Efficient Sound Checks

church-soundcheck

It seems like sound checks are the most important wastes of time in my week.  You can’t mix without them, but you just want to get them over with as soon as possible and get on to the rehearsal or service.  So here are a few key thoughts on how I speed things up.

  1. Be Prepared: Making sure everything is set and ready before the band shows up is crucial.  There is nothing that wastes more time in a sound check than fixing a problem. And nothing more frustrating when you know you could have easily prevented that problem.  So make sure you check everything in a full line check beforehand.
  2. Know Your Musicians:  I keep a close eye on who is playing what any given week.  I have come to learn what many of my regular musicians prefer, so I can have a basic monitor mix set before they walk in the door.  For example, I have a lead guitarist that wants only click, guitars and lead vocals in his mix, so I have that set beforehand, so I have a lot less adjusting to do during sound check.
  3. .Start Early: My worship leader has set the expectation that all musicians should be plugged in, tuned, and warmed up before sound check begins.  (If you do not already have this expectation, I highly encourage you to talk to your worship leader about it).  Of course, that does not always happen with every musician every week, but someone is always there early.  As they are playing and warming up, I start setting their gain structure and EQ settings.  That will be one less line you have to sound check later.  On a good week, I have most of my gain structure set before the scheduled start time.
  4. Set Gain: Many people go through line by line and set gain.  This is good strategy, but time consuming.  In my room, things don’t change enough to make that worth the time.  My bass, rhythm, and lead guitar always run through the same amps, my lead vocal is always the same, and has the same mic with the same settings, My drum mics are usually always in the same positions.  Plus, I have a digital console on which I can recall settings in case anything gets changed.  So, instead of going line by line, I have the band run through the verse and chorus of a song they are very familiar with.  I tweak my gain during this time, but don’t touch any other setting.  Then after this I do not touch gain again unless absolutely necessary.
  5. Adjust Monitors: This step can look a lot different based on your console, your band, and your preference.  With the way my board is set up, it is easier for me to start with one musician and adjust whatever they need, then move to the next musician.  On other consoles, I have found that it is easier to go through channel by channel and see who needs more or less of what.  Find a system that is clear and concise, and use it consistently.
  6. Repeat: I have the band run through the same section of the same song, and check ears again.  This allows us to dial in the monitor mixes so that everyone has what they need.
  7. Move On: This step might seem obvious, but it is important to remember.  Sometimes it is very beneficial to repeat step 5 more than once, but it is far too easy to just keep tweaking indefinitely.  At some point (sooner rather than later) you have to end sound check and start rehearsal.  Typically, I have the band run the verse/chorus of a song twice, adjust ears twice, and than have them move on.  Every single time I end sound check I tell the musicians to let me know if they need anything else.  I don’t want them to settle for a bad monitor mix, but I don’t want to take 30 minutes tweaking one person’s ears.

Typically, my sound check takes 10-15 minutes.  Some days it is faster, depending on how many people arrive on time [read early], some days it takes longer, but that is my goal.  One thing that helps ensure this is efficiently mixing the monitors.  Not just the system of how you progress through the band, but also what adjustments you make.  Look for a post in the near future about mixing monitors.

In the mean time, if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions please leave them in the comments below.

Happy Mixing,

Aaron

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Saving Time with Line Checks

In my last post, I mentioned the importance of always preforming a full line check.  Going through each channel and checking that you have the proper signal in the right place can save you a lot of headaches.  But in my busy week, I know it is all to common to try and find shortcuts.  In the past I have skipped a full line check to get to another project, and it always seems to come back to haunt me.

We all too often fall into the mindset that if it worked last week, and no one messed with anything, it will work this week.  For those of us who don’t have to tear down a stage every week, that is tempting.  But that makes two dangerous assumptions.  First, that no one actually did mess with anything, and secondly, that the gremlins that tear apart the audio system did not strike this week.  The gremlins struck me this past Sunday.  A bass amp that was working perfectly at rehearsal on Wednesday was making a loud buzzing noise Sunday morning.  It turns out that the surge protector went bad.  No one touched it, it just worked when we turned it off Wednesday, and not when we turned it on Sunday.  And I am sure everyone has a story like that.

