Once you’re set up with a wireless system of choice, it can be a bit scary to leave your ears at the mercy of the sound engineer – especially if they haven’t worked with IEMs before. Any mix moves they make should be subtle, but subtlety isn’t necessarily everyone’s strong suit. When in doubt, use the limiter incorporated on the receiver pack to protect your ears, or insert a limiter on the channel(s) where the monitor mix is coming in if you’re concerned about getting blasted by a careless or un-indoctrinated soundperson.
If you really want to wrest all the control of your monitor mix into your own domain, then you can go all out, drop a wad of cash, and commit yourself to hauling more than just your drum set to gigs. A lot of drummers tend to get into audio engineering because they’re good listeners and gear geeks in general. So here’s the scoop to having it all.
Fig. 4. An extreme solution for utter control: Your own multichannel mixer and splitter setup to take your monitor mixes completely into your own hands.
To be ruler of your sonic domain by making your own mix independent of the house system, get a multichannel mixer, a multichannel microphone splitter, and a few DIs so you can take all stage inputs to your personal mixer and send the same signals separate from yours to the venue’s PA from the splitter. You can horde the wireless transmitters by your kit, control the band’s mixes and your own independently, and be free from concern about the quality of the venue’s monitor engineer (Fig. 4). Of course, then you’ll be at your own mercy and will be doing double duty, and there are those out there who know what that means.
Whether you’re doing your own mix or working with a monitor engineer, you should realize that your mix has to be right because it sticks with you in your ear, literally. We’re talking a speaker right up in your ear – so one has to be sensitive and judicious. Louder is never better. For a good mix it is essential to consider the importance of the stereo field. The sounds should be panned to correspond with the stage plot for a realistic experience and to give space to the mix so that each sound can be heard as opposed to coming through as a layered jumble of frequencies that lack clarity and definition. Obviously, a mono mix will not have the benefit of stereo separation.
John’s approach is to pan the drums according to player’s perspective; put the bass in the center; and place the vocalists, guitars, and keyboards and such to correlate with the position of the musician on stage. “It makes it easier to hear the center if you take the less important elements and put them in other places. And it becomes easier to focus on little things when they’re placed off center than when everything is sitting on top of each other,” he says.
He cautions to go light on gates if they’re used on the drums for a natural-sounding decay. Both Richardson and John agree that too much low end will muddy up a mix. “I end up high passing the whole mix just a little bit with a moderate slope at 60Hz (because in-ears can’t be putting out 30Hz anyways),” John says. “I high pass most of the kit except for the kick drum, and take the low mids out of the toms – even the floor tom – basically leaving them mostly as attack, because if I don’t it makes a mess of the whole mix. So it may not be a perfectly great-sounding mix and it’ll have less low end than you want, but that’s why people add in subs and Buttkickers, so you get that perceived low end back.”
Because IEMs cut out 25—30dB of ambient sound, a realistic feel can be challenging to achieve, such as feeling the bass vibrations and feeling connected to the audience and to other musicians on stage. “Drummers like to feel the kick drum,” says John, who plays drums himself. “In smaller rooms you don’t have to worry so much because you can often feel the low end through the subs in the house, or there’s enough acoustical support to feel that bass in the room itself. But when you do big outdoor shows like this tour we just did with Dave Matthews, they could almost not tell that the P.A. was on because it was so directional and they were so upstage of the downstage edge. In a place like that, you could use a sub or something just to get the deck to shake a little bit, and then treat that like a regular wedge and send to that just a mix of the bass guitar and some kick drum. Another alternative is a Buttkicker – it’s a motor, but essentially a speaker, so you still have to send a low-end mix of bass guitar and kick drum to it. I prefer those over an actual drum sub because there’s less onstage noise.”