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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Church Tech Budgets--End of Life

Not that end of life. Photo courtesy of Ken Mayer

Not that end of life. Photo courtesy of Ken Mayer

As we reach end of life, I think we’re reaching the end of this series. Again, I’m talking the lifespan of equipment, not tech directors. Last time, I made the distinction between capital expenses and budgeted expenses. One of the keys to staying on top of capital expenses is to have an end of life plan.

Every piece of equipment has a fixed lifespan; stuff just doesn’t last forever. That means that even the nice, shiny new equipment I’m putting in today will need to be replaced. And I’m not sure anyone ever considers that.

See, I think most churches look at A/V/L equipment as a one-time capital expense. They buy all the stuff they need once, and forget about it for a long, long time. At least until it breaks. At which point there is a sense of panic and urgency to get it fixed or replaced. 

When I was at Coast Hills, I decided fairly early on to run some end of life projections. The rationale was simple; I knew there was a lot of outdated gear to replace right now, but there was a significant amount of equipment that would needing replacement in about3-4 years. And when you start looking at the numbers, it wasn’t chump change. Take a look:

As you can see, we’re talking some serious dollars. Now, I’m just considering major systems; that is systems that have a price tag over $10,000. I figure the smaller stuff will just get rolled into the normal yearly operating budget. We will always have mics, DIs, single light fixtures and maybe even a video monitor or two to replace. But when it comes to the big stuff, we need to think that out in advance. And here’s why:

Over 10 years, the church needed to spend almost $300,000 to keep pace with their equipment’s end of life. Is that something that needs to be planned for? I think so.

Defining End of Life

This big can be tricky. We can’t clearly define “end of life.” Not all equipment will just drop dead at 10 years old. However, we do know that all electro-mechanical devices will begin failing at some point. We have to take some educated guesses as to when our systems will need replacing.

We also have to guess roughly how much it will cost (in today’s dollars, anyway), based on equipment I know that is roughly comparable today. Obviously, there are a ton of variables in this plan, but it’s a best guess, Mr. Sulu. 

It’s important to keep in mind that these are not budgets, they’re not completely spec’d out systems and you don’t want to be held to these numbers. Rather, it’s an estimate for planning purposes. And, you may be able to stretch some of the equipment life to even out the graph if yours looks like mine did.

Making a Plan

Once you map it out and see what your situation is, you have a basis for coming up with a plan. It’s very possible that to strictly follow an EOL plan, you would have to spend more money than the church has. So that means you have some decisions to make. You can stretch the life of the gear, but you need to know—as does leadership—that you’re running on borrowed time. You can also change the way you do services. If you have traditionally relied on a lot of moving light effects during your service, and your moving lights are beginning to fail, you either need to plan to replace them soon, or go for a different look. 

These are conversations you can have with leadership once you’re armed with information and facts. The beauty of this process is that it takes all the emotion out of it. And, you don’t look like a child constantly asking for new toys. When you present the information this way, your stock goes way up and the conversations tend to be much more civilized and productive. 

It also removes the burden from you as things start to fail. When you clearly present the problem and give leadership the responsibility of figuring out how and what to pay for, you won’t be held accountable if things start breaking. You’ve done your job—pointing out the reality of the situation, and they have to decide how to allocate funds. If you go passive-aggressive and just wait for it to break, you’ll look incompetent. Always be proactive about this. 

Well, I’m not sure this was the exhaustive, definitive guide for tech budgeting, but hopefully it’s been enough to give you some ideas on how to get started. If you have further questions, or if there are others areas I need to develop, let me know in the comments. And now, it’s time for something completely different…

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.