Wednesday, 28 November 2012

the ultimate guide to soundchecking. maybe.

I may not be the number one world expert particle physics or the leading voice on crochet, but there is one thing that I am undeniably an expert on - soundchecking and linechecking. 

As a veteran of well over 500 gigs over the last twenty years and having been a sound guy soundchecking other people's bands, I can say I know definitely my onions without feeling any false bravado. 

I've gigged with some of the worlds most famous and professional bands on and watched them or their crew soundcheck. I've also seen many hundreds of small bands sabotage their own gig by not quite understanding what the sound check is for. 

I've played outdoor gigs to thousands of people and tiny little venues to 6 people. Wherever you are playing, the purpose of the soundcheck is exactly the same. 

1. For each member of the band to hear what they need to hear via the monitors on stage, ensuring that that they play well.

2. For the sound engineer(s) to set the gain, sort out any eq, dynamics, effects etc. and give you a mix that will sound great out front.

It is not time to:

1. pose or chat about the latest series of Breaking Bad.
2. practice your new flashy licks or the middle 8 of the new song.
3. check out new tones on your amp or pedals.
4. be difficult to cultivate your "cool" image.
5. impress everyone with your songs.

The last one is important, this is not the time to impress anyone, save that for the gig itself. There may be the awesome guitarist of the headline band standing at the bar watching you but don't be tempted to start showing off. If you really want to impress him, do the soundcheck like a pro. They will be much more likely to watch the actual gig then. 

I've seen bands that appear on the front of magazines soundchecking in their pyjamas and embarrassing specs. I've also seen them go from flakey difficult arty types off-stage to thoroughly professional, soundchecking automatons when called to do their soundcheck duty. I'm sure you've seen the roadies set up the stage for a band at a festival when it's all performed like a highly planned SAS assault. It should be the same with you and your soundcheck. For my last band, even if we were arguing and hadn't slept for three days, when it came to soundcheck, Andy Mcnab mode kicked in and we were all thoroughly on it.

Unless you are a touring band with your own crew and a whole day to kill in a venue, sound checks are definitely NOT the time for dicking around. That will only cut into your allotted time and annoy the sound engineer. Worst of all, if you dick around, the on-stage sound will effectively be random and irritating when you come to play. Wonder why there's horrific feedback and you don't know where you are in the song? That's because you didn't do the soundcheck properly dummy.

If you have your own sound engineer the whole thing is a well rehearsed routine. But for the sake of an example, lets imagine that you are supporting a mid/level band at a fairly decent venue that holds 300-400 people. You don't have your own sound engineer, you are using all your own gear and this is your big chance to impress a load of new fans. Its the first gig of the headline band's tour, so their soundcheck has overrun by an hour while they iron out technical issues and because the NME insists on photographing them on the stage. They have totally eaten up your soundcheck time and you now have a maximum of 15 minutes to get yourself and the sound people ready before the venue doors open. 

The worst thing you can do is wait and watch the nightmare unfold, get a pint and hope the NME start asking you questions too. Then when the stage is free start unpacking your drums and guitars, set up on stage and start jamming. By the time you've set up the doors will be opening and you've fucked it. The sound person will have had to quickly try to check that the lines are working and you will leave the stage not knowing how it sounds and potentially with some instruments not being heard out front. It's then a roll of the dice whether the gig will be decent or not. Most likely not.

Faced with that 15 minute nightmare scenario soundcheck, this is how it's done.

As soon as you arrive at the venue, introduce yourself to the in-house sound engineer and if there is one, the monitor engineer. These people will be working really hard for you so find out their name and treat them really well. If you're eating delicious chic chip cookies, offer them one. If you haven't sent them a tech rider in advance, let them know the set up of your band and the rough sound you are after. Communicate it words that they will understand. Don't say "we want to sound powerful and passionate". Say "kind of a dry foofighters sound" or "new folk with plenty of vocal reverb" or whatever. 

Also let them know where on the stage you need power and how many vocals there are. Find out how they would like to run the soundcheck and write down your monitor requirements. It might look something like this:

lots of kick. some snare and bass. a touch of guitars and both vocals.

BASSIST - Rachael (stage right) 
lots of bass and lead vocal, some kick and snare, some guitars. No backing vocals.

