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Why Do Singers Take Out Their Earpieces?

On January 21, 2013, Beyoncé performed the U.S. national anthem in front of a crowd of nearly one million people who had gathered on the streets of Washington, D.C. to witness Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration. Beyoncé’s characteristically flawless rendition of the Star Spangled Banner mesmerized the crowd and earned her raucous applause at the end. In the aftermath, however, several media elements drew attention to an odd occurrence halfway through the anthem. Just before crooning, “The bombs bursting in air,” Beyoncé is seen reaching into her ear and removing an earpiece without seemingly missing a note or straying off tune.

This prompted the question: why did Beyoncé take her earpiece out? Well, first let’s delve into what the earpiece in question actually is. The device is called an in-ear monitor, and as the name suggests, its function is to produce a consistent sound for any musician, band member, or sound engineers while being lodged in the ear. Introduced in the late 1980s and popularized by sound engineer Jerry Harvey in 1995, the in-ear monitor works to block out ambient noise and filter out any sounds besides the music.

The monitor consists of two parts: the transmitter and the receiver. The transmitter sends wireless (radio) signals to the receiver via a half-rack unit. The receiver is usually a belt pack worn by the performer and the transmitted audio can be heard by attaching earpieces to the pack. The crowning jewel of the in-ear monitor, the earpiece, is fairly standard itself but can be tailored by engineers who use mold sculptures of the performer’s ear to produce earpieces that fit perfectly.

Singer on stage with in ear monitor

Using in-ear monitors is a practical technique that continues to allow singers to zone in on key elements of their music, but actors have recently implemented this into their craft as well. The 2012 film remake of the musical Les Miserables saw several actors use earpieces to hear the instrumentals during the songs, and in 2015, stagehands fed Bruce Willis his lines during his Broadway debut in the adaptation of Stephen King novel Misery.

Of course, as with any innovative technology increasing in popularity, the potential for error increases as well. After all, the in-ear monitor is still subject to human error. One of the earliest cases of in-ear monitor usage on a set or stage is also one of the most prominent examples of the device’s early flaws.

During filming of the 1996 box office flop The Island of Dr. Moreau, legendary actor Marlon Brando received lines from a film script via an assistant on his earpiece. In a comic twist, his earpiece would sometimes pick up the wrong signal, leading him to receive and repeat police scanner messages like, “There’s a robbery at Woolworth’s.”

So why do singers sometimes take out their earpieces? This loops us back to Beyoncé’s earpiece removal at the presidential inauguration ceremony. It was later revealed by an anonymous inauguration official that her inability to rehearse with the Marine Corps Band led to a rushed last-minute decision to lip-sync the anthem instead of singing live.

The in-ear monitor broadcasted her pre-recorded voice to her earpiece to make it easier to move her lips at the right time. Beyoncé’s removal of her earpiece may have been triggered by faulty feedback or a sound system going haywire in the form of audio bounceback during correspondence with the instrumentals of the Marine Band. Undaunted, she persevered with a convincing lip-syncing display. This is just one example of how the in-ear monitor could have negatively affected a vocal performance. As it turns out, Beyoncé’s not the only victim of in-ear monitor mishaps.

Demi Lovato also pulled out her earpiece in a 2016 AOL concert in New York. The visibly frustrated singer, fed up with audio problems that had plagued her evening, threw out her monitor and continued the show without being able to hear herself. To her credit, she handled the situation with remarkable composure and still managed to transverse several octaves in the right tune.

Incidences notwithstanding, the in-ear monitor is currently experiencing a boom in popularity among established artists and sound engineers and with good reason. Being able to mix in-ear music complements the ability to control what you hear and transmit to a receiver. As a result, several artists mix in reminders, cues, and additional beats to ensure they deliver a smooth and synchronized performance.

U2’s Bono earpiece cut of “Miss Sarajevo” features a voice counting the beat just before Bono is supposed to start singing. Mixing sound for in-ear monitors has become just as important an endeavor as any other preparation for a concert, tour, or stage performance, making this gadget an essential innovation for recording artist powerhouses, touring bands, and budding prodigies alike.

The best in-ear monitors in the market are still incredibly expensive, skyrocketing to prices of over $3000. However, overall they are more affordable now than ever before. Today’s musical prosumers can find a customized in-ear device for as little as $200 and still ensure a quality product that delivers on pristine sound quality and customization. 

The most important thing to realize when determining an in-ear monitor’s usefulness is that while the gadget may improve your show, it won’t deliver the performance for you. Talent and hard work is still THE essential characteristic to possess in order to nail that next musical gig. Perhaps that’s the moral of Beyoncé’s and Demi Lovato’s faux pas — when technology failed them, their humanity, will, and natural talent shone through at the most critical stage of their careers.

Sources

  • Beyoncé’s National Anthem at Second Inauguration, youtube.com
  • Demi Lovato can’t hear herself at AOL, youtube.com
  • U2’s Bono Earpiece When Performing Miss Sarajevo. youtube.com

 

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