CTA Classroom: Sound Checkin' Pt. 2

Last time, we began talking about how to optimize sound check. Normally, it’s a simple matter of getting organized, staying organized and working through a set process quickly and efficiently. Before you start, make sure you are ready. As I mentioned last time, your board should be labeled and everything should be working. Now let’s get to it.

The Drum Set

I changed the way I do drums a few years back, and I’ve been pretty happy with this new method. I start with the kick, get that dialed in, then add snare. Once the snare is sounding good with the kick, I’ll add hat. Same deal. I like to get those three locked up and feeling right before moving on. I’ll then do the toms, usually asking for a hit on hi, mid, low, hi, mid, low until I have the levels balanced and feeling right. Then it’s a quick hit on cymbals before asking the drummer to play a groove on the whole kit. When the drummer is playing the whole thing, I can make some final balance adjustments and get the drums sounding like a single instrument. 

Work Quickly, With the Big Picture in Mind

What you want to do during soundcheck is get the levels dialed in to roughly where everything should sit in the mix. You might do some quick EQ and on drums perhaps tweak the gate or comp. But do it quickly. No one wants to hear the drummer hitting quarter notes on the snare for 15 minutes. Ideally, you’ve paid attention to where your gate and comp settings should be and have already preset them so you’re only tweaking. Same goes for gains, if you can manage it (digital consoles are great in this regard). If you have 30 minutes for soundcheck and you spend 25 getting the drums dialed in, it will be tough to take care of the rest of the band in the remaining five minutes. Get things close and move on. You can always come back and tweak settings after rehearsal gets underway.

Pre-Build Monitor Mixes

If you’re mixing monitors from FOH (and even if you aren’t), it’s not a bad idea to pre-build some rough monitor mixes before you start. I knew most of my vocalists well enough to know roughly what they liked in their monitors from week to week, so I normally started a mix before they got there. Then it’s a simple matter of tweaking. It also really helps musicians through the soundcheck process if they can hear themselves right away. Start with the gains and monitors a little lower than you think you’ll need, and work up.

Get the Vocals to Sing

There are few things as unhelpful during soundcheck than having vocalists speaking, “Check 1,2...” Guitar players constantly noodling is a close second, followed by drummers who are still trying work out the drum solo from YYZ.. I like to have all the vocals sing a chorus of a song while I dial in gains. We’ve told our vocal team, don’t worry about your monitor mix just yet, simply sing. Usually we’ll have the piano or guitar play along for pitch, but that should be the only other sound besides vocals. Have them keep looping until you have their levels dialed in. Of course, starting with rough gains and monitors makes this go faster.

You’ll notice a consistent theme running through this post; get things ready beforehand. The start of soundcheck is not the time to be peeling out the board tape and labeling the desk. By the time the band is set up, you should have completely line-checked, roughed in your gains and pre-built rough monitor mixes. Starting from scratch can be a good thing once in a while, but if you know roughly where things end up each week, starting a little below that makes things go a lot faster.

We had our soundcheck down to about 20-25 minutes, and that’s a full band with 2-3 vocal monitor mixes. Soundcheck doesn’t have to be a painful process. Take some time to develop a system that works well for you, pre-build as much as possible, then communicate clearly to the band. Soon you’ll find it going more smoothly and both you and the band will have more time for rehearsal.

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CTA Classroom: Sound Checkin' Pt. 1

Soundcheck time can be one of the most productive times of the weekend from an audio standpoint. It can also be one of the most frustrating. I have seen soundcheck turn normally mild-mannered and reserved musicians and engineers into angry combatants. My brothers, this should not be. As I’ve been traveling around helping more churches with their weekend sound issues, I’m amazed at the lack of organization prior to a rehearsal start. Many teams just jump right in and ask for monitor changes pretty much constantly for the next 3 hours. I suggest this is not optimal.

Soundcheck can be very efficient, productive and dare I say fun; but we have to do a little work first. Because there are so many different ways to do a soundcheck (because there are so many different church situations), I’m not going to prescribe one. What I want to do instead is offer a series of suggestions that hopefully apply to all situations, and you can create your own plan. Sound good? Here we go...

Line Check First

Few things will frustrate your musicians more than having to stop soundcheck to troubleshoot a bad cable, DI or patch. Before the band even arrives, go through and line check every single line that you’re using that weekend. Even if it’s the same cable you used last week, in the same channel with the same processing. We typically don’t check the actual DIs themselves, but we do pull the mic cable out, attach a 57 to it and make sure we have signal. If it’s an active DI, make sure phantom power is on. And don’t forget the wireless mics. Make sure those are on and working.

