Kick. Floor tom. Rack. Snare. Cymbals. Whole set. Generally, soundcheck starts with the largest acoustic instrument in the band with multiple mics on or above the set, rigorous placement consideration, and, occasionally, tape and muting - the drums.
Touring with audio engineers and working with venue legends, soundcheck is usually smooth. There are, however, always unforeseen variables like gear malfunctions and even weather! To make soundcheck, dare I say, enjoyable, simplifying complicated concepts and giving players the language to ask for what they want is a step in the right direction. Adjectives I’ve heard to describe audio or a wedge mix can often sound like poetry. Engineer Todd Dixon remarks “I always liked to describe high end as: crispy, presence, air; middle as: definition, clarity; and low as: weight, heft, push, or feel.”
Having a decent monitor mix and proper amp placement can set you up for the best performance for the band and audience. With help from seasoned engineers Scott Cornish and Todd Dixon, we will shed light on the process of getting a good mix. Let’s define some terms that will make speaking to your sound person easier.
Part 1: Glossary
Db - A unit of volume, expressed by a numeric value. Most rock music is between 90db and 110db.
Hz & kHz - Hertz is the number of cycles per second a certain frequency has. Lower pitched sounds have a lower number of cycles, higher pitched sounds have a higher Hz. For example, the low rumble of a kick drum could be 40-80 Hz. High pitched vocal feedback could be as high as 8-10kHz. kHz [kilohertz] means a thousand hertz. So 8 kHz means 8,000 Hz.
Monitors (in-ear and stage) - Monitors are speakers on stage, faced at the musicians so they can hear themselves. Most common monitors are floor monitors (also sometimes called “wedges” because of their shape). Some people use specialized headphone systems (also known as in-ears) instead of floor monitors. These systems can be expensive and difficult to set up but if you have the time and a talented engineer on your side they can yield fantastic results.
The House - The venue, where the audience stands.
"That input box on stage" - A DI [Direct Input] or stage box. This is used to plug an instrument directly into the sound system without the use of a microphone or an amp.
Snake - Snakes are are long cable lines, that consist of many smaller cables bound together. A common use for this would be to get all the different mics from the stage to the sound board. Rather than have 30 cables going all the way across the room, the mics are plugged into a box on stage and one fat cable (snake) runs all the way back to the sound board.
Console (aka soundboard or mixer) - This is the main device engineers use to process and route all the sound in a sound system.
EQ jargon: lows, mids, highs - do these ranges have numbers? - These ranges do have numbers though it’s not really exact. Super ball park numbers would be Lows: 20hz - 120hz, Mids: 120Hz-3kHz, Highs 3kHz - 20kHz.
60 cycle hum/grounding issues - 60 cycle hum refers to a hum (bad noise that sounds like a buzz) that comes from a problem having to do with power. Common fixes include plugging into different outlets and/or pressing ground switches on DI boxes.
Ear fatigue - This happens when you listen to music too loud for too long. Your ears get tired and you can start to lose perspective on how things actually sound. It helps to have quiet time in between prolonged exposure to loud sounds.
Part 2: “Stage Semaphore”
Help! You are in the middle of a set and you’re confused, sad, or scared of what you’re hearing. We don’t all have a microphone, and staring deeply and intensely into your monitor or front of house engineer’s eyes will only get you so far. Occasionally, you have to use a bit of ‘stage semaphore’ - the often-times frantic gesturing between strumming or playing. Here is some helpful sign language, like the tried and true ‘guitar strum, pointing up or down,’ to tweak your mix in the moment.
Scott Cornish implores, “One mistake people make when asking for monitor changes is to point down at the monitor when they want more of something. They may point to the singer and then point down at their monitor thinking, “I want to hear more of the vocal in the floor monitor.” Pointing down means you want something turned down. If you want something louder, just point to what you want and then point up. We know that you are standing in front of a monitor and we know to turn it up in your monitor.”
Another mistake is using a thumb to point. Using a thumb to point up looks like a thumbs up to the engineer. She can easily take this as a sign that you are happy and stop making changes. Always point up or down with your finger. When it’s loud enough it’s best to give an “OK” signal.” Dixon says, “A useful thing to signal you are happy with a level is ‘closed fist.’
Part 3: Behind The Console
Emily Elhaj: Front of house and monitor engineers: how do they work together?
Scott Cornish: The Front of House engineer (often shortened to FOH) mixes the sound for the audience. The Front of House sound engineer is located out in the house. The Monitor Engineer (often shortened to MONS) is usually positioned on the side of the stage and has a separate sound board and only controls the monitors for the band. Not all venues have a separate monitor engineer. Most smaller venues only have one engineer, so the monitors are controlled by front of house.
