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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Fig. A. M-Audio IE-30

After buying three pairs of Shure E2s, I stepped up to the M-Audio IE-30s,(Fig. A) which have replaceable cords (yay!). These worked well right up until last month when I decided to bite the bullet and order a set of custom-molded in-ear headphones from Westone. They’re better than I had imagined. The folks at Westone suggested the dual-driver ES2s for drummers (Fig. B). They have a rich bottom end, a smooth top end, and are comfortable enough to wear all day long, which I often have to do. Although a bit pricey, they are well worth the money.

Fig. B. Westone ES2

Okay, now that we’re all squared away on headphones, let’s get to the rest of the nitty-gritty. Below are two different options for hard-wired monitor setups. The one you chose depends mainly on the level of quality you’re able to afford.

Fig. C

Setup 1: The Budget Option

This first setup is not very elegant, but it has most of the features that the all-in-one units from Shure and Sennheiser offer, and is suitable for acoustic, electronic, or hybrid drum setups. It’s shown here paired with an electronic kit (Fig. C). For this setup you’ll need an audio mixer (eight channel with a minimum of two mike inputs), a compressor/limiter (mono or stereo), one or two microphones (plus stands), two direct boxes, and a pair of in-ear, isolation-type headphones.

For the mixer, I use an eight-channel Behringer Xenyx802. It starts with a stereo feed from the electronic drums that goes into one of the mixer’s stereo input channels. Use the “thru” output on the direct boxes to split the signal. Have a separate “band mix” sent from the band’s PA to another channel on the mixer, first passing it through the compressor/limiter.

Note: the limiter is the most important part of the setup. It prevents an audio signal from exceeding a set level. If you don’t have control of the level (volume) of a signal input to your mixer — such as a monitor feed from the band’s PA — run the signal through a limiter first. This will help protect your ears when the sound person accidentally sends a loud signal to your mixer.

Next, you’ll want to add an ambient mike into one of the mixer’s two mike inputs. Since in-ear systems can be unnaturally isolating, the ambient mike allows you to mix in some “stage sound.” Any decent mike will do, such as the Audix i5 (fig. X).

A bonus of using an ambient mike is that you can quickly point or move it to pick up an instrument that might be too low in the band mix. If the bass guitar is not loud enough in your mix, run over and place this mike in front of the bass cabinet between tunes -— boom! Instant bass! The more microphone inputs there are on your mixer, the more mikes you can place around the stage to control your own monitor mix.

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Fig. D

Although not perfect, this setup is adequate for a starter-level acoustic drum monitoring setup (Fig. D). The illustration shows an eight-channel mixer with two mike inputs. But in addition to everything listed in the previous setup, you’ll also need a mike-splitter box. This allows the kick drum mike to be split in two, with one cord going to the band PA, and the other going into the mike input on the mixer. Although a simple XLR “Y” cable would work, the mike splitter box isolates the two outputs from one another with a transformer, minimizing potential problems with ground loops.

I split the kick drum mike because I find that the kick drum is the first thing to be lost in the mix as the stage volume increases. So the second input is used, once again, for an ambient mike. If you use a mixer with more inputs, additional drum mikes can be added to the mixer -— each routed through another microphone splitter box — to give even greater control over the final monitor mix.

Fig. E

Setup 2: For The Control Freak

Until recently, the previous setup served my purposes well. I could fit it all in one case that I could easily carry onboard an airplane or toss into the back seat of my car. But although it was functional and inexpensive, it took time to assemble before a gig — time I didn’t always have. Once again, my monitoring quest was renewed. It ended in about two days, as soon as I discovered the Shure PSM400 hard-wire Personal Monitoring System (Fig. E), which has become my own piece of personal monitoring heaven.

The PSM400 has all the components of the previously mentioned setup, but in one easy-to-assemble package. Because of cost, I opted for the hard-wired version, which uses the P4HW body pack and a P4M mixer. A wireless version is available, but the hard-wired version is more than adequate for drummers since we’re chained to the throne most of the time anyway. It’s a near-perfect solution for acoustic drums, electronic drums, and hybrid setups, and I don’t leave home without it. Let’s take a look at the components.

The P4HW Body Pack

The Body Pack is the key element in this system. It has a built-in limiter, so that you’ll never have to worry about your head exploding due to a stray volume spike. This is a positive in my book. The limiter can be switched on and off, so make sure it’s always on! The P4HW also has a 15dB pad if you need to cut down the input level, as well as a high-frequency EQ boost if you want a little more sizzle on the top.

The body pack can function in stereo or mono modes. In stereo mode, the wheel on the body pack raises and lowers the volume of each side of the mix. In mono mode, the wheel acts as a mixer, controlling the volume of each of the two inputs. For example, you could feed a click track to one side and a drum mix to the other, while using the wheel to control how the two are combined. The knob on the top of the body pack controls the overall volume.

The P4M Mixer

The P4M mixer is a four-channel mixer with an auxiliary stereo input, which effectively makes it a six-channel mixer. It’s a very basic unit, but this is the idea. It was designed from the ground up solely to fulfill its role as a monitor mixer. There are panning and level controls for the four channel inputs, but the 1/4" jack-style auxiliary input level must be controlled from the source. Smartly, the P4M will recognize if you input a mono signal into the auxiliary input using a single cable (the left input is the mono input), and send it to both the left and right sides equally — go Shure!

The only perceivable drawback is that the P4M lacks any kind of EQ, so dialing in that perfect kick sound is out. But any mike I’ve put into it, so far, sounds pretty good. Channels 1—4 accept XLR, or 1/4" inputs (guitar-style tip/sleeve and balanced tip/ring/sleeve), and they’re all electronically balanced inside the mixer.

It’s important to remember — as per the P4M’s instructions — that if you plug a 1/4" sound source into one of the inputs and pass the signal through to the PA, use a direct box between the P4M and the sound source (like a drum module). This will protect the sound source from being damaged by any phantom power being sent to the P4M from the PA.

The genius in the P4M is that each of the four channels passes the signal through to an output. Essentially, there are four isolating splitter boxes built right into the unit! You can use the P4M in-line with the microphones, which will amplify the drums in the band’s PA. It’s like it’s saying, “I’ll split the signal and allow you to do your own little sub-mix for monitoring,” so you have almost total control over you own monitor mix. One more thing: check out how I route the audio signals in fig. X [illustration 3]. Note that, being the control freak that I am, I’m still using one of the inputs for an ambient/catch-all mike. Unless you have a sound person you can really count on for a great monitor mix, I think this is a good idea.

In Conclusion

Used in conjunction with the P4HW Body Pack, the P4M is an incredible personal monitoring system for drums. Although I chose the Shure system, make sure you check out some of the other options from Shure, Sennheiser, Nady, Aviom, Hear Technologies, and Rolls; there’s certainly more than one great system out there. You’ll also, of course, want to play around with inputs and levels until you find the mix that works for you. Experiment with different configurations; there may be one that better fits your needs.