A good sound engineer is absolutely essential for any gigging band. Whether you’re lucky enough to have your own live engineer or you’re working with the venue’s, the person that sits behind all the buttons and faders is essentially the person that’s ultimately responsible for your band’s sound. This means that, as a band member, you’re only partly responsible for the end product, so you’ll want to make sure that everyone on stage and out front is doing their job and getting along.
- Start with the Drummer
- Next Comes the Bassist
- Then There’s the Guitarist
- The Keyboards
- And to Finish: The Vocalist
- The Sound Tech: An Extra Band Member?
- Choose the Right Person
- A Real Band Member
- Fixing & Mixing
- No Budget?
- The Technical Rider
- Affinity is Everything!
- See also…
Every live engineer will have their own way of working, something that the freelance sound engineer of LiveMix, Willem De Rijdt, knows all too well. “Despite the differences between technicians, there’s always a certain structure to setting up and sound checking that almost every engineer will follow. Here, it’s important that the workflow of both the band and the engineer don’t get in the way of one another. So, as a band member, you can really do yourself a favour by learning the do’s and don’ts when it comes to soundchecking.”
Start with the Drummer
Any soundcheck invariably starts with the drums. This isn’t just because the drum kit is usually the loudest acoustic instrument on the stage, but together with the bassist, the drummer forms the rhythmic foundation of almost every genre of music. According to Willem: “When you’re soundchecking the drums, it’s important that the sound tech already has the lead vocal sound in mind. This way, the volume of drums can be checked relative to the vocals. Another thing to think about is the adrenaline spike that happens when actually playing a live gig, because it’s almost a guarantee that the drummer will be hitting way harder during the show than they are during soundcheck, so it’s worth giving the drums enough headroom to absorb all those extra decibels. Even then, you might not have added enough, but you can always make tweaks during the show. The soundcheck just gives you a starting point, so nothing is ever set in stone.”
For the drummer, it’s important to remember that setting up the microphones is the job of the sound engineer, so never try positioning the microphones yourself because it’ll probably just make your drums sound bad. If anything is getting in the way during the set, then the best thing to do is get the sound tech’s attention and get them to shift the microphone into a better position.
Of course, while it is rare, there are some drummers who prefer to use their own microphones. “This is actually happening more and more, but can be a headache if you don’t have your own sound engineer,” says Willem. “There can be a good reason for using your own mics though. You might have a really beautiful vintage microphone that you want to use. But, just to warn you, if you’re working with a sound tech that isn’t familiar with the model, they’re likely to place a backup microphone next to it just in case. Since this will usually involve miking up an important element of the kit, setting up a backup makes sure you’re getting a concrete sound, and to be honest, when it comes to amplifying the standard drum parts, then most venues are likely to have microphones of the same if not better quality anyway. A sub kick microphone can be an interesting extra, since it really pulls out the low-end of the kick sound. However, the effect can really depend on the drumming style and the drum itself, so it can be a bit hit and miss and is usually only used by bands with their own sound engineer.”
Next Comes the Bassist
Once the drums are sorted, the next logical step is to check the bass. “The best setup is still a combination of a DI box and a dynamic microphone.” Says Willem. “The sound of a DI is generally clear, more dynamic and more manageable than the sound of a microphone. However, microphones can also add a specific colour, which can be nice as long as you choose the right model. A bassist picks out an amplifier for its specific sound. As a sound tech, you try to respect that choice, and therefore respect the sound and do it justice.”
So, do you actually need two 15 inch speaker cabinets on the stage to get a good bass sound? “Since bassists tend to hover close to their amps, they won’t actually hear much of themselves no matter how big their cabinet is. Lower frequencies have a long soundwave, meaning that you need to be standing a certain distance from the source to actually hear them. As such, the audience gets the full load. If you’re the bassist and you can’t hear yourself on stage, try placing the speaker around five metres away from you (if you can). You’ll be shocked at the difference. Also, if you’re working with a really decent PA system, then a big bass speaker is just stage filler. A 2×10 cabinet is usually more than enough and will happily sit next to your monitor. Anything bigger than that just doesn’t make any sense and will only annoy your audience. I also advise avoiding experimentation with stereo setups. The bass guitar is a mono instrument, and the human brain perceives everything below the 200 Hertz mark as mono anyway, so the idea is just pointless.”
