Surviving a sound check – useful tips & guidelines for players of all instruments
Purpose of Running a Soundcheck
Anyone who’s ever been to a live show has probably witnessed some awkward technical difficulties happening on stage: Ear-piercing feedbacks, mics not working etc’. Anyone who’s ever gone up on stage and played a gig knows how hard it is to deliver a good performance when you can’t properly hear yourself or your fellow band members. In order to lay the ground for a smooth running show, a soundcheck must be done in order to prepare the stage and venue before the crowd comes in. The key objectives of soundchecking are:
- Assembly of all required gear for both the band and the sound crew
- Reducing the likelihood of malfunctions during the show
- Allowing the sound engineer to balance between all instruments in a way that serves the show in terms of style & genre while taking into consideration the acoustic characteristics of the venue
- Allowing the performers to find their comfort zone on stage in terms of hearing a good live mix of their performance, having enough space to move around and achieving their desired sound.
Preparations as a Performer
As you get more experienced as a live performer there are several things you can do to optimize this process. Try focusing your efforts onto the following areas:
- Understanding your ‘sound’ as an individual: Even if you’re not yet a walking encyclopedia of professional sound definitions, listen to players you’d like to resemble and try to characterize the qualities of their sound. Then, learn how to identify these qualities by name and also of those you’d like to avoid. The more you’re familiar with the sound you’d like to achieve on stage, the better you can express yourself to the sound engineer you’re working to create this with.
- Understanding your group sound: Take a step back from the edge of the mountain and listen to the way your instrument blends with the rest of the ensemble. Does is serve the style you’re aiming for as a group? Does it support the other players while they’re soloing? Whether you’re a part of a big band or a duo, be open to feedback regarding the way you fit in the big picture.
- Gear maintenance: What do a buzzing amp, a keyboard with no middle C and a drumstick held together with tape have in common? You leave them at home. Also, know your equipment well so you don’t find yourself looking for the ‘ON’ switch in front of an embarrassed crowd, and always bring backup. My rule of thumb is to bring an extra to every critical item within limits of weight & space. For example, you wouldn’t want to play a metal gig on a high-tuned jazz kit just because you forgot where you put your drum key, right? Same goes for guitar strings, cables, picks & such.
- Technical Specs: This document basically illustrates to the sound guys which instruments you’ll be bringing on stage and how you’d like to have them placed. The validity of this document varies from an act of good will to a binding legal agreement. This depends on whether this is a gig in the neighborhood bar or a full blown concert at a large venue. It’s best not to show up at the venue with an extra tuba player or a 20-piece drumset unless you made sure the venue can handle it in terms of space and amplification. Sending out a detailed technical specs document would help to get you on the same page with the venue.
Working With a Live Audio Technician/Engineer (Soundman/woman, etc’..)
There are two kinds of live sound technicians in this world. The first kind is attentive, patient and shares your goal of putting on a great show. The second thinks of you as their worst enemy who’s trying to make their lives miserable. They’re not entirely wrong, either. Sometimes you do. How can you avoid that? Be aware of their process, learn when and how to integrate with that without interfering.
Different Stages of Running a Soundcheck
Before you start playing your role, the sound technician has to finish setting up the amplification system and run some tests and calibrations. This would not be the time to burst onto the stage and start jamming. As soon as you arrive at the venue, introduce yourself and let them know you’re ready. At this stage they’re running the show, and this would probably follow:
1) Amplifying each instrument: This would probably start with the rhythm section, followed by guitars, keyboards/laptop, any other instruments such as a guest violinist or a brass section and finally the lead vocals. However, this order may change due to schedule, people running late or just the technician’s way of doing things.
2) Achieving a good live mix: during this stage, the entire band would play together, allowing the technician to balance things out, making sure no instrument gets lost in the mix or stands out too much.
3) On-stage monitoring: During the show, it’s crucial that you hear your own playing at a good, pleasant volume. Additionally, you have to be able to listen to the other players. That can’t always be taken for granted, especially when large stages or high volumes are involved. For that purpose, several monitors are usually placed on stage so you can ask for additional amplification of any instrument you’re missing. Be alert and make sure you can hear all that you should, especially band mates you have to work closely with who might be standing on the other side of the stage. If you can’t hear their playing well enough, ask to boost them in a monitor close to you.
4) Run-through of several songs: According to the time you have left before the soundcheck is over, now would be the time to play a few more songs so that the engineer can get a taste of different styles & volumes you might be playing in during the show.
Soundcheck DOs & DON’Ts
- Try not diverging from the technical specs you’ve sent prior to the show. Most chances are that the stage setup will be already half done by the time you get to the venue. It might be too late to change the layout on stage, switching between instrument positions or adding a last minute musical guest. That is, unless you really want to piss off the sound man.
- Electric guitarists & keyboard players: Make sure your effects and presets are in balance with each other. A soundcheck is not a good time to surprise everyone with crazy volume jumps between your effect pedals or sound presets. Same goes for samplers, computer operators and such. It’s recommended that you work on that balance in a similarly loud environment such as your favourite rehearsal space, beforehand.
- All instrumentalists & vocalists: when asked to play or sing for the sound guy, don’t stop until you’re told to. Even if that means playing just the left tom for 5 minutes or singing A Capella until he’s done adjusting your sound. Additionally, it’s best if you sing/play something that’s relevant to the show and not “Itsy Bitsy Spider”.
- Singers – make sure you don’t chose a song with many long pauses between sentences. Keeping time & song form is great, but the sound man needs to hear you non-stop.
- If you’re playing a setlist with a considerable dynamic range, plan ahead and initiate playing some examples for the sound man. There usually isn’t enough time to go over the entire set but let them know if some songs are considerably louder or quieter. It’s best if you print out an additional setlist and write this down for them.
- Some players prefer using an in-ear monitor on stage. Let the sound man know as early as possible so he or she can plan ahead. Maybe they’ll chose to eliminate some on-stage monitors, resulting in a quieter, more manageable stage.
- If your band’s volume goes up to 11, try choosing a venue that can handle that in terms of size and acoustics. In less than ideal cases, try to work with the sound man to minimize the feedbacks and create a live mix that’s still enjoyable for the audience, as well as for the band on stage.
- Some shows might feature mid-set instrument changes. Guitarists that switch from electric to acoustic, singers who play that one song on the piano, etc’.. mention that beforehand so that the sound guy can make this work out on stage in terms of space and connectivity. Quick tip: bring your own extra guitar stands; the venue might not hold any additional ones.
- While the sound man is busy solving problems or adjusting the sound for another instrument, don’t interrupt, practice scales or take a drum solo. That’s also not the time to ask for monitor adjustments. Wait your turn and don’t make them feel like a kindergarten teacher.
- Arrive on time. Most soundchecks are limited in time. Chances are that being late might be detrimental to the process, especially if your instrument goes up first (I’m talking to you, drummers).
Running a good, productive soundcheck is crucial to playing a great show afterwards. Additionally, remember that your conduct during soundchecks is an inseparable part of your professional persona. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered many talented musicians who proved to be serial soundcheck killers. Good musical chemistry on stage depends immensely on the time leading to the show. Your fellow musicians would prefer playing with people they can trust and have a good time with. Use this opportunity to be that kind of player.