Drum shields, sometimes called “drumquariums” or “the sneeze guard” (have any others? I’d love to hear them!) are pretty polarizing when it comes to opinions, depending on who you talk to. I think it’s safe to say that most drummers dislike them and most sound guys (or girls) find them useful and purposeful. I tend to dislike them myself, but I do see how they can be useful and with the right combination of shield, depending on the room and the stage setup, it can work in your (the drummer’s) favor.
In my experience, drum shields which are usually made of plexiglass, and set up in front of the drums, mean that you have to play using in ear monitors. There simply is no way you’ll be able to play a show without going deaf because the sound of the drums is coming straight back at you, while simultaneously alienating you from the rest of the band. That means you would also have to turn your monitor up high enough to hear the rest of the band OVER the sound of your drums. I can also remember struggling just to communicate with my fellow band mates to figure out which song was next, forced to read lips because I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. The shield blocked all sound of their voice. I should also mention that the plexi tends to make the sound of the drums sound very “plasticy” and brings out the high frequencies like cymbals and snare drums. Not a good combination for a mix.
So if you are playing an acoustic show (I’ve been on jazz gigs where I was asked to play behind the shield) this will simply not work. I found that just promising to play at a quiet level is a much better solution, provided that you have the skills to play the gig at a quieter level. (If you don’t, work on it!!!) I could, and should start a whole new blog on this subject. Coming soon!
I have seen it where the plexi was either low enough, or set up to the side of the drums (either side or both sides) and in these cases I didn’t mind it being there as I didn’t feel cut off from the band or the audience and the acoustic sound from the drum chair was minimally changed.
Let’s talk about the positive aspects of the shield. Drums are loud, mmmkay? That’s just a fact. Now, when you put a grand piano next to the drums (with sensitive condenser mics inside of it), you’re likely going to have a ton of “bleed” from the sound of the drums into those piano mics. A show I have played for a few years now has this very configuration, with the added complexity of having an entire string section directly behind me and to the right side of me. Violins and violas are not very loud, and miking them is a pretty delicate task. In order for this to work, I have found that setting up a plexi shield around the back of the drums and to the right side and even a bit in front of where the ride cymbal is, greatly helps this mic bleed problem. The piano and string sections are now mostly isolated from the drum sound and the audio engineer can now mix each instrument separately into the FOH mix. This is huge! And what a large improvement it makes on the overall mix. This is a great example of how a well placed plexi can be a positive factor.
I’ll leave you with this last gripe. If you do choose to use a plexi shield anywhere on stage, please clean any fingerprints and/or smudges off of it! Nothing is worse than trying to look through a dirty, smudged, hazy glass with nasty grimy fingerprints all over it.