What makes your band sound good at a gig?
Great vocals? The band playing nice and tight after some productive rehearsals? Good room acoustics? The biggest baddest subwoofer in the city? Crispy clear highs? The perfect guitar tone?
Yeah yeah yeah, these things all contribute. But there’s one factor that will make or break you, regardless of anything else you do…
The sound guy. (Or gal, rarely.)
*From here on out I’m going to refer to sound “guys” rather than make an effort to be ultra-PC and call them sound “people.” The only sound “gals” I’ve ever seen are me, and one of my former bandmates.
Why do sound guys always seem to be in a bad mood? Well, look at it from this perspective…
You run sound for a local club. You got into it because you thought it would be pretty cool to be part of the local music scene. You play in a band or two of your own, so you know what it’s like to be on stage, too.
The club owner pays you, but really not much, considering how long and how late you have to be there. He says he supports local music, but given the economy, he’s having a hard time justifying an upgrade to the ancient rig you have to work with. And the stage was installed well after the building was built, so the room isn’t made for concerts – heck, it’s all brick and windows, with mirrors on the back wall that the sound bounces off of, causing feedback no matter what you do.
After a few gigs you get the room and the gear dialed in the best possible, but every night, some new local band comes in and bosses you around as if they know the room and your gear better than they do. Without even introducing themselves, three band members are ordering you around at once, asking questions and making demands before you’ve even finished running cable. When you’re ready to start line testing the drums, the drummer is nowhere to be found. When you get to the lead vocalist, she wants to hear so much of herself in the monitor that you can’t turn her up loud enough without getting feedback. Plus, she doesn’t like the EQ she’s hearing, it sounds horrible and she’s grimacing at you. Meanwhile, the lead guitarist is making a racket, tuning and riffing around at full volume. You finally get through a sound check with the band making faces at each other about how bad the sound is, and when they start playing, they constantly make more demands of you: more keys, more vocals, less reverb, more mids. You can’t meet all of their demands without causing feedback. They think you are trying to make them sound bad, and they don’t go to any effort to hide that opinion from you. No love lost: You finally start to feel like actually making them sound bad.
Now, imagine this instead…
The band arrives. Before unloading, one of them – just one – takes a moment to introduce himself. He asks you if you have any preference about where, when, and how the band sets up. He tells you that he’ll be the point person for the band, and if you have any questions or needs, he’s the one to talk to. He runs through the lineup with you, confirming that the band needs three vocal mics and that the guitar is not going to run through the PA, but the keyboard is and needs a DI box. Then he slips you a tenner, saying, “Thanks in advance, man, I know you’re going to do a great job tonight. We know it’s a tough room, and we really appreciate everything you do. Just let me know if there’s anything we can do to help.” Then he goes away, letting you finish your setup in peace. He keeps the other band members away from you. When it’s time to line check, all the band members are waiting on stage, tuning and preparing quietly, but alert and ready when you call on each one of them. They treat you with respect, asking for adjustments rather than demanding them, and just generally being polite and respectful. They appear to actually trust that you know what you’re doing. During the gig, they ask for a few adjustments, but they do it without making faces at you. Afterward, a couple of them come up and say thanks for doing a great job.
Which band are you going to make sound best in the house speakers?
I have heard stories of sound guys who intentionally made bands sound bad in the mains because the bands treated him badly. And conversely, sound guys who made one particular band sound great because they treated him well.
The sound engineer can make or break your sound in the room. Treat him well.
Here’s how to ensure you sound better than the other bands:
1) When you arrive, find a moment when the sound engineer isn’t too busy, and introduce yourself.
2) Touch base briefly on lineup, setup if appropriate, and any unusual gear needs.
3) Tip him… in advance. (When playing with a 10-piece band at a small, now-closed place in Boulder, my band used to tip $20 right off the bat. We knew we were going to be a challenge.) Tipping doesn’t have to be cash, but cash is king. Food and drink aren’t bad, but of course it means more if you brought something special for him rather than feeding him the same bar food he gets every night.
4) Have only one band member be the point person for the sound guy.
5) Don’t let multiple band members make requests of the sound engineer at the same time. One request at a time, politely.
6) Respect the sound guy. He knows the room and the gear better than you do. He may not be the best sound engineer on the planet, and you may really know your sh*t, but he’s probably figured out some things about this particular setup you have no idea about. A little respect can go a long way.
7) When feedback happens, he probably heard it, and you probably don’t need to say anything. But if you’re not sure, just politely ask whether he did.
8) Say thank you. Tell him he did a good job, even if he did only an OK job. If you did everything else above, he was probably trying his best given the room and the gear.
Thanks to Denver vocalist (and engineer/musician) Jacob Warner for this week’s newsletter topic.
(c) 2010 Adrienne Osborn