The Gig Kahuna’s 20 Tips for Working with Soundmen
By David Himes |
The soundman's (or soundwoman's) importance cannot be overstated, so it’s important not to annoy them. You want to be on the same team, striving for the same goal—not harboring resentment or frustration. But chances are you’re doing (or not doing) some of the very things that make a typical soundman, well, let’s just say unhappy, without even realizing it. Here are 20 ways to get the maximum from whatever soundman you’re working with:
1. Keep your stage volume down. One of a soundman's scariest nightmares is a volume battle on stage, usually caused by the “Marshall on 11” guitarist. If you can’t or won’t cooperate, you’re in trouble from the start. Here’s why: The soundman can’t even run you through the PA when your stage volume is as loud or louder than the FOH (front of house), let alone make you sound good. He's also forced to “chase” your overly loud stage volume and turn everything else up in the mix, making the result overly loud, which you don’t want. When the FOH is too loud for the audience, you can clear them out. And don’t give that “if it’s too loud, you’re too old” line. There’s a difference between being comfortably loud and hurting people’s ears. (Hint: If you see people clearing out with their hands over their ears, you have a problem.)
There is, however, a workaround for those who still refuse to keep their stage volume down to a reasonable level: Place your amps off to the side of the stage and aim them inward. That way, you can turn up almost as loud as you want. There are other benefits: Everyone in the band can hear each other much better on stage, reducing or eliminating the need for your instruments to be in the monitor mix. More on monitor issues later.
2. Never look at the sound engineer like it’s his fault when you do something stupid. Let’s say you unplug your guitar before the channel is muted. People then jump out of their skin, and some duck to protect themselves from the sounds of gunfire. Meanwhile the soundman’s having a heart attack. Bad idea: Look at the sound engineer like he should be ashamed of himself. Good idea: Apologize.
3. Speaking of which, never unplug your guitar (or any instrument) without making sure the channel is muted. Even better, never unplug your instrument before turning down your amp. Catch the soundman’s eye and make sure he’s muted your channel before unplugging.
4. Keyboard players, make sure your synth patch levels are consistent! When you switch from a soft patch to one that screams, you'll cause the soundman’s heart to jump out of his throat. Not good. (This also applies to guitarists and bassists with effects and clean/distorted levels, as well as any sampling devices, backing tracks, etc.) It also helps if you have your own keyboard amp to reduce or eliminate the need to hear yourself from the stage monitors.
5. Singers: Don’t fling the mic around. You wouldn’t like it if someone treated your property the same way. If you insist on doing anything like this, bring your own mic and cable. If you bring your own mic or a wireless mic, make sure it’s of good stage-worthy quality, or it’s guaranteed you’ll sound like ass.
6. Know how to use effects like reverb, delay, etc., properly. A little reverb can go a long way. In fact, in most cases, you’re better off not bringing your own effects. Best bet is to ask the soundman to put a little reverb, delay, or whatever on you.
7. Use proper mic technique. When singing softly, get up close to the mic and when belting out the louder parts, back off. Otherwise, the soundman will reach for a compressor/limiter if available.
8. Never point the mic at the monitors—or even come close to that when the mic is not in use. This is very unprofessional and falls under the category of stupid things, because feedback will occur. Not only will this send the soundman scrambling to the monitor EQ (assuming there are monitor EQs), people in the crowd will yell obscenities. Loudly.
9. Drummers: Cut a roughly six-inch hole in your front kick drum head—near the outside edge, usually on the side. This is so the soundman can position the kick mic to pick up the beater(s) hitting the rear head. You might be surprised at how many drummers don't do this.
10. Learn to tune and muffle your drums properly—in particular, the kick and toms. Unless you’re a rap artist going for the 40 Hz tones, that long ring will work against you. It will take more time for the soundman to gate out that ring and in some cases (such as if there are no gates in the PA system), he might attempt to EQ the ring out, which can very easily result in drum sound suckage. If you don’t know how to muffle and tune your kit properly (c’mon, admit it!), a trip to your local music store should solve the problem. Their drum expert will likely be glad to help.