For that reason, every single week I run a full line check.  I check every input and output line before rehearsal on Wednesday.  This does not prevent every problem, but it prevents a lot of them.  That way I have time to find and troubleshoot any problems before the band arrives.  Here is the process that I have developed.  I have found that it streamlines the line check and ensures I don’t miss anything.  I will also share a brief glimpse of my process to set the stage, which can set me up for success or failure during the line check.

Most weeks, the majority of my stage does not change.  But there are always things that do.  I power up the system and start playing music through the mains and monitors.  This not only gives me something to listen to while I work, it also ensures that my outputs are working properly.  As I am setting up monitors and in-ear packs, I can listen to them to make sure they are receiving the audio signal.

As I set my stage, I verify every channel, even the ones that never change.  I visually inspect the mics and cables to make sure they have not moved or been damaged, and that they are still plugged into the correct channels.

For me, this is where I start to contemplate efficiency.  It is natural, easy, and time consuming to jump around the stage from one line to the next.  For me, I find that I save time and energy by following my input list channel by channel, which typically follows my board inputs from right to left.  This means I start with the drums, then click and loop tracks, bass, guitars, keys, and vocals.  Having the same sequence ensures I don’t miss anything, and that I don’t check the same thing 5 times.  (just twice, typically).  I do the same thing for my outputs, once my inputs are done.  From Aux 1-8, I set and verify each stage output.

As I am setting the stage, I am updating any changes on my input list.  Once everything is plugged in, then it is time to check the board patching.  Again, I go through each channel in order and double check it against my input list.  Most weeks very few things change, but I check everything anyways.

Now I get to the actual line check.  For me this can be the most obnoxious part of the day.  Proper line check procedure requires that you check each channel with the other channels muted.  This not only ensures that you are getting the signal to the board, but that it is coming through where you are expecting it.  Many digital consoles allow you to control the board through an iPad or laptop, but I don’t currently have the software to do that with mine.  So to do a proper line check, I would be constantly running back and forth from the stage to the board.  Now I probably need the exercise, and it is not as bad as those who have the board in a balcony, but I am lazy.  So I have enlisted the help of my worship leader.  He comes in for ten minutes and runs the board, so I can check each line.  I know others who do the opposite, and run the board while a second person checks the lines, but I have found that most of my mistakes happen on the stage side, so that is where I work from.

I have my worship leader unmute a channel, I will check a line.  He will let me know that signal came in on that channel and only that channel, mute the channel and we move on to the next.  We can go through all 15-20 wired lines in about five minutes without issues.  I check the wireless channels separately, since I keep the batteries at the console anyway.  If we do come across an issue, I will see if there is an obvious, easy fix; but if it is more complicated, I will mark that channel on the input list and come back to it.  No sense wasting the worship leaders time while I trouble shoot.  He has enough to do before rehearsal without watching me run around.

All in all, my line check takes about ten minutes and does not require me to leave the stage.  The worship leader is happy because any issues are discovered and resolved before the band arrives.  I am happy because the entire band does not have to wait around and watch me troubleshoot a problem only to find out that I never plugged the cord in.

And the final step to improve efficiency, we ask the band to come in and set up early enough to be plugged in, tuned, and warmed up before the rehearsal downbeat.  Because I have already completed my line check, if a problem develops, I can start with their gear.  Now, things have been known to go bad between line check and rehearsal, but this at least gives me a good starting point.  It also allows me to set my gain structure as the band warms up, which really speeds up my sound check.  Look for a follow up post soon about running efficient sound checks.

I have found that line checks are an essential part of my set-up process.  I cannot even express how many issues they have prevented, or how many problems have occurred when I have skipped them.  Remember, this is just my procedure, and there is no guarantee it will work for you.  But I think it is a good starting point.  If you have any comments, suggestions or questions, please feel free to put them in the comment section below.

