Six Rules for Working with a House Sound Engineer

December 25, 2013
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Many of us who play clubs, weddings, and private parties don’t regularly work with sound engineers. Often we set the levels ourselves on a basic house system, or bring our own P.A. and run it from stageside—with this double duty often going to (you guessed it) the keyboard player. Systems like the Line 6 StageScape have made it more practical for bands to get good sound from this approach. Some bands are also lucky enough to tour with their own engineer, or to have developed a good relationship with the sound tech at the club where they regularly play. But at an event where a sound system is provided along with one or more operators you don’t usually work with, things can get worrisome. Suddenly you’re turning over your band’s sound to strangers. 

Fear not. Unless these strangers are rank amateurs, the chances are pretty good that you’ll sound substantially better than when doing sound yourself. You need to work together, though, so here are some pro tips for doing so.


1. The Golden Rule

With rare exceptions, sound personnel are every bit as interested in your gig sounding fantastic as you are. So the first rule is the Golden One. Don’t treat them like second-class citizens. Their work can be very difficult, especially when multiple acts are present, each with a list of their particular needs. It’s especially difficult in the pre-show setup phase, when five bands are all competing for face time with the engineers as the clocks ticks towards the first act’s downbeat. 

Unless, that is, a clear sound check schedule was established in advance. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. But you can play your part by working with the people who hired you. Ask for a sound check schedule and a performance schedule in writing. If you can’t get one, create it yourself and try to get it signed off by all acts who have a stake in the event. 


2. Establish One Voice

Sound personnel need to know clearly and concisely what you need. If a well-meaning sound operator is bombarded with commands, requests, and instructions from five or six band members at once, he or she is not going to get a proper big picture. Plus, in many cases the requests may conflict. Lead singer: “Mr. Engineer, the only really important thing in the mix is to keep the lead vocals above everything else.” Guitarist, two minutes later: “Dude, my lead guitar needs to ride above everything, especially the vocals. Last night my girlfriend told me the vocals were drowning out all my riffs.” Backup singer: “Last week, my boyfriend said that the backing vocals couldn’t be heard.” And so on.

So Rule 2 is that one spokesperson from your act should be appointed to tell the sound provider what’s needed. This covers console inputs, plus anything like backing track playback, plus general guidelines about how the performance should sound, sans significant others’ opinions from previous gigs.

If a written document of your band’s front-of-house and monitoring needs was sent in advance, you should expect that a sound system with adequate inputs, mixes, and power will indeed be provided. (The exception is if a festival promoter is paying the sound company for a far smaller system than your band’s footprint requires, but in any case, sending advance info is far better than not sending it!) Most of the mics, direct boxes, and stage monitors should be included. Less common items, such as a piano pickup or an unusual mic, should not be expected unless agreed upon in advance. If you didn’t send any prior info, you’ll get what you get, and it may have fewer mics, inputs, and/or monitor mixes than you need.


3. Make a Stage Plot

The Stage Plot is a simple diagram that shows where the various instruments and vocalists will be positioned onstage. Detail is good, but clarity should take precedence. If you can fit it in, a description of what each mic or line is for (e.g., “SM58: lead male vox”) is useful, as this helps the engineer rapidly identify who’s who, which can mean the difference between sweet sound and crowd-chilling feedback if a sudden adjustment is required. Make sure the name of your band is prominently displayed on everything. As the homemade stage plot at left shows, you don’t need fancy graphics or too much detail to get the needed information across. Simpler is often better.  



 
 

4. Make an Input List

Since few humans can remember 20 or 30 console inputs, provide your engineer with an input list. This is a simple series of rows columns. Each row is an input, and in the first column is a description of the instrument or voice. Personal names are nice, but it’s going to be hard for an engineer who’s just met you to remember who’s who. It’s better to state “lead guitar,” ‘lead guitar vox,” (vocal mic) “keys,” ‘keys vox,” “B/U vox blonde,” “B/U vox tall guy,” and so on. Put personal names in another column for reference.

Also, you can number the inputs 1 through XX, but the sound engineer may wish to use different input numbers to make it easier to shift from band to band when multiple acts are present. So leave an open column so that physical input numbers can be relabeled—or, print your numbers in a lighter-colored font so they can be overwritten with a marker.

Next, identify what type of transducer or line relates to each input; e.g., “kick: SM57;” “keys: XLR direct outs from amp;” “lead vocal: Neumann KMS105 (supplied);” and so on. All band-supplied mics, direct boxes, or other sources should be marked with your band’s name and given to the engineer or stage manager.

Rule 3: Thou Shall Not Ask for Additional Inputs at the Last Minute! At arena rock concerts, award shows, and other large-format events, we always keep an extra four or five general-purpose mics on each side of the stage, ready to go. There’s often a guest guitarist, a new emcee announcing the next act, or a trio of backup singers who weren’t mentioned until five seconds before those mics need to be handed out.

In the real world of bar gigs and corporate casuals, there may not be any more mics, spare console inputs, or lines on the snake. So if you’re going to need extra mics at any point in your sets, ask for them when you first meet with the sound operators. Better still, get the sound vendor’s contact info and ask a few days before the gig. This is especially important if there’s just one engineer working a multi-band event. When you demand a couple of extra mics 30 seconds before the band starts, you may not get them and you’ll delay your start time. 


5. About Monitors

Your stage plot should show the location and number of stage monitors, along with the individual mix that’s assigned to them. In some cases, a single monitor mix might be all that’s available. But often, two, three, or more mixes are possible. Assuming that several monitor mixes may be available, plan in advance how to utilize them. You don’t want to be discussing “who gets what” half an hour before downbeat. If you have complex monitoring requirements, create another document for the engineer. It should correlate with the Input List and Stage Plot, giving a guideline for what’s sent to each monitor mix. A word of warning: if one engineer is mixing both house and monitors from a single board, the simpler your monitoring requirements, the better. Keyboard players should consider monitoring their gear through whatever amp or powered stage monitors they normally carry and sending the house a stereo (or mono, depending on how the main P.A. is run) mix from a combo amp or compact mixer. Here as always, advance communication is key.


6. More Dos and Don’ts

If you can share a drum kit or even part of a keyboard rig (think about a heavy stage piano or Hammond B-3) with other acts on the bill, it will make set changes go much faster, and the balance and tonalities will already have been established. Have at least a handshake agreement in place that if another musician damages your gear (e.g., splitting a drum head), you’ll be reimbursed.

Do not plug or unplug anything to or from the provided sound system without permission. It might seem like a quick way to solve a monitoring issue to, say, plug your own wedge monitor into the last open loop-through output on a front-of-house speaker. That also might cause the amplifier to go into thermal shutdown if it’s already driving a low-impedance load—and you might blow the drivers in your wedge. Talk to the engineer first—chances are you can work something out. Again, though, if your act has provided adequate advance information in the first place, you’ll be far less likely to need to cobble anything together at the last moment. 


Ken DeLoria has had a long and varied career in the music business as a sound engineer and musician—most notably as the founder and CEO of loudspeaker manufacturer Apogee Sound Inc. He can be reached at kdeloria@gmail.com.

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