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:
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.
In that context, the growing acceptance of in-ear monitors (IEMs) has been tremendously helpful. Basically, it’s a variation of sticking cotton in my ears to keep the sound out—but IEMs are “intelligent cotton” that lets you hear sound accurately, listen to a perfect cue mix, and adjust the level to your liking. Other benefits are a cleaner FOH mix because there aren’t wedges, less chance of mic feedback, and not as cluttered a stage setup. Okay! Problem solved…right?
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.
Currently, the app is available only for Android. Wait, iOS users—don’t stop reading (and not just because the company says an iOS app is forthcoming). There’s much to be said for dedicating an inexpensive Android device to 3DME.
I’m an iPhone user, but also spend time in Android-land, where your dollar goes a lot further. Even when the iOS app becomes available, I’d still use Android with 3DME. You can get a Fire tablet for under $50 (I’ve seen $29.95 for a 2017 model). Gigging is not always the best environment for expensive toys, and if a $30 Android tablet gets lost, stepped on, crushed, stolen, stapled, or mutilated, no big deal and I can find a replacement within minutes. But my $800 iPhone…I think I’ll keep it tucked away someplace safe.
An unexpected bonus of having an Android device is that compared to an iPhone, it compiles small applications, on the fly. The tradeoff is slower operation compared to the iPhone’s memory-resident programs, but you can fit way more programs in an Android device for a given amount of memory. So, I’ve offloaded some of the “fun” apps from my iPhone (like news, eBooks, games, forums, YouTube, etc.) to an Android device, and use the iPhone for business and applications that require better security (e.g., online banking). So even if you’re a hardcore Apple ecosystem kinda person, you might still prefer to invest the minimal number of dollars in a dedicated Android device for 3DME.
WHAT THE PACKAGE INCLUDES
The system arrives in a cool-looking designer case. The complete package (Fig. 1) is $699 (although as of this writing, there’s a $100 rebate).
Clockwise, from top to bottom:
- Three sets of IEM tips (small, medium, and large)
- Cleaning tool and clothing clip for the IEM cable
- 12” stereo minijack jumper cable to connect the bodypack to your monitor feed. The ASI system is wired, not wireless.
- The two in-ear monitors, which connect to dual TRRS jacks
- USB type-A to micro-USB charger cable, and programming cable for firmware updates (with micro-USB to USB-C adapter)
- Cube AC adapter
- Bodypack. Because the app lets you program the internal settings (which persist, even when power is off), the bodypack is small because it really only needs connectors, not UI. However, there are volume more/less switches for the ambient sound.
- Documentation (yes—you don’t have to go online to read this, although it is posted online as well, and accessible through the ASI app).
SETTING UP 3DME
If you’ve used IEMs with an over-ear cable, you know what’s involved. The tips compress, so like the earplugs used in shooting ranges, you need to squeeze the tips prior to inserting into your ear canal, and then hold the earpieces in place to let the tips expand, and make a seal with your ear cavity. This takes under a minute.
It’s crucial to use the tip size that’s right for you, but ASI takes out some of the guesswork by including a seal test function. It’s simple, but effective: initiating the test triggers alternating 500 Hz and 50 Hz tones. If the 50 Hz tone is considerably softer, there’s a problem—either incorrect insertion, or the wrong-sized tip for your ear.
If you have an unusual ear shape, or want the best seal possible, ASI works with audiologists who can fit you for custom molded ear tips. Currently, there is at least audiologist in 33 states and the District of Columbia. These audiologists, listed at asiaudio.com/pages/gold-circle-audiologists, have been trained by Dr. Michael Santucci (the head of Sensaphonics, to which ASI is related).
Note that you may want to check for an updated app. Normally you’ll be notified when what’s hosting your app connects to the net, but I always like to check anyway. The first time I connected the bodypack, the app told me a firmware update was available. Updating was painless, but be aware the programming cable is directional—one end goes to the bodypack, and the other to the device supplying the firmware update. I also reversed these connections after updating to see if that would blow up the bodypack (well, wouldn’t you want to know that?), but happily, there were no issues.
Operation is simple. There are three pages to the app. The most important is the Main page (Fig. 2) with the ambient mic level control and limiter threshold. You can link the left and right ambient mic sources, or separate them if you want to do individual adjustments.
Note that you don’t have to use an IEM monitor feed to take advantage of the mics. This is what makes the unit useful for rehearsals and studio use; essentially, you have earplugs with a volume control, as well as EQ and limiting. That’s actually pretty cool, and I think ASI needs to emphasize this application more—it’s mentioned only in passing in the documentation as being useful for acoustic ensembles, but if you have drums and a couple of amps happening, this is a fine way to protect your hearing and still hear everything that’s going on.
The limiter (fast attack, but no lookahead) has a threshold range from 84 to 105 dB SPL, and seems designed specifically to trap intermittent, ear-melting sounds. However, I’d love to see an update that would allow using it more as a limiter in the studio sense, where it would reduce the dynamic range for a more consistent monitoring experience in terms of levels. Although technically you can do that now, I find that although the lowest threshold is adequate for “transient trapping,” it’s too high for sustained listening with a full mix coming in. Fortunately, the limiter is digital, and it’s app-driven, so hopefully ASI is reading this and will consider doing an update.
The Equalizer page (Fig. 3) is a 7-band graphic EQ, with each band adjustable to ±12 dB.
As with the mics and limiter, you can unlink the left and right channels. Note that this is a global processor that doesn’t only affect the mics, but also the incoming monitor signal.
Before moving on to the next page, note that you can save all current settings (EQ, mic level, limiter) as a preset, and load, rename, and delete presets. Typically, you wouldn’t be using the app onstage, but instead, setting up beforehand.
The Options page (Fig. 4) is pretty simple.
There are two buttons on the bodypack side for varying the level from the mics, and you can change the behavior to having them step up/down through different levels from -24 to +12 dB, or toggle between two preset settings. The settings do not affect the incoming monitor feed, only the signal from the mics. Another option is for musicians who have hearing loss in one ear; it routes audio from the side with the loss to the side that can hear.
Note there’s a help menu that parallels the include documentation, so you don’t have to worry if you lose the printed version.
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.