Saturday, 4:38 p.m. in a music club in downtown Bremen. The estate car in front of the door is filled to the roof with amplifiers, boxes, bits and pieces. Four guys carry this junk into the club, either onto the stage or backstage, i.e. into the small broom closet “past the stage on the left, then right, then through the black door without a handle.”
After the first welcome beer and a 30-minute search for the right cables, it is time for the sound check. The dance of band and mixer for the 'right' sound. While the band already has a precise sound in mind, the mixer wants to create a reasonable basic sound from the backline first. After all, he knows 'his' club down to a tee, unlike the bands' technical setups.
We asked our favourite bands and mixers what kind of tips they can give us for live sound and sound check.
Nils Wittrock is singer and guitarist of the band The Hirsch Effekt. With his boys, he has been making a mixture of metal, punk, indie rock, jazz and electronic music since 2008 and has performed on more than 200 stages.
Tommy Newton is a living rock legend. His former band Victory is, along with the Scorpions and Accept, one of the most successful German bands in the field of hard rock. Now, he is producer and live mixer.
Nils, singer and guitarist: “You have to distinguish between the sound on stage and in front of the stage.”
This is the first step to make musicians and mixers understand each other better. What you hear on stage is completely different from what you hear at the mixing desk. This also means that the mixer cannot guess what exactly you are hearing on stage.
On stage, we as musicians often think about our own instrument. However, the mixer might want to have a good basic sound for the audience.
Tommy, producer and mixer: “Understand what feedback is and how you can prevent it.”
When musicians hear feedback on stage, they often do not know how to deal with it. I think that every musician should read up on how such feedback or other disturbing noises are created, including hum loops in the devices. Thus, it is easier to talk to the musicians about noise when they are performing. There are also a few tips:
First of all, there are microphones which feature a low susceptibility to feedback. The differences are huge.
In an old school manner and very DIY, the following is also possible: if you control the monitor from your mixer, simply switch a graphic equalizer between the console and the monitor. The more bands the equalizer has got, the better. Ten would be absolutely great. Put your whistling microphone down and turn up the volume until you get feedback. Then use the equalizer to search for the frequency and pull down only this frequency. Then you turn the overall sound up. When it feeds back, you look again which frequency is responsible and pull that down. Eventually you will have the loudest variation. This is as loud as it gets.
Nils, singer and guitarist: “Think about the soundcheck before you go on stage.”
To reduce noise and adjust instrument levels individually always takes longer than planned. Therefore, think about which parts you will use for the sound check, perhaps while still in the rehearsal room. Do not start discussing this on stage. Worst case scenario would be if you take away the sound check time of another band. Which song features a part that is exemplary for your sound? At which point do all signals reach the mixer once, so that the mixer knows what to expect? A solo for a few minutes which is accompanied by the drummer with brushes and the bassist in half notes, is not very useful for the sound check. Instead it should be an example of your sound.
Tommy, producer and mixer: “Dear fellow mixers, have the courage to take fewer instruments.”
Levelling is the cue: it is not always necessary to test the entire setup. This applies to both the bands and to the sound engineer on-site. Seriously consider whether you have to test the whole drum kit.
More is not always better, especially in small locations or with hard stone walls.
The moment you decide to test the drums, you need a lot of PA power. Snare and bass drum show distortions if the PA is not powerful enough. You only need to test the drum kit if the room is so big that the drum kit sounds too diffused if you do not test it.
For a punchy bass drum with a good punch you will need active bass speakers. Add limiter and compressor at the digital mixer, then the sound is even fatter and you can turn up the volume without driving the PA into the wall. A jazz band might not need to test the bass drum, rockers do. This is just so the bass drum can compete with the other electric instruments.
If it is really loud, use a pair of stereo microphones as overhead mics, which also amplifies the snare.
Nils, singer and guitarist: “The sound check is neither a band rehearsal nor your pedalboard experiment.”
