From The Front Of The House - The Role of a Sound Man
By Chris Marion |
From The Front Of The House - The Role of a Sound Man
The best way to frame this article might be with a classic joke:
What’s the difference between God and a soundman?
God doesn’t think he’s a soundman.
While that’s perhaps undeservedly harsh, there is no one in your organization beyond the band members themselves that can be as pivotal to your live performance being successful. Your front of house engineer is just as essential because he is taking what you create and translating that with the tools he has for reproduction to the crowd in attendance. You might be creating brilliance that is unrivaled since the Beatles crossed the pond but without a competent sound engineer exploiting adequate production resources, you’ll not only be unheard but you might even offend some attendees. Maybe it’s now understandable why conscientious engineers struggle with a bit of a “God” complex since they are actively creating something out of what often appears to them as the void…
Obviously, mixing live audio is as nuanced as it is individual. The purpose of this article is by no means tutorial. My purpose here is to explore the basic functions of the front of house engineer in concert production and offer some insight on facilitating a good production experience whether you are a musician, engineer or even a manager. Perhaps you’ll end up not having to use God’s or your soundman’s name in vain.
The most essential part of FOH job begins before he even gets to the venue – preparation. The soundman hosts a party of “KNOW”.
1. Know your band’s show.
a. Set List – your FOH needs a set list worse than the bass player. This set list should indicate who sings lead, who plays the leads at what point in the song, tempos, if you switch to banjo during a song or when the chain saw mic needs to be turned on. The FOH should never have to guess what’s coming – this means stuff gets missed.
b. Input List – like a set list, this gives your soundman an opportunity to be prepared for signal flow, where that signal is coming from and what gear he needs to process said signal or even route said signal.
c. Equipment List – Since the FOH is typically a production manager from the standpoint of the band, it is essential that he has an intimate knowledge of the gear the band is bringing. It’s his responsibility to make sure that gear is functional and that you have mics, DI’s, stands and cabling to get signal to front of house in the first place. There is no greater groove buster for the flow of a production than to be shut down because you don’t have the right patch cable or DI.
d. Stage plot – this is so essential to pulling off a professional production yet it’s a commonly overlooked item. Often on a fair date throw and go, you have a very brief opportunity to turn the stage for your band. If the crew has a definitive list for where personnel and gear is to be located on stage, you don’t waste precious time with bumbling stage hands needing directions for pedal board placement. Have multiple copies with large simple print that you can even make out on a dark stage. Artwork is not as important as functional direction. This is an excellent segue to the next “KNOW”.
2. Know what production awaits you at the gig.
a. Advancing the show - in Little River Band, our FOH is also the production manager. He advances every gig with the venue weeks before the performance. He makes sure that the nuances of our equipment rider are being met adequately. If there are holes or things that the venue cannot or will not provide, he knows ahead of time and makes preparations.
b. Establishing a relationship with the venue or promoter – your FOH or production manager is often the first member of the organization that the client comes in contact with. Personalities can make or break a successful event before you even pull up in the van. It is extremely important to not only lay the ground work for a positive experience, it also helps to make sure you get what you need to pull off the best show.
c. Scheduling – in an article that I wrote several months ago about the art of putting on a show, I praised the day sheet as the savior of many a production. It’s amazing the difference that knowing the schedule, coordinating everyone’s schedule and then following the schedule can make in not just making an event a positive experience but even raising the potential that you’ll get rebooked on subsequent events. You can be the most gifted artist of all time but if you show up late for sound check or load in, you effect everyone in the production from top to bottom. Since the FOH has more skin in the game in terms of getting his job done, it makes sense for him to be the clock boss.
3. Know what skills you have to offer and the pitfalls to avoid.
a. No man is an island – although the FOH usually wears many hats, when the downbeat starts your primary job has to be mixing. If you have difficulty just pushing the faders without having a stroke, don’t try to hit lighting cues, guitar tech or simultaneously chase down the sleazy promoter to get the check.
b. Assemble the right team – obviously if you are working the VFW in rural Arkansas, you probably won’t need to hire an LD to turn the 4 incandescent stage lights on and off during the show. Again, this involves knowing what awaits at the venue and who you’re going to need to pull it off efficiently and professionally.
c. Know your gig – if you’ve never worked on a Midas digital console, ask (no let me recommend that you beg) for the system tech’s help to get your show up and running. Arrogance will not only tank your mix but the show period. When you advance the production, know what you’re getting into and make sure there is going to be a systems tech available. Often, you can do some research online or even at a local music store if you are unfamiliar with a piece of gear. The most important role of the FOH is making sure that each voice and instrument can be heard during the show, not programming the right compression ratio for lead vocals. When all else fails, plan to get signal and mix it.
