everything will sound exactly as it should.
The “Sweet Spot” is Everywhere
Sound waves of different frequencies have different directional characteristics, meaning that you have to be right in front of a speaker to hear the entire frequency range. If you move to the side, you’ll start to hear less of the high frequencies, eventually making your mix sound dull and muffled if you move too far away.
With a stereo pair of monitors, the only way to hear everything accurately is to stay right in the “sweet spot” where the direct sound from both speakers converges. While this isn’t a huge problem if you spend most of your time in the sweet spot, it helps to be able to move around without worrying about what you’re hearing.
With IEMs, you’re always in the sweet spot. Your monitors move with you, always at the same position relative to your ear drums, so the sound never changes. This means you can move around while you mix and always be confident that you’re hearing everything accurately.
Hear More Detail
A nice pair of studio monitors will let you hear plenty of detail, but not everything. Because of the distance between you and the speaker, tiny noises like clicks and pops, crackling and string noise can become diffused enough that you won’t even notice them. Missing these details won’t ruin your mix, but when people listen to your music loudly or in headphones, anything you missed will stick out and potentially become distracting.
IEMs don’t hide anything while you’re mixing. For better or for worse, they’ll let you hear every last bit of sonic information in your mix. Of course, you don’t need to obsess about the minutia and try to clean up every little noise, but at least you’ll know they’re there so you can make informed decisions.
Peace and Quiet
Mixing requires focus, but outside noises like traffic, airplanes, animals or roommates can be extremely distracting. And that goes both ways—when you mix on speakers, anyone nearby can hear you listen to the same three-second loop over and over while you obsessively EQ the kick drum. Unless your studio is hermetically sealed or located in the middle of nowhere, there will always be some amount of sound getting in or out.
Closed-back headphones help with this problem, but due to their over-ear design, they’ll never block as much sound as a pair of custom-fit IEMs. By forming a tight seal around your ear, IEMs simultaneously block almost all outside noise and keep others from hearing your work so you can focus better and mix longer without annoying anyone.
Better Mixing Decisions
When you mix with speakers positioned at the standard 60-degree angle, you’ll probably find yourself panning tracks hard left and hard right fairly often, simply because they’re not that far apart. However, if somebody listens to your mix on earphones (and they will), anything you panned hard left or right will appear in their left or right ear, which might sound too extreme.
Mixing on speakers can also affect the way you use reverb. Since the room already has its own reverb, you won’t feel the need to add as much, which can end up sounding too dry in headphones. The solution? You guessed it: IEMs. By referencing your work with in-ears, you can be sure your mixes never sound too wide and you’ll always use the right amount of reverb.
Freedom to Mix Anywhere
Since IEMs are much smaller and lighter than speakers (and even most headphones), they make it easy to take your mixing anywhere you can take a laptop. With that kind of freedom, you can mix at a café, in a park, at the airport or anywhere else your inspiration might take you. When you’re feeling stuck on a mix, getting out of the studio once in a while can put you in the right headspace to make some progress.
Even if you prefer to do most of your mixing in front of your speakers, IEMs let you listen to your mixes outside of your studio to get a fresh perspective without having to resort to bulky headphones or off-the-shelf earbuds with limited sound quality. With a change of scenery, you’ll have a chance to reflect on how your mix sounds without your eyes glued to a screen.
Don’t Forget to Reference
While IEMs are a fantastic tool for mixing, it’s still important to use your speakers as well, since that’s how many listeners will consume your music. In fact, you’ll want to listen to your mix-in-progress on multiple types of playback systems, including your home stereo system, car stereo, Bluetooth speakers and over-ear headphones. When your mix sounds great on all of these, you’ll know it’s ready for the world to hear.
Looking for a pair of in-ears with the sound quality, headroom and flat response of professional studio monitors? Check out UE Reference Remastered, designed in collaboration with Capitol Studios.