Part 3 of TyTe's 3-part series on sound checking!
A sound check before a workshop, gig or show is vital to enable you to give your best performance. With good quality sound you will relax and be inspired to give 150% to your show. However, with poor sound you will lose confidence, perhaps strain your vocals, and your mind will not be on performing. It is true to say that no-one ever thanks the sound engineer for a job well done! Why? Because if the sound is great, people only notice the performance and not the sound. However, if the sound is poor, everyone notices!
A sound check means getting on stage before the audience arrive, testing the microphone and allowing the sound engineer to set the gain, add EQ (equalisation), and any effects such as gate and compression. In an established club venue with a house engineer you should not run into problems, however, in a small theatre venue, you might have to direct the engineer.
These stage-by-stage tips will help you get the best out of your sound check.
1. Learn a bit about microphones and mixers
In your beatboxing career you will come across situations where there is no sound engineer who knows what they are doing and you need to sort out the sound yourself. Microphones and mixers are beyond the scope of this article, so I recommend that you read Part 1: Connecting Microphones to Mixers and Part 2: Setting Levels for Sound. Get familiar with gain, EQ, auxiliaries and faders. Know what they do and how to use them.
2. Introduce yourself to the sound engineer
Firstly, say, “hello” to the sound engineer. He or she will be your best friend at the gig. Make a point of going over to them and introducing yourself. Before a gig, sound engineers are often very busy and they might not think it important to know you, so you might have to be assertive. It is usually best to wait until it is your turn to sound check, then, go to the sound engineer, smile, extend a hand and tell them who you are. Ask them their name, remember it, and then ask them if they have ever worked with a beatboxer before.
I once performed at a college. The hall I was to perform in was empty and the mixing console was in a booth at the back of the hall. I was not allowed to touch the equipment and so the media technician was summoned. The technician arrived, stony-faced and wearing a white lab coat. I do not think she had ever listened to hip-hop in her life and it was evident that she was not happy that I was there. She was out of her depth and it was down to me to encourage her, get her ‘on side’ and work with her to get the best sound. It was difficult work, as much diplomacy as it was technical. From the stage I had to go slowly, gently and politely asking her to adjust the gain and apply EQ without making her feel incompetent.
3. Work with the sound engineer
No-one likes to be told their job but it is vital that you get the best out of the sound equipment and the engineer. Before you even get on the stage it will be worth mentioning the following.
a) Own channel
Firstly, ask the engineer if you will have your own channel on the mixer. This is important because once your settings are set, they do not need to be changed. Sometimes engineers can be lazy and share you with another vocalist that will be using the mic - after all, it takes more effort to set you up with your own channel. If you share a channel with other vocalists you have to either share settings - potentially compromising your sound - or the engineer will have to remember your settings and apply them just before you perform. This introduces a risk factor that he or she might forget a setting.
b) No 100Hz filter
Most modern mixers have a 100Hz high-pass filter on each input channel. A high-pass filter is a circuit that only allows frequencies above 100Hz through. This means it cuts everything below 100Hz - your sub bass frequencies. The reason for a 100Hz filter is that it cuts out stage rumble, mic pops, and unwanted noise. However, beatboxers love rumble and pops and noise!
Typically, 100Hz filters are used for vocalists, so it is important to check that there is no 100Hz filter on your channel. In smaller venues without a professional engineer, I’ve often asked this question to be met with a blank face. When this happens, I’ve had a glance at the mixer to check myself!
b) Top and Bottom End
Generally speaking beatboxers like a bit of bottom and top end. This means that we like a slight LF (low frequency) and HF (high frequency) boost on the EQ section of the mixer. We’re not so concerned about MF (mid frequencies) as vocal mics tend to boost these frequencies anyway. It might be worth giving the engineer a little heads up to keep the mid frequencies flat and to add a little top and bottom end.
4. Test the Quality of Equipment
The very first thing to do is check the mic and connections. If you are not using your own microphone (recommended) then you will need to ensure that the microphone you are using is good enough quality. Mics can wear out through use - often getting more dull over time. They can also get damaged through dropping. Therefore the very first thing you do is check that the mic sounds clear and bright. If it does not sound clear or bright then tell the engineer and ask for the microphone to be replaced.
The second thing to check is the cable and connector - particularly where it plugs into the microphone. Solder joints on connectors do come loose and sometimes the wires inside cables get torn through being kinked or badly wound. Wiggle the cable near the microphone. Check there is no buzzing, crackling or sound cutting in or out. If you encounter a problem, ask for the cable to be changed.
It will be important to test the FOH (Front Of House) speakers first before checking the foldback (the on-stage monitor speakers). The FOH speakers are the ones that the audience listen to. If the foldback is on, ask that it be turned down while you check FOH. In a big venue you will be on the stage and not able to tell what it sounds like. This means you will need to rely on a friend or the engineer to help you. However, you should still get a sense of how it sounds. In a smaller venue, with a long enough lead, you should be able to hop off the stage, and check the sound levels yourself without incurring feedback.
a) Beatbox your loudest
It is important that you beatbox as loud as you can to start off with. The engineer will be setting the gain to keep you as loud as possible but without going ‘into the red’ and distorting. You should be able to make your loudest sound without there being any distortion.
b) Find the resonant frequency
Every room has multiple resonant frequencies. A resonant frequency is the frequency at which objects and spaces naturally vibrate, and is connected with the object or room’s dimensions. All smaller rooms and club venues have distinct resonant frequencies although in larger rooms the effect is less noticeable.
By making a low lip oscillation you should be able to find one of the room’s resonant frequencies - a pitch that sounds louder than the others. Make a mental note of it!
c) Own the stage
Move around the stage. Is the cable long enough? Listen to the FOH sound from different parts of the stage. Do not be afraid to ask the engineer to turn things up or down, add more bottom end or top end.
Once you are happy with the FOH sound it is time to check the foldback (if there is any). In smaller venues you might not have foldback of any kind but in most stage situations it will be necessary. Foldback is the sound ‘folded back to you’ from the mixer and can come in the form of in-ear monitoring or on-stage speakers. If you are using in-ear monitoring then you will have brought your own gear and you will need to set this up with the sound engineer.
a) Foldback Level and EQ
Foldback has its own level and EQ. This means that you can ask for more or less in the monitor(s). You can also ask the foldback to have more bottom or top end. If you ask for this then you will need to be specific. “Please can I have more top-end in the foldback?” If you are not specific then the engineer may ad more top-end to the FOH.
b) Own the stage
7. Say Thank you!
Remeber, take your time and don’t be pressured into rushing.