Marty Garcia (left) chats it up with Les Paul at the 2001 AES Convention in NYC’sNew York City, NY (January 20, 2005)–Twenty years in the music business is a long time for anything, whether it’s a band, a company, a road manager, or what-have-you. This year, then, marks the 20th year for a brand that Marty Garcia, an entrepreneurial production manager, founded around an idea that has largely changed the touring industry: Ear Monitors.
Long before Garcia founded Future Sonics, a company synonymous with personal monitors, he broke into the pro audio industry in the mid-’70s. Working with acts like Orleans, Hall & Oates and Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Garcia was everything from a carpenter to sound system designer. Focusing his expertise in the early ’80s, Garcia started Crystal Sound, a typical regional sound company, designing and building his own unconventional, horn-loaded PA with a 4-way crossover and UREI limiters on every band, along with a custom wedge-based monitor rig and console to match. The monitor rig sounded so good to Rundgren, in fact, that the artist bought it and subsequently had Garcia out on the road for the next five years to run it–and that’s where the spark for personal monitors caught afire.
Garcia preps one of his Future Sonics original PA rigs at West Chester UniversityWhen Utopia played larger venues, the monitor system had to compete with the PA and room sound; with everything louder, Rundgren pushed harder when he sang in order to hear himself, often suffering vocal fatigue as a result. Runs of two or three shows in a row could be especially hazardous, with the singer losing his voice.
Garcia recalled, “I said one night in 1982 or ’83, ‘If I could just get the sound in your head, at your ears, and deal with all these acoustical nightmares, that would be great.’ Todd said, ‘Well, I’m not going to wear headphones, but that’s what I need if I’m going to press on every night and keep my voice intact.’ So that’s when I went and got some ear buds over the counter to see if I could do something with them.”
Like all ideas, it required refinement. Initially, Garcia only wanted to send Rundgren’s vocals to the ear buds, eschewing the rest of the mix. Working with the buds and a hardwired amplifier, he presented iterations of “personal” monitors to Rundgren during rehearsals for the next tour leg. Among the first obstacles they faced was the seemingly simple act of keeping the buds in place.
“I happened to find some denture adhesive that was a tube gel,” said Garcia, “and I would literally squeeze around the ear bud and let it mold to the ear. All of a sudden we had a great coupled ear piece that was sealed, and things worked out really well.” Meanwhile, sending signal to Rundgren required homemade wireless equipment that essentially created a custom-made, low-power radio station using gray-market FM radios that went below the standard 88 MHz of typical radios. “We had to dial into a frequency that wouldn’t interfere with the regular FM,” he remembered.
In 1984, Garcia found a way to custom-build transducers into ear pieces that were fabricated in a way that was similar to hearing aids, and suddenly Garcia’s new concept for his Ear Monitors brand, was no longer a technological hack but a full-fledged, real product. Seeing this, he trademarked the term “ear monitors” and prepared a totally wedgeless monitor system for Utopia’s final tour in 1985.
“Everybody had the custom ears and finally realized it wasn’t just for the voice,” Garcia enthused. “These had unbelievable headphone sound that could handle the full mix. When they heard that in rehearsals then we said OK, we can do this.” Creating a minimalist stage for the band, the production eschewed mic stands as well, capturing the vocals via Garcia’s own customized headsets created from Itty Bitty Book Light-brand booklights with Isomax 101 mics built into them.
Garcia’s audio company, by now named Crystal-Taylor Sound, continued throughout the ’80s, providing sound for acts like The Hooters, Grover Washington, Jr., Miles Davis and Renaissance. During this time, it offered his Ear Monitors as a unique, proprietary tool, but in his own admission, “not enough artists had an interest in them, plus a lot of production people and audio engineers were worried that you might hurt somebody with this. However, I knew so much about it and had learned so much about the capabilities and all the issues, that my confidence was high–I just kept moving forward with my research and development without those concerns of liability.”
Word spread among artists, and by the end of the decade, Stevie Wonder, Kathy Matea, Reba McEntire and Gloria Estefan had all used Ear Monitors; Steve Miller, in particular, helped with R&D and research. Soon Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead became enamored with the concept and asked Garcia to convince the rest of his band to try Ear Monitors. The result was 1992’s Grateful Dead/Steve Miller co-headlining stadium tour, with both acts taking the stage without a wedge in sight.
While the product had always been maturing, artists and the pro audio industry alike began to take the concept of personal monitoring more seriously. Sensing the change, Garcia sold his portion of Crystal-Taylor Sound and founded Future Sonics in 1991, just as acceptance was rising for his unusual monitors.
“Everything was really well thought out,” said Garcia, “but a lot of people didn’t know how viable it was until the artists started saying how great it was for them and what a difference it made for their careers as a performer. They didn’t have an issue doing five shows in a week anymore.” Suddenly, artists could fit extra shows into a week’s performances, and meanwhile, other expenses like shipping rates and tour truck requirements were reduced as well.
Early on, Future Sonics worked with the U.K. company, Stage Radio (which later became Garwood), for a few years in an OEM situation concerning that company’s Radio Station product. Meanwhile, major pro audio manufacturers like Shure and Sennheiser began producing personal monitors, bringing both competition and newfound credibility to the concept of ear-worn products.
Despite the addition of such considerable competition, in recent times, Garcia and Future Sonics have continued their efforts to improve personal monitoring, with innovations like the Universal Earpiece, which allows people to use their personal monitors without getting custom ear molds. At the same time, the company has also worked on its own proprietary transducers which they manufacture themselves, as Garcia noted: “Our dynamic transducers have gone from 16mm to less than 10, yet we’re getting even a better quality sound with the way we design them today. They’re not reloaded armature hearing-aid-type drivers and our clients’ results and reliability reports really validate our choices.”
More products are on the horizon for this year. With the advent of MP3 and digital media players like the Apple iPod, new markets have opened to the company, as many audio aficionados have ditched the pack-in ear buds that come with such players in favor of Future Sonics Ears and Ear Monitors brands. Garcia hints that upcoming Future Sonics products will “blend in” between pro-user and consumer interests.
Despite all that, Garcia still works as a consultant for tours all year long, having advised seemingly every major band on the planet in regards to personal monitors and their proper use. One favorite case, he said, was his consultation with Barbra Streisand regarding her final tour a few years ago–a moment that he now considers to be one of the highpoints of his career, albeit one laced with some pretty heavy irony.
“It was going to be the first time she did a live show in 27 years,” he recalled. “I met with her at her home as a consultant long before the production staff was even involved; that kind of meeting often lasts about 15-20 minutes, but I was there for a good five hours. We went over how the concept could work for them, and I eventually figured out that it would work great for everyone on stage except her. She wanted it to sound like an Academy of Music room where the musicians come in with their own little cabinet, sit down and start playing–a space where she wouldn’t have to compete with anything. That was a high moment for me to figure out how to consult without actually having her get on ‘ears’ herself!”