Yes, sometimes you have to adapt your sound to the room. However, when you are on stage, it takes too long if you start mixing your guitar completely new with an equalizer and definitely annoys the sound engineer. You have still rehearsed for your space rock project in your rehearsal room yesterday and shot the reverb effect for a length of 5 seconds? Then mark the potentiometer settings. With duct tape, a pen, something. How much should your delay be set to when you play live? How much fuzz, how much distortion do you really need in a real live set? Set it and mark it. This is fast and the sound engineer will love you.
Tommy, Producer and Mixer: “Dear bands, you are too loud on stage.”
Speaking of 'sound check as a band rehearsal': many bands play far too loud in the rehearsal room and take this volume with them on stage. As a mixer, I have only got one option: to hold up. The reason why the bands are too loud is that they always put their amps behind them and turn the amplifier level up all the way. To aim the amps at the audience seems to be a great idea at first. However, PA is called 'Public Adress' because it should take you 'into the room'.
If you have a PA: position your amps on the side of the stage, facing you.
Then the amps serve as a monitor. When the amps are positioned at the back of the stage wall, they blow past the instrumentalists at knee height or hip level, directly into the audience. This is, of course, the same with the PA because it also blows into the audience, but takes a shorter route. For us mixers, it is much easier to mix a clear, defined sound with side-mounted amps. Especially when we have some prior information in a Tech Rider from the band.
Nils, singer and guitarist: “The Tech Rider is not a riddle sheet but a help for the sound engineer.”
You are not writing the Tech Rider for yourself, you are writing it for the sound engineers who mix about 100 bands a year which all arrive with different instruments, microphones and synthesizers. So apart from a drawing of your standard stage setup, the instruments and who is standing where on stage, you can add a few more details. For example:
Pictures of you. Sentences like: “Flopsi plays guitar, Kippe plays drums” do not really help the mixer.
What sound signals do you send to the mixing console? A numbered list in the margin, the numbers are on the stage setup.
Where on stage do you need outlets?
If you are using a radio link for line signals to avoid falling over a cable every second song or curse loose connections, then you should say which frequencies you use. Especially in locations where other devices are also transmitting.
If you use your own light, it should say how much current the light draws. Especially if you also use huge tube amps. A fuse can always blow, even in medium-sized clubs.
Tammo, singer and guitarist: “Think ahead and do not use the mixer as an excuse when you have had a bad day.”
Send the Tech Rider to the mixer prior to the concert. The sound technician on site does not know what you want beforehand. Bringing a techrider to the show is nice but it is a lot nicer if you are sending it beforehand. I think that classic outburst: “I cannot hear myself on stage” is sometimes an excuse if you have played badly. And yes, I have also had some awful sound settings on stage. It should only upset you the first or second time. After that, you have to deal with it. You will experience it again and again and you still have to play well. You just have to master the songs, even if this sounds corny. You are not usually improvising on stage. If you regularly hear yourself badly on stage, the next step would be in-ear monitoring which you can then regulate yourself on stage.
Nils, singer and guitarist: “My live sound hack for small stages and stress-free mixers: an autonomous in-ear monitor.”
If you want to save a monitor on small stages or if you are just not hearing yourself well live, you will need three things:
Split your vocal signal right behind your microphone. One signal goes to the mixer, one signal stays with you and goes into your mini mixer. The mixer brings your voice through the in-ear headphones to your ears. It is almost a form of in-ear monitoring where you can control the volume yourself on stage using your personal mini mixer. The only important thing is that the in-ear headphones let the sound of the other instruments through.
This works the same way for all instruments which can be picked up with a microphone: microphone to speaker, into the mini mixer, to the ears.
The tips from our favorite artists will hopefully help you to master sound checks and live sound a little bit better and without any problems. However, the most important thing is: speak openly with each other. Bands should dare to ask about technical things, mixers should note sound traps and make suggestions for improvement. This way you will create the best sound and therefore the best evening: for everyone.
Photos © Christoph Eisenmenger, The Hirsch Effekt