Happy Mixing,

Aaron

Basic Troubleshooting Guide

broken speaker

As promised a few weeks ago, here is a basic troubleshooting guide.  Whether the problem is no sound, noise, or something else, these steps will give you a good place to start.

  1. Prevent the Problem: As the old cliche says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  This statement is especially true in audio.  It amazes me how many of the problems I have had to troubleshoot could have (and probably should have) been easily prevented.  A line check, while time consuming and boring will save you a ton of time and embarrassment when everyone is in the room.  There is nothing quite like spending ten minutes troubleshooting a bad monitor, only to realize you never plugged it in.  Look for a post about efficient line checks in the near future.
  2. Be Organized: If you have a rat’s nest of cables on the stage that are all a jumbled up mess, not only are problems more likely, they are harder to solve.  There is nothing like trying to follow a wire through a knot of cables to see if it is plugged in to the right channel.  Speaking of that, make sure you have a full input list that tells you where everything is supposed to be plugged in, how it is supposed to be routed.  Put in as much detail as possible and keep it updated.  This really helps to give you a better understanding of signal flow and all the potential pieces that could cause the problem, and gives you a handy guide to where everything should be plugged in and how it should be patched.  I include channel name (and the name of the person using that channel, so I can call them by name if I don’t know them), stage and console patching, whether the channel requires phantom power, and notes on type of mic and specific routing.  If seeing a copy of my input list would be helpful for you, let me know.
  3. Separate and Mark:  This is part of the organizational step, but I am going to list it separately.  Make sure you label bad equipment as bad.  I use gaff tape and silver sharpie for this.  I always write down what is wrong with the item, not just “broken”.  That will save time when it comes to fixing it.  Labeling also prevents you from using bad equipment and having to troubleshoot all over again.
  4. Apologize and Communicate:  Whether it is your fault or not, apologize to the band for the delay.  As a musician, it is very frustrating to be ready to play, and then not being able to.  Communicate what the issue is, let them know you are working on it.  They don’t need to know every step, but let them know you are thinking about them.  Also, if you are going to do anything that might make noise, ask them to take out their in-ears, or turn them off.  Don’t take risks with their hearing.  If you would want to mute it in the house speakers, have the same consideration for the musicians.
  5. Eliminate the Obvious: It amazes me how many issues I run into that probably should not have been issues (see step 2).  For example, a plug not fully seated, an amp not turned on, etc.  If something is not working, check the connections.  Ask the musician to unplug and replug the chord.  (Don’t say, “Is it plugged in?”  Use their name and say please.  No point in coming across as a jerk.  That won’t help anyone.)
  6. Determine the Seriousness: Is this problem something you can live with?  If there is a bit of hum during rehearsal, is it worth delaying the rehearsal, and possibly keeping everyone later, or can this be solved afterwords, or tomorrow, when your troubleshooting is not under the stress of a time crunch?  If it’s Sunday morning, is this a problem that will (or has the potential to) affect the service.  Typically, I follow the better safe than sorry philosophy, especially on Sundays, but there are times where no one in the room but me would notice the problem.  Ask yourself, and your worship leader, is that worth stressing over today?
  7. Find a Work-Around: If you are trying to get something fixed quickly to get a service or rehearsal running, this should be your go to tool.  Often, we do not have time to find and solve the problem, we just need a functioning solution.  Fifteen minutes before service or sound check starts is not a great time to take apart a monitor and check the soldering connections.  That is something to do on Monday.  When troubleshooting in a time crunch, the goal should be finding a workable alternative.  Always keep spare mics, monitors, and cables handy, and make something work, anything, even if it is not the ideal set-up.
  8. Eliminate and Isolate: When you have time to seriously dig in and do the real troubleshooting, this is my process.  Go through the entire signal change start to finish and eliminate all possible causes.  For example, if you are troubleshooting a buzz in an electric guitar channel, look at the entire chain.  It starts with the guitar, then each pedal on the board, the amp, the mic, the cables, the snake, the stage rack, the console.  Use the process of elimination to narrow down the possibilities.  Plug the guitar straight into the amp and bypass the pedal board.  If the problem goes away, you know it is somewhere on the pedal board, if it persists, then the pedals are not the problem.  Try a different guitar, different cable, different amp, different mic, different snake channel, different board channel, different power source, all one at a time until you figure out the problem.  Eventually you will find the problem.  Then isolate that part to confirm that is the problem.  Remove everything else possible from the signal chain and make sure the problem is actually that part and not something else.
  9. Fix the Issue: Now that you have found and confirmed the problem, fix it.  Don’t just put it in the corner of the closet.  The old adage “out of site, out of mind” really applies here.  If you don’t see the problem part, you won’t fix it.  Put it on your desk, so you can’t check your e-mail without staring at it.  Put it in the middle of the floor of your office so you trip over it every time you walk in.  Do not let yourself forget about it.  If you can fix it yourself, great, but if you are paying someone else to fix it, make sure you know the cost to repair vs. replace.  Often I have found there is a significant difference, but sometimes it is not much more to buy a new replacement part then to repair the old one.  Just make sure you don’t replace it with a cheap part that you may have to troubleshoot again in a year.

