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Rule 1 – Don’t mess with it

by: John Mills

Rule #1 – Don’t mess with it.

So this month I offer a little encouragement with a dose of admonishment.  It comes in the form of some do’s and don’ts for pre/post sound check.  Some of this will be for the worship leader, band director, and yes you too o’le sound engineer… everyone buckle up and let me rant for a minute.

On a recent date with Paul Baloche, he questioned me about why his mix sometimes changes from sound check to performance.  He said “with the advent of all this digital “save my mix” stuff you would think my monitor mix would be the same during the concert as it was in sound check.”

I hope to debunk a few thoughts here as well as offer some tips about how to keep your musicians happy and consistent with their monitor mixes.  Because, at the end of the day, our most important job as sound engineers is to amplify what is happening on the stage. So we are obviously going to make something louder. If our worship leader is frustrated at the technician or technology it is going to be hard to amplify his heart instead of his frustrated attitude.

Let’s work toward “sound check” that should take place in every venue.

I would like to with what a sound check is.  If you have ever heard me speak on the subject, you will know I’m passionate about getting to tune my instrument, the soundboard that is.  It amazes me how often I walk into a situation where I see the sound engineer just starting with whatever the band decides to do when they walk in.  Ladies and Gentlemen I say no. Worship leaders and band directors, you must give the sound engineer a few minutes to check levels and eq BEFORE you start into a song.  If we are going to be part of a team, and I mean a well-oiled machine that can function properly, we need to all act like a team.  Much like the band director expects the guitar player to tune his guitar before they start the song, we cannot tune our instrument while the song is playing.  We can make sure our strings are on our guitar by verifying all the inputs work and are plugged in correctly when we did a “Line Check”, but if the band just starts a song, it’s likely that the sound board is out of tune.  Even from week to week things do change and we need to double-check everything. I promise if the band gives the engineer 10 minutes of the hour long “rehearsal” slot, at the very beginning of “Sound Check” to let the them hear and adjust just a small sample of everything, we all have a much more profitable 50 minute “Rehearsal.”

Did you notice those last few BOLD words?  Line Check, Sound Check, and Rehearsal.  They are 3 very distinct portions of our time together at what is often generically called a Sound Check. 

Line Check is when the engineer and a friend verify that all things are plugged in correctly and each wireless mic, personal monitor, monitor wedge, main speaker, subwoofer, etc. is working.  Engineers, we should do this every Sunday, and we should be done with it (as well as fixing anything we find wrong) BEFORE the band arrives.  See my website Tech Training 101 for an article titled “Check/Re-Check” for a “preflight” checklist.

Sound Check, this is where it’s all about the engineer.  Band we need you to play a small sample of what you are playing or singing that morning… no 50% volume here, or timid “check 1, 2, check 1,2”… we really need a descent version of what you’ll be doing.  This is where we set things like gain and eq… the two most important things you need as a musician.  If you check too quietly, then most likely we will turn you up, but then when you give it your all in the service, we will have to turn you down… and there in lies the problem with most monitor mixes.  If you give me quality input level checks at this time, it is highly likely that your mix will not change.  Stay with me though there are other pitfalls to this issue.  For instance a lot of times I will ask the drummer to just play all his drums for a minute.  Most drummers will unconsciously play softer if you just ask for a kick, then a snare, etc.  When it comes to vocalists, I will have already checked the acoustic or keyboard and will have them start the chorus of an easy song so the vocalists don’t feel so silly singing all alone.

Once we have made it through most of the inputs to my system, I will have the band play a short chorus of a song that includes everyone playing and singing.  This is often the exact same song every week… once you find one that has everyone playing and harmonizing, it’s a good idea to just use it all the time because then everyone gets used to it. Keep in mind we have not really adjusted monitors yet.  This section is to verify that I get a chance to see all inputs and make any quick final adjustments to gain levels.

