How to soundcheck a band properly
Soundchecking can seem like an odd process to those not acquainted with the art. I've seen it done well, badly and not at all. You should be soundchecking if you're the engineer because it gives you the spotlight for a few minutes to make the band sound as good as they can through FOH... but remember, as the old saying goes, 'you can't polish a turd'!
That being said, below is a good step-by-step guide of how to soundcheck a band.
Before reading, I'd highly recommend reading the articles on:
- How the gain works on the desk
- Using the HPF (high pass filter) button
- Miking up the backline cabs and also the full drum kit
- Mixing without headphones
- Being positioned in front of the speakers
- The ultimate 10 tips to a great monitor mix
0) Reset the desk, tune the PA, ring out FOH and monitors & have a strategy
Technically this doesn't count as a step but you want to reset the desk before you begin.
You should also make a point of tuning the PA. This is where you equalise the system to the room, delay speakers, align them in phase and make sure your system will perform to its max. Article coming soon on this.
Ringing out the FOH and monitors gives you more headroom before the point of feedback - this is done with a graphic EQ. You can use software to help you analyse what frequencies are feeding back (eg SMAART or a free alternative RTA), and then notch that one frequency out on the graphic for your FOH or monitors.
Have a strategy? What I mean by this is know what you're going to do. Don't be urming and ahing as the band are impatient to practice as they haven't done so for a few weeks before their all-important gig. Know that you're going to start with the drummer on the back left, work your way to the right electric guitarist, then do the same for the front musicians and singers, calling each one out and running through the following few steps. Then ask the band to play and do their monitor mixes.
Too ashamed to ask... Resetting the desk? What? In other words, your gain, HPF, EQ, auxes and possibly slider controls will all be set for the last gig. If you were to reset them, you put them back to 0 (in other words, 'reset') so that there is no manipulation of the sound from the desk. Beware, the gain and auxes 'reset' does mean all the way to the left usually, but the EQ is usually pointing vertically (at center) for the attenuation knobs, NOT to the left (which would be a -dB alteration in the frequency!). Message me if you want more help! Resetting helps you to start from scratch and have no issues that have arisen from the previous gig, and means it's entirely your mix. OK - maybe for some desks which are always a vocal channel or guitar channel, etc, you can just tweak the controls again.
TIP! Use a desk mic to make sure the band can a) hear you and b) pay attention! You can plug this in a spare channel on desk or use the simple talkback XLR input if the desk has it. If you're on an IEM monitoring system, you can even use this to selectively talk to musicians and listen to them back via talkback mics for them on a PFL system for you to hear them.
1) Line check
First, plug it all up (obviously). Second, PFL each channel, and put the gain somewhere normal to see if you're getting a level.
What you're basically looking for here is that there is an adequate signal coming into the mixer from every channel. We're not talking about a really weak signal that's going to need nearly full gain to be boosted and will then be noisy or something that is incredibly loud coming into the mixer. Check:
- Acoustic Guitars for half dead batteries that will undoubtedly go flat during the performance
- Over attenuation on DI boxes giving you a very weak signal
- Loose cables giving you an intermittent sound
- Dodgy multicore channel adding noise
- Poor mic technique of inexperienced singers
2) Gain setting
Next, unmute each channel in turn, PFL it, and set the gain.
Using the gain knobs, set the averaging RMS level to 0dB on the meter reading as you PFL each channel (either in turn musician-by-musician as I prefer or in the context of the band). Read here about gain setting for more info on the 1/3 rule, whether it matters if you exceed 0dB and what exactly you are achieving.
3) Bring up the slider and EQ the channel through FOH
Next, you need to slowly slide up the fader and listen to how it sounds, tweaking the EQ as you see fit.
Does it have too much low, mid or high? Is there an annoying clicking coming through? Don't worry too much about the level of the slider, that's where your mixing phase comes in later. You're just getting the sound right here.
Bear in mind as well you're looking to shape the sound of the channel so the whole band sits together nicely in context - if that means cutting 2kHz on a guitar or trumpet or any instrument to leave more room for the vocals, so be it. The instrument may not sound so great on it's own like this but in the whole band it will give the mix breathing space and help reduce a muddy mix.
Using the EQ, try to cut frequencies before you boost them. This way will give the mix more clarity as you're not just boosting and boosting and boosting until it gets too loud, and you're also reducing the work your amp has to do and lets each instrument shine in its own area of the frequency spectrum. It also reduces odd effects with phasing that additive EQ can have.
- Spend more time getting the drums sounding incredible. This will be an underlying factor in how good your mix is: a weak kick and ringing snare will not help, get it sounding grooooving from the beginning.
- Try different combinations during soundcheck - for example, EQ 1 of the mics on the electric guitar (the treble mic), then the bassier mic, then both together and see how they sound. Don't do channels just individually - similarly with the whole drum kit: get them to play a beat and see how it sounds.
- You are allowed to adjust things halfway through soundcheck! Mic out of position? Weak signal from acoustic guitar? Fancy adding another mic on the electric guitar cab? Go for it!
4) Ask what the band are looking for in their monitors if you haven't got a monitor engineer
Ask the key musicians by each monitor what they're looking to hear in each monitor. Mix it carefully though then go and have a listen yourself by each, asking the musician if they're happy with it. After you've done all monitors, kill the FOH and check the stage volume to see if it's very loud or not (if you can slightly sneak down the overall monitor levels then bonus!).
Definitely read this for more tips and tricks! 10 tips to a great monitor mix
5) Once done, get the whole band to play with the sliders set slightly under 0dB and mix correspondingly
Here is where you mix it basically! Start all the levels of the sliders off lower than 0dB and bring up channels as you see fit. Leave some good headroom for the epic guitar solo or whatever - don't go above 0dB if you can help it. What may also be useful is to see how far you can push the slider before it feeds back on important channels you may be riding a lot, e.g. the lead vocalist. DON'T WORRY IF YOU CREATE FEEDBACK DURING SOUNDCHECK - THIS IS WHERE IT IS OK TO DO SO! Better to find out during soundcheck what the levels can go to rather than precariously pushing the mix higher during the performance only to hear it howl.
Get the band playing more than 1 song so you can hear how they sound on a variety of songs. You may find yourself bringing down gain levels as musicians get enthusiastic or changing EQs as it sounds different. Keep mixing till you're happy and then let the band know you're good.
6) Any last orders
While the band are rehearsing, I would be checking things like testing the multitrack recorder / 2TRK recorder, recording parts of the rehearsal so you can listen back on headphones later to see if there are any small details you missed and tweaking compressors/gates/effects etc to be just right.
One final tip: May seem like a strange one, but put headphones on, kill the feed to the headphones completely and listen to the band. The attenuation of the sound from the headphones will help you to hear what is most prominent in the mix - a bit like standing in the room next door, and this way you will be able to tell if anything is too loud (eg overly-prominent vocals or too loud a guitar).
Another final final tip:
Don't reset the sliders on the desk after the band have finished and will return later.
If, for example in a church, the band have played their first set of 3 or 4 songs, DON'T bring all the faders down. Use a mute group (if your desk is facilitated with such a feature) or mute every channel, keeping the levels of the faders as you have them now (or maybe bring down the near-feeding back low-headroom mics). This will mean you know when you enable the band again they won't feed and you have a good mix already lined up.
If it's your band that is tight on time but you have lots of time after they leave, multitrack the soundcheck and then play it back through the desk. You can then get a 'virtual soundcheck' going where you can tweak the mix for hours on end without the band even being there! Very easy on digital desks via MADI or DANTE etc, much harder on analog!