Declare Your Intentions

A few minutes before soundcheck is slated to start, I will get on the stage announce and say something like, “Hey everyone, good afternoon. We’re going to start soundcheck in 2 minutes, so if you could get plugged in, get in place with your ears in and ready to go, it would be great!” Once we actually start, I’ll say something like this, “Hey guys, we’re going to go through each channel one at a time so I can get levels. Once you hear the level stop changing, you can set it in your ears (if using personal mixers). If we could have only the instrument I ask for, it will make it go really quickly. Let’s start off with the kick.” Making sure everyone knows what is coming up will help them stay focused. This is important because as we all know, most musicians are very ADD. 

Stay Organized

Some like to start from the bottom (drums and bass) and work their way up to the top (vocals). Others work in reverse order. Personally I prefer and normally do the former, but which way you go is up to you, and depends on your situation. Whatever you do, stay organized. Don’t start with the kick, then do piano, then guitar, then snare, then vocals, then cymbals. Develop a logical order that works through each instrument and stick with it. Use the same order every week. I suggest you talk through this order with your worship leader in advance as well, just to make sure what you’re doing works for the musicians as well.

OK, that gets you started. Next time, we’ll be back with some specifics on cruising through soundcheck so fast your musicians will actually get an extra half hour of rehearsal time

Roland

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CTA Review: Ultimate Ears UE11s

As I mentioned last time, I have an enviable job. I have to somehow try to describe how these very nice, custom IEMs sound. And compare them, which means that I have more than one set. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. 

I was about to start in on a paragraph describing the configuration for the UE11, and how it’s marketed. But then it occurred to me that I should probably start by stating that you can’t just an IEM by its price tag; at least not in the UE line. I have UE7s, Reference Monitors, Vocal Reference Monitors (Male), UE11s, and UE18s, $850, $999, $999, $1150 and $1350 respectively. And I can’t honestly tell you that the most expensive ones are the “best.” That’s because, much like microphones, each of those is designed to do something slightly different. I always recommend the UE7s for guitar and keyboard players and most worship leaders who play guitar or keys because the frequency response profile of the 7 is perfect for that application. The midrange is really detailed and there is a slight rolloff at the high and low end which helps keep the mids clear. 

To some extent, the UE18, while it has twice the drivers as the 7, would not be as good a choice for those musicians, despite its higher price tag. This is not to say the 18 is not worth it, because they sound fantastic. I don’t know if that cleared anything up or not, but I wanted to point out that each model is designed to  work really well with a particular type of musician. And, as it turns out, they are each suited to different types of music, as I eventually discovered. 

Construction

The UE11 is marketed towards bass players and drummers. It’s a four-driver, three-way system. There are two low drivers, a mid and a high, all driven through a 3-way passive crossover network. The drivers exit through two ports—a low port and mid-high port. One of the low drivers is a “sub low,” though I’m not exactly sure at what frequency it kicks in. Frequency response is rated from 5 Hz - 22 KHz, with a sensitivity of 119 dB @ 1 KHz @ 1 mW. Impedance is 18 Ohms. I don’t really have a way to test the response down to 5 Hz, but I can report they go deep. 

Performance

The low end very satisfying with the 11s. To put it in practical terms, it’s a bit like a PA with and without a sub turned on when you compare the 7s and 11s. To further the PA comparison, when I compare the 18s with the 11s, the 11s are like a PA with both 15” and 18”  subs, while the 18s feel as though only one set of subs is active. Both have plenty of detail, and both extend to low frequencies, but the 11s just have more oomph. A bigger bass haystack in PA tuning terms. 

One thing that surprised me is that I felt like I was hearing more detail in the music with the 11s. And that’s compared to both the 18s and the Reference Monitors. As I dug into this more, I realized it was most likely because the 11’s are the most sensitive of the three (the 18s are rated at 115 dB with the RMs rated at 112 dB at 1 mW). An extra 4-7 dB will definitely reveal more detail. 

The downside of all the detail is that you can begin to hear stuff you never heard before, like distortion. While auditioning tracks for this review, I found an album that I used to really like and can’t listen to any longer due to the amount of distortion I can hear in the recording now. On the other hand, you’ll hear amazing things you never heard before, like spring reverbs and real plate reverbs. 

Of course there is more to the story. Much of it is the tuning, and my own personal frequency response. And that is one of the things that is important when selecting a set of IEMs. It’s really going to depend on what you want to hear and what you can hear. For me, the 11s sound the most pleasant. They will probably be the ones that spend the most time in my ears, which is not to say that the others don’t sound good. It’s a little like comparing a Meyer PA to an L’Acoustics PA. Both will sound great, it simply depends on what you prefer. 

With that said, the amount of detail in the low end is amazing and for all my bassist and drummer friends, these are the ones to get. If I could have only one pair of UEs, it would probably be the 11s. Again, not that the 18s, Reference Monitors or 7s aren’t great, I just like the sound of the 11s better for most of the music I listen to. Except for Jazz. For Jazz, the 7s rock. And mixing. For mixing, the RMs are my go to. But for general mixing and movie watching, I suspect the 11s will be the ones with the most hours on them. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

Disclaimer, Ultimate Ears gave me a set of UE11s. FTC, you can relax now.

Roland