Have you ever noticed musicians wearing headphones when performing live or recording in the studio? Why is this? There must be a better reason than it making them feel like a “Pro”.
Musicians wear headphones when performing live and during recording for a few main reasons. Some of those reasons include:
- So they can clearly hear themselves over the sound of the band and crowd.
- In the studio they may be listening to a backing track or a “click” track (this is essentially a metronome to ensure they stay with the beat).
- While recording, the musician can listen to the other parts of a song without those parts being picked up by the microphone he is using to record himself into.
Follow along for a deeper explanation as to why you see your favorite musicians making music with their ears covered up. Seems a bit counterintuitive to cover your ears while making something that is meant to be heard (…with your ears).
Being able to hear what you are playing.
Imagine you’re Paul McCartney (the leader of The Beatles ) and it’s August 15th, 1965. You’re back stage at Shea Stadium in New York City getting ready to play the biggest show of your life. In fact, one of the biggest shows of its kind to date.
The announcer comes over the loudspeaker and welcomes “The Beatles!!” to come out and play. The crowd goes nuts! 55,600 screaming fans going crazy making as much noise as they possibly can. Much of the crowd is teenage girls screeching at the top of their shrill adolescent voices.
You take the stage and begin playing one of your hit songs, Twist and Shout. A few seconds into the song you start looking around at your other band mates and wonder if they’re experiencing the same thing you are. You can’t hear anything you are playing or singing!
And even worse, you can’t hear what the rest of the band is playing either. The only thing filling your ears is the roar of the crowd. Luckily, you and the rest of the band are highly talented, experienced musicians so you somehow figure out a way to play on through the show even though your sense of hearing is essentially nullified.
Imagine the frustration. Well, thanks to modern technology, musicians nowadays don’t have to be subjected to this kind of situation.
They can wear headphones that give them a customized mix of the sounds they are producing combined with the sounds coming from the rest of the band. Ah, sweet, you can hear exactly what you need to hear to keep yourself comfortable while your adrenaline is pumping hard in front of the crowd.
These type of headphones are called In-Ear Monitors. In ear monitors give the musician the ability to hear the mix of the music being produced without having loud speakers (traditional monitors or wedge monitors) pointed at them on stage.
Using In-ear monitors are a great benefit because:
- Traditional Monitors take up a lot of space and on a small stage with limited space this could be problematic.
- The volume level can be easily controlled
- There is no feedback (the loud squealing noise you hear sometimes from guitars or microphones).
- They are very mobile, so the musician can move around the stage and still hear everything he wants very clearly.
- They can prevent hearing damage when set up properly because the musician isn’t standing directly in front of a large wedge monitor blasting sound directly into his face.
- The musician can still hear the crowd if he wants to by removing one of the In ear monitors
Poor old Paul McCartney just had to tough it out back in 1965. Thankfully we have better equipment to work with now.
Check out this page from Sweetwater.com all about In Ear Monitor Equipment.
Using headphones to listen to a “click track” or “backing track” in the studio.
One major aspect of playing that sets apart amateurs from professional musicians is their ability to stay in time. What this means basically is that no matter what part or instrument they are playing, they always keep or land on the beat.
For a beginner player it can be one of the more difficult disciplines to master. This is especially true when the beat is a higher tempo (a faster song).
Modern recording studios set musicians up with a click track to listen to when they are recording a song. This is a very simple computer generated beat (a lot of times it uses a clicking sound on the beat, hence the name click track) that the musician plays along with when recording his part. Usually this is played through headphones he is wearing to hear the track very clearly.
This click track helps accomplish a few things to make the recording process go more smoothly.
First, it ensures that every contributor to the song is playing at exactly the same tempo. Musicians can record their parts even if they are physically located in separate areas of the world. As long as they all play to the exact same beat, the music can be properly mixed without any one player getting out of time or off the beat.
Additionally, let’s say that only one musician was going to record his part for the song, then the rest of the musicians would listen to it and record all their parts layered on top of the initial recording. In some cases this first track would be made by the drummer.
Without listening to a click track or metronome the drummer could have the tendency to inadvertently increase the tempo as the song went on. It’s a natural human tendency to want to do this. If the drummer recorded his track without listening to a click track he could accidentally speed up as he plays.
So in short, if you see a musician wearing headphones in a studio setting they may be listening to some type of steady beat that keeps them in time where they should be. Musicians are human and prone to error just like the rest of us.
The studio musician wants to listen to the song while singing his part without the music the background music being picked up by the mic.
We have all seen videos or pictures of our favorite singers standing isolated in a booth with their headphones on singing into a strange looking microphone. The headphones are there on their head so they can listen to the song they are adding the singing part to.
As you can imagine, this scenario would not work well without the headphones. If the studio producer was to play the music through a speaker located in the same room as the microphone the singer was belting into, that microphone would pick up the sound from the speaker and record it.
The headphones that the singer is wearing in the booth provide a mix of his voice (live) and the underlying music, so he can add the proper dynamics to the song (singing louder or quieter).
This way the singer can clearly hear the music and his own voice to record the best possible version of voice.
This article only covers some of the reasons why you constantly see musicians wearing headphones while playing live or recording. Each scenario could have its own perfectly acceptable reason for needing them.
Personally, I sometimes listen to music from my computer through headphones because the sound quality is much better. It really helps me a lot when I am trying to transcribe a song by ear from a YouTube video. Otherwise it can be very hard to pick out the specific guitar parts I am trying to learn through the little tiny computer speakers.
I hope this gave you some insight. Keep Rockin’!!