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All You Need Is In-Ears


Aquarter-century ago, Marty Garcia had a vision of a different way of stage monitoring, where artists would wear earpieces carrying a personal monitor mix, thus eliminating the need for onstage wedges and sidefill speakers. After a few years of experimenting with pioneers such as Todd Rundgren, Garcia founded Future Sonics to refine and develop his designs for Ear Monitors® and Ears™-brand earphone monitors. But because live sound is a conservative industry, Garcia’s in-ear monitoring concepts gradually took hold, becoming more of an evolution than a revolution.

Garcia is passionate about his audio business and not content to spend all of his time bound to a desk. Recently, he came off a road trip with the U2 Vertigo tour, where he’s been working on some new earpiece concepts with The Edge and his audio guy, Niall Slevin. However, we were able to catch up with Garcia during a few rare moments of rest to talk about the evolution of personal monitoring and Future Sonics’ 20-year history.

How did you get started in audio?

I was working as a land surveyor, and this company sent me to work on the layouts of the Hilton Head golf courses. One guy I worked with was a singer/songwriter. When we got back to Philadelphia, he asked me to help with his band at local clubs where they were opening up for acts like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne back in the early ’70s.

What were your duties?

At first, it all came down to the fact that I had the van. I had extension cords so I was running AC lines, and later helping with lights and sound and collecting their money, too. A few years later, I was introduced to Todd Rundgren, so I blame him for getting me serious about the business. At the time, I saw personal monitors as a tool that allowed performers to perform in poor acoustical venues. Now it’s been 20 years since we did the last Utopia tour, and Todd’s been off and on in-ears since the early ’80s.

By 1985, The Tubes and Todd and Utopia were going to tour together. One of the requirements was that we wanted really quick set changes, where we’d segue right from Todd’s set into The Tubes’ set in minutes without an intermission, and the best way to do that is to not have any gear onstage. Todd was on Ears already, got the rest of his band on Ears and I figured we would supplement the mix with sidefills. The earpieces turned out so well that we didn’t have to use any fills. In rehearsals, Chris Anderson [Rundgren’s house engineer] said we should find a way to get Todd on a mic that didn’t require a headset or mic stand because he doesn’t like headset mics. So we took a tiny gooseneck book light, gutted it and put a tiny Countryman IsoMax on it and attached it to Todd’s lapel.

Then we took a small bud box the size of a couple of 9-volt batteries, put a special belt clip on the back with a Lemo multipin connector wired to Mogami cable and added a stereo earphone jack with a volume control, a guitar/keyboard input and a vocal mic input. It wasn’t wireless, but it kept the stage clean with only the “motorcycle” drum kit [Willie Wilcox’s custom “ddrums” electronic kit that was designed to look like a motorcycle] and three other musicians onstage tethered by their 80-foot Mogami cables. It was a very successful tour, and that’s how the Ear Monitors brand started.

These obviously weren’t custom transducers on that first tour.

No, they were Sony earbuds. I cut a deal back then to buy some 20,000 transducers from Sony.

You must have had high expectations for sales.

Not exactly. There was a lot of planned obsolescence back then. These were over-the-counter earbuds, which you still see a lot of people using today, but the best-sounding transducers made were back in the 1980s. I had bought tens of thousands of these, and tested and matched them, just to get a few thousand good ones. With a lot of the consumer earbuds — the ones that look like silver/black M&Ms and slip loosely in the ear — no one’s sure how good they sound if they’re matched left/right. They aren’t sealed and sit in everyone’s ear differently. It was a real dilemma for us back then and was very time-consuming. I didn’t have many clients at the time, but I had to go through dozens and dozens of raw transducers to get a pair that were right.

Is that when you got into molded designs?

Our first attempt used a special denture adhesive gel to make our first ear molds. We put the earbud in the ear and then put the denture adhesive around it to seal it.

Todd Rundgren in the early 1980s, wearing custom Marty Garcia-designed products: Ear Monitors, combo belt pack and lapel-mount vocal microphone

photo: Ed McCarthy

So it was an outside ear — rather than ear canal — seal?

Right. It would cure and harden up, and we could create an ear mold from that. At this point, we realized that we could get good audio if we had the right seal. This was around 1982, ’83. I later experimented with some hearing aid manufacturers and made my first “shells” — hearing aid — looking earpieces — in 1984.

How did your sound company come about?

In the mid-’70s, I went to to Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York, to record with my local band from Philly. Things didn’t pan out, and I stayed after they left, working with other bands like Orleans, landing a gig as a drum tech for the band’s two drummers, Ricky Marotta and Wells Kelly. Working with a lot of bands as a drum/guitar/keyboard tech, I got a good handle on the big picture of audio. I became a sort of production manager person, but I was very fussy about audio. If I weren’t doing the sound, I was busting the people who were to get it right.

