Lessons about performing, lesson 30: Soundcheck!

Happy Fourth of July! I am writing this on Sunday, but this is scheduled for the holiday. Hopefully, you’ll have a happy and safe holiday and enjoy the time with friends and family.

Before you go out for the day, I have an article for you! Yes, another lesson in our continued lessons for people who want to be professional performing musicians. You can read the whole list by clicking here. Do note that I don’t always get to update it on a regular basis. I write the articles on the weekend, or as free time allows, and then edit the page when I have time.

I can’t really add the links before they’re published. That’d just make no sense! None sense! None sense at all!

Anyhow, a quick blurb about what this list is about: This is a list of rules that you might want to follow if you’re going to aspire to be a professional performing musician. They don’t guarantee success, but they will give you a better chance at it. These are lessons learned over decades of experience.

There’s no book that tells you these things. So, that means you’re stuck with me and my writing. If you have some experience and want to share an idea, leave a comment and I’ll do what I can to add it to the list. I’m not yet out of ideas, but this list can’t really go on forever! (Or can it?!?)

Without further ado, here’s today’s lesson:

Rule #30: You can’t skip soundcheck!

That’s actually based on an old joke. You may have heard it before, but there’s a certain amount of wisdom to it.

You can’t skip soundcheck. You can only put it off until you go live.

There’s a whole lot of truth to that statement and we’re going to talk about it.

You’re a musician. What do musicians do? They make sound. What is the audience there for? They’re there to hear you make sounds. That’s a primary part of the experience. It’d be pretty silly to go do a show in complete silence.

Thus, it’s in your best interest to make the highest quality sounds that you can. Some of that is how you play your instrument, but a goodly percentage is how you’re projecting the sound into the audience.

It’s pretty basic stuff, right? Well, yes and no…

You really, really need to be there for soundcheck. Soundcheck could rate a whole series of lessons on its own. It’s both a technical skill and an art form. Anyone reasonably familiar with it get results that aren’t terrible, but someone truly skilled in the art can maximize the benefit of the acoustics and equipment.

I often joke about reaching the point where I’d like to just walk on stage, have everything ready for me, and play my instruments that are there waiting for me and ready to go. The truth is, I’m already sort of in that position – except I never skip soundcheck.

I need to know what I can do to improve. Someone might be able to pick up my guitar and play it for the sound folks, but they’re not going to play it like I do. They’re not going to have my ears. They’re not going to be able to relay any tweaks that I might want to make at my end.

Here’s a hard part…

You need to trust them. Granted, the vast majority of folks aren’t going to have a dedicated sound engineer, but you really want one. A good sound engineer is worth their weight in gold – except they’re usually pretty inexpensive. If you’re playing at a local watering hole, you might just be able to find someone who’s pretty good – for very low prices, including just having the chance to get free drinks with you!

Seriously, it’s worth paying them.

But, you need to trust them. You don’t tell them what to do – they tell you what to do. You listen to them. You rely on them as much as you rely on your instrument. They should get your monitors clear and loud enough for them to be heard by you – while not being overpowering other monitors. They should be able to get the full dynamic range to all corners of the room.

They should be familiar with your set list and know when to bring up certain volumes and tones. They should be able to adapt on the fly and make any needed changes, ’cause an empty venue has different sound characteristics than a full venue.

It’s actually possible to train someone, but it takes quite a bit of time. A good one will have lots of experience, including a great deal of experience with making repairs. Equipment breaks, folks. A good sound engineer is probably one of the best folks to have fix it.

A good part of your reputation is just that, your sound. Maximize it’s quality and use that to your advantage. It doesn’t mean play loud – it means having high quality sound.

By the way, don’t skimp on your stage gear’s sound equipment. Leave your practice stuff at home and have dedicated stage equipment. It really is the best  option. If you can’t afford it, try to figure out a way to budget it and add it as you can.

So, if you’re not doing a soundcheck before the show, you’re absolutely doing one when the show starts. And, even if you’re not checking your sound, the audience is. Don’t skip it.

And, strangely enough, I’ve seen quite a few bands who skip it entirely. They go in, set up the way they always do, use the same settings they always do, and don’t change anything. This very seldom works well. They’re likely to end up with muddy sound and be on the low-end of mediocre.

You can’t do that, if you want to have people who are more than apathetic about your band. If you want them to keep coming back, you have to give them high quality sound.

When you do your pre-show walk-through of the venue, you should pick the optimal spot to place your booth. It should be somewhere near where the audience is going to be, so that the sound people can actually hear the sound.

By the way, if the sound booth is unoccupied during the show, at any time other than breaks, you’re fired. No, I don’t care if you’re set for the rest of the set. You remain in the booth and you continue to monitor the performance.

Seriously, I’ve had sound people who would just wander around during the set. They didn’t last long.

And, like picking a manager, I’m not actually sure what to tell you about picking a sound person. There are both good and bad and you’ll want the best you can afford. Listen to their work. Talk to other musicians, because it’s a surprisingly small community. Don’t be afraid to train ’em to achieve “your sound.” Convey what you’re looking for and communicate with them.

That goes double during the soundcheck itself. Communicate with them. After you get your mic turned on, talk to them. See what you can do to help. Follow their exact directions. They’ll tell you what to play and when to play it. Under no circumstances should you make any unneeded noise while someone is doing their check. You’ll do the checks individually and in various numbers, including as a whole group. Everyone needs to be there and needs to be on stage.

No, there are no exceptions. Keep your prima donna ass on the stage and follow the directions from the nice person who’s helping you optimize the experience your paying customers are expecting. You hired them for a reason, so remember to get out of their way and let them do their job. Help them do their job and help your band get repeat customers.

This even applies if you’re staying in the same venue. Even if you play there every day, you still need to soundcheck before every performance. It’s a good idea to continue improving and soundcheck lets you spot potential problems before they become big problems.

Yes, it’s additional work. However, your audience will appreciate it and they won’t notice when you do it right (probably). What they will notice is when you don’t do it right. They are expecting quality sound and may only notice when their expectations aren’t met.

It’s a big step towards getting the greatest compliment you can get. “Wow. You guys sounded tight tonight.” That’s the best compliment you can hope for – and is usually one of the ones that is more accurate. They may not notice, or be able to enumerate the qualities and changes, but they do know when they hear something they like – and when they hear something they don’t.

There you have it! Yet another important lesson. Like most of them, there’s some room for variation in what your ‘quality sound’ is like. But, no matter what that is, aim for it and try to keep it consistent with what the audience is expecting. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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