Whether it is one person reading a poem, or an 18 piece big band, all programs benefit from a sound check. Yet, in my experience, many bands pass on this opportunity. This is either from bad planning or willful ignorance. If you have a chance to sound check, take it!
Who benefits from a proper sound check?
The most obvious benefactor is the Artist. They get to ask for helpful monitor mixes that let them perform at their best. They get to warm up a bit before the show and hear what the room will sound like from the stage. This is the Artist’s chance to get comfortable in the space where they will perform. The Artist certainly has the most to gain from a proper sound check.
The next benefactor is the engineer who is running the audio equipment in the venue. They have an opportunity to make the Artist comfortable with the sound in the monitors and the room. They get to balance the music before the audience is in front of their loudspeakers. They have a chance to tip off the artist on ways to make their show sound better before it starts, something that will not happen once there the show begins and there is an audience. The engineer gets to make choices to make the room sound as good as possible.
The third, and most important, benefactor is the audience. Come on, they paid good money. They showed up! Give them the best you have, including an opportunity to sound your best. You owe them a sound check.
Soundcheck vs. Line Check
Saying “test 1, 2…” into the vocal mic is a Line check; useful only in checking that the mic line is getting to the mic pre. It will not help the engineer set a level or EQ for you while singing. Singing into a vocal mic, as you will during a song, is the proper way to sound check a vocal mic. Playing the instrument which the microphone is set up for, as you will during the show, is the way to sound check. Try to play at the same level you will during the show. Don’t soundcheck quiet and then come out playing three times as loud for the show. That is not the way to use your sound check time. Let the engineer set individual levels for each instrument. When they are setting the level for an instrument, no one else should be playing. When everyone has had an individual instrument check, then it is time for everyone to play a song together so you can get what you need in the monitors in a full band situation and the engineer can get the house balance together. Learn the engineer’s name so you can ask them for what you need in the monitors. Not everyone reacts well to “hey, soundman…” or “hey, soundlady…”. Trust me, they will react better if you know their name. A ten to fifteen minute sound check will do wonders for everyone involved.
Scheduling a Sound Check
You need to ask when you can sound check for a show. Then you need to arrive BEFORE sound check time to load in and set up. Again, load in and set up BEFORE your scheduled sound check time.
If there is no time for a proper sound check, as happens on festival stages and such, then get as much of a line check as you can. Try to get your monitors together so you can perform your music. In such a case, it is even more important to befriend the engineer responsible for your monitors so you can ask politely for what you need. No engineer likes to be called out from the stage during a show. It implies that they are not doing a good job. Try to be discrete, get eye contact and use easy to understand hand signals if you need more or less of something in the monitors. Use their name during a sound check, but not during a show.
If you are late and cannot sound check or if you waive your sound check (“nah we don’t need a sound check”) there are certain rules of etiquette that you must follow. Don’t be a wise ass. If the engineer asks what you want in your monitor, don’t say “Thelonius Monk”, and then be upset because you cannot hear your sax nor the piano (seriously, this happened). Ask politely before you start for what you need and if you need monitor tweaks while the show is going on, use understandable hand signals. Do not call out the engineer from the stage unless you want to thank them. They are working hard with no help from you. If you miss your soundcheck, here are a few things you should be prepared for:
A poor recording
Unsatisfactory monitor mixes
Glitches / technical issues that interrupt the performance (“This cable must be bad…”)
No additional mic’s / lines for unannounced special guests
Also, in the scheduling world: if you are scheduled to play for an hour, play for an hour and end your show. Do not play for an hour and fifteen minutes. If you are scheduled to play for an hour and a half, end your show after an hour and a half, not two hours and twenty minutes. Unless you don’t want to be invited back. This seems like it is obvious, but I have observed otherwise.
So, make the extra effort to get a sound check. Get there in time. Don’t waste anyone’s time and effort in getting the best out of you as possible. Make good music and make good, professional impressions!