Drummers – How to Set Up Your Own In-Ear Monitor System

Hopefully this write-up will help working drummers who need a better monitoring solution for live work. I had some good microphones I had collected over the years and a mixer but I didn’t know how to set up my own in-ear monitor system.

I use my own mixer to send a sub-mix to the main mixer and get an aux send back for my in-ear monitors

The Quick Read

If you’re in a hurry (or not interested in reading this entire post) here’s the deal: this write up is targeted to the working drummer playing in bands where the band is running their own sound (no dedicated sound man), which is very common these days.

In a nutshell, this is what we’re going to do:

  1. Set up your microphones.Connect your mics to the XLR channels on your personal mixer.
  2. Dial in your drum mix. Connect your wired in-ear earphones to the headphone out on your mixer and dial in a nice, balanced sound for your drums.
  3. Send your drum mix to main mixer. Take an Aux Send out of your mixer and plug that into the main mixer.
  4. Plug in patch cables to get your monitor mix. Take an Aux Send from the main mixer (or a monitor on stage) and plug that into one of your line-input channels. The key point here is you need feeds that DO NOT CONTAIN YOUR DRUMS.

If you didn’t understand that, read on. There is quite a bit of detail below.

The Longer Read

Want to understand the details? Read on.

Why In-Ears?

I’m a working drummer in the Southern California area playing with a few different bands. I found myself in these various, less-than-ideal situations playing live music:

  • I wasn’t able to hear all the players and singers on stage and changing that was frequently beyond my control.
  • I was at the mercy of whomever would give me a decent monitor mix.
  • I was tired of sharing a monitor mix with other band members.
    • I like a lot of bass for example, probably more than most people want to hear.
    • Hearing the lead vocal well helps me with phrasing and setting up changes.
  • I was asked to play live with recorded tracks, which means playing to a click track.
    • There was no way I was going to use a floor wedge monitor to try to hear a click mixed in with whatever else I was given in there. This got me very motivated to figure how to do this.

In-ear monitors were the logical choice. I started out on this journey using a high end pair of AKG recording headphones. They sounded great but the in-ears gave me the isolation I was looking for and sound great. Plus, I’m sure they look better than having cans over your ears on stage.

Bear in mind, there is a little work involved here. And you’ll be hauling more gear around. But for live gigs there is nothing better than being able to control your own monitor mix and hear the band (including yourself) really well. Also, I find I play better because with proper isolating headphones, I can get a studio-vibe playing live because I can hear everything so well, and I really get dialed into the sound of my drums.

So you’ll need to get accustomed to the following:

  • Hauling a few more items to each gig, i.e., mics, mixer, stands and cables.
  • Setting up your own mics and dialing in your drum mix.
  • Running patch cables to and from the main mixer and/or other musician’s amps for your monitor mix.
  • Convincing the band they should do a solid sound check so you can dial in your monitor mix.

That last one is optional. The more you do this the more you’ll be able to quickly dial in a mix you’re happy with on-the-fly. On my first couple of gigs mic’ing myself and using in-ear monitors it seemed like it took me a whole set to dial in my personal mix. Now I can nail it right away. But you will need to get used to holding down that back beat with your right hand while you make a quick adjustment to your mixer with your left. Don’t worry, you’ll get comfortable with it and trust me, it is well worth it.

Guitar player: “I messed up the chords on the bridge.”

You: “Yeah, I heard that.”.

And you will, you will literally hear every note being sung and played if you do this right. Not only can you adjust volume and EQ of each feed you get, you can also pan them left or right for a realistic and inspiring live performance. For example, I pan the keyboard player slightly to the right or left, whichever side of the stage he is on in relation to me.

Where Do I Start?

First off, you’ll need to mic your drums. They can be turned down as much as necessary in the front-of-house mix. But if you don’t mic your drums you are not going to hear them very well and you’ll be playing way louder than you should. In fact, if there is anything on stage that is not mic’ed or plugged into an amp, you are not going to hear it.

Obviously, this set up is not for every gig. For example, I sometimes get called to do very low volume gigs at private parties. We’re talking kick, snare, hi-hat and ride cymbal. That’s it. Lots of brush work and cross-stick work and a Paiste 602 flat ride. Super low volume. The whole mixer, drum mics and in-ear system (what this article is all about) is overkill in this case because I can clearly hear whatever the other musicians are hearing. So use some common sense on when to go with this setup.