I filled in for a friend as a stage carpenter on Hall & Oates’ 1978 Along the Red Ledge tour. During that time, I was thinking about building improved P.A. systems and started doing designs on paper napkins and such. In 1979, I started a sound company called Crystal Sound in Philadelphia. I had built a four-way, non-ported — horn house system with custom wedges that you could manually time-align using a stovepipe-style mechanism. The horn slid in back and forth and could be locked down with a wing nut, so I could adjust the driver alignment to make it sound right for the player’s needs.

One of the first things I learned was to work directly with the musicians onstage. I employed monitor engineers — not house engineers — because if I could make the monitors and the stage sound good, then the job would be much easier on the house engineer. I recommended that bands bring their own house mixer. As a production company, I didn’t want to lose a gig because the manager or artist’s spouse didn’t like the house mix.

We had a number of European clients — such as Renaissance — and in the States, we did a lot of fill-in work for Clair Bros. and Maryland Sound. Our company grew and developed because of the association with Clair and Maryland.

We also built our own consoles, with both house and monitor boards built by Louis Stephenson of Interface Electronics. We showed this 40×16×2 console with 4-band full parametrics on every channel to the Todd Rundgren camp and ended up doing their sound for five years. Curiously, that board still exists. It’s at Brookdale College in New Jersey.

How did Future Sonics begin?

In 1985, Crystal Sound merged with Taylor Sound and it became Crystal-Taylor Systems. Carl Taylor and I became partners, and we maxed ourselves out and I departed in 1990. We weren’t sure who’d buy who out, but I wanted to develop Ear Monitors and the personal monitoring category, and I took my trademarks and everything that had to do with Ears and Carl bought me out, which helped me start Future Sonics in 1991.

Garcia doing P.A. setup at West Chester University (Pennsylvania) in 1979

By 1992, I already had quite a few artists out touring with Ears, from Reba [McEntire] to Kathy Mattea to Phil Collins to Gloria Estefan. I was pretty much in full swing with those groups when I started Future Sonics. Steve Miller was an important resource for R&D: He was really into the Ears for both audio and eliminating clutter onstage.

Were some of these early adoptees 100 percent on personal monitors or did they require wedges as a safety net?

At that time, the principal singers — like Gloria Estefan, Kathy Mattea and Phil Collins — were on Ears all the time. Reba McEntire and Steve Miller had their whole bands on Ears. In 1992, I started working with U2, but it was just Bono [on Ears]. But when they did their acoustic set on the 1992 tour that was in the center of the audience, that’s when they discovered that the in-ears could work.

In 1992, things really came together. I got my Ear Monitor trademark. That was also the time that I started working with the Grateful Dead, who went full-tilt into the Ears. I had consulted with them for about a year, starting with Phil Lesh, who helped me talk the band into them. Steve Miller was already using Ear Monitors, and his band and The Dead co-headlined a stadium tour that was not only completely wedgeless, but also had no backline speakers onstage. We later received a TEC Award for Ear Monitors during the fall AES. It was a very prolific year.

I was just having fun doing this thing. There was no press, no ads, no marketing — it was all word-of-mouth via the artists. But much of the pro audio industry was against us in the early ’90s. It was too dangerous of an area to be dealing with, and there were questions like, “What are you going to do to these artists if you blow up their ears?” It was a valid point, but I knew the capabilities of this stuff and I couldn’t convince anyone other than meeting with my own clients one at a time.

Well, the idea of feedback at ground zero inside your head can be pretty scary.

True, but we had eliminated the worst potential source of feedback. First, you can’t make a singer’s vocal mic feedback even by putting the microphone right up to the earpiece, because there’s not enough level to generate that. However, that singer could walk in front of a P.A. cabinet and create feedback or walk past a wedge and cause feedback in that person’s wedge.

With Ear Monitors, feedback became an audible sound — like, “I can hear some feedback” — rather than a dagger. There can be feedback, but it’s never the same as a 2-inch [compression] driver ripping your head off when you’re a couple feet in front of a wedge or sidefill. But to me, having personal monitoring is more of an issue of saving vocal cords: preventing somebody from blowing their voice out.

You mean people having to scream because they can’t hear themselves?

It’s all about competitiveness. The guitar player turns up because the bass player plays louder, and then the drummer hits harder because the acoustics are bad and the bandmembers can’t hear themselves. Then the guitar player turns it up more, but vocalists can only get the wedges or sidefills so loud because of feedback, and they start screaming into the mic. So personal monitors became a vocal cords issue. Gloria and Reba and Phil Collins all had vocal cord issues, where they had to cancel shows to rest their voices. Phil once canceled an entire tour due to vocal cord strains. But when he switched to in-ears, that issue went away and he was able to get back on the road.