You’ve arrived at the gig – now it’s time present your best show and produce this list of “BE”s
1. Be a follower the plan and stick to the schedule – I know I am repeating myself here but it is essential that you follow your schedule even at the expense of comfort. Plan for delays, plan for equipment failure and plan for the inevitable by striving to meet deadlines as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
2. Be flexible and creative – Our crew guys are some of the best in the business in this department. Inevitably, you won’t have exactly what you need when you arrive or gear fails. Being a diva or a hot head solves nothing. The goal is pull off the show if at all possible. Be able to step back, assess the situation and come up with an alternative route if need be. Level heads alway prevail.
3. Be orderly – get into a routine. Our crew guys have their specific responsibilities and they execute from arrival to departure. We plan on a sound check everyday at 4 PM. I am always amazed at the way these professionals pull it off regardless of the situation. The pivotal secret to this is having a orderly flow for executing your responsibilities. You could set your clock by what time our FOH guy is typically sending audio to the racks and stacks each day to tune the PA. He accomplishes this consistency by being diligent and orderly.
4. Be organized and clean – it is incredibly amazing to consider what an impact organization and cleanliness can have on consistently pulling off a production. It might take a little extra time and anal retention to keep your cabling rolled neatly and clean but it saves an exponential amount of time when you are trying to set up. I love a clean and neat stage. Besides the aesthetic appearance value, it streamlines set up and tear down as well as locating the inevitable bad line.
5. Be persistent to get the line check or sound check you need. If you just get a line check, make sure the vocal mics are attenuated to accommodate the relative volume of the singers using them. As well, check the guitar patches or amp volumes the players will use. The guitar tech’s version of Stairway to Heaven might hook him up with a bar fly after the show but if that line is used to accommodate speed metal through a Marshall stack, make sure levels match the demand. Don’t blow out one side of the PA on the first chunk because you are unprepared.
Preparation is done, presentation is completed and now it’s time to execute (and I’m not talking about the lead guitarist’s girlfriend who wants to hear more guitar). This execution is accomplished by following a list of “DO, DO, DO’s”:
1. Do start on time – be ready to hit the mutes or push up the master faders when the clock hits the magic time. If you’re in the back of the house, have some way of communicating with the band or crew person backstage either by radio, cell phone or even a pre-designated flashlight blink. There’s nothing worse than seeing guys playing on stage and not hearing them because the FOH is putting in his drink order with the hot bartender.
2. Do have your set list in front of you and have a hand on the essential faders – You know that lead vocal is coming so be prepared to respond with a fader as needed. Likewise, know which lines need attention as the show unfolds.
3. Do protect the integrity of your workspace – make sure that your area is secure from drunks sitting their beer on top of the console case or effects rack. As well, put up some police tape around your area if it is in a high traffic area that has inadequate security. Nothing busts a groove like a drunk chick tripping over the power cable and unplugging the console because you didn’t cordon off your space.
4. Do show sensitivity to volume – obviously, you want your band to be heard over the din of the crowd and the built in limitations of the room or concert venue. But, nothing diminishes the concert satisfaction like volume fatigue. Perhaps this is further qualified by being sensitive to the genre in question. If you are mixing a metal band in a concrete room on a metal festival – slam away. If you are mixing a smooth jazz show at a wine festival, 125 dB is not going to leave a pleasant bouquet with the attendees.
5. Do find inspiration – at this point in the day, you are as much an artist as the performers on stage. Find the joy in creating that drew you to the job in the first place. If you are diligent in your attention to all of the aforementioned issues, finally you can enjoy what you are called to do.
As mentioned before, this article was never intended to be a tutorial. My desire was to identify some aspects of what is expected from a FOH engineer and provide some insight based on the experience of living and working with some of the best professional audio engineers out there in the work force. Obviously, there are great educational resources out there to provide you with audio and gear knowledge. Besides actual schools like Full Sail University, there are some fantastic published works that have been mainstays in training and technique. Here are some of the most notable with links:
The Sound Reinforcement Manual by Yamaha (Gary Davis and Ralph Jones)
Soundcheck: The Basics of Sound and Sound Systems (Tony Moscal)
As always, my friends, enjoy your view from the front of house and mix safely!
Chris Marion is an American musician best known as a member of Little River Band and for his contribution to the gospel and country music industries. Although graduating college with a B.A. in Psychology, he is a classically trained pianist and has worked in the music industry professionally for over 35 years. As a resident of Nashville, he is involved in the recording industry working in the genres of Gospel, Country and Rock. Since 2004, he has toured globally with the classic rock act Little River Band as a keyboardist and vocalist. For more useless trivia and minutiae concerning Chris or to contact him directly, feel free to visit his personal website www.chrismarionmusic.com.