by Vid Warren
I cannot stand looking forward to a gig only to find that the sound levels are appalling on the night. I've found out and figured out a few tips that will hopefully help you to solve the problem or at least not let it throw your performance. These are largely based around gigging where a sound engineer is present during your set. Take from it what you will.
Problem - The monitors are too quiet (as a solo musician).
'Monitors' are the speakers that face the musicians on-stage; they allow you to hear yourself and the other musicians on-stage with you. If the monitors are too quiet in a big venue, it will really feel like nobody can hear you because you will barely be able to hear yourself.
It's almost funny when the cheer at the end of a song surprises the musicians on-stage. Not being able to hear yourself will mean that you will feel like you're competing with all other noise. Melody will probably be the first thing to go awry; it's easier to feel timing than pitch and, if you can't use your hearing, 'feel' is what you're left with. After melody, the more intricate phrases may follow. Like any problem, this can really knock your confidence.
If you're a vocalist (including beatboxers), put one finger in your ear. This will allow you to hear yourself even during really loud sound surrounding you. Try it next time you are somewhere with loud music. This advice is golden in many situations where the sound is bad. Wearing earplugs or one earplug should have the same effect.
Hopefully, the monitors are too quiet because they haven't been turned up enough, not because they are not powerful enough. This should be easy to sort out in a soundcheck. If it happens during your set, make eye-contact with the sound engineer, point at yourself and point upwards. This is vital for instrumentalists because a finger in the ear won't help.
Other than that, give it your best and always assume that the audience can hear you because they probably can.
Problem - The monitors don't have enough of what you want within a band/collaboration.
When you are performing with a band, you hope that there will be several different monitors with different levels. The drummer will probably want more of the bassist in the mix whereas the lead-vocalist will want more of himself. Sometimes gigs do not have time for soundchecks, usually because of a large number of bands to fit in (this is not uncommon at festivals).
Even if you can soundcheck, only really big gigs will have a separate sound engineer for the monitor levels; usually it has to be done by the band communicating through the mics on-stage. This makes it difficult to get the levels exact, especially as band members may play louder or quieter during the set than the soundcheck due to confidence or varied dynamics in songs. The sound engineer is probably going to sort the levels going to the crowd before the monitors, even then he can't hear everybody's requirements.
This can create problems where you can't hear yourself or certain musicians that you need.
Although, this problem is less likely to occur if you're with musicians that can soundcheck professionally, it still happens at all levels. Again, hand gestures to the sound engineer can be helpful - Pointing at yourself/somebody else and pointing upwards/downwards.
If the problem is much worse, everybody on stage should turn down their instruments or play quieter and the vocalist should hold the mic further from his mouth or stop cupping it. This will give you the ability to hear yourselves a bit better and then some space to vaguely set your own monitor levels. If it's still not right, everybody should listen to the drummer to make sure you stay in time.
Again, putting a finger in your ear can help to solve this.
Problem - You explain your act to the sound engineer and he decides to give your levels too much bass/treble/reverb etc.
Maybe you're doing/going to do some beatboxing and cranks the bass up to max when your sounds are bassy enough. I get this occasionally. Particularly, it can affect non-bassy sounds by making them sound muffled. I have a suspicion that some sound engineers are just too bass-headed or think that it's what I want, perhaps because it makes me sound more inhuman.
The best solution to this is to be vocal about the problem during a soundcheck. It's a very simple principle but sometimes performers are shy about asking.
Don't worry that you're 'telling the sound engineer how to do his job'; it's his job to give you the sound that you want. It's like getting a haircut. Make it clear if something is wrong!
If the problem is that you don't know what you want, spend some time outside of your gigs practising setting your own levels. Look into what the EQ does and get to know the difference in sound. It's much easier to get levels exactly as you need them if you can ask for 'slightly less mid' than saying something vague like: 'it sounds a bit floppy'.