When did you first get started using audiologists to do impressions for artists’ ear molds?

It was back in 1984, with Todd Rundgren. We had been doing impressions on our own and were always careful, but as time went on, liability became an issue, especially to a small startup company. In fact, one of the reasons I didn’t start Future Sonics earlier was because I couldn’t get an insurance policy. Insuring someone’s ears can be very expensive.

Aren’t you glad you didn’t get into the wireless hardware business?

Actually, I did. In the early ’90s, I put a lot of money — hundreds of thousands of dollars — developing the Future Sonics Wave 700 radio. We still had a bug in our receiver and that was the time that Shure came out with their system. Sennheiser was coming out with theirs, and I decided that since these companies were the experts, I’d focus on what we were good at: making transducers for Ear Monitors.

When other companies started making multiple-driver, hearing aid — style armature earpieces, I pulled away from armatures and focused on dynamic miniature tranducer technology. When two-way and three-way systems came to market, that terminology created a lot of interest from users who felt that a multi-way approach must be better. I felt it was better to make a one-way transducer right and avoid all the electronic and comb filtering artifacts that come from multiple drivers. Multiple-driver technology may seem well and good, but the bottom line is when you make A/B comparisons, you’ll hear the difference in dynamics. Also, many people tend to mix with their eyes. We have always taken the philosophy of mixing and listening with your ears. We’ll never claim to have the highest highs in our earpieces; however, those are the easiest for the end-user to adjust with a little equalization. The hardest thing to create in an earpiece is low, dynamic frequencies that don’t distort, which is what we focused on.

When you first use personal monitoring, it takes about 10 minutes for the brain to decide whether it likes the experience or not. And for a couple-hour show, the brain seems to enjoy a fuller, rich, dynamic sound. We wanted our earpieces to sound like real speakers so people could tweak an in-ear mix and it would relate to listening on real loudspeakers.

Doesn’t part of that have to do with power handling?

It does. The transducer has to be right, too. It’s amazing how little power an earpiece requires to sound good. However, in 1992, the Grateful Dead’s Don Pearson [who co-founded Ultra Sound and worked with the Dead] proved to me that the bigger and better the Class-A amplifier was, the better the sound. We would take a Crown D-75 — a good-sounding amp for the time — and current-limit its 75-watt output down to a couple watts. We could hear all the transients, and the Ear Monitors had an unbelievable sound. At the time, people thought that it was earpieces that caused the problem, but it was actually having enough power to drive the clean transients. And these sounded good enough to use in the studio. One of U2’s studio engineers told me that on their last album, they used the Ear Monitors brand exclusively for tracking.

Are you still surprised you have to convince people about personal monitoring?

It’s still an issue. The biggest problem with veteran musicians is convincing them that it can work at all. And some of them want to use in-ears because they can’t hear as well as they used to or are tired of not hearing properly onstage. With personal monitors, as long as you have all the information, the mix can be whatever you want. If it sounds too closed in, just bring in some effects or a couple audience mics to open up the sound. The biggest problem is a lack of inputs and outputs from the console. It’s amazing that a product this tiny can create that large a sound — and these musicians know it’s happening for other artists. But if they try it for the first time and don’t get a good mix, then they think it’s not for them.

But after a good demonstration of the system’s capabilities, they see that perhaps they could stretch their voice and get two shows into a night and make more money. That’s what it’s about for artists who can do five shows in a week instead of three and pay the same overhead. And once people have seen in-ears used properly, they would never consider bringing wedges as backups.

That’s a lot easier on the freight bill.

It’s a huge, huge savings in freight and time.

What’s next in personal monitoring?

We’re continuing to develop transducer technology. In pro audio, I don’t see anything growing vastly in personal monitoring. We’ve been getting into the consumer/iPod market — Steve Wozniak has been one of our biggest fans in this area and loves his EM3s.

I liked the comment when you reviewed them in Mix [“Auditions,” January 2002] and said, “A little 1.5dB boost around 10 kHz added a natural airy feel.” Bass response is lacking in most aftermarket earphones, and that’s where the iPods and MP3 players need it most. It was because of Wozniak that we got into the Apple door and understood more about the consumer business. We’re starting to venture into the consumer field and have inked a deal with XtremeMac, a company that markets and distributes accessories for the iPod. We are to provide a co-branded earphone labeled XtremeMac, powered by Future Sonics.

So when you make your first bazillion in consumer products, will you remember your friends in pro?

Pro audio — especially in the earlier days — was never about making a bazillion dollars. It’s a passion. It’s about the Todd Rundgrens and Steve Millers and Grateful Deads and U2s who give us feedback on how to make products better. In the long run, that’s why we’re here.

George Petersen is Mix’s editorial director.