I will then ask who needs what in their monitors if we are on wedges and make those adjustments. If your band is on personal mixers, now is the time they should make any adjustments.  Band guys… If you make adjustments to your mix before I have had a chance to settle in on gain structure, your mix will change.  So FOH guys, let’s be clear about when we are finished with this portion and tell them you are set and ready for them to work on their mixes.  FOH guys… when setting gain and rough eq during this Sound Check time, take no more than 10-15 seconds per input.  Have this discussion, and expect they will give you a reasonable level, set the gain quickly, and grab a quick listen to the eq and the MOVE ON.  The band loves it when we move fast.  You can always come back during the next section and make more tweaks.  If you spend 10 minutes on getting the “perfect” kick drum sound, no one will be interested in helping the rest of this process. 

Rehersal. Tell the band “I’m finished adjusting major components, so does anyone need any adjustments to their mix?”  If yes, make the adjustments and have them do another short chorus, ask again, and if everyone seems somewhat happy, say the following.  “Thanks guys for this time, I’m now in tune and can confidently respond not only to the house mix, but any needs you may have.” 

What we just did by taking a few minutes (FOH guys, I mean a few minutes… less than 10) is we have tuned our instrument and can confidently hit the first cord.  Now there may still be a bunch of little adjustments to the mix, but for the most part you should be in the ballpark. Band guys, during rehearsal, the sound engineer reserves the right to really mess with the house sound.  Sound guys, please take the time to mute the mains and see how loud stage sound is, turn up the harmonies a little to loud so you can get the right blend and then set them back down in the mix.  Turn the drums on and off, turn the subwoofers on and off.  Take some time to see how your instrument is responding.  But do this all very quickly too as it is messing with the “mix” on the stage because we want them to be able to rehearse.  Also of note would be to always finish rehearsals with the house sound on.  Many of their monitor mix adjustments will be very different if they do not hear the house sound blending with their wedge or ear monitor sound.

Now back to Paul’s topic.  Once you get gain structure set do not change it, especially after sound check and especially especially (did you hear that) not after rehearsal.  Unless something is about to explode, do not mix with the gain knobs; doing so will adjust everything down stream including the bands monitors.  Let me say it again.  Unless a signal is about to pop the top off the little red clip LED, then leave it alone.  This is why it is so important that we got the gain right during sound check, and that they gave us real world rehersal signals.  If you constantly adjust the gain during the service you are changing their mix, especially if they are on ear monitors.  There are these little slider things closer to your hands that we should be using now to balance the mix.  (Sorry for the sarcasm, but some of us need to be reminded.)

What else can change a musician’s mix?  The room and the audience.  Sound check is always different than the service.  I recommend always running sound check a little louder than you will run the service. It will honestly seem just a little louder with out bodies in the room even with no changes to any faders or gain knobs.  This is because the human body is made up mostly of water… and one of the best sound absorbing materials is big bags of water.  So know that it is normal for sound-check / rehearsal to sound louder. It is for this reason that I encourage you to make it just a tad louder than you think, because most likely you will turn it up a little anyway. Making it a bit louder will also help you establish any feedback issues that may flare up in the service.  When the people come in they suck up some of the sound, so if you have audience mics that the ear monitor folks are relying on or if you band is mostly on wedges, then the change in sound when an audience fills the room will change the performers perspective on their mix. 

Now that you have ran sound-check / rehearsal a bit loud, back that main fader back where it belongs.  You have established a max volume as well as know you are stable feedback wise.  Do not “gain up” any inputs, or push the main fader above this point.  You run the risk of not only feedback, but also splash back on the stage that will overtake the bands monitors.  You know you hit this mark if you band is on wedges and they all start asking for monitor changes. 

And last but not least.  If you have had (and especially if you have not had) a good rehearsal, never make any changes based on what you remember you wanted to change.  Meaning if the band has left the stage, do not think, “Oh, I needed some gain on the acoustic guitar and I didn’t want to mess him up in rehearsal…. I’ll add it now.”  Stop right there… back to rule 1.


Till next time.


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