You come home at two in the morning after a show. Your significant other is asleep. You try not to make too much noise, but you're not that good at it.
- Hi honey! So, how did it go?
- Well, the sound wasn't as good as we hoped.
- What do you mean?
- The tech was crappy, and we had a hard time hearing each other all night. The vocals didn't come out, the guitar solos were muffled, it sounded like we were playing in a fishbowl, a bad show.
- That's too bad. Did you have fun anyway?
- Yes, it was nice to see everybody. Have a good night.
Well, well, you blame it on the tech, do you?
I worked for a few years in a small venue in Montreal. How many times have I heard musicians blame the technical crew for a disappointing performance? I can't count them. Yet, with the same equipment and the same technicians, I have seen bands deliver incredible performances with impeccable sound in the same venue. By the way, that venue was renowned for its sound quality.
Here is a two-part series on sound checking. In the first part, we will mainly talk about the human aspects and the good habits to have during a soundcheck. In the second part, we will discuss more technical issues. One central principle will guide these two articles: the sound tech is your best ally.
May the tech be with you.
The 7 soundcheck rules of politeness
1 – Load-in on time
Venues often give clear instructions to artists regarding arrival time. In general, the technical directors know their venues; they know how to evaluate the time needed to set up the equipment, plugin everything, do a line check and a good soundcheck. In addition, they may have a host of different reasons that dictate the arrival time. Don't try to change the rules as they apply to everyone.
Arriving on time (or a little earlier) is the least of your courtesies and will make everyone's job easier. The musicians will have the opportunity to get to know the staff, they will be able to express their needs and preferences, and the atmosphere will be more relaxed. This rule is even more critical when several artists share the stage on the same night.
Also, be sure EVERYONE shows up on time. You can't do a good sound check without having everyone on stage. Yes, the singer will have to wait for the drummer to set up the drum kit. That's life. Showing up all on time improves the team spirit.
2 - Have all your equipment
Most of us need a lot of things to put on a show. Instruments, amps, wires, pedals, computers, shakers, tambourines, adapters, mic stands, music stands, iPads, instrument stands, etc. Do you have spare strings? The more stuff you must bring, the more likely you are to forget some. Sometimes it's not a big deal and doesn't stop you from playing the show, but sometimes it can be more crucial. Yes, I'm talking about your flash drive.
Make a list of everything you need. Make a habit of checking it a few days before a show (or tour). Always store your equipment in the same way. Check your list before you leave home (and as you pack up after the show). Develop a slight obsessive-compulsive disorder about carrying your gear.
3 - Check your gear in advance
In addition to making sure you have all your gear, make sure it's working correctly. Do you have active pickups on your bass or using a wireless mic? Did you put in new batteries? Has your amp been making a weird noise for a month? If you think the problem will magically fix itself by walking into the showroom, you're naive. You decided to update your computer's operating system the day before the show? Are you looking for trouble or what?
4 - Be disciplined and responsive to the needs of the tech
A soundcheck is long. But it's even longer when the guitarist is woodshedding licks while you're trying to EQ the vocals. Or when the drummer starts a beat while the tech only asks to hit a tom. During a soundcheck, the musicians must be at the service of the sound tech. Proceed methodically and follow the different steps that will ensure the best possible mix. So, leave your attitude at the door and play only what and when the tech asks you to. Techs work hard to make you sound good; the more you listen to them, the better you will sound.
5 - Play as you would play in a show
Once a basic line check is done, the tech will want to hear the whole group. Be generous. Even if there is no audience in front of you, play with the same energy as if the room were full and you were playing a third encore. Give a real sense of your volume and dynamic level in performance. This will help the tech find a perfect overall balance. Hear a lot of reverb in the room? Your tech has heard it too. The place is empty. When it fills up, the audience will absorb the sound, and, if necessary, your tech will adjust it during the first song.
In fact, whenever possible, I like to stretch out the intro of the first song of a show. Sometimes, it allows the tech to fix the mix before the first verse starts.
6 - A soundcheck is not a rehearsal
If your band hasn't really mastered a new song, there's a perfect time to work on it. It's called rehearsal. I've often heard musicians say they're going to practice a new tune during the soundcheck. This is a great way to sabotage the show. As mentioned above, a good sound check takes time. It's methodical work. You can't rehearse a song (i.e., play full band) and follow the protocol that the tech requires to make you sound good. Also, if you rehearse a song during your soundcheck, chances are you won't play it with the same intensity as the ones you really know.
If you really need to work on a new song, here's how to do it:
- Arrive on time, even a little earlier.
- Tell the tech you wish to set aside a few minutes at the end of the soundcheck to try out a song.
- Have all your equipment in good condition to avoid unnecessary waste of time.
- Be disciplined and responsive to the tech’s needs.
In short: FOLLOW THE FIRST POINTS LISTED ABOVE.
And maybe you'll get a chance to try this new song.
7 – Do not touch anything
The soundcheck is over, everyone is satisfied. It sounds good.
Last step. This is both the easiest and the most difficult. It's easy because you have nothing left to do. It's hard because you must resist the temptation to do something.
Yes, I'm talking about you on guitar or bass. You want to turn up the volume on your amp or play with your EQ, right? Admit it. Please don't touch anything else; the mix is perfect. You'll be back on stage a little later.