When recording a song...

Why do singers and instrumentalists always wear those big headphones?

To block out background noise, so all they hear is the music they’re singing to, I assume.

You can use a speaker monitor in the room, but then you have to worry about noise from the speaker feeding into the microphone. Ideally, you only want the singer’s voice to go through the microphone.

They could use small headphones with crappy little speakers, but big headphones sound better and also don’t tend to radiate sound out into the environment where it again would be picked up by the microphone.

How do those big headphones compare to the in-ear noise-cancelling earbuds?

Those big headphones do a pretty good job of blocking out sound, though you don’t really need that in a recording studio since the booth is quiet anyway. Those big headphones also have a rich, fuller sound that you just can’t get from ear buds. However, they are big and bulky and aren’t all that comfortable to wear for a long period of time.

Speaking of monitors, what are the ones used in concert and what is their purpose? At one point in Elton John’s Tantrums and Tiaras video, he’s having to consider cancelling some dates because the monitors were bad the night before and he hosed up his voice. Can you tell me what he was talking about?

I’ve heard that many singers use headphones to hear their own voice. Properly set up, headphones allow a singer to hear their voice with a microsecond delay thus providing instant feedback that can help with tone, pitch, diction, etc. If they’re off note, they’ll know it immediately and it’s time for a remake.

Stage monitors are relatively small triangular/wedge shaped speakers that point up towards the performers, as in this picture:


When you are up on stage, most of your sound is directed out at the audience. This makes it very difficult to hear yourself or the other band members. Stage monitors allow you to hear yourself and others. With a bad monitor, Elton John probably couldn’t hear his own voice and may have sung louder to compensate for it, and ended up over-exerting his voice because of it.

Great. That’s been bugging me ever since I saw that video. I couldn’t understand how an old pro like Elton could get thrown off by anything onstage, but I had no understanding of what monitors were or how they functioned. Thanks very much for your answer and photo. I’m perfectly clear on them now.

For monitoring in a recording studio noise cancelling headphones are not the answer. The whole point is to have minimal noise outside the headphone, not worrying about not hearing what is outside. However intra canal headphones, in principle, are very good. But a recording studio is not going to have a stock of something that each random user of the studio places right into their ears. Nice big, clean, closed back headphones are much more acceptable.

The signer may listen to anything from the backing track, to something as sparse as a click track - providing nothing more than the beat. That plus their own voice. Importantly this enables a singer to work the microphone. Microphones have a range of specific characteristics, including proximity effects and directional effects that affect the frequency response. An experienced signer can control the sound of their recorded voice in useful ways by exploiting these effects. The nature of these effects are part of the defining sound of microphones, the difference between a large diameter condenser, and a ribbon microphone are dominated by such considerations, and the choice of microphone for a given singer very heavily related to these issues. Singers will have preferred microphones that they find suit them, and get adept at working them. But they have to be able to hear what is happening. It isn’t a matter of belting out a song and having the microphone record it, the microphone’s physics becomes an extension of the singer’s voice.

Just to add a tiny bit to what’s already been said…modern multitrack recording relies on separation of sounds, whether recorded at once or at different times. This allows mixing tracks at the final mix in any amounts – or not – that you wish, and allows adding of effects, like echo/reverb and equalization, in different amounts and types for each separate track. It’s all about separation.

Using speakers would not be good in a recording environment anywhere near an open mic because the speaker output bleeds into the mic.

Also, the players with earphones may want a different mix from anyone else; they may want more echo, more drums, whatever helps them perform. In a professional studio, each set of cans (earphones) can have a custom mix, and nothing they hear should bleed into the tracks they are recording.

Sorry for the hijack, but I was expecting a much cooler picture, like this one with Bruce Dickinson standing on the monitors:


Some bands are now using in-ear monitors for stage monitoring. It means that every band member can have an individual mix (mixer setup permitting), and it stops bleed from the monitors into the front-of-house. Also, things like a click track can be added to the monitors.

I heard a presentation by the sound engineer for a band called Delirious (a Christian rock band) - he said that with drum shields and in-ear monitoring, you could have a normal conversation on stage during a performance.