Soundcheck time can be one of the most productive times of the weekend from an audio standpoint. It can also be one of the most frustrating. I have seen soundcheck turn normally mild-mannered and reserved musicians and engineers into angry combatants. My brothers, this should not be. As I’ve been traveling around helping more churches with their weekend sound issues, I’m amazed at the lack of organization prior to a rehearsal start. Many teams just jump right in and ask for monitor changes pretty much constantly for the next 3 hours. I suggest this is not optimal.
Soundcheck can be very efficient, productive and dare I say fun; but we have to do a little work first. Because there are so many different ways to do a soundcheck (because there are so many different church situations), I’m not going to prescribe one. What I want to do instead is offer a series of suggestions that hopefully apply to all situations, and you can create your own plan. Sound good? Here we go...
Line Check First
Few things will frustrate your musicians more than having to stop soundcheck to troubleshoot a bad cable, DI or patch. Before the band even arrives, go through and line check every single line that you’re using. Even if it’s the same cable you used last week, in the same channel with the same processing. If it’s an active DI, make sure phantom power is on. And don’t forget the wireless mics. Make sure those are on and working.
Declare Your Intentions
A few minutes before soundcheck is slated to start, I will get on the stage announce and say something like,
“Hello everyone, good day. We’re going to start soundcheck in 2 minutes, so if you could get plugged in, get in place with your ears in and ready to go, it would be great!”
Once we actually start, I’ll say something like this, “Hey guys, we’re going to go through each channel one at a time so I can get levels. Once you hear the level stop changing, you can set it in your ears (if using personal mixers). If we could have only the instrument I ask for, it will make it go really quickly. Let’s start off with the kick.” Making sure everyone knows what is coming up will help them stay focused. This is important because as we all know, most musicians are very hard.
Some like to start from the bottom (drums and bass) and work their way up to the top (vocals). Others work in reverse order. Personally I prefer and normally do the former, but which way you go is up to you, and depends on your situation. Whatever you do, stay organized. Don’t start with the kick, then do piano, then guitar, then snare, then vocals, then cymbals. Develop a logical order that works through each instrument and stick with it. Use the same order every week. I suggest you talk through this order with your worship leader in advance as well, just to make sure what you’re doing works for the musicians as well.
Normally, it’s a simple matter of getting organized, staying organized and working through a set process quickly and efficiently. Before you start, make sure you are ready. As I mentioned before, your board should be labeled and everything should be working. Now let’s get to it.
The Drum Set
I changed the way I do drums a few years back, and I’ve been pretty happy with this new method. I start with the kick, get that dialed in, then add snare. Once the snare is sounding good with the kick, I’ll add hat. Same deal. I like to get those three locked up and feeling right before moving on. I’ll then do the toms, usually asking for a hit on hi, mid, low, hi, mid, low until I have the levels balanced and feeling right. Then it’s a quick hit on cymbals before asking the drummer to play a groove on the whole kit. When the drummer is playing the whole thing, I can make some final balance adjustments and get the drums sounding like a single instrument.
Work Quickly, With the Big Picture in Mind
What you want to do during soundcheck is get the levels dialed in to roughly where everything should sit in the mix. You might do some quick EQ and on drums perhaps tweak the gate or comp. But do it quickly. No one wants to hear the drummer hitting quarter notes on the snare for 15 minutes. Ideally, you’ve paid attention to where your gate and comp settings should be and have already preset them so you’re only tweaking. Same goes for gains, if you can manage it (digital consoles are great in this regard). If you have 30 minutes for soundcheck and you spend 25 getting the drums dialed in, it will be tough to take care of the rest of the band in the remaining five minutes. Get things close and move on. You can always come back and tweak settings after rehearsal gets underway.
Pre-Build Monitor Mixes
If you’re mixing monitors from FOH (and even if you aren’t), it’s not a bad idea to pre-build some rough monitor mixes before you start. I knew most of my vocalists well enough to know roughly what they liked in their monitors from week to week, so I normally started a mix before they got there. Then it’s a simple matter of tweaking. It also really helps musicians through the soundcheck process if they can hear themselves right away. Start with the gains and monitors a little lower than you think you’ll need, and work up.
Get the Vocals to Sing
There are few things as unhelpful during soundcheck than having vocalists speaking, “Check 1,2..Testing HaaShiii.” Guitar players constantly noodling is a close second, followed by drummers who are still trying work out the drum solo from YYZ..
I like to have all the vocals sing a chorus of a song while I dial in gains. We’ve told our vocal team, don’t worry about your monitor mix just yet, simply sing. Usually we’ll have the piano or guitar play along for pitch, but that should be the only other sound besides vocals. Have them keep looping until you have their levels dialed in. Of course, starting with rough gains and monitors makes this go faster.
You’ll notice a consistent theme running through this post; get things ready beforehand. The start of soundcheck is not the time to be peeling out the board tape and labeling the desk. By the time the band is set up, you should have completely line-checked, roughed in your gains and pre-built rough monitor mixes. Starting from scratch can be a good thing once in a while, but if you know roughly where things end up each week, starting a little below that makes things go a lot faster.
We had our soundcheck down to about 20-25 minutes, and that’s a full band with 2-3 vocal monitor mixes. Soundcheck doesn’t have to be a painful process. Take some time to develop a system that works well for you, pre-build as much as possible, then communicate clearly to the band. Soon you’ll find it going more smoothly and both you and the band will have more time for rehearsal.
Thanks Guys and always remember to keep the creativity perfected.