Put an In-Ear kit together…

A DIY approach to a complete touring in-ear monitor system

Power up your touring in-ear monitor package

You’re an indie band mounting a tour and you want to introduce in-ear monitors to the band and minimize setup time at each gig.  There’s a great technology approach to handling this situation that many regional acts have worked with companies like Tour Supply to design and build out.

If you’re more the DIY type, with a bit of time and some technical background, here’s my shopping list for a complete 6 stereo mix In-Ear kit.  This kit is mean to fly.  It’s heavy, but it’s portable and capable!

The Quiet Stage – Guitars

Great tube amps can be really inspiring to play.  When they’re dialed into their sweet spot, then put the tone in your hands, offering you an incredible range of expression.

We all have our favorite amps that have just the right amount of breakup, handle our favorite pedals well and vibe right on stage.  Of late I’ve been on a quest to find an amp that does all that at a wattage low enough to use on stage.  It’s tough.  In my experience even a 10W valve amp can be too loud for may stages, let alone my Marshall SuperBass 100.  Open back combo amps spray sound everywhere.  412 beam like a flashlight.  If either are pointed at the sound guy, you gotta know that it’s going to affect his ability to mix.

Add to that the fact that most guitarists are not in touch with the “on-axis” speaker sound.  Guitars amps usually sit on the floor, and we’re usually a few feet in front listening to the speaker at an angle.  If you were to get down on the floor and listen to whats coming straight out of the speaker,  you know the sound you’ve aimed directly at your audience’s heads is, well a little harsh.

So on behalf of a great mix, and a happy audience many guitarists have and technical folk have though long and hard about how to achieve great guitar tone without generating a lot, or perhaps any physical volume on stage.

Things are different in the studio.  We’re in the  control room listening to our dialed in, screaming loud, miked up amp that’s sitting in a isolation booth.  While it’s not the same as being in the room with the amp, it’s advantageous to be playing our parts in the full context of the rhythm section and vocals.

In-ear monitors are a staple on many stages now.  Just like in the studio, a  great in-ear mix puts your tone clearly into the context of the band and the songs your playing.  If you’re on “ears” you’re already somewhat comfortable with listening to your amp miked up, instead of listening to it directly on stage.  In some cases crafty technicians have used this opportunity to “isolate” the guitar amp’s speaker into a portable Iso booth, to keep the sound off the stage.  In some situation artists have embraced POD’s/Tonelab’s/AxeFX’s to achieve their miked up amp tone.

The problem with digital.

Digital doesn’t sit well with some guitarists.  They miss the “warmth” of their tubes and the straight forward nature of dial in their favorite amp.  With modelers some guitarists feel like they’re always tweaking in search of a tone that will transport them to that magical place.

As a keen observer of guitarists, I’ve noticed that many guitarists tend to go “hog wild” when they get their first POD.  They lather up their tones with tons of cool effects, and switch amp models in an attempt to get great cleans, killer crunch and soaring leads.  Very few guitarists treat their modeler like an amp, very few take the time to dial in a single model like they would a new amp, or hit it with their pedal board.  Digital offers endless possibilities, and sometimes the endlessness can be a distraction.

Making Digital work.

Bottom like amp modelers are on some of the most high end stages you could imagine.  Here’s my recommendation for making them work:

1. Start by turning off all the effects and auditioning the amps dry.  Look for a single amp that does something close to your thing.  Listen to it using the headphones/in-ears you’ll be using at the gig.

2. Once you’ve found a model that’s starting to work for you.  Dial though the cabinet selections.  One will pop.  Don’t pick the one with the massive bottom end, pick the one that feels real, and offers you the warmth you need.

3. Then dial though the microphone selections and choose the one that offers the most natural sound, clarity and detail.  Great.  Now save that.  Go back and start dialing in your amp.

4. Get the tone controls where you like, (don’t be afraid to go to extremes), and set the drive to put as much control into your hands a possible. Remember that in most pop/rock situations less is more when it comes to distortion.  Save it.

5. If you’re going to hit it with your pedal board, then move on to dialing in your pedals to work well with the amp tone.  If you want to use your modeler for effects as well, then use this presets as a template for all your presets.  Try to keep the amp, cab and mic selections the same on each presets, and dial in the effects and amp drive to make the preset work.

When it comes to hardware modelers, there are a number of Brands to consider, Line 6 POD, Vox Tonelab, Fractal AxeFX, AVID Eleven and the Boss GT10 all have their strengths and weaknesses.  Then there’s the field PC based products like Amplitube, Guitar Rig and PODFarm.  I’ve listened and compared them all, in numbers shoot outs and live situations.

Along the way I’ve learned that you don’t necessarily need the most expensive or the latest and greatest to get an excellent outcome.  Here’s an idea:  Make a recording of your favorite amp miked up, dial it in until your really pleases with the sound.  Load it on your iPOD, grab your in-ears and head on down to your local music store.  Spend time with each of the modelers, and try to re-create that tone.  You’ll know which modeler is right for you when you dial it in to do the thing that inspires you.

An Analog

Another valid approach is to make your valve amp work on stage by use of power attenuators, power soaks, load boxes and or an isolation cab or cab simulated DI.

We’ve had a lot of success with the THD Hotplate.  Make sure you get the one that’s setup for your output impedance, but she’ll do wonders on behalf of achieving your amps sweet spot at a useable stage level.  The down side is that power attenuators can leave your amp feeling a little compressed and stiff.  You’ll get passed it, but be forewarned.

TIP:  if you’ve got a PODxt handing around, drive the pod with the THD’s line output, select “Tube Preamp” set the controls to noon, and select your favorite cab/mic combination for the ultimate cab simulated DI experience.  Failing a PODxt the Palmer PDI-03 and Radial JDX are worthy Cab Simulator / Load Box/ DI’s.

The final solution we’ll explore are isolation cabs.  They put a speaker in a sound isolated box with a microphone.  While they might sound a little compressed, they work great and  let your amp do it’s thing.  We think the trick with iso-cabs is to run them with a lower wattage amp.  That way you can use a speaker you know and love and get the outcome you’ve always wanted.   Check out the Randall Isolation 12, Demeter SSC-1 or the AxeTrak.

Whatever you choose, play well and enjoy the flow.