Monitoring For Control Freaks

A Quest For The Perfect Mix

My life is ruled by many obsessions: snare drums, ride cymbals, anything that uses batteries or plugs into the wall, and the search for the perfect monitoring solution. This quest began in 1986, shortly before my first “big” studio session in Los Angeles. It was a recording session for a film at Fox Studios, and I was called in as a percussionist — mallets, battery percussion, toys, the works. I realized quickly that this type of recording situation poses some unique challenges.

For one thing, as a percussionist, I found it extremely difficult to hear both the click track and the rest of the orchestra clearly. But the biggest problem was with wires. If you haven’t already experienced this yourself, imagine the tangled mess of wires six players running around from instrument to instrument could create. After engaging in many a “wire war,” we eventually settled on a solution that turned out to be the forerunner of the modern wireless systems we use today. It just so happened that it also toed the line of legality.

We realized we could transmit the click and monitor mix (aka, the cue mix) on an unused FM frequency. Keep in mind, you couldn’t just go out and buy a low-power FM transmitter. The FCC frowned heavily on this sort of thing. But someone got his hands on some schematics for a “b.y.o.” FM transmitter and decided to give it a whirl. The studio legend Larry Bunker built the first one of these that I’d ever seen, and it was worth its weight in gold.

In some ways this was a great system because all you needed to be able to listen to the monitor mix was a battery-powered FM radio. We’d wear a single ear bud, leaving the other ear open to hear our instrument clearly (which was particularly useful when tuning timpani). The downside was that not everyone owned a transmitter, and the FM frequencies were, of course, highly susceptible to outside interference.

As I began playing more drum set, both live and in the studio, an even bigger problem was becoming apparent: I was constantly walking away from gigs with my ears ringing. Loud stage volumes on live gigs were compounded by my having to crank the volume of the traditional-style headphones I was using to overcome the acoustic drum sound. If the monitor mix in the headphones wasn’t able to overpower the drum bleed, I couldn’t hear the click. Needless to say, bad things happened when I couldn’t hear the click.

As electronics began to find their way into my drum setup, the need for good monitoring grew. Since electronic instruments have no inherent acoustic sound, good monitoring is the only way to hear them properly.

The combination of constantly ringing ears and a growing obsession with electronics fueled my quest for the perfect monitoring solution — one that allows for lower volume levels and a clear, individually tailored monitor mix. For the past ten years I’ve worked as an electronic drum clinician. This line of work led me to the early conclusion that a portable in-ear system is a “must have.” Especially since every clinic has a different sound system quality — ranging from excellent to downright painful. But with so many in-ear monitoring options currently on the market, where does one start? As it happens, the question that determines the answer to that is simpler: why does one start?

Purpose Of The Quest

Our ability to clearly hear what is going on around us directly effects how well we play, both physically and mentally. When I can’t hear my own drums well enough, I compensate by hitting them harder. As I hit the drums harder, my muscles tend to tighten up, sending any possibility of finesse out the window. In addition, crummy-sounding drums are enough to break the spirit, causing you to lose excitement and the will to drum. Think back to a gig when the sound was just perfect. It was pretty inspiring, wasn’t it? Being in control of your monitor mix can make every gig an inspiration. Even if you don’t use the mikes for front-of-house amplification on a particular gig, you can at least use them to create your personal monitor mix.

The goal of a personal monitoring system is to put you in control of the monitor level and, ultimately, the monitor mix. The ability to make the decision at any time that you’d like less of the guitar player and more of yourself is a goal worth striving for. To do this, you need the ability to mix the sound of your drums with a general band mix. You can achieve this with a simple mixer and a few mikes. In addition, you’ll need to be able to block out the acoustic stage volume reaching your ears.

A quick note on that front: your ears are the only ones you’re going to be issued in your life, so protect them while you can. If your ears ring after practicing or performing, they’re being exposed to too much volume. Wear hearing protection when in any loud environment, especially practicing. Try a set of universal-fit earphones like the kind marksmen use, which can block out up to 20dB or more of ambient sound. Better yet, spend the money and have a set of custom-molded earplugs made. In 20 years you’ll be thankful that you did. Believe me, I’d really like to have back some of the hearing I lost in my right ear from the JC-120 guitar amp that bludgeoned me nightly for the first three years of the ’80s.

In-Ear Monitor Selection

I am very hard on headphones, as I always seem to have a pair in my ears (even now as I sit here writing this). Until recently, I used universal-fit, isolating in-ear headphones. The first ones I tried were the Shure E2s. They sounded good, but I’d go through a pair every eight months or so because the wires would inevitably break somewhere along the cord, which is not detachable, and therefore not replaceable.

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