Of course, you may not be able to have a soundcheck or other problems might arise. You may want to explore the delicate balance of adapting the start of your set to make it 'sound engineer friendly'. Small tweaks to your set can make a big difference without overshadowing it. Alternatively, you could make your soundcheck method more musical. Here are some examples:
I saw a fantastic soundcheck method used by the all vocal group The Boxettes. They kept some very simple harmonies going and then, one at a time sang: 'my mic sounds nice', followed by each performer asking casually for any changes needed. They could continue this until it was perfect, though they did have the benefit of their own sound engineer.
If, for example, you're a beatboxer, starting your set with some simple hi-hats can work well. Hi-hats are a good sound to set levels for initially; too much bass will make them sound less crisp or more muffled. If there is too much bass, you can stop and ask for less. That way, it won't look as much like you have had to restart your set; it will look like you were just checking the levels before starting.
This technique can be adapted to other instruments too. It is a little harder in a band setting compared to a solo act but the key for both is to start with simple rhythms and thin textures. This will make it much clearer for the sound engineer to hear what needs tweaking.
Although this can become a significant change to your set, it does have the advantage that a simple start allows you to warm up, get into the atmosphere and to ease the crowd into your set. If it really isn't possible for your set, maybe that's a sign that you should only gig where it is possible to have a soundcheck.
Problem - There are last minute changes made by the venue.
Sound levels aren't the only thing that can suffer from this; last minute changes divert focus from everybody. It's common for another problem to go unnoticed during the chaos.
A quick tangent: You may need to make a decision on how to handle the changes to your 'set time' before having to deal with ensuing sound issues.
Last minute changes happen mostly due to unprofessional conduct - possibly from the venue/promoter or possibly from one of the other acts being late/not showing up (don't let it be because of you!) Sometimes, it's out of anybody's control, e.g. the fire alarm going off and affecting the schedule.
The most common change to be made is to the time of your/another act's set. Often, this will be posed as a question to you ending in 'is that OK?' and whether or not it is 'OK' with you may or may not be relevant.
If the set times are to change, chances are, they want to move everything back. It's much more likely that they're running late or even that not enough people have shown up and they want to wait for a crowd to magically appear. If you're not headlining, this could work out well for you because a later time might mean a bigger audience. However, it could be that your fans are expecting to see you perform at a certain time, maybe they have to leave before your new set time. Treating your existing fanbase with respect is more important than gaining new fans. Bear this in mind if you have a say in whether your set time gets moved, especially as you may find that it gets moved back several times before you go on.
It's a lot rarer, but you may be asked to move your set time forward. This is usually because the first band on hasn't turned up or is stuck in traffic. There are many, possibly awkward outcomes of this. There may be people coming specifically to see you perform. If they turn up and you've already gone on early, you've just wasted their night. The room could be less than half as full as it will be by your original set time. Of course, you're in a much better position to say no to the promoter moving your set forward but this can have it's own problems. Will you just sit back and watch nobody perform for an hour? What if everybody in the venue leaves? Something out of anybody's control can always come up. You're in a position to help the promoter out big time and save the day. You'll probably want to give a good reason if you're not going to. Otherwise, you'll look like a dick.
Of course, it's possible that one of the other bands/artists will step up and 'save the day' instead.
Once you've made your decision, that's when you have to be ready for problems that can happen with the sound. It doesn't matter if your set has moved forward, back or even stayed where it was; everything else may have moved too.
Soundchecks usually happen in reverse order of the line-up. The last band to soundcheck goes on first with their levels set exactly. After that, the sound engineer has to reset levels of each of the following bands. There are many different systems for remembering levels. Some use bits of tape stuck next to the faders while others use a notepad and pen. The best mixing desks have 'magnetic-memory' and can relocate to a number of different levels at the push of a button. Hopefully, wherever your set is supposed to be, the sound engineer has made notes of your levels. You may not be so lucky:
Say, for example, you're in the band that's on first. Each band soundchecks (ending with your band) but one band takes forever with their soundcheck and the other band is really late. The whole gig gets pushed back by an hour. By now, you're all raring to go, your levels are set perfectly and you're already an hour beyond when you were meant to go on. You're just waiting for the all clear when the promoter rushes up to you and says 'There's been a change of plan - 'Band #3' need to get off to get their train back to their home-town. Now that we're an hour late, they want to go on first. Is that OK?' Well, what can you do? Let's say that you say OK. The poor, flustered sound engineer is then given about twenty seconds notice before 'Band #3' go on-stage. In the rush to get the desk back to their levels, he doesn't notice that he's just undone your entire soundcheck and has no record of it (why would he need one? You were the first band on).
