A lot of people don’t realize exactly what it takes to become an accomplished musician. For some of us, it took years of daydreams before we even got our first pawnshop-guitar. For others, a well-meaning relative provided the instrument easily enough, but our parents wouldn’t allow us to play it in the house. Some of us spent weeks and even months in the garage or treehouse or woodshed trying to get our first pentatonic scale down right. And what guitarist can forget learning to bar his first B or F chord. And for bassists like myself, who can forget trying to make that five fret stretch down low on the neck? And then there is the fear of answering that first “bassist wanted” ad on the bulletin board in the music store. Add to that the stress of auditions, the hassle of dealing with club owners, and the feeling of inadequacy you get every time you see Flea or Geddy Lee play a bass, and you can only conclude that musicians must be not only dedicated, but nearly fearless. I mean, let’s face it, being (and becoming) a musician is tough! But fortunately, through perseverance and a certain degree of fearlessness, many of us passed through these difficulties and finally made it to the bright lights of the stage.
And when we got there, we discovered one thing – one necessary evil – one fear that we still needed to conquer. I know what you’re thinking, but the fear that someone will request the live version of Freebird only falls in at number two. The big fear was the fear of the soundcheck.
The simple truth is; the soundcheck can be the scariest part of any stage experience. Okay, maybe scary is a little strong, but nearly everyone is uncomfortable when they have to step up on the stage and be the guy to say “check. . .check” over and over again while someone else adjusts the knobs. And at no time does a musician ever feel more exposed than when he has to play something (anything) so that the soundguy can adjust the levels on his instrument in the PA. In truth, doing a full soundcheck on the PA before a show is an uncomfortable, annoying, inconvenient pain in the butt, but it is absolutely necessary.
In other words, if you want the band to sound good, you have to do it, and unless you really enjoy pain, you won’t enjoy it. It is possible, however to speed up the process and make it a little less painful by making a few simple adjustments to the way you (as the musician) perform your soundcheck.
Use “Check” Licks
To avoid embarrassment and help the soundguy, have some special licks ready that you can use during soundchecks. You can use snippets of cool songs you know, or you can make up something of your own. Or you can just play scales or even play randomly as long as you include a few key elements. For guitar, you should have parts that are big open chords and parts that are screeching solo licks. This way, the EQ and effects on your channel can be adjusted at both ends of the spectrum by the soundguy. For bass, make sure you play a lot of low E’s and a little high stuff too. That way, the soundguy gets a full dose of what you might play on stage.
As with most things that require good communication, the best thing you, as the musician, can do to keep the process moving along is to listen to what the soundman is saying. He may want you to move the mic or check to see if it’s plugged in. He may even request that you change some settings on your guitar amp or tilt it a certain direction on the stage. Many times, you may not agree with some of his suggestions, but remember that he is trying to make you sound best out front where your audience will be. The sound on the stage is very different than the sound in the rest of the room. The question you need to ask yourself is, “Where would I prefer my guitar to sound best?” The obvious answer is that the best sound in the room should be located in the area where your audience will be listening. So listen to the soundman. You pay him to make things sound great out front, so trust him when he tells you what he needs you to do. You will seldom be disappointed.
Wait Your Turn
When the soundguy is checking another instrument or another mic, don’t make any noise. Don’t talk into your mic. Don’t play your instrument. Just wait patiently until it’s your turn, and when the he says your turn is over, walk off the stage and let everyone else finish. If you keep making noise, the soundman can’t hear what he’s supposed to be checking. If you’re lucky, he’ll notice, but if you’re not, he might hear you and think he’s hearing the instrument or mic he’s working on. That could cause all kinds of problems when you start into your first song at the beginning of the show.
When you are doing your part of the soundcheck, the soundman needs to have your full attention. Don’t frustrate him by talking to other people on the stage while he’s trying to get you sounding right. Also, if you’re doing your soundcheck right before the show, try not to be distracted by the early birds in the audience. Their mere presence makes a lot of people nervous, and as often as not, they will want to talk to you during soundcheck. Don’t be rude. You don’t want to run them off, but you should try to avoid talking to them as much as possible. Even a polite reminder that you need to finish up before you can talk is fine. They will usually understand. Just keep in mind that it is important to stay focused. You don’t want the soundguy getting annoyed. If he gets aggravated, everything will take longer and the end result will be a worse sound at the start of your show.
Check it Like You Sing it
When you check a microphone, check it at a volume comparable to your normal singing volume. If you don’t want to look silly checking your mic, don’t check it like a wimp. Check it big. Use your gut. Don’t whisper. You don’t sing that quiet, so don’t check that quiet.
Two Simple Words
Use the words “Two” and “Check” when you check a microphone. Believe it or not, there are practical soundguy reasons why these words are so common in soundchecks. The “Ch” part of “check” checks how the highs and mids sound, the hard stop made at the “ck” sound helps check how the effects are working, and the word “two” (or “four” if two gets boring) really helps to see how the lows on the mic are sounding. Don’t have a conversation on the mic, just say “check – Two” and repeat. . . and repeat. . . and repeat. . .
All Together Now
Finally, after each band member has done his/her duties as an individual, the whole band should take the stage long enough to play a soundcheck song. It should be one of the easier songs on the list since you want to be able to concentrate on the sound more than on the performance, but it should be a song that utilizes as many instruments and vocal mics as possible. In other words, choose a song where everyone sings (at the same time preferably) and everyone plays. It isn’t usually necessary to play the whole song. Only play as much of it as the sound engineer needs to get things adjusted. When the crowd claps, as they sometimes do after a soundcheck, thank them and tell them when your show will begin, and then sit down and take a rest before the real fun starts.
If you follow those simple guidelines, you’re likely to impress every soundman you are likely to encounter, and your own soundcheck experience should be at least a little more enjoyable and, at the very least, a lot faster. With any luck, it won’t even be uncomfortable or scary anymore. Now, if we could just figure out how to deal with that live Freebird request.
About the Author
Scott Hysell used to run the PA System Tutorial website, a site that dealt with all PA systems. He has written three articles for Guitar Noise, including: Soundcheck: A Necessary Evil, Recording on a Budget Part 1 – The Equipment and Recording on A Budget Part 2 – Recording Concepts.