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Proper Prep: Practice ≠ Rehearsal ≠ Sound Check

No one wants to have their time wasted on something that could have been prevented with proper preparation.

Something that easily defines “X number of minutes or hours we can’t get back” are those times when we end up waiting for someone to fumble around with their gear, seemingly unaware of how to make it work properly.

The example that comes to mind is photographers and videographers who don’t remember where certain settings are in the menu or don’t know how to set the white balance. Frustrating, isn’t it?

No one wants to have their time wasted on something that could have been prevented with proper preparation. But when the roles are reversed, what are we doing to make sure we’re not the ones fumbling around? First, to me, is having clear in our own heads the difference between practice, sound check, and rehearsal.

Making The Choice

As a classical musician, I’ve literally grown up understanding the importance of practice. But in college when I started to play in bands, I ran across musicians who didn’t seem to know the difference between practice and rehearsal.

In a professional orchestra, the musicians are fully capable of sight-reading complex music right on the spot. However, most of them still prepare their own individual parts, usually starting weeks in advance of the first rehearsal. Why? Because rehearsal is not the place to learn the music. Instead, it’s where the conductor shapes the nuances.

If the musicians were to show up without preparing their parts, then the two or three rehearsals afforded the typical pro orchestra just wouldn’t be enough to bring the incredibly complex music to artistic performance level, and thus to some extent, everyone’s time and effort isn’t being used to the full potential.

Even if we are not musicians, we’ve likely heard the phrase “practice makes perfect,” but again, going back to college, one of my professors corrected this idea to “practice makes permanent,” which is an important concept to understand. In other words, we do what we practice – or not. Even the lack of practice can become a habit, or, to quote Rush: “If you choose not to decide, you’ve still made a choice.”

Another concept I’ve learned more recently is “amateurs practice until they get it right, and professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” To bring this discussion a little closer to the pro audio industry, sometimes there’s confusion between sound check and rehearsal. Much of it is on bands or artists – they should know the difference and not abuse a sound check time slot by rehearsing.

Likewise, we need to know the difference too, and approach sound check from a technical point of view. No question, we should endeavor to use the available time as efficiently as possible.

The one area that I sometimes wonder about this is when 30 minutes are spent working on a kick drum sound. First, not only is the kick drum generally not the featured soloist, but it’s one of dozens or perhaps even hundreds of inputs that need attention during a sound check. If it was so critical, couldn’t the microphone and EQ have been chosen and worked out in advance – say, at the rehearsal space?

The Way Forward

This brings me back to practice. Let’s look at some ways that we can be more efficient, competent, and client-pleasing.

First, we must know our gear inside and out. Every menu, every obscure patch and plugin, and every way that the matrix can route signals from one place to another. If we’re in the systems business, we must know the inrush, static and peak current demands, available amplifier power, gain structure, loudspeaker coverage specs, and time alignment parameters for the system. And this is just a start.

Manufacturers often go to great lengths to document these things so that users have access to the information in a readable, logical form. It’s often baffling to me, especially as a person working with a manufacturer, how many users just post their questions on Facebook and hope to crowdsource an answer instead of pulling up the manual.

Sure, it may result in a correct reply, but it’s a lazy way to do things and there’s also significant risk that many of those answering don’t know any more than we do. There may even be those that are dead set on their wrong information being equal to the gospel on high.

House mix engineers need to have a good grasp on how to build a mix for the given situation. Perhaps this starts at home – one of the “old-timer” methods was to listen to the record and take notes about the mix: what effects are used? When do solos happen? What’s the overall arrangements of instruments for every song?

When I was studying audio, one of the instructors had us do this exercise at the beginning of every class. Sure, after hearing and mixing a given set hundreds of times, we can all probably memorize this stuff. But what about the first time? And I caution everyone about thinking we can memorize this stuff without writing it down. Remember, that takes practice!

What If?

Next is actually spending time on the gear itself outside of rehearsal and sound check.

About 20 years ago, when I was doing photography more seriously, this meant, the day before a shoot, taking everything out and looking it over, checking the batteries and bulbs, connecting everything, testing everything, and getting extra film, more batteries, a certain backdrop, another light stand, and so on. It also involved thinking through the process of what the shoot would entail, using the “what if” method – what if “x” happens, what if “y” happens, etc.

The same applies to pro audio sound gigs. Prior to every gig, drag out the toolkit, make sure that everything is accounted for and that it all works. (You might also remember to finally get that Leatherman you loaned to your buddy returned.)

A really useful tool before setting up any system is to draw a block diagram and then make a list of gear that will be required to make it work. I can’t tell you how many times this was the phase where I discovered I was short a cable or two, or that the console didn’t have enough outputs. This is the time to make/source adapters and otherwise figure out a way to get the job done right.

Of course there will always be unforeseen problems that catch us off guard. But if we’re as prepared as possible, these kinds of issues shouldn’t stop us, but instead merely have us scratching our heads for a minute before a solution can be found. Then come performance time, everything should just “click” and we can actually have fun without the stress of wondering if some half-baked, last-minute fix will bring down the gig.

At least, that’s the theory. And you know what they say: “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they aren’t.”

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