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.