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Sound Check? What Sound Check?! Working Folk Festival Sound

Hands-on advice to capably handle a myriad of duties

By Tom Padwa April 19, 2013

I’m a long-time retired broadcast engineer, and since about 2006, I’ve been a sound engineer at the New England Folk Festival in Mansfield, MA. Working sound at a folk festival has unique challenges, e.g., unfamiliar equipment, fast-paced setup changes and no time for sound checks, and I thought it would be useful to provide an overview.

We are all volunteers, including the musicians, other performers and crew. It isn’t money that’s keeping us there. It’s love of the music, and of helping to make it happen for the performers and audience, whether they are singing, dancing or listening.

We’re not paid, but that doesn’t mean we are not professional. Most of the crew are retired sound mixers, or work as musicians or in sound reinforcement as their “day job” and help the festival pro bono.

We have to keep things moving. There is at most 10 minutes to change sets, move microphones and loudspeakers if needed, and see that mic lines, DI lines and 117V AC lines are where they are needed. All of this is being done while the audience is moving in and out and performers are setting up.

The equipment has been checked out before the festival starts, so there is little need (or time) for troubleshooting, beyond the basics of replace-or-bypass. Still, some basic tools are handy. You might consider carrying:

1) A small penlight—some mixing areas are not well-lit.

2) An AC outlet tester—there are many extension cords and spider boxes in use.

3) Multi-screwdriver for tightening the odd XLR connector.

4) Your own headphones (do you really want to use the last guy’s “ear buds”?)

In a typical two-hour shift, you will:

A) Take over from the previous sound mixer in the middle of a set.

B) Check to see what’s needed for the next two sets. We are given a layout book that shows instruments, mic placement, DIs, etc., for each set. In 10 minutes you may go from a square dance “caller” playing music from a CD to a 12-piece dance band.

C) Time keep to let the current act know when to get off stage.

D) Swap out equipment and get ready for the next show in the 10 minutes you have.

E) Get a pleasing sound out to the audience, or to dancers at all parts of a stage.

F) Make sure the musicians can hear themselves—there may be four channels of stage monitors for the musicians. With no time for sound checks, all of this has to be mixed on-the-fly, and often adjustment is needed from song to song.

G) At any time, field questions about “What group is this?” or “Who’s on next?” or “Which way is the main hall?”

Repeat it all at the end of this set, and then be ready to turn over control to your replacement. Do all this with possibly unfamiliar equipment. Our festival uses the same boards and other equipment from year to year…until it doesn’t!

Fortunately most of our festival venues are either all-dancing or all-listening, but if they’re not, you’ll have to re-tune your brain and your ears (which when combined are the best test equipment you have!) from “what a listening audience needs” to “what the dancers need.”

If you’ve not run sound for dancers before, here are a few tips:

—If there is a dance caller, she or he wins. The dancers must be able to hear her/him. As far as possible give the callers what they want.

—If the caller uses a wireless mic, as with all RF wireless feeds, there may be pick-up of RF interference when she/he turns it off. Changing channels (if possible) may help. Also, look for a “squelch” control on the receiver and turn it up until the audio mutes when the wireless mic is shut off. Another solution is to have the caller “mute” the mic, while leaving the RF carrier on. The final solution is to mute the wireless mic at the mixer as needed, but this is the worst solution, as you will have to ride the control all through the session, to the annoyance of you, the caller, and the dancers.

—The beat is essential. This should be obvious, but don’t bury the beat to bring out the nifty fiddle. Having said that, the melody, along with the caller, tells the dancers where they are in the dance, so they need to hear that, too.

—Walk around the floor to get a feel for what the curtains and or live walls are doing to the sound.

—Dancers make noise! Compensate.

As part of the sound crew, you’re also the one who summons emergency response teams or stops the show and helps clear the building in case of emergency. We’ve never had to, but we’re ready.

Remember to keep a smile on your face because you represent the festival, and we want the audience to come back next year!

Based in New England, Tom Padwa is a retired broadcast engineer who has worked in AM, FM and TV, and he’s a senior member of the Society of Broadcast Engineers and a Certified Electronics Technician (Audio).


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