11. Stick with only one kick drum. Having two kick drums creates another kick to mic up, and you can’t always assume the soundman will have an additional kick mic. If your reason for having more than one kick is because “one kick hit cancels out the ring of the previous hit with a single kick,” trust me: No one will notice or care. While on the subject, avoid an overly big kit. Unless you’re Neil Peart, you most likely don’t have the luxury of a soundman who can mic up a kit big enough to stock a drum shop. If you absolutely insist on bringing a big kit, also bring in some additional (good quality) mics and cables.
12. If you’re using triggers, make sure your module has enough outputs to at least separate the kick, toms and snare. This should be obvious, because the different drums in a kit require different treatments—in particular, EQ.
13. Monitor-related points: Don’t equate what you hear on stage with what the audience hears from the FOH—two very different animals. It doesn’t matter what it sounds like on stage. What matters is what it sounds like out front. Of course, the better it sounds on stage, the more stimulation you get to perform better. But the purpose of the monitor system is not for you to have a concert on stage. The purpose of the monitor system is for all band members to hear what is going on, and to hear each other.
14. Open your ears and listen! Many bands often complain they can’t hear anything on stage. But the truth is, more often than not, you are not listening. What most of you hear in your rehearsal space and what you hear on stage are not the same thing. In your rehearsal space (usually a smaller room for most of you), you hear the sound of everything bouncing off the walls. But on stage, the sound of everything kind of disperses into nowhere. This is where some ear training is necessary, which comes mostly from stage experience. If you move about the stage, chances are you’ll find a “sweet spot.” If you have trouble hearing, move to that spot.
15. Invest in an in-ear monitor system, but only if you can afford it and learn to set it up and use it correctly. Some bands are even moving toward a “silent stage.” This is where everything is run line-in through the PA with no amps. But for that to work requires a good monitor system, so a silent stage will probably not be feasible in most situations.
16. Don’t expect the soundman to defy the PA's limits. Small venues might have only an eight to 16-channel board—and you have four vocalists, two guitars, a bass, drums, keyboard, hand percussion, a trumpet player, a synthesizer, etc. So check out the PA before you expect the soundman to work miracles. He’s not Jesus and he can’t multiply the fishes and loaves. Also, if you notice the FOH cabs are the equivalent of a pair of monitors on stands, you can forget about that uber-deep kick sound.
17. Don’t assume the soundman can read minds. For instance, you want your keyboard player to start off the third song. Let the soundman know ahead of time. But then again, it’s probably better to keep that a secret and let him read your mind. Some actually can.
18. For larger bands, don’t assume the house soundman will have enough mics and cables. If you’re in a larger band, such as a ska band with a horn section, or with extra percussion, or just a lot of cats on stage, bring extra mics and cables - just in case.
19. Most bands are better off by far using the house soundman. Why? Because the house soundman knows the room and the house PA. Unless you have a real, experienced soundman who has the ears and knowledge of what he’s doing, do yourself a big favor and leave your own “soundman” at home...or have him in front of the stage during your set to help cheer you on.
20. Tell your people to leave the soundman alone. When someone’s girlfriend, parent, friend, “manager,” or anyone else involved with a band tries to tell the soundman how to mix, any soundman will wish bad things upon that person. Comments like “I can’t hear my son’s guitar” (especially if he’s a “Marshall on 11” kind of guy already blaring above the FOH) are guaranteed to annoy the soundman. Do yourself another big favor and tell your people not to talk to the soundman, and just let him do his job.
What your audience hears is in the hands of the soundman. He can be thought of as a hidden member of the band. Keep in mind the soundman thinks of his (or the club’s) PA system the way you do of your instruments and amps. He is just as passionate about what he does as you are. He takes pride in his mixes, gear, etc. And when he has little or no control of his mix because someone isn’t cooperating on stage, there will be problems.
Make the soundman’s job so ridiculously easy, and make it a pleasure for him (or her) to work with you, that it will be virtually impossible for you to sound bad. So it only makes good sense to respect the soundman and cooperate. Just having an understanding of what makes the soundman tick can go a long way toward getting a great mix on your next gigs.
David Himes is the author of the book Realities for Local Bands: Talent is not Enough. You can find it at Amazon. For a FREE sneak preview, click here. The book is also available in PDF format. Also, David published a local music scene paper for over 16 years and has held over 400 live shows, giving him a unique insight on the scene. Your feedback and comments are welcome.