The protocol for soundchecking may vary depending on actual instrumentation, size of hall, time available, and individual preferences. Over time the best way will become apparent; what follows is a general description of how it could work.
Start with putting each instrument into the main speakers only, providing rough stage monitor mix only when absolutely necessary, such as with keyboards not going through an amplifier. Check the sound of each instrument in the hall as you go, and then start to combine them in the mix by having them play together. Pay special attention to levels (volume) first, then adjust the EQ to get proper timbre.
The goal is to make each instrument sound as natural as possible. (At this point a little of each instrument could go into the stage monitor mix to make it easier for the musicians to hear each other and check that the monitors are connected and working.) If you have an experienced Engineer, consult with them as you go on what they need to hear.
Here is a sample order of instruments for the soundchecking of the mains:
Drums (Drum Set)
Check each drum/drum microphone separately: bass drum, snare, rack tom(s), floor tom. Then check cymbals: high-hat, overhead(s). Pay close attention to the sound of each microphone and drum. If there is ringing in the drum it may need to be dampened with some tape, the microphone placed differently (or both). The drums should be tuned at this time if they need it.
There should be no effects (FX); start with a flat EQ and adjust as needed to make each drum sound the best it can. If FX are desired, they can be added at the end.
After each drum and mic has been placed, adjusted and EQ’d so that it sounds optimal, play kick-drum and snare together in an alternating pattern. The goal is to achieve balance in volume and EQ. Next, have the drummer play fills around the toms.
Then have the drummer play a groove with fills on the toms, using the cymbals as well. Have the drummer play at dynamic levels that are likely to occur during the show (this applies to all the instruments). Have the drummer play all around the kit for a while to achieve a balance of all the drums and cymbals that will sound good in the hall.
Note: A proper drum soundcheck usually takes a minimum of a ½ hour, under difficult circumstances an hour or more may be used to soundcheck the drums.
If using an electric bass it is best to use a direct box as opposed to the direct out from the amplifier, since the sound going to the board will be uncolored by the amp this way. Most direct boxes also give you the option to do a ground lift if there is polarity hum, which is a good thing.
Some higher quality amplifiers’ direct out will have a ground lift (polarity switching) and give you a choice of pre or post output for the signal going to the mixing board. I always prefer the pre signal, because I’m looking for the most natural sound of the instrument to use in the mix.
It might also be a good idea to place a microphone at the speaker if there is a channel available for this. There are special techniques for the placement of microphones on speakers.
So, if you have the sound from the speaker and the sound directly from the instrument that is good to make a blend. In most cases, the direct input from the bass through the direct box is sufficient. You might also decide you don’t want to use the speaker sound as it will inevitably have some distortion.
If you have an acoustic bass there are different techniques for placing the microphone, usually somewhere near the sound hole facing slightly upwards.
If the upright acoustic has an internal or attached pickup element, then the same advice applies as for the electric. You might end up with three channels; one for the instrument’s sound hole, one for the pickup and one for the speaker. Use the one or ones that sound the best to create your mix.
When checking the bass, set the amp first to a reasonable stage volume level as would be used during the performance. Then have the bass player play, using the whole range of the instrument. They could play down in the low register first, then go to the mids, and then up high if they are also a soloist. Adjust the timbre of the amp and set the EQ for the hall.
Have the bassist play all techniques that they will use for the show, e.g. slapping, finger-style, or with a pick.
Next, the drummer and the bassist should play a groove together. Level and EQ adjustments can now be made so that the balance is good in the audience and on stage.
Keyboards (Synths), Piano
As with the bass, keyboards should go directly to the board using the keyboard’s “balanced line out,” whether or not they are using an amplifier on stage for a personal monitor. There is no need to place a microphone at the speaker of a keyboard amplifier.
Have the keyboardist play all of the sounds and keyboards they will use. Check for levels, EQ, and distortion. Have them play in all dynamic ranges they will be using in the performance.
For acoustic piano it is best to use 2 condenser microphones placed inside the frame, hovering over the bass and treble registers. It takes some expertise and tweaking of EQ, plus an ideal microphone placement to get a natural sound from the piano in the mix.
It is usually necessary to spend some time experimenting to get the best possible sound from a piano. Note: The piano should be professionally tuned on the same day as the show.
Now have the drums and bass play with the keyboardist(s). Use one of the pre-selected songs from the concert.
Electric guitars should not use direct boxes. They should play through their amplifier on stage, and the speaker should have a microphone placed on it. As in the studio, sometimes both the front and back of an open-backed speaker may have a microphone placed on it, although in most cases for live settings this isn’t really necessary.
One dynamic microphone properly placed diagonally at the edge of the speaker cone should suffice. My favorite for this is the Shure SM-57, though any dynamic microphone will work.
The guitarist should play all of the sounds, levels, or effects that they will be using e.g. clean sound, distortion, wah-wah, chorus/flanger, delays, etc. Each sound should be considered when making the setting at the board, and the player should strive for a balance in output (level) between sounds to make the Sound Engineer’s job easier. As a ready example, the distortion sound shouldn’t be ten times as loud as the clean sound.
Acoustic guitars either have a mic placed at the sound hole or, if they have a pickup, go to a direct box and then into the mixing board. If there is an active powered pickup with EQ on the guitar itself, make sure it has a fresh battery, set the volume at maximum and the EQ flat (no boost or cuts).
Once the Engineer has a good sound, you can experiment with enhancements via the guitar pickup controls. It takes some artistry to get the best-amplified sound out of acoustic instruments.
Pro Tip: Be wary of loose jacks and old patch cables, which can create nasty unwanted pops and crackling sounds during a performance. For the same reason, if you need to unplug the cable from the guitar, make sure that the Engineer has the channel muted first.
Horns, Strings, Auxiliary Percussion
Horns (saxophones, trombones, trumpets) should be checked individually and then as a section if they will be playing ensemble passages (playing as a section). Either clip-on microphones or mics on a stand are pointed at the bell. A solo horn can also be checked playing alone and then together with the rhythm section.
Strings are checked in the same way. Usually, overheads are used, or if there is a pickup then the same procedure is followed as for acoustic guitar (direct box).
Percussion follows a similar procedure to the drums, with testing each instrument to be used, or, at least every microphone should be checked for level and EQ. This is usually much quicker than for drums because there are fewer mics. You could also check the percussion earlier in the process together with the drums.
At this point, the whole band should play a song together while the Engineer creates a mix. There is usually a fair amount of stopping and starting while adjustments are made. Effects, such as reverb, delays, choruses, etc. can be added at the board at this time.
Vocals, Background Vocals
Check each vocal mic separately. Set EQ and effects. Pro Tip: FX are like makeup, they are meant to enhance what is there without being too obvious. Adjust vocal monitors on the stage at this time.
Make sure that the singers actually sing when they are checking the microphones. Just saying “testing, testing,” as many singers are prone to do, is not enough for the Engineer to apply the correct settings to the microphone channel. They need to sing into the mic exactly as they will be doing during the performance.
Background vocals can be mixed either before or after the lead vocals. If there are multiple vocalists, each one should be assigned a separate mic, and the mic should have the EQ set specifically for the sound of their voice.
Then they should sing as a group, and all the levels set to make the best possible blend for the group. Every group has a unique sound, and we want to listen for that, looking for the best way to enhance them in the mix.
In the next section, we will deal with how the stage performers will need to hear each other, using the separate stage monitor mix.