If you’re a musician who knows their XLR from their TRS, chances are you’ll be offered a sound gig at some point. After a few years of doing just this, I have a couple of tips to share:
1. White Electrical Tape and Sharpie
These are honestly the two most important things in your kit bag, and also the easiest to forget. You can forget your headphones, you can probably even bump a couple of mics and cables from the venue next door if you ask nicely enough, but if you don’t mark your desk up with who is plugged into which channel, your night is already a lost cause, especially if you’re turning over four acts in an evening. Keep your sanity by putting a roll of tape and a sharpie in your bag.
2. Sound Check
The sound check is the most important part of the gig, and with a bit of practice it’ll also be the fastest. The best thing to be consistent in your method; it’ll reduce mistakes when you’re working at high speed and develop muscle memory, so that when you spy an acoustic guitar about to be unplugged with zero warning, you can instantly slap your finger down on the mute button and save the audience from what can only be described as a deafening electrical fart.
Here’s how you sound check: pick a channel, ask the performer to give you a signal. Pop your headphones on, put the solo on for that channel and adjust the gain until your signal is strong but well below the 0dB mark (nobody ever soundchecks as loud as they play, so give yourself generous headroom) then adjust EQ if something needs tweaked. At this point you can unmute the channel and bring up the fader until it sounds good in the room. Ask the performer if they need anything else in their monitor and then thank them before moving on to the next channel. Once all of the channels are set ask for a tune and make adjustments from there. A lot of digital desks can do nifty stuff with saving scenes which make band turnovers easy but your phone can do that too: just take a picture of the desk (with flash) before you move on to the next band.
3. Don’t over-use the EQ
Just because the desk has 18dB of cut and boost on each EQ band doesn’t mean that you should use it. If the signal coming to your desk sounds ugly, buzzy or distorted, chances are that something needs to change at the source before you even think about EQ: move mics around, engage ground lifts, adjust EQs on DI pedals and acoustic guitars. Mixing desk EQ is generally fairly limited and not very musical so try to use it as an enhancer rather than as a surgical tool.
4. Don’t forget the room
If you have time before the gig, put on some well mixed music you know really well that covers the frequency spectrum (my tunes of choice are Billie Jean, Do It Again and Hella Good) and have a play around with the FOH graphic EQ. If a frequency band sounds good in the room, maybe boost a little, if it sounds overly resonant, cut a little. Keep in mind that a full room absorbs a lot more treble than an empty one, so don’t be shocked when your perfectly EQ’d room suddenly sounds totally different. Don’t be afraid to take a little walk around while mixing, even in a small venue you’ll have parts of the room which absorb and diffuse sound differently, and chances are that your desk is not right in the sweet spot.
5. Think about your signal chain
A little gain staging goes a long way to cleaning up the sound: if the meters on your desk are creeping into the red, but the power amp can give more power, then you’re essentially taking a distorted signal and making it even louder. Make sure that you have a little headroom at every stage (channels, stereo bus, power amp/active monitors) and you’ll find that you’ll get a much more listenable sound out of the PA.
6. Don’t panic
Stupid mistakes happen: feedback is nasty, but if you start panicking and wishing for the ground to swallow you up then it’s not going to stop. Drop the levels and use your common sense to sniff out the problems and fix them ASAP. Also, whatever you do, don’t waste time beating yourself up; much like performing music, being in the moment is crucial to success.
7. Be friendly
If you’ve played a gig then you know how a bad sound engineer can really put a dampener on your show. Don’t be that engineer who ignores musicians who know how their music should sound, don’t be that engineer who sits on their phone for the entire gig. You’re there to help them to put on the best show possible, so at least act like you’re invested and the confidence that you give to your performers will make them sound far better than anything else covered here ever will.
That’s it! If you have any great sound engineering tips to share, do it below!
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