What I’m describing here is a set up for normal to louder volume performances where the band is using several monitors to hear themselves. I’m no longer at the mercy of whatever floor wedge is near me. I can grab whatever I want sound-wise and plug it into my mixer. It’s a wonderful thing.

Occasionally I’ll play a larger gig where there is a dedicated sound man. This is where you need to know your sh*t and understand the basic concepts of live sound. In this scenario I let the sound guy (or girl) mic the drums and mix them and then I tell them I want an XLR for the drums only and an XLR for this and that. I plug those into my mixer and mix my own monitor mix. If the sound person is good, they’ll get it. But that’s not the set up I’m discussing here. This post is about a typical group that mixes themselves and therefore you’re responsible for your own drum mix.

After doing this a few times (mic’ing yourself and mixing yourself) you’ll start to see how your sound is going to improve and therefore the sound of the band is going to improve because it’s right there in your head. No more guessing what it might sound like out front (meaning tone-wise, and note-wise, obviously the room is going to sound different than your headphones, but you get the point). Mic’ing your drums is essential, so get used to mic’ing yourself.

The Self-Sufficient Pro

What I’ll describe here is how to get going for a self-sufficient drummer and what I mean by self-sufficient is this:
1) You bring your own mics, cables and stands.
2) You have your own mixer.
3) You have all the necessary patch cables to send a sub-mix out to the mains and get sends back for your personal monitor mix.

If you are a professional working drummer doing your own setup as I describe here, this will up-your-game because if you can play well AND do this correctly, other musicians and band leaders will notice that you are:
A) Easy to work with because you’re self-sufficient.
B) Sound really good because you’ve been working on your mix and your own personal sound (this will happen organically with the more gigs you play with this setup).

Band leaders usually smile when I hand them one XLR cable and say, “here’s your drum mix”. Not 4, 5 or 6 XLR cables, just the one and it’s been pre-mixed by an experienced musician, me. I usually take a glance at the channel where they plugged that XLR cable in on the main mixer to make sure it’s flat EQ-wise. The last thing you want is to create a great sounding mix coming out of your mixer only to have some clueless band leader roll off all the low or high end. Trust but verify on this one. It controls what everyone else is hearing as far as your drum sound goes.

The Gear You’ll Need

Here is the essential gear you’ll need to get started. As you get more experienced you may find you’d like to get a mixer with more inputs and start mic’ing your toms, for example. I suggest you start very simple at first with just kick, snare and one or two overheads.

Here are the essentials to get going:

  • A mixer with at least 4 XLR input channels with AUX sends, and as many other inputs as you need for your monitor mix (this will make sense in a moment, keep reading).
    • I say 4 XLR inputs as a minimum, because that will give you kick, snare and a pair of overheads. If you want/need to mic your toms, you’ll need 1 XLR input for each tom. This is often overkill unless you play in a really, really loud band and/or muffle your toms quite a bit. I use single ply heads and don’t use any muffling so I never mic the toms for live work.
  • Microphones suitable for drums.
    • The better the quality here, the better you are going to sound. It’s simple physics on this one.
  • Mic stands and clamps for drums.
    • I’ll recommend a few below that I use.
  • XLR Mic cables for each microphone.
  • Various patch cables for delivering a sub-mix and getting a mix back.
    • The types of patch cables will depend on what you need/want to do. Read on for more details on this.
  • A good pair of isolating headphones or wired in-ear monitors.
    • I’ve tried both over-the-ear and in-ear for live work and there’s nothing like the in-ear monitors for isolation. Plus, the in-ears look better because they are much harder to see.

Let’s Go Over the Gear in More Detail

I’ll go into a little more detail on the gear requirements.


At a bare minimum you’ll need 3:
1) Kick mic
2) Snare mic
3) Overhead mics (it’s best if you have a matched pair, but one really good one is better than two cheapos).

An absolute bare minimum if you are strapped for cash would be 1 kick drum mic and 1 overhead. I often use this setup in smaller venues. The snare cuts through fine with this setup. A larger room requires a separate snare mic.

