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Backstage Class: Team Effort

A musician's guide to getting the most from live sound engineers.

Warming Up

Vocalists need to understand the importance of warming up; like any muscle, it’s a simple fact that it works more optimally when it’s warm. Go to any small gig and watch the vocalist and I guarantee that they get noticeably louder by the third song.

This is important, not just from the point of view of caring for the voice and getting the most out of it, but it also helps in setting appropriate monitor levels. If the whole band sound checks at 70 percent of its normal performing level, then the entire exercise is pretty much pointless.

I’ve offended more than one singer by suggesting vocal lessons, but this isn’t always because they can’t sing. A qualified instructor teaches proper breathing and other tips for getting the most from the voice, and they’ll also be able to provide a range of exercises for warming up.

It’ll Sound Fine When It’s Full

This may sound like an excuse to cover a bad-sounding sound check, but there’s much truth in this simple maxim. Every room sounds drastically different when it’s empty (i.e.,  during sound check, before the audience arrives) because human bodies are excellent absorbers that usually (and often drastically) reduce the amount of reflected sound.

Therefore most experienced engineers aren’t trying to build the definitive house mix during sound check, but instead are focused on combining the mix elements in a rough configuration, ensuring that everything is present, correct, and doing it’s job. Anticipating how the room will change when the audience is present is a cornerstone of mixing live sound, particularly in small venues with difficult acoustics and less-than-amazing PA systems.

One thing to definitely avoid is stepping out front during the sound check and giving the engineer mix advice (such as turn this up, turn that down, etc.). I fully understand that musicians have a vested interest in how it sounds, but such advice is meaningless and vaguely annoying. Whenever offered such advice, I simply explain the situation (about the empty room) and ask them to trust me.

This is not to say that musicians aren’t allowed to offer mix advice, it’s their music after all, and most engineers welcome insight into the sound or how they’d like it conveyed. But it’s better to have a quick chat with engineers and then leave them to it.

One of the best examples of this I’ve encountered is when a band turned up, gave me a set list and a sheet of rough notes such as “this is the lead vocal, this vocalist just talks between songs, this guitar should be louder than the others, watch the keyboard player for solos,” and so on.

Get The Balance Right

With monitor mixes bear in mind that only in smaller venues is the front of house engineer also expected to mix the monitors; at most other (i.e., bigger) venues, these are two completely separate jobs done by two different people. When an engineer is wearing both hats, please be aware that constantly asking for changes in the monitors takes away from his/her time to focus on the house mix.

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Who Done It? A Matter For Investigation...

One commonly uttered phrase that I find completely unhelpful is when a musician asks for “a bit of everything” in the monitors. If I put a bit of everything in, the result is a loud “mush” that not only makes the stage sound messy but also reflects and affects the main mix.

My advice to musicians is to listen to what they can hear naturally and request only those mix elements that are needed to be able to play/sing in time/pitch. Most things happening on stage can already be heard, and after the obligatory “more me” request not much more is really needed in the monitors.

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