The Etiquette of Sound Checks

Desk-view-to-stagePlaying a show will usually involve some kind of sound check. This check will take place before the public arrive and involves setting up your equipment, having the sound engineers place appropriate microphones and DI boxes, cabling everything into the mixing console and playing a  couple of songs in order that the front-of-house engineer can set reasonable levels and that the band themselves can get comfortable with the stage sound.

It is a simple process but, for many reasons, sound checking can be an extremely frustrating and difficult time. You can avoid some of that frustration by implementing some of these tips and strategies.

Firstly, I always advise the bands I work for to pick two of their songs to play for sound check. This is really important for two reasons. First, a consistency of sound and presentation is created if the band plays the same two songs for every single sound check. As a live sound engineer, I have lost track of the number of times I’ve had to ask a band onstage to please play something I actually know. I don’t mean I don’t know the band’s material but that musicians are (hopefully) always writing and adapting their material. Because the only time they actually get to play together (apart from during the main performance) is during sound check, most bands see sound check as an opportunity to write, jam, or rehearse new material. So as soon as I ask them to play something, the band launches into the “new” song with players coming in and dropping out all over the place. Because the material is unfamiliar, I have no reference points.

Sound check should not a rehearsal. Please do not even think about trying to rehearse at sound checks, especially if you are trying to create something amazing for that night’s performance. Sure, you might be getting an hour to sound check every night on tour, but bitter experience has shown me that the one time you really need an hour at sound check, perhaps to write a new part or rehearse an old song for a radio session, that will be the one time when the bus will break down on the way to the show, or the bass amp will stop working for the whole sound check, or the headline act will decide they are going to rehearse for their radio session for the next day. Just as most experienced recording musicians and producers do not try to “fix it in the mix,” a touring band should never rely on sound check time to rehearse.

The second reason for planning sound check songs and parts is to create discipline. Sound checks can be a fiasco for many reasons, including treating sound check as a rehearsal. (see above). Given that many musicians move straight from a comfortable, familiar environment (a recording/home studio or a rehearsal room) onto a cold and bad-sounding stage, it is not surprising that sound checks end up in a never-ending cycle of adjustment, then listening, then adjustment, with despair and anguish thrown into the mix. I am sure that given long enough, any stage sound or room can sound good. However, a band usually does not have an inordinate amount of time, and, as I will explain in a follow up post, due to the nature of sound waves and physics, the acoustics of the room will not really improve until it fills up with hot, sweaty, music-loving people. Therefore, it is important to accept these parameters early on in your career as a musician. and/or crew person.

So, always endeavour to carry out sound check as efficiently as possible. Don’t rush or skip sound check if you can help it. At the same time, it is good discipline to restrict the number of songs you play at sound check. Basically, if you and your crew cannot get it together at the small club/theatre level in three songs, then something is wrong!

There is other etiquette and good practice to observe. Vocalists should always warm up before sound check, just as they would before a performance. Sing at three-quarters of your usual volume so as not to “blow” (ruin) your voice. If shouting/screaming is part of your vocal technique, then you should check one shout or scream so the FOH engineer can set the appropriate compressors and limiters. Do not shout at your full capacity and do not repeat more than three times. You do not want to blow your vocal chords for the show.

Always play the first song of your performance set as the last song for sound check. This will leave all the settings in place for that first song when you perform later. Of course, the sound will change with people in the room, and other bands may be using the same mixing board, but at least you and your sound crew will have a fighting chance of getting your sound mixed as it should be.

Finally, bands: always thank the FOH and monitor engineer at the end of sound check. Sound crew: Always thank the band for their time and patience.

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