If you play a 4 piece kit, one overhead will probably work in most venues. But with a larger kit, i.e., 1 up and 2 down, 2 up and 1 down or 2 up and 2 down, etc., you are probably going to want to use a pair of overheads. This will give you good coverage of the hats, toms and ride cymbal.

I typically set up 2 overheads for my 4 piece kit for outdoor gigs and larger venues. For smaller venues, I sometimes set up just one overhead. For really small venues, as I said, I’ll skip the snare mic and just use a kick mic and 1 overhead. Like anything else, the more you do this, the more you’ll know what’s going to work when you first get to the venue.

I personally use the following microphones for my live gigs:

Kick Drum Mic:

I use a Sennheiser 421 mounted off the bass drum hoop and pointing at the middle of the resonant head.

Mic’ing a Gretsch 18″ kick drum with a clamp-on mic holder so the lead singer can’t kick my mic stand over

I sometimes use ported bass drum resonant heads but that is more for moving as much air pressure as possible out of the drum so I get the beater response I’m looking for.

A ported Premier Signa kick drum mic’ing the resonant head with a Sennheiser 421

The ported head also gives me flexibility. If for example, I’m playing live or recording with an artist that really likes a dead, muffled kick drum (think 80’s). With the port I can quickly put a muffling pad in there. But typically, almost always, there is nothing in the drum. This method (pointing the mic at the center of the reso head) works really well for me and gives me a very punchy kick drum sound. I use an Evans clear EQ3 on the batter side and Remo Coated Ambassador with a felt strip on the reso side (I port them myself). Again, I put nothing in the drum and use the hard plastic side of my DW 9000 beater. I love this combo, it’s punchy as hell.

Again, this works really well for me, but you’ll see lots of AKG D112’s stuck in the port hole. I personnaly don’t like that sound. My head is not inside the drum, so that to me is not a natural sound. I want to hear that front head. But again, whatever works for you. This is very subjective and you’ll need to try different things to get the sound you prefer. I use a DW Claw Hook Clamp Mic Arm that attaches to the bass drum hoop, which means the lead singer never knocks it over and I can position it right where I want it.

Snare Drum Mic:

I use a Shure SM57 mounted off a rim clamp and pointing at the center of the drum. I use a K&M 24030 Drum Microphone Holder. It attaches nicely to both triple-flanged and die-cast hoops. I use this on my Ludwig Black Beauty, my Gretsch USA Custom, my Premier Signia and all of my snare drums. It fits perfectly on all snares.

Using a Mic clamp on the snare to free up the floor space

This is a great solution because it saves me from having to pack another mic stand and cleans up the floor around the kit. Another excellent mic I’ve used on snare drums is the Heil Sound PR 22.

I sometimes need to add a small piece of blue painters tape on my Ludwig Black Beauty because there is just a ton of tone and natural ring coming off that incredible drum. But with my wood snares, I usually don’t need any muffling. I use Remo Coated Ambassadors on the top and Remo Ambassador Hazy Snare-side heads on the bottom. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. It’s a combo that just works.

On my deeper snares, meaning 6 1/2″ or 7″ deep I use a Remo reverse CS dot that is coated. That head gives just the right amount of ring control and allows me to use brushes.

Overhead Microphones

I use a pair of Shure SM81 condensers. One for the Hi-Hat side and one for the Ride Cymbal side.

Using two overheads on each side of the kit

Or I might use just one of these if it’s a very small venue. If you tune your toms open, meaning single ply heads with really nice tone, a good quality overhead should work nicely. If you use 2-ply heads you’ll probably want to mic your toms also. I use Remo Coated Ambassadors on top (or sometimes Evans G1 Clears) and Remo Ambassador Clears on the bottom. Sometimes I’ll put clear Diplomats on the bottom to get even more resonance since I rarely mic the toms individually. I like them to ring.

Remember, muffling your toms or using 2-ply heads might sound great to you because your ears are literally just a foot or two away from the drum. But out front, they might sound like Tupperware. Let them ring.


I use a Mackie mixer that is somewhat old but a solid work horse. I’m not a fan of the digital mixers because with each limb doing something different, I need a physical, non-virtual fader I can easily adjust while my right hand takes over the 2,4 back beat for a moment. I don’t have time or enough limbs to touch a fader on an iPad screen. I need to be able to quickly reach over to my mixer and make a quick adjustment if for example, the keyboard player changed his volume and now he’s blowing my head off.

