BY JIM BATCHO
If you’ve been playing drums long enough, no doubt you’re intimately familiar with the unpredictable nightmare that is the onstage monitor mix. A bad one can destroy a gig, or worse, threaten to destroy your eardrums. If you’re a singing drummer, the issue becomes even more ugly. While in-ear monitoring systems promise to be the cure-all to these ills, the search for a quality, comprehensive system can lead one down a very expensive path. But with the new PSM 200, Shure aims to alleviate some of the financial burden while also including a feature-set that all drummers should find intriguing.
The PSM 200 includes three principal components – the E2 Dynamic-Driver Earphones, the P2R Hybrid Bodypack Receiver, and the P2T Wireless TransMixer. Taken as a whole, the PSM 200 system provides mix control over three separate inputs, good fidelity for the price, and comfortable earpieces that isolate just what’s needed. The whole thing retails for less than $800. For the true penny-pincher, each of the three components is available individually, allowing you to add the TransMixer later, for example, or upgrade the earpieces.
The uniquely liberating aspect of the PSM 200 lies in the ingeniously designed P2T Wireless TransMixer. Most in-ear systems only include a receiver and earphones, leaving things up to the unpredictable whims of the sound guy to give you a good mix. The TransMixer is an additional component to the receiver – essentially a two-channel line mixer. You can hook up two separate signals of various types and mix them individually. For example, you can connect a kick mike plus a monitor feed, mix them, then send the kick from there to the PA system. The P2R receiver then picks up the mix you determine and, of course, sends the mix to the earpieces. The P2R also has an additional quarter-inch input if needed for integrating a click track from your own metronome, for example. A volume knob adjusts the whole three-channel mix and a high/low volume switch ensures that drummers always have ample gain. A limiting function protects against any sudden spikes in volume.
The PSM 200 is rounded out by its third component – the E2 earphones. Making sense of the E-series hierarchy takes some time. The E2 is the newest to the family, but the E1 and E5 feature better sound specs. The pricing scheme is similarly nonlinear, but the prices seem to match the feature set of each pair. On their own the E1 retails at $149, the E2 retails at $99, and the far superior E5 checks in at $499. The E2, which is part of the PSM 200, features a dynamic transducer type, while the E1 and E5 have low mass, high energy transducers. The E2 also has a lower impedance rating than its cousins, yet it churns out plenty of gain without adversely affecting sound quality. One benefit of the E2 over the others is its inclusion of several sizes of both foam and flex earpiece sleeves. This is a good thing, since the E2 doesn’t support custom-made ear molds like the E1 and E5 do.
THE GOOD, THE NOT SO GOOD, AND THE WAY COOL.
There’s a lot of ground to cover in a review like this, so we’ll start with the basics. The PSM 200 is handsomely packaged and well-organized, with handy zippered pouches for all components and comprehensive documentation. The kit includes nearly everything you might need to operate the system, right down to a Duracell 9-volt battery. It includes a quarter-inch cable of usable length, but I do wish it had a quarter-inch to XLR adaptor so that it could attach directly to XLR stage snakes. I highly recommend buying one and keeping it with you in case a particular sound engineer is only able to work with XLR inputs on stage. A workaround is to have the TransMixer placed near the monitor engineer’s board for easy patching, but then you lose the ability to mix the two input signals yourself while performing.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the PSM 200 lies in its versatility. Depending on the needs of the gig, up to three discrete signals can be routed for monitoring. It functions in both wireless and wired mode, depending on configuration. It operates with or without the TransMixer – the latter situation occurring in wired mode if you only need a monitor engineer’s band mix, for example. The TransMixer accepts both line level and mike level signals, and it passes phantom power, enabling the use of both dynamic and condenser microphones. And, as mentioned, you can upgrade the earpieces down the road if they don’t meet your satisfaction.
The PSM 200 provides unprecedented monitor mix control for drummers and does it in a manner that is understandable, even by a signal-flow novice. For example, you can mix just the desired kick and vocal you want, or kick and auxiliary signal you want. Patch a line-level signal from a metronome into the receiver’s quarter-inch input and you’re in complete monitoring bliss. And yes, if you need it, the PSM 200 can get loud. But the beauty is it’s not necessary – the system obviates the need for such high volumes. The earpieces provide ample isolation of external sound, so all you need is a pleasant, low-volume mix of your choice. With this system, gone are the days of asking for more and more gain through your stage wedge. Finally, in a rare state of affairs for drummers, you have the choice of hearing what you want during your gig at the volume you choose. Topping everything off is the relatively low cost for the entire thing – $798 MSRP.
I tested the PSM 200 over a series of roughly six to eight gigs with two different bands. I don’t sing with my main touring band, so I used the rig in one of two scenarios, either by passing the kick through the TransMixer and integrating a monitor mix into its other channel or, more often, by just using a single monitor feed. A note should be made here about sound guys. Too often, when the drummer mentions that he has an in-ear system, they’ll respond withsome type of frustrated body language like rolling eyes or head shaking. Many of them simply don’t like to deal with in-ears.
