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Backstage Class: Gimme Three Steps

Detailing an alternative approach to sound check.

Like many sound engineers, I have a background in music, so I’ve been on both sides of sound checks and know how annoying a poorly-run check can be for musicians.

These experiences have led to a paradigm shift in the way I approach sound checks: they’re for the artists, not the engineers.

On the road, practice time is in short supply, so many artists prefer to use their stage time to rehearse new material, tweak the backline, and tighten up the performance.

It’s very helpful to spend some time dialing in monitor mixes, but standing around while the front of house engineer listens to Rack Tom 2 for five minutes straight? Not so much.

Bringing this mindset to the other side of the console, I developed a system that helps me get up and running at a gig as quickly as possible, catch potential problems early, and dial in a good mix, all without bugging the artists. (Although I came up with this process for myself over the years, I’m sure that I’m not the only person to have done so, and as a result I’m not claiming originality or innovation here, just sharing what works for me.)

The process that laypeople call “sound check” is actually a conglomerate of several tasks. My approach divides the process into three steps: system check, line check, and sound check.

Step One: System Check

I start every gig by examining the relationship between the sound system and the room. There are the physical and acoustic properties of the space itself (resonant low-frequency modes, wall reflections, reverb decay, rattles in ductwork, HVAC noise, etc.), but my biggest priority at this step is the system’s variance, or how its coverage changes throughout the space. Ideally, my mix should be related to every seat with the same tonal balance (low spectral variance) and at the same volume (low level variance).

Using a playlist of reference tracks, I move around the space, listening from every section. Maybe the level at the back of the balcony is down 8 dB, or the front fill coverage area is too hot above 12 kHz. Maybe the system’s HF coverage drops off at the end of the rows, or there’s a “power alley” of coupling-zone subwoofer energy that passes through the mix position.

If what I’m hearing at the mix position is not representative of what other audience members are hearing, I want to know how, why, and where.

It’s important to note that I might not be able to address these issues. If it’s a one-off on an installed rig, the venue is not going to appreciate me tinkering around with the DSP.

But even if I can’t rectify the problems, I need to know they exist so I can mix accordingly. I learned this the hard way after realizing halfway through a club gig that my mix sounded good at FOH and pretty lousy everywhere else. Once I determined that there was far more sub energy and less HF at the console, I altered my mix to correct for it, and the audience was noticeably more pleased with the second half of the show.

Since that experience, walking the space to my playlist (see that list at the end of this article) is the first thing I do when I get into a venue. By the way, I try to use the same tunes every night, which more readily reveals differences gig-to-gig. At a festival, I wander around during another band’s set to scope out the rig’s coverage variance before it’s my turn.

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Step Two: Line Check

This is exactly what it sounds like: checking the lines. While Step One was focused exclusively on everything downstream of the mixer (post-console, if you will), Step Two deals strictly with everything upstream – microphones, direct boxes, cables, and snakes.

I’m checking to ensure each input is coming up in the right spot (correct patching) and that there are no hums, buzzes or bad cables in play. I rough in some input gains and high-pass filters, but this is not the time to spend six minutes EQ-ing the floor tom.

As soon as I verify that I’m getting signal and the input is behaving as expected, it’s time to move on. This takes maybe five to 10 seconds per input, so I can line check a 24-input show in a couple of minutes.

The secret to line check is to not grind to a halt for a non-show-critical issue. Note the problem, move on, and come back to it later – otherwise you risk burning all of your time tracking down something relatively mundane only to discover serious issues with a “show stopper” input like lead vocal. Get through the process then attack the remaining issues in order of decreasing priority.

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