In-Ear Monitors (Earphones)

I use the Shure SE535 Sound Isolating Earphones. I’m very happy with these. The isolation is fantastic. So much so that if a guitar player for example, is not in the monitor mix I’m getting from the mains, I literally cannot hear a note he’s playing.

Why not a wireless in-ear system? If you think about it, what’s the point of getting a wireless system? You’re a drummer. You physically cannot leave your position on stage. Unless of course you do, i.e., switch from drum kit to a percussion setup for example. In that case, all of this info is still useful. Just take a master output from your mixer and plug it into the wireless transmitter. For me, I thought it made sense to skip the hassle of batteries and the transmitter and just plug the earphones into my mixer. They’ve got to sound better than a wireless transmission and this simplifies my setup.

Setting It All Up

I’ll walk you through a very simple setup. This is what I do 99% of the time. The other 1%, the venue is so small I just leave all of my mics and mixer at home and listen to the same floor wedge everyone else is listening to.

In a nutshell, this is what we’re going to do:

  1. Set up your microphones.Connect your mics to the XLR channels on your personal mixer.
  2. Dial in your drum mix. Connect your wired in-ear earphones to the headphone out on your mixer and dial in a nice, balanced sound for your drums.
  3. Send your drum mix to main mixer. Take an Aux Send out of your mixer and plug that into the main mixer.
  4. Plug in patch cables to get your monitor mix. Take an Aux Send from the main mixer (or a monitor on stage) and plug that into one of your line-input channels. The key point here is you need feeds that DO NOT CONTAIN YOUR DRUMS.

I’ll cover each step in detail below.

Example of how I label my channels

Step 1 – Set Up Your Microphones

For the Drum mix (referring to the above image):

  • Channel 1 is the kick mic
  • Channel 2 is the snare mic
  • Channel 3 is the hi-hat side overhead mic
  • Channel 4 is the ride cymbal side overhead mic

I recommend labeling your channels. This makes it quick and reliable to update things and avoid mistakes. You are going to be tweaking your mix while your are playing, trust me on this, and labeling makes this a no-brainer operation. I also carry a music stand light so I can always see the mixer in darker venues.

Step 2 – Dial In Your Drum Mix

Plug your in-ear monitors in and play a little bit. You want a nice balance of kick, snare and overheads. I highly recommend reading and understanding your mixer’s user manual because this will get easier by using the meters on the mixer. Your mic cables are coming into the mixer at mic level, which means you’ll want to put the volume or gain at “unity” and then adjust the “trim” or mic-pre level until you start to get the meter into yellow occasionally.

Don’t over-think this step. Can you hear the ping on the ride cymbal? Can you hear the toms? Does the snare have nice tone without too much ringing? Is the kick punchy and sound the way you prefer? Make adjustments now before you plug into the front-of-house mixer. If you hand someone an XLR cable containing your drum sub-mix and the kit already sounds great, they are much less likely to kill your sound by dorking with the EQ on the main board.

I always set my EQ flat. This is what good sounding drums and good microphones will do for you. There’s usually no need to tweak the EQ.

It is very important to be easy to work with on this step. Be professional. If the band leader says your snare is too loud, turn it down on your mixer. It should be a minor adjustment and the drum mix should still sound good in your earphones. The band leader says he doesn’t like the ring on the snare drum? No problem, add a small piece of tape. You can make adjustments without completely killing your sound quality. Again, be a pro if you want the phone to keep ringing.

Step 3 – Send Your Mix to the Main (front-of-house) Mixer

Once you’ve got the kit dialed in using your headphones, connect a patch cable from your mixer to the main mixer. The key here, and this is the magic that makes this all work, is to use AUX Sends and not the Main Outs to get your drums to the main mixer.

The Aux Sends mean you have control over what you are sending out

Notice my AUX send outs are TRS (Tip Ring Sleeve). Yours might be XLR. See this section below for more info.

On some mixers, the AUX sends are pre-fader, meaning you can adjust the fader (or gain) for your own mix and not affect the volume of what you are sending to the main mixer. If the AUX sends are post-fader, then once you get a good mix out front you can’t touch the faders (or gain) on your drum mics. But it’s easy to get a good balance because for example, if you want your drums louder, turn everything else down.