I hope this guide is helpful to you.  If you have any tips that I have missed, or questions, please add them in the comments section.

Happy Mixing,

Aaron

Us Vs. Them?

us vs them pic

If you have much experience in live music, I am pretty sure you have felt it; the animosity between the stage and the sound board.  We have all heard the jokes.  Here are a few of my favorites (being a sound guy, I will pick on the sound guys):

What is the difference between a sound guy and a puppy?
– Eventually the puppy stops whining. 
 
How many sound guys does it take to change a light bulb?
– None (“I don’t understand, it should be working”)
 
What’s the difference between a sound guy and a chimpanzee?
– It has been scientifically proven that a chimpanzee can communicate with humans.
 

And there are some good ones on the musician side as well.  A lot of these jokes I find very funny.  But I wonder if they are funny partly because they contain some element of truth?  What do these jokes tell us about the relationship between the stage and the console?  There appears to be a bit of underlying animosity.  It seems like every musician has a story of a sound guy who is terrible to work with, and every sound guy has a story of a similar musician.  Apparently those individuals never heard the old cliche, teamwork works best.  But I think we can all be guilty of the us vs. them mentality from time to time.  It is not just the worst of us that fall into this, but all of us can.

I think the underlying problem occurs because we tend to approaching things from two different directions.  Typically (maybe stereotypically) musicians tend to be creatively minded, and sound guys tend to be more analytically/technically minded.  Not that there is anything wrong with either basic mindset, we just look at the world differently.  But the question is what can we do to overcome these challenges?  Let me share a bit of the story of how I came to be where I am, and maybe we can all learn a couple of lessons along the way.

If you read my “About” page, you know that I work as the audio engineer for a large church in Northern Colorado.  It was a strange and winding path that brought me here, and I am pretty sure I do not have the time to write, nor do you have the patience to read, all the details.  But I will hit some of the highlights along the way.

I knew in high school that I was called to work full time in a church.  At the time, I thought that meant youth ministry.  Over the years, I went off to bible college, dropped out, wandered aimlessly for a while, finally found some direction in the Air Force, and wound up going back to college and getting a Theology degree.  Throughout this round about journey, I stayed involved in church technical ministry as a volunteer, spending most of my time at church behind a sound console. Then I branched out and started playing bass, and then lead guitar.  Eventually, I became a worship leader for a youth group.  After graduation, I began searching for a full time ministry job, focusing my efforts on worship and youth ministry positions.  But, as often happens, God had other plans.

After over a year of searching, and after being the second best candidate for several positions, I came across the job posting for my current position as an audio engineer.  This is something I had done on a volunteer basis for 13 years, and something that I had led and trained others to do, but I had never thought of it as a vocation.  I sent in my resume practically on a whim, not really expecting a response.

