June/July 2014

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Peak Performance Part Two – Surviving Soundcheck

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Peak Performance Part Two – Surviving Soundcheck

In last issue’s Building Blocks we covered the simple but important process of getting all your gear to the performing venue. Now let’’s move forward to the next step: soundcheck. You’’ve got all your gear piled by the side of the stage, your van is parked somewhere secure, so now what?
Introduce yourselves – Assuming you’’re a support act, by the time you arrive soundcheck should be well underway, with the headliners hopefully just having finished their run-through. If not there are some useful things you can do to pass the time. The first and most important is to learn everyone’’s name. If some bandmates haven’’t met the venue manager, take the time for an introduction if possible.

Also get to know any staff who are about. There’’s a reason that they call it a ‘house’ – you are guests in a place where people work every night, and may even treat as a second home.

If there is a lighting tech then introduce yourselves. Let them ask you what they want to know, and don’’t distract them with a lot of demands. Always keep an eye out for the sound tech, because that’’s the most important introduction and name to remember of all.

Setting up the stage – Work out a system for setting up on stage, once you’’re allowed. Here’’s a pretty standard one: everyone helps to get the drums on stage, then the vocalist (if they don’’t play an instrument) helps the drummer unpack and sort the hardware. Meanwhile, everyone else is helping each other carry the heavy stuff to make things go faster. After the amps comes any keyboard stands and then the keyboards themselves, and last the guitar stands and guitars.

If the band wants to use their own mics rather than the house mics, ask for the nod from your sound tech. They’’ll probably want to remove their mics themselves and pack them away – but whatever happens, don’’t unplug a live mic cable, or any live cable! That is a sure way of looking incompetent, not to mention messing up the engineer’’s system.

As you’’re finishing your stage set up, the sound tech or assistant will be arranging the stage mics. Make room for them. They may spend a bit of time miking the drum set. Then they’’ll patch direct lines from the bass amp and keyboards. After that, mics are placed in front of amps, and vocal mics and stands are placed in front of vocalists.

A lot of beginner bands unconsciously set themselves up in exactly the same position as the headliners, just because the mic stands are already arranged in a particular configuration. You don’’t have to do this. Set yourselves up on stage the way you want, and the tech will move the mics around to suit. Remember that your eyelines with bandmates are crucial, as is your own stage setup. Preserve it at all costs.

Getting a stage level – Every sound engineer has a different approach, and every house system has its own strengths and quirks, but there are some general procedures you should expect. The first one is to play a very typical bit of band repertoire that uses every player, and set the stage levels for your amps.

Meanwhile, the sound tech will be adjusting the monitor levels. Typically the bass and keys will be coming out of monitors along with the vocals, with a bit of drums and guitar in there as well. It all depends on your stage level. Some bands like a quieter stage sound, so they can hear each other and keep their ears from getting too blasted. Blue Öyster Cult is one such band, and those guys are still touring with their hearing mostly intact.

Gain trims/monitors/EQ – Expect the previous step to be very brief, like a minute or two. You’’re basically showing the engineer where your levels are going to be, while they’’re prepping your monitor mix. Don’’t go on and on – this is not a warm up.

Usually what follows is setting some basic levels. The tech wants to make sure that there’’s no clipping or feedback coming through any of the channels on the mixer. Each player may be asked to crank it a little, or simply play a bit of solo. This process may then be repeated setting the monitor levels, especially for vocals and any acoustic instruments. Then finally, the EQ will be set, to get the best possible sound from each player. These steps are usually done in order for each instrument and vocalist: set gain trims, monitor levels, then EQ.

Mains – Next your tech has to set the levels for the house system and here things can get tedious. The first instrument is usually the drums. The drummer may be asked to hit each part of his kit over and over: kick, snare, toms, hi-hat, and cymbals. This drives a lot of young bands crazy – but pros don’’t think anything of it. The tech is setting up what’’s called a ‘submix’ – a set of levels for the kits that will give it a balanced sound through the mains that may be turned up and down as a whole.

This is usually followed by direct lines, first bass, then keys and guitars. Last come the vocals, which may also get their own submix if there’’s a lot of backup singing and harmonising.

The house mix – So far your engineer has really just been working through every channel, making sure that they each have the best possible sound. Now it’’s time for the actual process of mixing – putting all those channels together and balancing them so the audience hears every element clearly. You’’ll be asked to play songs, or sections of songs. Be prepared for things to fall apart – a sudden bit of feedback here, a loose cable there. The main questions for you will be: Can you all hear your own instruments, and each other, in the monitors? Do you need more of this, less of that?

The more attention you’re paying to the sound, the better. That’’s why I repeat again: this is not a warm up. You’’re up there for the convenience of the sound tech, who works for the management, who wants this night be a success. Remember that set of priorities, and don’’t be a prima donna. Play the amount of songs that you’re asked to, and no more. Don’’t use up your energy before the show, and don’’t waste everyone else’’s time.

When soundcheck is finished, be sure to thank the tech for their work – and make sure that the mains are down before you unplug! Next issue’’s installment of this series will look at changeovers.

Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Che Fu, The Idea of North, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Vector Wellington Orchestra