EAR Prompters – The Basics For Actors

What is an ear prompter and how does it work? It’s an amazing tool actors have been using for decades, and it allows you to deliver your lines word for word, without holding a script, and with no memorization. Producers love it because it allows them to change the script right there in the moment while shooting, and you won’t stumble over the new lines. Could the ear prompter be right for you? Watch the video of this post, or keep reading below.

First, I want to be clear about what kind of ear prompter I’m talking about because there are some other in-ear prompters out there and they’re different than what I’m referring to.

I’m not talking about the earpieces newscasters wear in the studio, or the ones sports reporters use in the field to report on a game.

Those are two-way systems in the sense that they allow producers to communicate with the talent while they’re on camera. Since the talent is mic’d, theoretically this can allow for a conversation to happen between the talent and their producer. These are IFB systems and though they’re similar to the ear prompter, they’re not used in the same way and not something actors use.

The kind of prompter I’m talking about is one which is controlled by the person wearing it, and instead of hearing a producer in your ear, you’re hearing your own voice reading your script, which you’ve recorded beforehand.

They’re used by actors on camera and in front of live audiences, and there are some situations where it’s actually better to use a prompter than to rely on your memory.

Actors can earn a good amount of money putting the prompter to good use, and I write about how much that can be in my book, Acting In Chicago.

I’ve also put together a free Ear Prompter Resource Guide (along with other helpful documents), here.

But first, here’s how it works.

An ear prompting system consists of two basic parts: an audio source, and an earpiece. The audio source can be anything from a micro cassette recorder to your smartphone, though I personally don’t use a phone for this work. I use one of those old school recorders.

Recorder vs. phone
Recorders can be old school or digital.

Whatever you choose, your audio source sits on your body somewhere, either in a pocket or clipped on a belt behind your back. Your earpiece can either be a hardwired part, or a wireless piece, which is basically a modified hearing aid. Either way, the system is only working properly if it’s totally concealed.

Choose your earpiece.
Wired or wireless?

Remember, you’re playing a role, whether that’s one of a narrator, an expert or someone’s broken hearted ex. You don’t want anyone to see your prompter and realize it’s feeding you lines.

What kind of system you choose depends on a bunch of things. For example, if you have long hair and can hide a hardwired piece, then that’s probably your best choice.

Wired prompters offer great sound and are generally cheaper than wireless earpieces. They come in generic shapes that are one size fits all, and you can also get them custom made to fit the shape of your ear canal.

If you have short hair, chances are you’re going to need a wireless earpiece.

Wireless earpieces
Wireless ear pieces, custom and generic.

They run on hearing aid batteries and they sound pretty good, though because there’s a radio receiver inside, white noise is present in the background of your recordings. That can take a little getting used to.

Also, when you use a wireless earpiece, you have to pair it with a neck loop. Most audio sources don’t broadcast radio signals, and the earpiece needs to get that audio somehow. One end of the loop gets plugged into the audio source, you wear the loop under your clothes, and it broadcasts the signal the short distance to your ear.

Neck loop.
Wireless ear pieces must be paired with a neck loop.

As far as recorders go, you have a few options. The first is an old school micro cassette recorder. You remember these? We thought they were so cool when they were new. Actors still use them because they are tough as nails and last forever. They also had great microphones, so recordings would sound crystal clear.

Digital/Analog recorders
Digital vs. analog recorders for ear prompters.

They’re especially useful for people with bigger hands, since when you use an ear prompter you’re frequently using the switches on the machine, rewinding, pausing, changing volume, and on set often you’re doing that blind.

Remember, the system has to be concealed, so the recorder is in a pocket or somewhere else on your person, and you have to manipulate it without taking it out. Maybe you need to adjust the recording in the middle of a scene or jump to another part of the script in between takes.

Analog recorders are big and heavy, but they’ve got nice big distinctive controls which are easy to find when you’re not looking at them.

Digital recorders are nice for their clarity. Also, because they’re digital, they give you the option of jumping around inside a script much easier than an analog recorder. You can also record multiple scripts as separate files, so if you’re on a job like a corporate video, and you have several scripts to do, you can navigate between them much faster.

Digital recorder
A digital recorder is small and lightweight, with tiny control buttons.

Their small size is both a pro and a con. It makes the recorder much easier to conceal, particularly if you don’t have pockets.

Lots of dresses, for example, don’t have anywhere to hide a recorder, so in that case you’d clip it to a belt where the audience won’t see it, usually behind your back.

But if you need to get to it, it’s much faster if you don’t have to look at it while you’re pressing buttons, and a lot of actors find digital recorders to be harder to use sight unseen.

The buttons are smaller, and sometimes they’re just so close together that you think you’re pressing one but you catch the one next to it by mistake. Some also have double functions and you have to press them twice to get to the function you want.

If, on the day, you do the wrong thing because you can see the buttons, it could really mess up your performance. You wouldn’t want to hit record when you meant to shuffle backward, and wind up recording over a part of your script in the process.

Speaking of recording your script, let me walk you through how that part works.

When you get your script, you need to get it on to the audio source. So you head to a quiet spot, grab your recorder and lay the script down word for word as written. Everyone finds their own ways of doing this. Some people like to record at a faster pace than they think they’ll deliver the lines, some people like to over enunciate to make sure they hear all their consonants.

However it’s done, once the script is loaded in, the real skill is in the delivery. Have a look at my narration reel.

I’m using the ear prompter on every clip.

When it’s time to shoot or give a presentation, the actor starts the prompter, listens to the audio and then begins to recite it out loud while they continue to listen, bringing all the intentions and nuances they dug out of the script and want to incorporate into the performance. They are acting while being prompted by the words.

If you want to try this, grab your phone and record a bit of text, maybe 30-45 seconds worth. Then put in one earbud, press play, listen to the first few words and start speaking those words. Keep going until the end of the text. For some people, listening and talking at the same time is really tough, but it comes to others very easily.

The goal is not only to recite the words naturally, but to also incorporate all the acting the script requires at the same time.

Ear prompters are used for all kinds of work. Actors use them delivering trade show presentations, in commercials, in long on camera narration pieces, I’ve even heard of one being used in an episode of an hour long drama, but that’s pretty rare. Mostly you’ll want to look into the ear prompter if you need to do a lot of material and don’t have much time to learn it. You can let the prompter do the work for you, and if the script changes on set, it’s not a problem to fix it.

2 responses to “EAR Prompters – The Basics For Actors”

  1. This video was very helpful! Do you have any amazon links to recommended products?