Then There’s the Guitarist
When it comes to how loud the guitars should be, there’s a lot of debate. Some guitarists push the tubes of their valve amp to the limit, while others prefer to keep the volume low and rely on their monitors. Willem prefers a more moderate approach to the guitars: “The amplifier valves need to be able to do their job, especially when you want the overdrive to come from the power amp, for that Jimi Hendrix sound. With a metal guitarist, they usually don’t want that sound to come from the power amp, so it’s better to just allow the amp to run cool at a lower volume. Of course, this all depends on the kind of sound you’re after. The real overdrive kicks in at higher volume levels so there’s as good as no difference between settings 3 and 6. Also, the level of wattage you go for depends more on the kind of sound you want than on the volume. If you want the sound to break into overdrive faster, then go for a smaller amp and open everything up. If you prefer a clean sound then go for more power. Basically, you don’t even need to bother looking at the volume. The difference between a 50 Watt and a 100 Watt amplifier with the volume pot all the way open is just 3 decibels. A different guitar or a different speaker will even have a bigger effect on the volume.”
So what about pedals? “A massive chain of effect pedals is never a problem, as long as the volume is set so that the differences between each pedal aren’t too enormous. It’s essential that the sound of each pedal is well tuned to the others so that the sound tech doesn’t need to make adjustments every time you switch up your sound. Also, never put a compressor at the end of your effect chain to level out the sound! Only ever use a compressor as a tool to gain a specific sound.”
The keys are usually the quickest soundcheck. According to Willem, “Even though it’s really only piano sounds that need to be in stereo, most of the time, you’ll still be amplifying the keyboards with two DI boxes. For all the other sounds, a stereo setup is less crucial, unless you want a big Pink Floyd style sound.
Sometimes, a keyboard or synth player will bring their own amplifier, but usually it only serves as a personal monitor, so they don’t really need it. If the key player does have an amplifier, then never place the DI before the amp in the chain. If you ever run a synth through an amplifier and then mike up the amp, then it’s about gaining a really specific sound, much like the way you would need to treat a Hammond and a Leslie speaker or a Rhodes piano put through a rickety old guitar amplifier.”
Willem also emphasises the importance of making sure that the volume of every sound you use is balanced. “Again, I don’t recommend using compression at the end of your chain. Levelling the different volume of various different synth sounds is something you should do at home rather than trying to adjust the volume every time you switch sounds during the set, simply because things can go wrong. Often, the keys in a band are used as an accompaniment instrument, so the sound tech will place them quite low in the mix where they’ll provide all the body and texture. Of course, this depends on the band. Deep Purple, for example, really makes sure that the keys are poking out of the mix. So, if you want the keys to be a prominent feature of the live sound, then make sure to make this clear to the sound engineer and make sure it’s specified on your technical rider.”
And to Finish: The Vocalist
In general, the vocals are the final element to be soundchecked. “However, this is actually the first bit that I look at when I start working with a PA system I’ve never seen before – which is most of the time,” admits Willem. “Even before the band arrives, I’ll check the lead vocals myself. And I do this for two reasons. The first is that it gives me a good idea of the PA system I’m working with. Since I’m pretty familiar with the sound of my own voice, I can quickly gain a good reference point. The other reason is that I can explore the boundaries of the system and already apply a volume preset. Vocals are also usually the first thing to suffer from feedback because they’re usually the loudest instrument in the mix.”
“A lot of vocalists will bring their own microphone, partly because of hygiene but mostly because it’s worth using a microphone that actually suits your voice. However, a lot of vocalists tend to go for an all-round vocal microphone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best mike for your voice in a live situation. If you’re thinking about investing in your own microphone, thoroughly test a few of them and in as many different situations as possible. If you have the wrong microphone, then this will become clear during soundcheck, which isn’t really a problem. If the sound engineer decides that they really can’t work with the microphone, it can always be swapped out at the last minute.”
The Sound Tech: An Extra Band Member?
There’s a number of reasons why a band hires their own sound engineer, but according to Willen De Rijdt continuity is one of the most important. “Every band has their own specific sound and that sound needs to be consistent from show to show. Nothing is more annoying for both the band and their audience to have to get used to a different kind of sound at every gig.”
Trust is also an important factor: “Knowing that the person standing at the controls has your back, knows your sound and is making sure that your audience is hearing the best of you, removes a lot of the headaches of playing live. The less you have to worry about the more confidence you’re going to have on stage, which will only result in a better performance. You’re basically getting two bonuses in one!”
Choose the Right Person
“The worst reason for choosing a sound engineer is that they’re a friend of the band and want to be part of the fun,” says Willem. “Employing an under qualified mate will just result in bad live sound and probably a ruined friendship. I mean, you wouldn’t let your mate do your plumbing because they’ve tried out your toilet and enjoyed the experience. Sound engineering is a profession that requires knowledge and skill. Maybe offer that mate the position of roadie so they can still hang out backstage but without causing any trouble.”