Todd Dixon: To add to Scott’s answer, the sound coming from the speakers on stage can affect the sound in the room and vice versa. FOH and MONS engineers need to be communicating about what each other are doing throughout soundcheck so they aren’t slowing the process down by pushing and pulling against each other and chasing funky signals.
EE: Most common consoles you encounter while touring?
SC: It varies wildly and each sound console has a different way of working. It can be very difficult to get the same sound on different consoles. I use this analogy: Imagine each show you play having a different amp, pedals, and guitar and on some guitars the order of the strings is reversed and there is a hidden knob on the amp that is in a different place each night but the amp won’t work until you find it. Most common consoles are made by Avid, Yamaha, DigiCo, Soundcraft, Midas and, in smaller venues, Behringer and Presonus.
EE: Why do engineers generally start with the drums?
SC: Great question, there is a fairly common standard for listing all the inputs on a stage. The standard order is to list drums first, then bass, then guitars, then keyboards, and then vocals. I’m sure there is some historical data on how this standard originated but that’s for a different talk. The engineer organizes the soundboard based on the input list, starting with drums on the left and going all the way to vocals on the right. Engineers often start checking each channel going from left to right, just like reading a book.
TD: Normally, drums come up first on a traditional console setup (I believe this stems from studio days but I could be wrong). I’ve actually started trying to have vocals first during soundcheck. To me, that is the most important thing to get correct for 90% of bands. For most acts, audiences expect vocals to be presented clearly more than other elements. So, I wanna hear that first. Then, I’ll start fitting the rest of the building blocks around [vocals] rather than trying to sit them at the end.
EE: What are ‘inputs’ and how many are average for a band show (and the most you’ve mixed front of house)?
SC: Inputs are all the mics and instruments that need to be plugged in. So, if there are four drums (kick, snare, rack tom, floor tom) and each of those has a mic on it, then that’s four inputs for the drums. All these inputs (also called lines) are listed and numbered on an input list, and then plugged into the sound console. Input lists can get very large when you have a large band or if a band has lots of electronics (samplers, keyboards, etc.). Typical shows are usually 15 to 20 inputs. The most I’ve dealt with is around 35 but big arena rock/pop concerts could have 50-75 inputs or more!
TD: I’ve seen a pop metal act have 75 inputs on the drums - over 100 coming from the stage... lol.
EE: Monitor brands you trust?
SC: The top monitors right now are D&B and L-Acoustics. I also really like Meyer. This is one of those things where you really get what you pay for. These monitors can cost thousands of dollars each. A good monitor will just sound better right from the start, so as an engineer I don’t have to work as hard to make the artist happy. If you can get a clear and clean sound quickly, everyone can move on to other things and not get frustrated and burnt-out working on monitor sound for an hour.
EE: Stage lights, international voltage, and power problems, oh my. What can go wrong before you even begin?
SC: Make sure to ask the venue staff where to plug in your gear. Sometimes if you plug into the power reserved for lighting, it can cause noise or buzzing. Some stages have problems with electromagnetic fields (due to lights or the building's electrical system), and these invisible fields can be picked up by your guitar. Single-coil pickups tend to pick up more of this noise so, if you have an option, try a humbucker pickup.
As far as international power is concerned, the US and Europe have different strengths of power, so if you are traveling abroad make sure to rent some power converters or make sure the venue can supply them. Keep in mind, this is different than just one of those little plastic adapters. The little adapters just make the plugs fit but if the power is a different strength, then you could possibly damage your gear. So “adapters” just make the plug match and “converters” make the power match. Converters are little heavy boxes the size of a brick or two [Writer’s note: or three!].
EE: Microphones, feedback, and Hz - how do they relate to one another?
SC: Feedback occurs when the mic picks up the sound of itself coming out of a speaker. When this happens it sounds like a bad note (low honky sound or high pitched squeal). When engineers are setting up microphones and notice this feedback they can use EQ to help solve the problem. Rather than just turning the entire volume of the mic down, the engineer can turn down just the frequency of the note that’s feeding back. When you hear engineers calling out numbers like ‘100hz’ or ‘10k,’ those are probably the frequencies they hear feeding back.
To get a visual of the frequencies, image search “graphic EQ.” Notice how the frequency numbers go from low on the left to high on the right, similar to a scale on a piano. This is the tool engineers use to turn down problematic frequencies that feedback. It takes a long time to memorize all these numbers and, as an artist, you’re not expected to know all of them. Hopefully, you can just say something like ‘I hear some low-end feedback in my monitor,’ and then the engineer can find the exact frequency and correct it.
