It’s another instalment of Music Professionalism 101 kids. Today’s topic ….the infamous soundcheck. The impetus for this post was the comment from a friend about how long and what a waste of time a recent soundcheck was, and so I figured I should get on my high horse and do the soundchecking world a favour. I know …that’s the kinda guy I am. As per usual, this mostly applies to the gigging, rocking, pop-musicing sorts of endeavours filling the local streets, bars, clubs and corporate venues in cities world-wide. And as per extra usual, these are solely my abysmal observations put to digital paper as only I can. Disclaimer officially disclaimed.
The word soundcheck, although separated into two distinct words by my ‘spellchecker’ (which isn’t separated btw, how ironic…) is at its roots two distinct words; sound and check. In the gigging context a soundcheck is that activity where the band collectively checks their sound. You check your sound because, more often than not, the performance you’re about to embark on requires you to play through some sort of public address system –PA for short. Checking your sound in this instance means balancing the band’s instrumentation (levels, eq’s, effects etc.) as they’re amplified through the PA, effectively making it sound as good as possible (given room dynamics) for both the lovely listeners and the performers on stage. The PA system and setup by the adorable PA peeps is a different beast from the soundcheck, but as they’re both so interconnected you can’t really talk about one without the other.
In a perfect world, soundcheck’s happen after the PA is set up and ready for action. Let’s say a soundcheck is at 2pm for example ….what that means is that as a player you have to be set up and ready to ‘check your instrument’ at 2 pm. A horn player might only need 5 minutes to set up and be ready, in which case they can arrive 5 minutes before the check. A keyboardist might only need 15 min – and so they show at 1:45 pm. Basically then, the time you would need to show up for the soundcheck is dependant upon how long you need to set up all your gear to be ‘performance ready’ for the time it starts. A drummer may need an hour while the vocalist a minute ….yes, life is unfair and you should choose your instrument wisely.
The soundcheck itself starts the very instant everyone is setup and ready to go …players in their places with bright shining faces as they say.
Now – there is the detail of setting mics and stuff which the PA people have to place on stage when each performer is eventually ready to check. This only takes minutes though as most good PA people have this equipment waiting to go right beside your spot on stage (you did provide a stage plot right!?) There are those with special needs …the drummer for example (it’s always the drummer….) if the whole kit is being mic’d, or people with effects or special requirements like in-ears, sequencers etc. that require a little extra time. However, these special needs people know this already, and afford themselves an extra 5-10 min. on top of their regular set up time. So then, maybe 10 minutes after everyone’s ready, the PA people will commence with their witty banter: “Can I get some kik please?” ….quickly and effectively going around her/his input channels getting all the musicians adjusted for monitors and FOH (front of house) systems. Again, in a perfect world.
After the lines are checked and each player’s sound is generally happening for not only themselves but for the others in the group, the band will play one or two songs and the PA people will tweak a few more mids ….smiling assuredly at each other knowing things sound great and the world is a better place.
And that’s the end of the story!
Or is it….
Although it doesn’t always happen, it’s always best to try for this perfect experience. You may know up front that so and so aren’t going to make it when they should (or if at all!) but you still hope most of the group and the PA peeps will have their act together and any ‘issues’ can be minimized. You also expect people to be responsible for their own lives too; the bass player factoring in the hauling and transport of their gear through the maze that is the venue, the keyboard player bringing all they need in terms of amps, cables etc, the vocalist having lyrics, the horns bringing music stands etc. etc. Being late or missing in such a interconnected and fast paced environment sucks because it frustrates others and puts undue stress on the whole procedure. Because of this, being professional and respectful to those doing their tasks (being quiet like a mouse when others are checking for example!) means getting things done efficiently, finishing the soundcheck on time, and as well helps to instil confidence that things will operate smoothly when the gig finally gets underway.
In the imperfect world however (of which a good portion of the gigs I do subside…) there are all sorts of corners to be cut in getting the soundcheck done (or not) and the show on the road. For example; there’s the band that does its own PA setup, the band that requires minimal PA use and only mic’s some of the members, the band that drops their gear off throughout the day for the PA peeps to mic just before the show starts, the band that has some people setting up as others are soundchecking, the band that doesn’t even soundcheck and relies on the PA peeps to balance things out over the first few tunes, the band that shows up at a scheduled time only to find the PA people haven’t been able to setup their gear and everyone has to wait, the band and/or PA people that show up with broken gear and have to hunt around for unbroken stuff, the venue that changed rooms at the last minute, the organizer that changes the “It’s not going to change” schedule, the person whose dog ate their homework etc. etc…
There’s a million things to go wrong before a soundcheck, during a soundcheck, after a soundcheck or in lieu of a soundcheck happening at all, and there’s a million ways to ‘make it work’ in terms of getting the show ready for your eagerly awaiting public. The important thing though is that you should always aspire for that best case scenario. By taking care of things on your own end (scheduling, transportation, equipment, backup gear etc.) you minimize the potential of things going wrong and ensure it’s NOT your fault if things happen to go south. And if everyone down the line does that, then you’ve increased the odds of a successful soundcheck and put positive vibes toward the upcoming show. When delays/screw-ups happen though …be patient and do your best to help figure things out. And if you’re the person/company/venue screwing up? ….well, don’t let it become a regular thing.
You just might get more work that way :)