Well I got a response, and then an interview, and then a second interview, and was eventually offered and accepted the position.  Through the process my soon-to-be boss was very open and honest about the search, and what they were looking for.  There were several candidates who were more qualified or had more technical experience than me.  But in the end, it was my attitude that made the difference.  I was focused on being a team player, and their team needed a team player.  I could have come in with an us vs. them mentality, like is all too common behind the console.  But that is not what the church needed, and that was not what I needed.

In the end, we are all just small pieces of a larger puzzle.  We have a vital role to play in the message of the Church, but we are no more important than any other piece.  As sound guys, it is far too easy to fall into the mentality that says: “without me nothing works, no one hears the worship, no one hears the sermon, there is no church.”  But there has been Church long before there were sound guys, or consoles, or speakers.  And there will continue to be Church long after all of us are gone.  We must approach every service with this mentality; that we are just a piece of a larger team.  We are not hot shots, or lone wolves.  In the grand scheme of things we are not even truly necessary.

My first draft of this post included a list of key ideas to overcome the us vs. them mentality.  But I think every one of them falls into this concept of team.  If the keys would be helpful to you, let me know and I can post them.  But I think just trying to be a team player leads us to naturally approach our duties differently.

So next time you stand behind the console (whether it is at rehearsal, service, or whenever) remember that we are just a small piece of the large and complex puzzle.  An important piece, but at the end of the day, an unnecessary piece.  When I mix with that mindset, it’s not about me, or my mix.  It is not us vs. them.  It is about the team, the message, and ultimately about God.

Happy mixing,

Aaron

Quotes That Inspire Me – #1

Quote

“…the best live sound engineers are the ones who make the band happy, and the audience never realize they exist.  A while back, BASF used to have a motto: ‘we don’t make product X, we simply make it better.’ This, in a nutshell is what [we] do.”

– Shawn the Tech Geek

No One Really Understands what I do.

Fading Into The Background

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For me, one of the most rewarding and frustrating parts of being the sound guy is a life of anonymity.  If you are good at what you do, you simply fade into the background and no one even notices you exist.  This can be hard for some people, and very rewarding for others.  For me, it is both.

When I was first thrown behind a sound console (practically kicking and screaming), I was a quiet high school kid who wanted to avoid the limelight at all costs.  Maybe thats one of the reasons they asked me to run sound.  Maybe they were just desperate enough.  Whatever the reason, it started a long and winding journey that led me to where I am today.

For years I happily faded into the background.  I ran sound for everything from youth groups, to church services, to local bands.  During that time I complained about the lack of recognition, and the focus on mistakes, but honestly, I enjoyed the background.

Then something strange happened.  I had been playing guitar for several years, normally alone in my bedroom and rarely in front of other people.  But I wound up in a church that had a great sound guy, but no bass player.  So I gave up my life of anonymity for a life of slightly less anonymity as a church bass player.  Over time, and as I moved from place to place in the military, I wound up as a lead guitar player.  Looking back, I can’t quite tell what happened.  One day, I am safely hiding behind a sound console, a then I look up and I am playing lead guitar in front of hundreds of people.  Every step of the way was filling a more pressing need, and every step brought me further from the shadows and onto center stage.

Then there was a more pressing need.  The youth group in my church needed a worship leader, and I felt compelled to step into that role.  I still dabbled with the sound board, and I led and trained the tech team, but my primary role was in front of everyone.

And in that role I realized something that really changed how I look at life.  Even when I am squarely in the limelight, I am not supposed to be the center of attention.  As a Christian, no matter what our job or position may be, our purpose in life is to point to God.  No matter what our role is, we are designed to fade into the background.

Once I learned that truth, my role mattered a whole lot less than what I did with it.  After three years of leading worship, I stepped into my current role as audio engineer for a large church.  Many people questioned my decision at the time.  They questioned whether I could go from center stage to anonymity.  What they did not realize is that I have been in the background the whole time.  And I have found that whatever role I find myself in, it is always more fulfilling when I remember my purpose: to fade into the background and let God take the spotlight.