The other day I was talking with a friend, and he asked me if I had ever written a post about our sound check procedure. I thought I had, but a quick search turned up nothing. So here it is.
I’ve found the sound check to be one of the most important times of the entire weekend experience. It’s a short window in time that allows you to set the tone for the service, either for better or worse.
A smooth, well-run sound check will put the musicians at ease and enable them to lead well. A rough one will elevate tension and put the service in jeopardy.
For me, the key to a successful sound check is all in the preparation. That means being there early, getting the stage set and ensuring that everything works before the band sets foot on the stage.
Our tech team arrives at noon on Saturday; the band arrives at 1:45. That hour and forty five minutes gives us plenty of time completely set up the stage, dress the cables, set out music stands and lights and run a full line check.
That timeline works for us; your arrival time may need to adjust based on your situation. Normally, we leave much of our stage set up and wired because we can. When we have to do a full reset, we arrive two hours earlier. I would always rather have 30-45 minutes of down time because we finished early than be running 10-15 minutes late.
We always do a full line check of every single input every week. Even though we leave the drums and bass and guitars wired up the same week to week, we check them anyway. I’ve learned the hard way that troubleshooting with the band on stage is much harder than when no one is there. Making 6-10 people wait while you figure out a bad cable or bad patch is not a way to start the weekend off right.
We also test every monitor to make sure they’re working properly and are assigned the right way. Few things are more frustrating to a musician than asking for a change in his mix only to have that change end up in someone else’s wedge because they’re cross-patched. Catch that stuff in advance.
I like to be on stage when the band arrives. It give me a chance to welcome them, hang out and talk a little while they get set up and take care of any special requests they may have. Building relationships is key; and I want my band to know I care about them as people first, musicians second.
As the time for sound check approaches, I’ll usually say something like, “OK guys, I’m going to head up to the booth, so if you can get in place and get your ears plugged in we’ll start sound check and get you moving.” That gives them a minute or two to get set. Once in the booth, I explain via the talkback mic what we’re going to do so everyone knows what to expect.
I always do sound check the same way. That’s true for most of what I do, by the way. I’m a big believer in consistency. I tell the band what we’re going to do, then do it. Here’s how I roll sound check.
First, I start with the kick. I ask the drummer to play quarter notes on the kick while I set the gain and trim to get it where I want it in the house. I then ask him to add snare.
After getting that set, I add hat. I’ve found it’s easier for the band to get their levels set when we get all three going at once. Same goes for me in the house. I’ll then ask for toms, quarter notes on each in succession in a loop. So he’ll play tom 1, tom 2, tom 3; tom 1, tom 2, tom 3.
What I’m doing there is balancing the level of the toms to each other. Next up, we’ll get the overheads. Finally, I’ll ask him to play a groove on the whole kit.
This give me a final chance to make sure the kit sounds cohesive, and allows the band to get their mixes dialed in. I’ll usually let this go for a minute or two, then stop. Next up is the bass. I’ll have him play, then ask to drummer to hit the kick while the bass player plays a riff. That helps me and the band get those placed right.
Next we’ll go to guitars. If I have a guy who’s playing both electric and acoustic, I’ll start with whatever he has strapped on, then do someone else while he switches guitars. We’ll do keys (piano, synth and B3), and finally percussion or sax if we have it. That gets us through the band.
At this point, I’ll normally ask them to play a verse and chorus from a song we’re doing that weekend, preferably one they know. That gives me a final chance to tweak gains and trims before moving on to the vocals.
For vocals, I will ask everyone who’s singing to repeat a chorus of a song of the weekend, typically with either piano or guitar accompaniment for pitch. Because I’ve started with a base mix in the vocal wedges, they can hear themselves while I get their gains set right.
Once the vocals are dialed in, I will usually ask the band to do another verse and chorus with vocals. After that, I take requests for the vocals (remember, they have a rough mix at the start, so we’re just tweaking at this point).
Typically, the whole process takes about 15-20 minutes. After that, we’ll make minor tweaks to the vocal mixes as needed, and occasionally adjust individual inputs in sub mixed M-48 groups. Otherwise, once we get this done, the band is in rehearsals and we’re dialing mixes in.
So there you go. That’s our process. I’ve done it differently in different settings, but this is what is working for us today.
Mike Sessler is the Technical Director at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, CA. He has been involved in live production for over 20 years and is the author of the blog, Church Tech Arts . He also hosts a weekly podcast called Church Tech Weekly on the TechArtsNetwork.