One of the first indicators of an engineer’s skill level is their approach to running a soundcheck. As with everything, a pro engineer will have a system. A soundcheck usually happen in reverse order – that is, the headline band goes first and takes the most time so that they’re happy, then everybody else comes and sets their equipment up in front of the headliner, tweaking anything that they need to be different from the headline’s settings.
That way, the last band to soundcheck is the first band to play – and their settings are ready to use. Each band takes their backline offstage with them, eventually leaving the headliner’s equipment where they left it.
To recap our article on getting started, let’s assume you’ve already done a number of things:
1) Set the PA correctly for the room
2) Powered up your equipment in the correct order (desk first, then outboard equipment, racks, and finally speakers)
3) Checked the sound through the FOH system and monitors
4) Set up your mics as necessary onstage
Go through channel by channel, raise the gain and check each source in headphones. Once you have a signal in headphones, slowly bring up the fader until you hear enough of each channel in the main PA. Each sound source may need a little help with EQ, to cut away the cluttered, “fighting” frequencies, and bring out the best characteristics on each instrument. EQ is both a science and an art, and this is definitely an area that takes some knowledge, and a lot of practice.
All being well with the equipment, you’re now ready for the band to run through a song, so that you can set the instrument levels relevant to one another.
Remember that what you’re doing is sound reinforcement – try not to deafen everyone in the room! I find a good rule of thumb is to set your vocal slightly louder than the loudest acoustic sound (usually the snare drum), and bring everything else in around that. This often means asking/telling/forcing the guitar player to turn down.
Once everything’s at the right level in FOH, ask the band if there’s anything they can’t hear onstage. They’ll usually want vocals, and some musicians will also want to hear more of themselves. When you and the band are both happy, write down or photograph your settings (on an analogue desk) or save your scene (on a digital board).
This “mix” is then to be treated as a starting point – everything changes in live sound, and a good mix engineer is constantly adjusting their levels to compensate for what’s happening onstage, to smooth out level changes, react to differing sound levels reaching the mics, and bring focus to the most important instruments at any given time.
If you have the luxury of a digital mixer, you can save a “scene” for each band, whose settings will then be recalled exactly as you left them, meaning that the support bands can ask for whatever changes they like. However in many situations you may be limited by the channels available, the equipment you’re using, and – almost always – time.
The easiest thing to do is to start with the headliner’s mix and simply change anything that jumps out – usually vocal EQ, and sometimes levels of backline/guitars – but the basic drum mix, effects, and initial levels can often be left in place throughout the night.
The idea of a soundcheck is to discover and solve any issues you may have, to avoid issues during the show. Make sure the bands are happy with their sound onstage, as musicians often won’t ask for changes during the show and then you’ll hear negative comments long after they’ve left the stage!
Live Sound 101 is a new series of posts from Clear and Loud, based on simple issues we’ve been asked to solve in the past. If there are any topics you’d like to cover, please let us know!