A Real Band Member
“A fixed sound engineer should know the band inside and out. They should know every bit of the set and everything the band wants out of the sound. And, rather than just making the band feel comfortable, a good engineer will play a role in the creative process, so they can do things like trigger the right effect at the right time to help match the drive of the set, know where the peaks lie and make sure that the sound grows with them. This is why it’s also important that the sound engineer also regularly comes to the rehearsals. It usually takes at least two rehearsals to get to know a band and then another one or two PA rehearsals – so in a space with a full-sized PA system. When you’re working with a cover band, it’s sometimes a good idea to study the original material. I’m always looking for the specific effects used in the original recordings to help things sound even more authentic, whether it’s the gated reverb on the Phill Collins snare or the phasing slap-back delay on the drum bus of a Lenny Kravitz track.
What’s also important is that the sound is already there before you add the PA. The rest is just amplification and padding. As a crude example: it’s impossible to make Bob Marley sound like Tool. What I’m trying to say is, if you’re a band that’s still looking for their sound, then don’t rely on the sound engineer. Find it yourself first.”
Fixing & Mixing
Willem: “The primary job of a sound engineer is to technically perfect the sound of the band. Only when that bit is sorted can there be space for more ‘musical contributions’. Even here, the biggest responsibility lies with the band. When you’re mixing a good band, it’s often enough to just open up the fader and the sound is already sublime, but with other bands you can find yourself endlessly tweaking knobs until you find something that’s at least acceptable. The audience will notice this as well. The more stuff the sound tech needs to correct, the less time there is left over for more creative mixing.
It’s also important to know that you don’t need gear that costs millions to gain good sound. You don’t even need an army of twenty-six Mesaboogies behind you to sound like Metallica because in reality, behind that apparent ‘wall of sound’ sits a little amplifier with a microphone in front of it. Of course, a little quality goes a long way. I mean, I’m not suggesting that pointing a microphone at the built-in speaker of a Casio keyboard is going to sound good.”
So, are bands that don’t have their own sound engineer doomed to suffer bad sound for the rest of their lives? “Yes and no,” explains Willem. “Even the best sound tech could never make a bad band sound good and a good band will always stand a pretty good chance when working with a less experienced sound engineer. But, can you sound incredible without a fixed sound engineer? You might get lucky and get a local sound engineer who’s an absolute pro, but 85% of the time, the headlining act will bring their own sound tech and the supporting band is mixed by the in-house kid who needs more experience. In those situations, it’s essential that communications run smoothly. All too often, a piece of paper is thrown at the sound tech stating that the band is made up of a drum kit, a bass and two guitar amplifiers – something they could have figured out by glancing at the stage. Always make sure that whoever’s doing the sound knows you by name and make sure that you have a chat about what you want and what kind of effects you want, if any. Always keep things friendly and polite and avoid the love-hate relationship that a lot of bands have with the on-site sound technician. You might be stressed out about the show, but the person sitting behind the desk is the worst possible person to take it out on. The goal of the engineer is make the band sound as good as possible, so if they ask things like ‘can you turn down that guitar amp?, then they’re not trying to sabotage your performance, they’re saying that all the audience will hear is the guitar!”
The Technical Rider
If you’re a band that doesn’t have the luxury of a fixed sound engineer, then a technical rider will be more important than ever, and according to Willem, they’re easy to get wrong: “Ironically, the most common thing that’s left out of tech riders is the band name. It’s not enough to just include it in the name of the PDF file, because once it’s printed out, it’s not there anymore. Try to keep your rider as clear as possible. Start with a checklist and maybe add FX returns and microphone suggestions, even though if you’re the supporting band, you’ll probably have to make do with what’s available.”
“Make sure to include any more special requirements and mention any equipment that you’ll bring yourself. What’s absolutely not needed is the kind of stand you want to use, or the brand of your snare or what kind of guitar you’re playing. A stage plan can also be really handy, especially when it comes to fast stage changes, but try to stick to it. Above all, please make sure that your rider is always up-to-date. And if you’re stuck, it’s never a bad idea to ask a sound engineer for some advice about making a good technical rider.”
When working in a live situation, you will always have to make a few compromises: “The biggest compromise is usually to do with the acoustics of the venue. You can try fighting against it, but ultimately, you’re going to have to work with it. The sound installation can also cause problems, but if you have your own sound engineer, they can usually solve them for you. I tend to contact the venues a few days before every show to check what kind of gear awaits me. This gives me the chance to make any adjustments to reduce the stress levels on the day of the gig. In this way, if you have a sound person, they can form a kind of buffer between the venue and the band.”
Affinity is Everything!
“A good sound engineer doesn’t need to know the songs inside and out in order to deliver a good mix, what is important is having a feel for the music. A few technical extras can be nice, but if they’re actually doing nothing to enhance the feeling, then you don’t need them. As the sound engineer, you’re 100% dependent on the band, so you can get as musical as you want with your mixing, but if there’s no energy coming from the stage, there’s no way you’re ever going to be able to mix the energy in.”
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