Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why Do We Make Soundcheck. Part One

One of the single greatest indicators of a band’s degree of experience, expertise, and general savoir-faire is the manner in which it conducts sound checks. So for those of you looking to take a simple step towards professionalism, or for anyone who prefers eating, sleeping, showering, and hitting on that cute bartender to playing quarter notes to an empty room while feedback swirls around you like a class three tornado, I offer these five bullet points on how to perform a painless, efficient sound check.
First, the basics:
Send all relevant information ahead of you.
The minute your show is booked, you should send your rider and contract to the promoter and venue. Ask the venue, in writing, to forward your rider to the sound and lighting engineers. When in doubt, include more, not less, information: you can never be clear or specific enough. By seeing your rider well in advance, the venue crew can better prepare for your arrival and save crucial time going over basic requirements. Riders should include, at the very least:
• Stage Plot: a detailed picture of the position of all performers, instruments, monitors, and power drops. Drawing it on a bar napkin with a crayon does not count; use any word processor that can draw shapes and lines and save the image as a JPG.
• Input List: a complete account of every input source, including all mics, DIs, and wireless systems. Just about any engineer you will meet will appreciate you following the industry standard convention of channel/source order, so stick with that unless you have a really good reason not to.
• Technical Requirements: a description of what, at minimum, constitutes an acceptable sound system and backline. If you need to clear 1200 decibels SPL, or your drummer must have a 62″ plasma subwoofer to accompany his monitor, or your keyboard must be a Chrysler Grand Caravan, or you’re sponsored by SlimJim and have to use one of their mics, or the system must respond up to microwave frequencies, this is where to say so.
Extra Credit: Send sound files along with the rider. This lets the engineers hear who you are and what you’re about. It also provides a reference so they know if their mixes are hitting the mark. If you have decent audience recordings of any shows you think were mixed particularly well, those can be of great use to an engineer, in addition to your studio tracks. Similarly, sending photos or video of lighting you’ve enjoyed in the past helps the lighting designer plan and program his looks.
Bring complete instruments.
Cables, rugs, power strips, picks, sticks, mallets, bows, reeds, and tambourines are all part of your instrument: a guitarist without a pick isn’t a guitarist, a drummer without a rug isn’t a drummer, a keyboardist without a power cable isn’t a keyboardist, and so on. If you need it, and the venue hasn’t guaranteed you, in writing, that it will be there, then bring it. In fact, bring two. In general, unless otherwise specified by a contract, musicians should bring, at the very least:
• Drummers: sticks, cymbals, snare, felts, multitool, drum key, and hi-hat clutches to fit various diameter stems. If you’re bringing a kick drum, then you need to bring a rug. Having a spare kick pedal and extra cymbal stands around never hurts either.
• Guitarists and bassists: picks, power strip, 1/4″ cables, change of strings, multitool, strap, 9V batteries. If you’re savvy, you also travel with at least one spare 1/4″ cable, one spare power strip, one spare IEC cable, and a bunch of 9V DC transformers.
• Keyboardists: stand, power strip, 1/4″ cables. Really slick guys have extra 1/4″s and power strips, as well as redundant power cables for their keyboards.
• Computer Musicians and DJs: table or stand, power strip, 1/4″ cables. If your outputs are XLR, then don’t sweat the 1/4″s. If they’re TRS, bring TRS-to-XLRmale adaptors. Again, spare 1/4″ cables, power strips, power supplies, and output adaptors are all good to bring along.
• Brass & Strings: reeds, bows, rosin, change of strings, and stands are all requisite. Spares of all are a bonus.
• If you use music stands, bring your own clip lights with extension cords and spare bulbs even if there are stands at the venue.
Extra Credit: EVERY player, regardless of instrument, should bring an extra 1/4″ cable, power strip, pack of picks, pair of 5A drumsticks, roll of gaff tape, Sharpie, pen, multitool, and zip ties in an “emergency kit.” All of this fits in a small bag and weighs just a couple of pounds, but it’s well worth it for the gloating you can do after you save your idiot bandmate’s ass when he forgets something crucial.
Extra Credit: Bring your own vocal mics and DIs. Professional quality gear please – no RatShack, no B******er, no PG series, no cheap/unreliable/flimsy stuff. This affords you the delight of not having to taste the mouth of whomever last used the venue’s mics, and it means you’ll always have spares on hand in case something goes down during the check or the show.
Load in intelligently.
Place your cases to side of stage so the full stage is available for gear and cable runs. By bringing your gear from its case at side of stage to its onstage position, you both keep from cluttering the stage right when it needs to be its cleanest for cable running and dressing, and you save yourself the trip of carrying an empty case offstage. The exceptions to this rule are amps and cabinets in top-over-style cases. Leave the top at side of stage and roll the amp into position on the bottom/caster plate. (Don’t forget to lock your casters once your amp is in place!)
Start by helping each other move the large and heavy objects like drums and amp cabinets. Once all the big stuff is staged, break off and finish the details of your rig by yourself. Any pedal setup involving more than two pedals should live attached a pedalboard, with its patching and power configured for plug-and-play readiness.
Extra Credit: Use exclusively ATA-rated hardcases in standard sizes. Such cases’ dimensions, durability, and recessed hardware make packing, stacking, and moving much easier. ATA-rated cases also meet the most demanding specifications for the transport of delicate materials, so your gear travels as safely as possible.
Be on time!
It might sound obvious, but lateness screw up dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people’s days. It pushes back all the other checks at least, and the door and show times at worst. If you’re lucky enough to be the headliner, you will likely check first; checks usually run in the opposite order from that of the show, so that when the first opener finishes their check, everything is set and ready to go come show time. When other acts are late or run long at check, it’s almost always the poor opening act that suffers the most, as it’s ultimately their check that will get shortened, or even cut entirely.
Extra Credit: Be 30 minutes early. If the venue is open, load your gear to side of stage, and begin prepping the gear, making sure to leave room for any other acts’ backline. If the venue is closed, line up your gear neatly by the stage door, big and heavy stuff first, small stuff last.
In the next installment, I’ll go over the nuts and bolts of how to make the most out of your check once you step on stage.

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