The Quick and Dirty Soundcheck: Making the Most of Your Live Sound Prep

Sometimes soundchecks are quick and dirty. A total of 15 minutes to set up, do the “check 1, check 2” thing and then you’re already launching into your first set. This means:

  • No one can hear themselves.
  • No one can hear anyone else.
  • No one has a clue if the sound in the house is any good.
  • The enjoyment factor is significantly lower.

The reality is that the majority of gigs are in locations where setup and sound check happen while patrons are munching on nachos and chicken wings, and time is compressed.

Quick and dirty.

And I can almost guarantee that what artists don’t realize is that in that minimal amount of time they are doing things that are working against them, making it more difficult for the band to hear themselves on stage and the audience to hear them offstage. It’s easy to blame the sound guy when this happens. I’ve been a jerk to many-a-sound-guy that I shouldn’t have been.

That poor guy. It’s not all his fault.

Here’s how to make the most of the 15 minutes setup you have, giving the sound guy the best chance of getting the best sound out to the listeners.

Manage Your Monitors

Use in-ears whenever possible. With normal wedge-style monitors, sound bounces off the back and side walls muddying the sound on the stage and then bounces off into the room making a soupy mess of tones for any listeners.

Now I realize not every club is set up for in-ears and that’s alright. If you can’t go the in-ear route be explicitly conscious of the wedge volume.

When asking for “more lead vocals,” assess whether or not the monitor level as a whole is high. If that’s the case then adding more vocals will only make it louder and harder to hear. Instead dial back the other instruments and the vocals will be easily heard. Same goes for any other instrument. Less is more.

I like to mix my monitors like the house and then ask for a bit more of myself. I want to hear myself reasonably well but in complete context of the rest of the band. I’m sure you’re a rad human being and a virtuoso player but there’s no reason to mix your monitor so you can only hear yourself. You’re not a solo act. You’re a collaborator of sweet musical notes and you need to hear your bandmates.

Appropriate Amplification

Having the right amp for the room is a big deal. A 10 billion watt Marshall full stack isn’t a good fit for a coffee shop much like a 1×6 bedroom amp won’t cut it in most concert venues. Have versatility in your amp selection and bring the right rig for the gig. If you’re not Mr. Moneybags (me either) get a very good mid-sized amp and pick up a $150-200 attenuator to bring the volume down without affecting the tone. Loud does not equal good tone.

With the right amp in place, keep the volume on the lower side to keep the stage volume low. There’s no reason to turn it up to 11 when its mic’d and you have a monitor pointed at your face. The extra wattage will create excess stage noise that the sound guy can’t control in the monitors or house.

The final thing you want to think about with any amp set-up is to make sure its pointing away from the stage and not pointed at the audience. This is called side washing. Make sure it’s not pointed at the audience or the first four rows will only be able to hear your amp. You want the sound guy to have as much control over the sound as possible so that the audience has a good clean house mix and pointing your amps to the side enables this control.

Dial Back the Drums

Ever told a drummer to play louder? Me neither. So be a sport and put down the tree branches and pull out the best sticks for the occasion. Better yet, keep in your bag a good variety of sticks from 7a’s and 5b’s to rods and brushes. You’re not the thick-skulled brute that drummer jokes make you out to be.

Playing lighter with heavy sticks won’t cut it either. It’s very challenging to groove when you’re being tentative. Grab the best sticks for the job without majorly adjusting your strike. Be a connoisseur of sticks.

Finally, as a drummer, think “crisp.” Crisp clean sounds are easier to mic and stand out in the mix than muddy ones. Tune up your toms, consider the depth of your snare and make sure you have the right cymbals for the space. For example, a huge and loud ringing ride cymbal can over-match the mains in pretty much any small space.

If you reduce the amount you’re getting told to player or at least the amount of scowls from the rest of the band, then you’re trending in the right direction.

Other Considerations

I think I’ve covered the main things, but here are a few more odds and ends to think about:

  • Bring your own equipment for impossible-to-mic instruments and gear. Don’t waste the sound guy’s time and sanity trying to mic odd instruments. Bring your own clip-ons or specialty mics and cables.
  • Know how to use your gear. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to set up their stuff. Play with it. Learn it. Test it.
  • Be nice. The funny thing about sound guys is that they’re human beings too. Be nice, communicate and collaborate. Work together to create great sound.

This is just the beginning

This post really is just the beginning. Every space you play in has its own nuances – shape of the room, materials of the walls and seats, quality of the sound system, experience of the sound tech – but you should now be well on your way to better sounding gigs by making the most of your quick and dirty sound checks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brandon Waardenburg

Founder of Apparatus (an artist accelerator providing music advice and education to independent artists) as well as a musician, songwriter, “musicpreneur” and consultant. After receiving his music degree back in 2011 he began working alongside independent artists, songwriters, producers and engineers in their quest to retain creative control. Sign up for his free email newsletter here and get open-source ideas and actionable advice for your career.