All Ears

22 March 2011
All Ears
Santiago. Production Day.

My ears arrived today, which was a source of much excitement. 'Ears', as they are known in the trade, are the in-ear monitors used by today's modern musician, in order to hear what they're playing on stage. They look like a cross between iPod ear buds, old-school hearing aids and vaguely S&M medical appliances, being made to measure from moulded impressions taken from the wearer's ears.

All of the 360 musicians, backline crew and audio techs have these, connected to radio belt-picks so each person can hear whatever they need to hear. Each band member can have their own mix of the stage sounds, emphasising whatever it is they are doing and eliminating anything they don't particularly need. These clever devices have been around for a couple of decades or more, but have now become a fundamental part of amplified performance. I'd heard that they take a bit of getting used to but I've witnessed many musicians (including David Bowie, whose astonishment was rather charming) trying them out and going from uncertainty to true love within minutes.

I'd meant to get myself a set of these for ages because, when I'm on stage with the band during sound check or rehearsal, I'm the only person who can't hear what's going on. The P.A. is no help as the speakers are extremely directional and miles above your head when you're standing on stage. Consequently, without 'ears' all you hear is drums and Edge's rig going off at vast volume. If Bono talks to me via his mic, I can be standing next to him and not hear a word he's saying which isn't especially helpful. I wander about the stage feeling like Tommy and trying to look like I know what's going on. Recently I've been making do, using a set of regular headphones but there's too much sound-bleed for this to be very effective and besides, the 'aspiring-DJ' look doesn't really work for me.

I had the impressions made in London during the last break. It's the same procedure used for making moulded earplugs, but with more precision. Essentially you have a syringe put in your ear, which squirts out a substance akin to modelling clay and toothpaste, creating a thrillingly violating sensation in your ear canal. This is left to set, then extracted with a satisfying squelch before being sent off to the audiologists.

So, as I said, my 'ears' arrived today and I found a quiet corner to try them out. They're an absolute bugger to get in first time, but I am told that one acquires the technique over time. Trying to remove them is equally exhilarating, as the fit is vacuum-tight for isolation. As you tug to remove one plug, it feels like part of your brain is going to come with it.

Anyhow, having got myself comfortable I fired up iTunes and had a listen. I started gently with some Laurie Anderson and in that moment understood David Bowie's astonishment way back when. Talk about hearing voices from god, it's like the sound is being generated entirely inside your head. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, it was such a fantastic, trippy experience. I worked up to some serious kerrang (a young Scottish garage band that I've been enjoying of late, with the rather wonderful name We Were Promised Jetpacks) and was amazed to find that you can make it feel like the all-encompassing rock experience without it having to be overly loud. It's an extraordinarily weird and wonderful sensation. Kind of like what I've always imagined demon-possession must feel like.

Later in the day, when the backline crew were playing and Joe was cranking the P.A., I sat at front of house isolated in my own little bubble, listening to some Oscar Peterson etudes. This is a whole new world of private audio - I've never looked forward to sound check this much in my life.

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25 March, 2011
If I never risk asking
I never risk being told "no" or having the thrill of being told "Sure, why not!" Willie, If I promise to stay the feck out of the way and don't ask questions... Okay wait. I'm not that well-behaved. If I promise to stay the feck out of the way and only ask questions if you don't look too busy ... and I swear up and down that I won't write, blog or otherwise blab about it unless of course you'd like me to ... can I please watch the show from front of house with you in Edmonton? I'm going to be driving 10 hours from northern Saskatchewan to get to the concert and am going by myself because all my friends have decided to be pregnant or have nursing babies or get married or be broke or god knows what all else and can't go with me this time. It's been 10 years since I saw U2 for the first time in Calgary. I can't wait. I have seats way the hell up in the upper deck somewhere. that's not all bad because I realize the show from afar will be impressive with the screens and claw, but I've thought it would be rather groovy to see it from your perspective too. I'm a Curious George. Looking for a unique way to see the concert. Just putting it out there Willie (or whoever reads these posts) Shanny
25 March, 2011
Future Sonics
Those look like the Future Sonics mg5pro monitors, $750 a pair. No wonder they sound great!
25 March, 2011
the future
absolutely wonderful :-) so is this the future for rock shows when there are too many complaints from the people living around the venues. or too many laws to limit decibels at parties, concerts and festivals? We all get ourselves 'the' earplugs and have the full rock experience and not fear hearing damage?
25 March, 2011
Hearing aid
Willie, thank you for giving us some insight into some amazing technology musicians use nowadays. When I saw the band perform I noticed that they had earplugs, but I never knew the exact purpose of these things. I wonder that it is impossible to hear Bono talk via his mic when you stand next to him on stage. So these "ears" are really essential for a complete sound. By the way, it is amazing that 360 musicians work for the 360 Tour.
25 March, 2011
If you ever lose your "day job," you can defo write for a living. You crack me up. I'm sure my family wonders why I'm alone in my room giggling in the middle of the night!
24 March, 2011
To be cont'd ......
So, tomorrows show could be an interesting experience ? Lets see what these ears do for a veteran - I will hear U2 for the 1st time with my own ears - it should be wonderful (without the gear) Please let me know what your thoughts are with the enhanced tech - Good things come in small packages - you know !
24 March, 2011
Snoring ... crying babies ...
You've found your solution to all things irritating and threatening to peace and quality sleep. Question: If earphones are bad for our hearing, are yours twice as bad for ear damage? All the same, I want some!!
24 March, 2011
re: Nice Ear Pieces
Check out
24 March, 2011
Ear Pieces
Willie, bring them along on your next airplane flight - AMAZING!! the over-promoted noise-cancelling headphones are silly toys compared to these. enjoy listening!
24 March, 2011
Ears Pieces
I am glad you got your ears (LOL). This was a really funny story. Thanks for sharing and enjoy the sound check. :)
24 March, 2011
Sounds like they Sound Amazing
Thank you so much Willie for that description of the "Ears". I never knew they were so high tech. The process in which they are made was interesting. I would love to hear what they sound like. Perhaps one day they will become a commercially sold item.
AJ Riegler
24 March, 2011
One in the ear!
No, but I have been thinking for sometime about getting some. Willie, can you help?!
24 March, 2011
can you borrow them?
I live few blocks from Estadio Nacional and I've listened the soundcheck. If you want, you can come to my home and borrow me your new device. ;)
24 March, 2011
Nice Ear Pieces
Anyone know who makes them?
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