At this point if you can have someone play the kit and go out front and listen, awesome. But the more you do this, the less you will care because you’ve done it so many times, you know they sound great out front. Remember, no one plays the same as you, in terms of volume, intensity, whether or not they hit the drum in the center, etc. So learn to trust what you are hearing in your in-ear monitors.

Step 4 – Plug Patch Cables in to Get Your Monitor Mix

Now it’s time to set up your personal monitor mix.

Sample mixer when I play with a click, a monitor mix, and add the keyboard player because he’s not in the monitor mix

Basic Premise:

  • You want to send drums out.
  • You want to get other instruments and vocals back BUT NO DRUMS. This allows you to mix the other instruments in with your drums. If you get drums back it’s going to be very weird for you. So it’s key to get an AUX send back without the drums in the mix.

This is where the patch cables come in. You’ll need different types depending on what you want/need to do. Notice only the first 4 channels on my mixer have XLR inputs, so I need a mix of patch cables. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s what I keep in my gig bag:

XLR Female to TRS Male – 20 foot, 2 to 4 of these, depending on your situation. This is the cable you’ll use to get an Aux Send (monitor mix) out of the main mixer (minus drums) and back to your personal mixer. It’s also the cable you’ll connect to the keyboard player’s amp to add some keys to your mix, for example. If something on stage is not in the monitor mix coming back from the main mixer, you’re going to want to take an XLR out of that musician’s amp. Otherwise, you are not going to hear them. An essential point here is: whatever you use for a monitor mix cannot have drums in it.

TRS Male to XLR Male – 20 foot. 1 of these. This is the cable you’ll use to send the sub-mix of your drums from your AUX Send channels to the main mixer. Again, your mixer may have XLR AUX Send outs, this is what I need for my mixer.

Instrument cable – 20 foot. This is for a situation where an XLR output is not available or maybe you want a line level as opposed to a mic level. See this section below for more info on types of levels. For example, some direct boxes have a “thru” AND an XLR out. So maybe you want the bass player in your mixer because he’s not in the monitor. You can use this cable to plug into the “thru” jack on the DI box while he uses the XLR out to go to the main mixer. There are lots of cases where this cable will come in handy.

Key Takeaways

Here are the key takeaways from this post:

1) Mic your drums so you can mix yourself in with everything else on stage for a great musical experience.
2) Use the AUX Sends on your mixer to send your drum sub-mix to the main mixer.
3) Use the main mixer’s AUX Sends to get a monitor mix back, minus your drums.

I hope this is helpful. I had to ask a few experts how to do this and then learn by trial and error. Hopefully this will put you on a fast track to hearing yourself better and allowing the audience to hear you better.

Following are a few concepts of live sound you should understand to make this whole process much easier in the various situations you might find yourself in as a working drummer.

Some Concepts You Might Want to Understand

Having a solid understanding of some live sound fundamentals will be extremely helpful “out in the field”. Especially when things don’t go as planned or when you find yourself in a very unique situation. And trust me, you will. To get the best sound in your earphones you need to understand these concepts.

“I’m not a sound guy. I just want to show up and play”.

I used to say that and I also couldn’t hear very well on stage sometimes, along with the other issues I listed above. I needed to get past that attitude and step 1 was understanding these basic live sound topics.

A good source for these topics is your mixer’s user manual, but I’ll outline a few key topics here to get you going.

Phantom Power

Most condenser mics (the kind you’ll use for your overhead mics) require phantom power. Turning this on tells the mixer to send low voltage DC to the microphone’s electronics over the same wires that carry audio (the XLR cable). You’ll usually have this turned on all the time.


You most likely don’t need to worry about your other mics, it’s called “phantom” power because of its ability to be “unseen” by dynamic mics which don’t need external power and aren’t affected by it (such as the Sure SM57, a commonly used snare mic).

Aux Sends

This topic is a critical one for you to understand. This topic is the key to getting a monitor mix that does not contain the drum sub-mix you are sending to the mains and allows you to send a drum sub-mix to the main mixer that does not contain your monitor mix. It allows you to do all of this without an endless loop nightmare. So make sure you understand this topic well.

The AUX sends contain a portion of each channel signal and send that out to another source for sub-mixing. Your mixer will typically have two key elements to allow you to do this:

  1. An AUX Send Volume for each channel.
  2. An AUX Out to send the signals from those channels using those AUX Send Volume controls.