EE: What difference does a room play in overall sound (i.e., audience/band-enjoyment)?
SC: I can’t even begin to express how huge a role it plays! Imagine clapping your hands in your bedroom, then imagine clapping your hands in a cave or on a basketball court. Different stages are going to sound very different. I did a tour with a band where we played in old train stations. When the drummer hit the snare, the sound would decay and reverberate for about five seconds. That might sound cool but imagine that same effect on every single instrument for the entire set. For a really slow psychedelic band this might sound cool but this was more of a punk band with faster tempos. It sounded messy and undefined and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
TD: Rooms play a huge part of the sound. There are 100% ‘good/nice’ rooms and ‘bad/ugly’ rooms. This can somewhat be overcome if the space has had some good acoustic or PA [public address system] design put into it like acoustical treatment, orientation of stage, appropriate size of PA, and a quality PA that is tuned for the room.
EE: Festival sound, omg. Challenges and exciting aspects of doing sound at big, outdoor events? [Recommended read: Why There Were So Many Sound Problems At Coachella]
SC: First thing you should know is that doing sound at festivals is crazy and often times the worst representation of the band. It is extremely common for bands not to get soundchecks and be very rushed on to stage. At some of these larger festivals, each stage will have ten bands a day for three days straight. That means the festival sound staff has to set up and break down thirty bands. It’s exhausting and they’re probably already fried by the time you get there.
A key to success is to make everything extremely clear and simple for the stage crew. Have a clear input list and stage plot and do your best to avoid making last minute changes. Try to be as self-sufficient as possible and have all your gear dialed in and ready to go.
EE: Why do you feel there aren’t more women, non-binary, or trans folks engineering?
SC: The industry is definitely heavily male dominated but it’s getting better. There are some great groups out there whose purpose is to change that like soundgirls.org. Mostly, it’s a fucking boys’ club, and female/non-binary/trans engineers have to go above and beyond just to get noticed. It’s institutionalized sexism with a long history. All I can say is that everyone has to do their part to make this industry a safe space and call out bullshit when they see it. When I say “everyone” I’m referring to men in the industry. Not trying to redirect blame on women/trans/non binary engineers.
TD: I would say, it’s still an extension of the music industry (and society) at large. As we see more non-male performers, executives, A&R, managers, agents, bookers, etc. we will see more non-male engineers. I can’t even begin to imagine how many barriers there must be for non-males to get into the engineering side of things. There does appear to be hope for the future but we all need to be mindful of creating inclusive spaces and make people feel welcome.
EE: Kernels of wisdom to start your soundcheck off right?
SC: Put your amp behind you so it’s pointing at your ears. If you need to put it a few feet behind you or angle it up towards your head, do so. Once your gear is working properly and you have the sound you want, it might be good to stop playing so the other musicians can get their sound and so everyone can communicate.
TD: Patience. I would guarantee that 99% of the time, engineers are not trying to make soundcheck difficult. They want to be rolling along and making music, too. Concerts are complicated beasts to bring together. Also, the thing about adding high-end EQ is often a mix can sound clearer and more defined if you pull some low out of it. However, you are on the slippery slope of losing the weight, punch, etc. of the sound.
For on-stage sound specifically, if you are in a hurry, you’re always better off trying to get it as clear as possible (vocals are normally the focus) at the expense of some ‘vibe’ or ‘feel.’ In fact, if in a hurry and no one is on in-ear monitors, I would recommend not putting anything but vocal through the wedges. Start there, and then start blending guitars, drums, etc. into the mix.
Scott Cornish (@actuallyadog): FOH for Angel Olsen, Big Thief, Best Coast, No Age, A Place to Bury Strangers, Slint, Allah Las, Sky Ferreira, Cate Le Bon, Ty Segall and White Fence.
Todd Dixon (@mechanicalsounds): FOH for Soccer Mommy, Calexico, Neko Case, Angel Olsen and MONS for Angel Olsen, The Staves, and Big Thief
From New Orleans and currently based in Los Angeles, Emily Elhaj is a writer, photographer, and has performed and recorded with Angel Olsen, The Raincoats, Implodes, Sofia Bolt, Anna St. Louis, Vagabon, Hand Habits, and Jess Cornelius. She plays guitar and bass and is generously endorsed by Hofner, Fender, EarthQuaker Devices, & Original Fuzz. Emily runs the label Love Lion which began in 2010 and currently moderates an ongoing collection of conversations with creatives called the Love Lion Interview Series.