How to Conduct a Professional Soundcheck
You arrive at the hall, all your gear is onstage, and your band is there, too. From the moment of arrival to the opening song of the concert, there’s much that needs to happen. We want the show to run smoothly, with all the singers and musicians comfortable on the stage, and the audience blissfully receiving our performance. The first step to making this a reality is the soundcheck. As with all the other aspects of your performance, this takes some planning.
To learn how to soundcheck music in a medium or large sized venue, theater or hall I’ll use a common scenario. I’ll assume there’s a full rhythm section — guitars, keys, bass, and drums –with added hand percussion, horns and possibly strings, a vocalist or multiple vocalists, and background vocals. I won’t try to cover every possible detail, but I’ll give you a basic method that can be adapted to many situations and possible instrument combinations.
The goal is always to give the audience as natural a musical experience possible, and to make sure the musicians on stage can hear each other and themselves. As a Concert Producer and Music Director for many hundreds of live music performances, I have distilled the preparation, set-up and sound-checking process into some core principles that are proven to work.
There are three steps to the soundcheck: your planning, your procedures, and your stage monitor adjustments. There’s a logical sequence; once you have it memorized it should be done the same way every time. The time needed will vary by group size and complexity, the challenges presented by the room acoustics, and the competency of the Stage Crew and Mixing Engineers, but it’s generally wise to leave at least a few hours to conduct a proper soundcheck. In some cases, we use an entire day prior to the show, or when possible, the evening before the day of the show is also reserved for soundchecking. Sometimes we must work very quickly and get it all done in an hour or two. Every venue and show is unique and your challenge as a group leader is to make the most of the situation at hand. Always go in with a plan.
Getting Started: Make a Plan
It’s crucial to be as prepared as possible because you can expect to hit some snags along the way. It can be disastrous when there is no plan. Time is always super valuable and we never want to waste it when we are getting ready to perform. Understand that a certain amount of time will need to be devoted to troubleshooting as there are many things which inevitably go wrong. You will be less-stressed if you anticipate the difficulties and leave enough time to troubleshoot effectively as you go.
Following are the suggested components of the plan. If you hit a snag, you can move to the next stage while the problem gets sorted out.
- Draw a detailed stage plot. Show approximate placement of all performers, microphones, instruments, and amplifiers. Also, indicate general placement of stage monitors and which monitors receive individual monitor mixes.
- Confirm with technical personnel all equipment that will be available for sound and lights, including backline (amplifiers and drums), risers, monitors, microphones, music stands, etc. and who will be responsible for set up and operation. Check all logistics for transport and loading of equipment not already on-site.
- Plan staggered arrival times of musicians and set-up of equipment. Usually, the drummer and percussionist should arrive first and set up their equipment. If there are any other large cumbersome instruments, such as multi-keyboard rigs or giant amp stacks, they should also arrive early. Next to arrive are guitarists, horns, vocalists, or any other musicians with relatively easy placement and set-up requirements.
Special note: there should be a “Green Room” area ready by first arrival time for musicians to put their personal belongings, cases, and stage clothes. It should be confirmed in advance that this room will be accessible, heated (or cooled), and clean. There should be light refreshments, snacks, and beverages on hand if possible. There is always some hanging around during downtime for the performers and crew and we want them to be comfortable.
- Several songs should be selected in advance for the soundcheck. Depending on time available, there should be about three or four selections. They should be picked specifically to soundcheck different sections of the band, such as rhythm section, horns and full band with vocals.
Special note: Another consideration for soundcheck music selection might be songs that need rehearsal or have technically difficult sections, such as beginnings, endings, and transitions. Do not expect to play songs in their entirety, however.
Pro Tip: Have a Production Assistant on hand to call the performers to the stage in the order needed.
Every venue and show is unique and your challenge as a group leader is to make the most of the situation at hand. Always go in with a plan.
Procedures For Front-Of-House (Mains)
The term “front of house” is abbreviated as FOH and the Sound Engineer is experienced in mixing the instruments to sound good for the audience. The P.A. speakers aimed at the audience are called “mains,” meaning the main speakers. What the audience hears from the stage will be primarily determined by the quality and suitability of the main speakers and the skillful mixing of the instruments (voice is also an instrument) by the FOH Engineer.
The goal is always to mix the sound from the stage so the audience can experience the music in the most natural way possible. This means the Engineer must first listen carefully to each instrument separately and then use the mixing board to faithfully recreate the sound through the mains. There are many devices and techniques an experienced Engineer knows to use, such as equalization (EQ), reverb, effects (FX), compression, etc. and they must also account for any acoustical anomalies in the hall. Due to the variable acoustics of any room, the sound will be different in different parts of the audience. The Sound Engineer’s job is to make the music sound good in every part of the hall. As the Producer, I walk around the hall during the soundcheck to make sure the sound is good everywhere. If I notice any deficiencies, I alert the Sound Engineer so they can correct if possible.
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.
Special note: Another consideration for soundcheck song selection might be songs that need rehearsal or have technically difficult sections, such as beginnings, endings, and transitions. Do not expect to play songs in their entirety, however.
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.
Stage Monitors Mix
First, adjust each mix separately. Start with what the vocalist needs, then go around to each instrument to ask what they want to hear more or less of. Set levels of each instrument in separate mixes according to preferences of each musician. EQ each monitor mix as needed. I prefer to mix monitors “dry,” meaning no reverb or effects added to the signal. Some vocalists like to hear a little reverb on their voice and may ask for that. In most cases the natural reverb from the hall should be enough, so adding effects in the monitors isn’t needed.
Pro Tip: LESS IS MORE! The less each musician can get by with in the monitor the easier it will be for the Mix Engineers to do their job. The bass and drums don’t need to hear everything that goes to the FOH (front of house) for example, they just need to hear each-other and enough vocal or lead instrument for reference so they don’t get lost in the arrangement. As vocalist you may not hear yourself the way you want to, but you have to trust that you are getting over through the mains. The reason for this is that the more sound waves on stage coming from speakers the more standing waves can occur, the harder it gets to hear anything with clarity and (also due to microphone bleed) the harder it is for the FOH Engineer to create a good mix. I’ll say it again: LESS IS MORE!
Troubleshooting and Fine-Tuning
Earlier I mentioned we should expect some problems with the soundcheck and be ready to solve them. By now, we have addressed the major issues, and we need to do some fine-tuning. There will always be difficulties with either the sound in the hall or on the stage and a good Engineer will work quickly to make the proper adjustments so the audience and performers can be most comfortable during the performance. Besides using the sound system to make the music sound wonderful, we want everyone, both on and off the stage, to have an amazingly fun time. Difficulties with the sound or hearing can interfere with this.
Play a few different sections of songs featuring different soloists, tempos, dynamic levels and instrument combinations. If there is more than one group performing on your equipment, be sure to memorize your amplifier settings so that you can adjust it back to where it was if it was changed. Some adjustments will need to be made in FOH when the hall is full of people, due to the dampening effect of the audience, but major adjustments should not need to be made on stage.
At this point, you should be ready to relax and have a great fun show!
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