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Road Worrier: Sound Check Survival Tips

Greg Bisonette

We each seek out the comfort we require on stage in individual and diverse ways. Some are still legal in many states, but a few pertain to virtually all of us. Among the common denominators of comfort is a good monitor mix, one that blends the sounds on stage to a point where, ideally, you feel surrounded, but not overwhelmed by the band – sort of an “inside-the-band” feeling. Happily, that blissful groove is attainable. Sadly, it comes in the form of a thorough sound check. Recognizing that “sound check” is quite probably one of the two most feared and detested terms in the lexicon of touring musicians (the other, of course, being “band meeting”), let’s attempt to maximize its benefits and minimize the pain and suffering.

While doing the advance work for the gig (a topic unto itself), establish a friendly, professional connection with the house engineer. Bear in mind that these folks deal with a different band every day and usually don’t have as much invested in your sound as you do, so always remember Rule Number One: never piss off the sound person. Make sure that the engineer receives your stage plot and is aware of your requirements well ahead of time, and don’t be afraid to double-check with a quick phone call closer to the gig date. Arrange a load-in time, and do not be late (see Rule One).

Learn and use the names of as many crew members as possible, since it shows respect, gets their attention more quickly than, “Yo, monitor dude,” and sets the stage (so to speak) for friendly relations. Set up quickly, so that the mikes can be placed and you can move on to getting sounds. If you’re fortunate enough to have your own sound people, make it a point to respect the house gear and crew. Occasionally you’ll run into completely unacceptable examples of both, but do your best. Believe me, if they see that you are both courteous and knowledgeable (read: pro), you’re already on your way to an easier sound check, and very likely, a better gig.

All too often, sound checks resemble the floor of the Stock Exchange, with band members simultaneously vying for the monitor engineer’s attention, noodling on their instruments, chatting, adjusting tones, etc. What I recommend is a quick, organized exercise I call the “Grand Slam,” because it covers all four bases and it gets everybody home fast. Obviously, this metaphor originated in a quartet, so adjust it to your needs. To begin, have all band members in place and quiet. Starting with your front person, adjust his or her personal mix, then, in a clockwise fashion, send them to each band member’s monitor (starting with the person to their right), until they have the desired level. Move clockwise from person to person until everyone has as much or little of each voice and instrument as is necessary for his or her comfort. The Grand Slam is particularly advantageous on multi-act bills, when time is very limited, and quick line checks are frequently all that’s available.

Here’s the bottom line: If we’re to spend 22 1/2 hours each day working too hard and sleeping too little in order to experience the 90 minutes of elation found in a great performance, why not use every tool to achieve just that?

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