GUITARIST - Quentin (stage left) 
lots of guitar and own vocal, a small amount of bass and lead vocal

VOCALIST - Bunny (centre stage)
lots of lead vocal and a touch of guitar. Nothing else.

While the NME's hottest new band are eating into your precious soundcheck time, after you've let the in-house engineers know the score, unpack your gear in a corner and quietly completely build your drum kit, amps, pedal boards etc. This means that when the stage is clear you can just lift or roll everything on stage and have everything miked up and plugged in in three or four minutes. Then once you know everything is working, be quiet and wait for the engineer's instructions. if the amp is making the right sound then don't start playing your best licks. If the sound person is clipping a mic to the underside of your snare don't play the drums and deafen the guy. If it's working and in position, leave it.

Usually you will start with the kick drum. While the rest of the band are quiet, hit it just as hard as you will for the gig. Four on the floor at about 100bpm will be perfect for the engineer. If you do lots of quick doubles in your set, throw a couple of them in there so that the engineer can check the gates. If there is a monitor engineer, let him know if you want the level of the kick drum up or down in your monitor using hand signals. remember to smile and thank him when it's set. Keep going until the front of house guy is happy. If he's doing your monitors then let him know if you want some in your monitor. This goes for the rest of the band too. If the bassist wants some kick drum, now's the time to mention it. 

Next up is snare, same deal. blap blap blap at 100 bmp until the front of house guy is happy and whoever wants to hear it, can. 

The engineer(s) will keep going in this manner through all of the instruments and channels. Along the way you can make sure that you can hear it in your monitor if you want to. 

When it comes to guitars or synths, play various loud and quiet sounds so that the engineer can make sure it sounds good for all of them. If he recommends that you turn your distorted channel down, he's right. Just do it without being precious. If he says your amp is too loud for the venue, don't throw a hissy fit, just turn it down and make sure you have it in your monitor. He will know what works in this particular venue.

If this process has taken up all of your allotted time and you now have to leave the stage, congratulations. You have now done what is known as a line-check. You and the engineers now know that the lines are all working but you don't know exactly how they sound in relation to each other. It won't be perfect but it's much better than nothing. The front of house guy will have it sounding pretty decent within a minute of the first song of the gig. You've given the monitor guy your rough level requirements so it should be roughly in the right ballpark. You can always communicate to the monitor engineer using hand signals what you need turned down or up during the first couple of songs of the gig. Chances are it will be fine.

If you do have time left and you get to play a bit of a song or two, congratulations, you are now doing a soundcheck. Pick a song in which everyone is playing their instruments and has a good range of sounds. Play whilst taking mental notes of the sound until halfway through the first chorus, then stop. This is not to impress anyone, you're not looking for a round of applause, it's purely to check the balance of the instruments in relation to each other - so don't feel like you have to play the awesome solo section for the guy at the bar. 

Now, there will most likely there will be something not quite right with your monitor mix. So, in an orderly fashion and not all talking and waving frantically at the same time, the drummer can ask for his changes, then the bassist, then the guitarist and then the vocalist. Then you can play a little bit more of a song until the front of house guy is happy.

One important thing to bare in mind is that if everything is really loud but you can't hear one thing enough, sometimes it is much wiser to ask for everything else to be turned down before turning that thing up. If you only ever get things turned up in the monitors it will all be blisteringly loud and that's when you will start damaging your hearing, causing feedback and the monitors will adversely affect the sound front of house. Monitors too loud is also the reason most unsigned bands sing out of tune. 

There. You're done. In fifteen minutes you've gone from nothing to the front of house and everyone on stage having their own mix. If you do have any more changes, let the engineers know, Even if they are moody bastards, thank them for being so professional and helpful. Now you can go and have a drink, get changed into your sequinned costume and do your tantric yoga (or whatever gets you pumped for the gig), safe in the knowledge that the moment you get on stage, it will sound perfect to both you and to the audience. You will play ten times better. Trust me. 

Being a live engineer is the most thankless task on earth. They work really hard and usually just have bands and audience angrily making hand signals at them throughout. I always make the effort to thank them after the gig and suggest you do to. 

Bobby x