For example, your mixer channels might look something like this:

Example of a mixer’s channel strip with Aux Send Volume controls

Notice the circled knobs in the “AUX” section in the above image. This is how you control the volume of what goes out the Aux Send output, such as this:

Example of AUX Out Sends

Again, this concept is key to making this blog post concept work correctly:

USE THE AUX OUTS, NOT THE MAIN OUTS to send your drum sub-mix to the main mixer.

If you use the Main Outs you’re going to send your monitor mix back to the main mixer, creating an infinite loop nightmare and the band leader is going to hate you.

Each channel’s Aux Send volume knob controls how loud that channel is going to be in your drum sub-mix.

And this is why it is important to read your mixer’s user manual. It’s helpful to know:

  • Are the AUX sends post-gain control and post-equalizer, meaning do they follow the level adjustments for each channel? With a less expensive mixer this is probably the case. With a more expensive mixer (or a digital mixer) this is usually configurable.

Line Level vs Mic Level vs Speaker Level

You will find a few different types of inputs on your mixer and therefore you need to understand the sound source on the other end of the cable to decide which input to plug into on your mixer.

Microphones will go into one of the female XLR inputs. They look like this:

Female XLR Microphone Inputs

These will accept any XLR-type of male connector.

Mic level vs line level refers to the voltage level of an audio signal. Mic level, or microphone-level signal is the voltage generated by a microphone when it detects sound. This is typically a very small amount, a few thousands of a volt. Mic level is the weakest of the signals I’ll discuss here and requires a pre-amplifier (sometimes called “Trim” on mixers, or “mic-pre”) to bring it up to line level.

Line level is about 1 volt, or about 1,000 times stronger than mic-level. Those 1/4″ inputs on your mixer, sometimes called “line inputs” are for this very purpose. They look like this:

Line Level Inputs on a Mixer

These inputs don’t need a pre-amp (or “trim” on some mixers) and are designed for stereo or mono unbalanced signals.

Speaker level signals are even higher in voltage than line level and also do not need a pre-amp.

It is very important to match the device’s output to the correct input on your mixer, otherwise you’re going to get either too much signal or not enough. For example:

  • Connecting a microphone to a line-level input will give almost no sound because the mic-level is so low and there is no pre-amp to boost it up to line level. That’s what the Trim knob does on your mixer.
  • Connecting a line-level source to a mic-level input might be too loud or distorted. Although you can probably just turn the “Trim” knob down all the way and be fine. But remember, if that’s the case, you don’t need to use the channel with the pre-amp, just use a line level channel.

Balanced vs Unbalanced

A balanced audio signal comes from a cable that has 3 conductors: 2 signal wires (carrying an identical audio signal) and a ground wire. Even though the signal wires are carrying the same audio signal, one has a positive (+) polarity and the other a negative polarity (-). The reason for this reversed polarity is to eliminate noise and other interference. This is the best signal for running longer distances without interference or audio quality degradation.

An unbalanced audio signal comes from a cable with only 2 wires: 1 signal wire (carrying the audio signal) and 1 ground wire. Without the reverse polarity these cables can pick up unwanted noise and interference usually heard as hums or distortion. Because of this, unbalanced cables are best for connecting devices in shorter distances (rule of thumb is under 15 to 20 feet).


Balanced audio cables are typically either XLR or TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve).

Here is an XLR cable:

Typical XLR microphone cable

And here is a 1/4″ TRS Cable:

Typical TRS balanced cable

Note the two black rings on each end of the cable, this denotes the fact that this is a balanced, tip, ring, sleeve cable. If you see only one black ring, it’s an unbalanced cable. Instrument cables used for plugging your guitar into an amp for example, are unbalanced cables.

Patch cables, used to connect mixers and amps to your mixer can have either of these ends. This is why it’s important to understand the source of the signal to know where to plug it in to get the optimal sound.

That’s it for a crash corse on basic live sound concepts. A lot of these concepts transfer over to recording but that’s a post for another day. I Hope you enjoyed reading this and I hope this helps a few musicians who want to try this set up. The basic concepts here can work for any instrument, you’ll just need to adjust to your particular situation. Good luck and happy gigging.