Saturday, September 27, 2014

Musicians: Learn How to Soundcheck

One of my biggest pet peeves as a performer is a band who doesn’t know how to soundcheck properly. It
shouldn’t be – it usually reflects inexperience and ignorance rather than disrespect and apathy. The truth is that most bands are taught how to soundcheck, it’s just a skill that gets picked up along the way. Despite this, the soundcheck is often an indicator of the professionalism of the band.
Here’s a lesson on how to soundcheck the right way:
Before the show
Once you have a show confirmed, you should send a stage plot, technical rider, and input list to the sound and lighting engineers. Having detailed needs spelled out in advance can help overcome any issues early on, including deficiencies in equipment, limited inputs or monitor mixes, etc. For larger shows, you could send audio tracks or performance footage showing the kind of mix and light design that you’d like for the show (assuming you don’t have your own sound/lighting crew).
You should be prepared to bring everything needed for your instrument: the instrument, cables, adaptors, amp, stands, microphones, batteries etc. Unless you have a detailed list of what is being provided by the venue, assume that you are responsible for your own gear. I also recommend keeping a backup set of power strips, extension cables, strings, drum sticks, gaffer tape, setlists, sharpies, DI boxes, power cables, and vocal microphones. Things should be clearly labeled so that they can be quickly identified – something that is often useful on dark stages.
The biggest issues with soundchecking that are under your control include:
  • Weak or dead batteries, especially in wireless systems or electronic pickups
  • Loose or damaged cables
  • Poor mic technique (standing too far back, holding mic improperly, etc.)
  • Noisy channels caused by effects, grounding, or wireless systems
  • Over-aggressive padding or attenuation of devices (mixers on stage, DI boxes, etc.)
The more that you can take care of these common problems ahead of time, the more time that can be spent making you sound good.
When you arrive
Show up at the designated time (or earlier if you need more loading time) and ask the sound engineer where they would like you to place your gear. When loading onto the stage, begin with larger pieces of equipment – the drum set, amp rigs, etc. but watch out for the mixer snake, power outlets, or areas where XLR cables will be run. Find a place for “dead” or empty cases to be stored off stage.
Whether you will be getting a full soundcheck or only a line check, prepare your gear in advance so that you can be ready at a moment’s notice. This means setting up the drums, positioning stands, tuning, etc.
The soundcheck
Most shows will soundcheck in reverse order of the show. In other words, the headliner will soundcheck first and the opening act will soundcheck last. Sometimes, the acts in the middle will only get a quick line check right before their set. Whether you you get a full soundcheck or not, the process is generally the same.
The sound engineer should guide you through the process, asking for one instrument at a time. No one else should be playing or testing their gear at this time, only the person being addressed by the engineer.
Most of the time, engineers will check in this order: drums, bass, guitar, keyboards or electronic samples, horns, lead vocals, backup vocals.
When your instrument is being checked, play a quick sample at the intended volume and test any gear that might increase that volume (pedals or effects). Usually, as each instrument is being checked, the engineer will ask which band members require it in their monitor – simply gesture whether you want it up, down, or not at all in your monitor. This is also the time to address any mixing requests for the house as well (e.g, we’d like stage right guitar louder in the mix).
After all of the individual channels are dialed in, you’ll be asked to play a song. Play one that incorporates all of your instruments and vocalists if possible, so that the engineer can get a good mix for the house. In fact, try to play the same song every time you soundcheck so that you can listen for consistency.
Band members can also walk through the front of the house (one at a time) or have a member of the road crew listen for any abnormalities or changes.
After the soundcheck, if you’re requested to move your gear (such as sliding it back to make room for the next band), try and mark the positions of amps and stands with brightly colored tape so that you can quickly re-set the stage.
After the soundcheck/show
If you have another act coming on after you, clear off your equipment as quickly as possible. Try and get the larger things out of the way, such as drums or amp stacks, so that the next band and can load their gear on stage. Tasks, such as breaking down drums, wrapping cables, putting things in cases, etc. should be done offstage. A quick tear down is a courtesy both to the act following you, the sound crew who needs to set up for the next band, and the promoter who is trying to run a show on time. Before the acts begins playing, do another quick walkthrough to make sure that you got everything.
If you don’t have another act following you, there isn’t as much of a rush to clear the stage but you should still ask the venue when they’d like you to tear down. The last thing that you want to do is to keep up any staff waiting to close and go home for the night.
Finally, be sure to thank the sound engineer. You might even consider tipping them or buying them a drink so that you can develop a good rapport.
If you want to be a professional musician, you have to learn how to deliver a professional experience. Everything from how you load in, how you soundcheck, to how you perform on stage is a part of the process. Not only will this help set you apart, but the venue staff and other artists will appreciate your efficiency as well!
To find get specific tips on how to improve your soundcheck as well as make your touring/live shows more effective, check out Music Business Hacks.
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