Don’t be alarmed by the occasionally temperamental nature of these nocturnal creatures. Just maintain a sense of calm by reassuring them that everything will be okay. You don’t want to make enemies. Although the TransMixer gives you a good deal of control, you will want a good auxiliary mix from the board operator.
In use, the drum kit sounded quite pleasant, particularly on high-to-mid-frequency instruments like snare, cymbals, and toms. There is a clarity and detail to the E2s that is surprising, given their entry-level design. It’s not a “warm” character by any means, and comes precariously close to overly bright. But higher frequency signals are better anyway for monitoring since they cut through. Still, a single EQ knob might have been a nice addition. A full-band mix was strong and pleasant enough to monitor, certainly far superior to the mixes we drummers are used to hearing. Bass guitar was pure and full and guitar, keyboards, woodwinds, and lead vocal all came through nicely.
The one shortcoming, although not to a detrimental effect, was the all-important kick drum signal. I noticed a consistent theme of thinness to the kick even when I input the signal myself. This wasn’t all bad though; as with other instruments, the kick was pure, well defined, and even punchy to some degree. But you know that woomf! you get with a nice wedge? That wasn’t quite there anymore, so it takes some getting used to. If you’re not a golden-eared stickler for sound, you’re likely to be pleased with the presence and clarity the system offers over stage monitoring. I certainly was. Remember that you can always upgrade to E1s or E5s if the E2s aren’t cutting it.
As a singing drummer for my other band, I took full advantage of the TransMixer. I sent my SM58 mike to channel one and a monitor mix of my own tweaking to channel two. Channel one was then routed to my band’s Mackie PA system. My voice on channel one sounded clear and present, and it was a trip to actually hear my vocal come through strong and clear without subjecting myself to harmful stage levels. I’m sure many singing drummers can relate to how difficult this is to achieve. I was in monitoring heaven for the first time ever, and as a result, I don’t think I’ve ever sung as confidently. Using the TransMixer, I was able to change the mix of my vocal and the band over the course of a couple songs until I was happy. Again, the kick sounded detailed and strong, but lacked that oomph that comes from actual air pushing through a speaker cone.
IS IT YOUR CUP OF TEA?
As a system geared toward more budget-conscious musicians, the PSM 200 makes an attractive proposition. But the fact that it is at that price point means that it resides within the market of drummers who play in clubs and small theatres. This carries some potential problems inherent to in-ear systems, which I should make clear. Going with an in-ear system is a bit like joining a cult. First, it’s easy to get hooked on them. Second, and more significantly, those bandmates who haven’t joined up can feel left out. Unless you’re playing with a major touring act, a band can’t always rely on having an adequate number of monitor mixes. Since one of the mixes is stuffed in your ear, those without in-ears suffer. This happened to me on a recent gig when I was using the PSM 200 and the singer was using her Sennheiser in-ear. We only had three monitor mixes, so the guitarist and horn player had to share the remaining one. This led to significantly reduced stage volume, which can be a wonderful thing in many ways, but it also meant that the bass player was left out. He struggled all night trying to hear the lead vocal, guitar, and kick drum. Bassists and drummers often share a monitor mix when they’re scarce, but this is difficult to achieve with a drummer who uses in-ears. It would have been possible to loop my aux send mix through the PSM 200 on its way to the amps that power the wedges, thereby enabling the bassist and me to share a mix. But as mentioned previously, this would require the sound engineer to maintain control over the TransMixer. None of this is meant to be a knock against the PSM 200 at all. I’m simply pointing out a truth about in-ear monitoring.
If it works within your band context, the PSM 200 is easy to recommend. The price is excellent for what you get and the combination of hearing your preferred mix strongly at low volumes and protecting your ears at the same time equals drummer nirvana. If you’re a singing drummer on a budget, you should take a serious look into the PSM 200, even with its minor shortcomings in fidelity. When you consider the main problems drummers encounter as live performers – inability to hear a reliable mix and ear protection – the PSM 200 is a godsend.
Model: Shure PSM 200 In-Ear Monitoring System
Components: P2T Wireless TransMixer, P2R Hybrid Bodypack Receiver, E2 Dynamic-Driver Earphones
Features: Built-in audio limiter, front mounted antenna, two mike/line input channels for mix control, 1/2 rack space
Operating controls: Input level control, frequency select
LED Indicators: Tri-color input level, frequency
Inputs: (2) Mike/line, XLR-1/4″ combo input channels
Outputs: (2) XLR split outputs
Features: Frequency locator, built-in headphone limiter, integrated cable management, high-impact plastic chassis, 1/4″ line input jack with high/low gain switch
Operating Controls: Volume knob, frequency select
LED Indicators: Power, RF reception, frequency, limiter, low battery
Transducer Type: Dynamic
Sensitivity (at 1 kHz): 105 dB SPL/mW
Impedance (at 1 kHz): 16 ohms
Output Connector: Gold-plated stereo, 3.5mm (1/8-inch) phone plug
Cable Length: 1.57 m (62 in.)