As far as I know, the above scenario has never happened to me. I could think of many scenarios like this as they tend to follow a similar pattern and solving them tends to follow similar steps.
The first is prevention. A good contract will specify the time you're on. If this is too difficult to sort out, all it takes is an email. You can check that there will be a soundcheck, and when it is. There are too many details that you need to ask to remember them all in your head. Make a decent booking form and you'll only ever have to send them that to have all of your questions answered. Problems can still arise but you will almost always be treated with more respect if you handle the entire process professionally and the booking stage may be the first contact they have with you.
Next is the decision of whether it's 'OK' to move your set. If the option is really yours to decide, 'no, sorry' or 'yes but' are good starting points. If it's a 'no', you want to be direct but not to the point of being rude. They're probably already under a lot of stress and the last thing you need to do is push them until you get the full brunt of it, though you cannot let this scare you into saying yes. 'No, sorry.' is polite but to the point. If the answer is a 'yes', you may need to throw a 'but' in as well. This will most likely be a safeguard like 'yes I can move my set but I can't move it again, people are expecting me on at a certain time.' or 'yes but I need the drum kit moved off stage because it wouldn't have been there and I need space for my gogo dancers'.
Then, when the decision has been made, you'll need to take on the responsibility of communicating with the sound engineer to check that he has been properly informed and to assess whether the changes will affect your levels.
Finally, when you are on-stage, you may have to deal with unforeseen problems, even after all that prep. All other solutions in this article may still be needed.
Problem - There is feedback.
Feedback is a loop usually created when a mic picks up the signal that it is sending out of the amplifier. This means that it gets louder and louder very quickly. It can also be caused by there not being enough space around the mic when it is at a high volume (known as proximity feedback) which is caused by either cupping the mic or by the mic being too close to the walls. It can deafen the audience or just make an annoying ring.
Hopefully, the sound engineer can sort this out instantly. When there are distractions that are obvious and out of your control, you can either ignore them or highlight them. I usually like to highlight them so that they don't become an 'elephant in the room'. I had a gig a few months ago where there was feedback for a few seconds, when it had been cut, I paused and said 'that was me' before dropping the beat back in again.
Ways of preventing feedback include making sure that the mic is kept behind the speakers. E.g. not walking in front of them with it. A soundcheck will hopefully sort it out but sometimes it can creep in during a set. Giving the mic some space and moving the mic forwards slightly, away from the walls, can help.
The ideal solution is to use a good compressor. This will allow you to go much louder than you'd even want without feeding back. Generally they are expensive but you can find the odd bargain. It's worth checking out the RNC (really nice compressor) which is a great piece of kit for much cheaper than its equivalents.
Problem - The equipment is terrible.
Sometimes you just end up with shoddy equipment. It might be that you're just doing an impromptu set for fun in an informal setting like a house party or it might be that the venue haven't had the budget for good equipment. This is probably the hardest one to deal with.
Bringing your own is the the ideal. At least bring your own mic if you're a vocalist. Ask the promoter; I've got a 'Do you require that I bring equipment?' line in my booking form. Just make sure you can identify your equipment easily. Put two different coloured cable-ties around each of your leads and clip them off. That means that you can always identify your leads really easily at the end of the night.
Other than this, lots of the above applies, a finger in your ear, turn down, soundcheck properly, be vocal, start simply and have it large anyway.
Some of this relates to a general, professional attitude to gigging. Even if the sound is perfect, the mic stand might be too low or the lights might be too bright. If you don't allow yourself the time on-stage to sort these problems out and to ask for assistance, your set can suffer, everyone in the venue can look unprofessional and the audience will feel uneasy, bored or even ripped-off. Nobody should think you're a Prima Donna for asking for a bit less bass.
Make sure conditions are exactly right. Think how much work you have put into your set, why should it be spoiled for that night at the last minute?