Study Hall

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Dialing It In: Sound Check Approaches & Techniques From The Monitor Perspective

The primary objective in monitor world is making the artists on stage are as comfortable as possible so they can focus on the performance, not the sound.

Check! One, Two. Check! One, Two. Si! Uno, Dos… Probando.

I remember the days of absolutely requiring a full sound check and starting from scratch E-V-E-R-Y time. It was just standard procedure when working with an artist.

Some sound checks were longer than others, but nevertheless we would certainly have one – if not to check the gear, then to make sure the artist was comfortable on stage. Even back in the analog days (I’m sure I speak for many of us) when we got to a point that we could set up our consoles and outboard gear just by “eyeballing it” and we were usually spot on and show ready, especially after working with a particular artist for a while.

We used to have a paper template where we were able to mark things if we had to share the console or if it was a festival situation. But nowadays there are digital consoles, and as much as I loved the analog sound, I wouldn’t go back to it given all the amazing features and perks they (and their offline software) deliver.

Through years of working both front of house and monitors, I confirmed that both positions are equally important; they just have a different role as well as a different set of priorities and goals. The FOH mix and balance is for the audience’s enjoyment (and us, the engineers…wink wink) as well as (in some cases, at least), management, show producers, creative directors, and so on.

The primary objective in monitor world is making sure the artists on stage are as comfortable as possible so they don’t have to think about their sound during the performance. And they can just… well, perform for the audience.

Keys To The Castle

I know a lot of engineers who, when working with a new client, start everything from scratch. I’m not sure why – I much prefer taking advantage of the technology in front of me.

Performers have no time to wait for me (monitor engineer) to dial in their mixes and/or to add some “love and sweetness” to their sound, whether they’re on in-ear monitors (IEMs) or wedges.

Once I’ve done a couple of shows with a new artist, and I sense trust, and since most artists I work with now are on IEMs only, I’m usually all for “no sound check” or as short of one as possible. The more time they have on stage, the more time they have to think and make drastic (and unnecessary) changes based on an empty room.

Plus, I want artists rested for the show, and more importantly I want to further develop trust between us. I want them to know that even without a sound check that their sound will be great, show after show.

If I started from scratch, I would probably feel the need for sound check every time out, but because of presets for channels strips, outputs, plugins, snapshots and console templates that I’ve created through out the years, I can be up and running in no time. (Especially if I were able to prep with the offline software.)

Something that’s important to note is that once artists are on stage, it’s vital to watch them like a hawk and learn their nuances, hand signals (if no talkback is used), facial expressions, body language and so on. They must feel comfortable and confident that you have their backs and you’re on top of things, paying attention to the details. Don’t make them ask you twice for anything.

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“Tap-Tap-Tap, Is This Thing On?”

Being able to set up and/or program the console show file ahead of time is a valuable tool to make sound check run more efficiently. This way the focus is where it should be, on the artists. And don’t just stay behind the console – if you see concern in the artists’ eyes, go out there and discuss it with them so that they feel you care (which, in fact, you should).

Further, when artists tell you they don’t know how to express what they want, assure them that whatever it is, you’ll figure it out. For example, statements such as “I want it to sound more blue” or “It sounds like this or that” are for the monitor engineer to figure out and interpret. Don’t be a “set it and forget it” engineer.

Practical Advantages

Virtual sound check is an amazing tool that allow us to work out the sonic details of each input, output and song snapshots. It’s accomplished by recording a show from the console into a supported digital audio workstation (DAW) and later playing it back with inputs showing up one-to-one on the console, just as it would normally run.

The ability to stop and automate or program snapshots and plugins, per song, or per sections of songs, all without having to have the artists on stage playing while you make adjustments, is simply the best way to dial in mixes before artists show up – if they even need to show up at all.

Gain structure is my “Holy Grail.” It’s crucial with monitors. If anything changes with the levels coming my way, it can impact at least 10 people so I’m very meticulous about it. This also allows me to always know where the gain settings need to be and how hot to hit the gates, comps and FX without having to guess.

Every now and then there needs to be re-patch, which changes the gains on all inputs. This is why I’ve created a “Gain Recall” snapshot that simply recalls my usual gains after all the patching is done.

There are some artists who I work with where I haven’t changed the gains on the console in years because all variables have been eliminated. The tours I handle travel with all essentials, anything that comes in line level (audio interfaces, keyboards, wireless systems) as well as all drum mics. At each stop, we can plug in and go.

My ultimate goal for sound check: when an artist schedules it for an hour-plus, arrives and starts singing, and halfway into the song says, “Thank you, it sounds great! I’m done unless you need me for something else.”

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