Many of us who play clubs, weddings, and private parties
don’t regularly work with sound engineers. Often we set the levels
ourselves on a basic house system, or bring our own P.A. and run it from
stageside—with this double duty often going to (you guessed it) the
keyboard player. Systems like the Line 6 StageScape have made it more
practical for bands to get good sound from this approach. Some bands are
also lucky enough to tour with their own engineer, or to have developed
a good relationship with the sound tech at the club where they
regularly play. But at an event where a sound system is provided along
with one or more operators you don’t usually work with, things can get
worrisome. Suddenly you’re turning over your band’s sound to strangers.
Fear not. Unless these strangers are rank amateurs, the
chances are pretty good that you’ll sound substantially better than when
doing sound yourself. You need to work together, though, so here are
some pro tips for doing so.
1. The Golden Rule
With rare exceptions, sound personnel are every bit as
interested in your gig sounding fantastic as you are. So the first rule
is the Golden One. Don’t treat them like second-class citizens. Their
work can be very difficult, especially when multiple acts are present,
each with a list of their particular needs. It’s especially difficult in
the pre-show setup phase, when five bands are all competing for face
time with the engineers as the clocks ticks towards the first act’s
Unless, that is, a clear sound check schedule was
established in advance. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. But
you can play your part by working with the people who hired you. Ask for
a sound check schedule and a performance schedule in writing. If you
can’t get one, create it yourself and try to get it signed off by all
acts who have a stake in the event.
2. Establish One Voice
Sound personnel need to know clearly and concisely what
you need. If a well-meaning sound operator is bombarded with commands,
requests, and instructions from five or six band members at once, he or
she is not going to get a proper big picture. Plus, in many cases the
requests may conflict. Lead singer: “Mr. Engineer, the only really important thing in the mix is to keep the lead vocals above everything else.” Guitarist, two minutes later:
“Dude, my lead guitar needs to ride above everything, especially the
vocals. Last night my girlfriend told me the vocals were drowning out
all my riffs.” Backup singer: “Last week, my boyfriend said that the backing vocals couldn’t be heard.” And so on.
So Rule 2 is that one spokesperson from your act
should be appointed to tell the sound provider what’s needed. This
covers console inputs, plus anything like backing track playback, plus
general guidelines about how the performance should sound, sans significant others’ opinions from previous gigs.
If a written document of your band’s front-of-house and
monitoring needs was sent in advance, you should expect that a sound
system with adequate inputs, mixes, and power will indeed be provided.
(The exception is if a festival promoter is paying the sound company for
a far smaller system than your band’s footprint requires, but in any
case, sending advance info is far better than not sending it!)
Most of the mics, direct boxes, and stage monitors should be included.
Less common items, such as a piano pickup or an unusual mic, should not
be expected unless agreed upon in advance. If you didn’t send any prior
info, you’ll get what you get, and it may have fewer mics, inputs,
and/or monitor mixes than you need.
3. Make a Stage Plot
The Stage Plot is a simple diagram that shows where the various instruments and vocalists will be positioned onstage. Detail is good, but clarity should take precedence. If you can fit it in, a description of what each mic or line is for (e.g.,
“SM58: lead male vox”) is useful, as this helps the engineer rapidly
identify who’s who, which can mean the difference between sweet sound
and crowd-chilling feedback if a sudden adjustment is required. Make
sure the name of your band is prominently displayed on everything. As the homemade stage plot at left shows, you don’t need fancy graphics or too
much detail to get the needed information across. Simpler is often
4. Make an Input List
Since few humans can remember 20 or 30 console inputs,
provide your engineer with an input list. This is a simple series of
rows columns. Each row is an input, and in the first column is a
description of the instrument or voice. Personal names are nice, but
it’s going to be hard for an engineer who’s just met you to remember
who’s who. It’s better to state “lead guitar,” ‘lead guitar vox,” (vocal
mic) “keys,” ‘keys vox,” “B/U vox blonde,” “B/U vox tall guy,” and so
on. Put personal names in another column for reference.
Also, you can number the inputs 1 through XX, but the
sound engineer may wish to use different input numbers to make it easier
to shift from band to band when multiple acts are present. So leave an
open column so that physical input numbers can be relabeled—or, print
your numbers in a lighter-colored font so they can be overwritten with a
Next, identify what type of transducer or line relates to
each input; e.g., “kick: SM57;” “keys: XLR direct outs from amp;” “lead
vocal: Neumann KMS105 (supplied);” and so on. All band-supplied mics,
direct boxes, or other sources should be marked with your band’s name
and given to the engineer or stage manager.
Rule 3: Thou Shall Not Ask for Additional Inputs at the
Last Minute! At arena rock concerts, award shows, and other large-format
events, we always keep an extra four or five general-purpose mics on
each side of the stage, ready to go. There’s often a guest guitarist, a
new emcee announcing the next act, or a trio of backup singers who
weren’t mentioned until five seconds before those mics need to be handed
In the real world of bar gigs and corporate casuals, there
may not be any more mics, spare console inputs, or lines on the snake.
So if you’re going to need extra mics at any point in your sets, ask for
them when you first meet with the sound operators. Better still, get
the sound vendor’s contact info and ask a few days before the gig. This
is especially important if there’s just one engineer working a
multi-band event. When you demand a couple of extra mics 30 seconds
before the band starts, you may not get them and you’ll delay your start
5. About Monitors
Your stage plot should show the location and number of
stage monitors, along with the individual mix that’s assigned to them.
In some cases, a single monitor mix might be all that’s available. But
often, two, three, or more mixes are possible. Assuming that several
monitor mixes may be available, plan in advance how to utilize them. You
don’t want to be discussing “who gets what” half an hour before
downbeat. If you have complex monitoring requirements, create another
document for the engineer. It should correlate with the Input List and
Stage Plot, giving a guideline for what’s sent to each monitor mix. A
word of warning: if one engineer is mixing both house and monitors from a
single board, the simpler your monitoring requirements, the better.
Keyboard players should consider monitoring their gear through whatever
amp or powered stage monitors they normally carry and sending the house a
stereo (or mono, depending on how the main P.A. is run) mix from a
combo amp or compact mixer. Here as always, advance communication is
6. More Dos and Don’ts
If you can share a drum kit or even part of a keyboard rig
(think about a heavy stage piano or Hammond B-3) with other acts on the
bill, it will make set changes go much faster, and the balance
and tonalities will already have been established. Have at least a
handshake agreement in place that if another musician damages your gear (e.g., splitting a drum head), you’ll be reimbursed.
Do not plug or unplug anything to or from the
provided sound system without permission. It might seem like a quick way
to solve a monitoring issue to, say, plug your own wedge monitor into
the last open loop-through output on a front-of-house speaker. That also
might cause the amplifier to go into thermal shutdown if it’s already
driving a low-impedance load—and you might blow the drivers in your
wedge. Talk to the engineer first—chances are you can work something
out. Again, though, if your act has provided adequate advance
information in the first place, you’ll be far less likely to need to cobble anything together at the last moment.
Ken DeLoria has had a long and varied career in the
music business as a sound engineer and musician—most notably as the
founder and CEO of loudspeaker manufacturer Apogee Sound Inc. He can be
reached at email@example.com.