On soundchecking, or “Tech spec? What tech spec?”

It's pretty much guaranteed that your performance will sound nothing like the soundcheck

Soundchecks are a necessary evil that is the bane of every musician’s life. Why? Let me tell you a story about a typical gig…

A week or so before the gig the promoter emails us.  Along with all the usual gubbins about how they can’t let our partners or mates in for free and we won’t be paid unless we bring 80 people, a Norwegian Blue parrot and a scale model of the Taj Mahal, there’s a couple of lines devoted to the soundcheck: “Please send me your full tech spec ASAP. Load-in is at 4pm, soundchecks will start at 5pm PROMPT.”

Having had to take an afternoon off work in order to get there on time, half the band turn up at the venue at about 4.30pm. After paying £18 to park for two poxy hours, we discover it is still locked.  We wait. Eventually a surly bar manager arrives and unlocks it. By now most of the rest of the band, plus assorted support bands, have arrived.  We load in our stuff and wait for the sound engineer. And wait… and wait…

The sound guy finally turns up just after six. He is stressed, grumpy and still hungover. He spends a good half an hour setting up the stage, while the promoter (also arrived late) starts making tetchy noises at us because of the late running of the soundcheck.

Next, the sound guy takes one look at our set up and says “So, what’s your tech spec?”. Of course, he has never seen the info we diligently sent the week before. That would be too easy.

At this point, he usually starts freaking out a bit about how to mic up the harp, until I just wave the end of an XLR cable in his face and tell him to plug it into the desk.  I love my pickups…

Eventually, we start soundchecking.  Everything comes through the PA fine except for one thing – usually the laptop (for the Shadow Orchestra) or the tabla (Sunday Driver).  We then waste twenty minutes trying to fix it, switching cables, channels, DI boxes, microphones and batteries until finally discovering the fault lies with his/our failure to press a button on something or actually plug it in properly.

By this point, the promoter is stalking up and down in frustration, and the support bands want to kill us.

At long last we are allowed to play a song – just one, mind. It sounds awful –  a mess of muddy bass and/or howling whines of feedback. The sound guy twiddles some knobs, shuffles some faders, and we try again. It sounds a bit better, but not brilliant.  The sound guy promises that it’ll sound better when the room’s full, and the promoter comes over to tell us we’re out of time and to get the hell off the stage.

And then comes purgatory – the seemingly endless span of time between the soundcheck and the gig.  Every minute seems to stretch into about ten. I hate it.

This time can be filled in a number of ways. First, by watching the other bands soundchecking and weighing up whether they’re loads better than us (bad – we will look rubbish in comparison), really awful (also bad – nobody likes to have to sit through a truly terrible band), or pretty good but not staggeringly amazing (best case scenario – they’ll keep the audience happy but won’t show us up).

Other things to do during Purgatory For Musicians (TM):

  • Go for a kebab
  • Get drunk (not recommended)
  • Phone your mum
  • Put makeup and stage clothes on backstage, then feel faintly embarrassed about going back out into the venue to see your mates
  • Knit furiously (I do this a lot)
  • Pick a fight with the bassist
  • Pace nervously about the place, failing to concentrate on anything in particular and wishing it was time to just play the bloody gig.
  • Watch the support bands playing. Same rules apply as for their soundcheck.
  • Watch two thirds of the audience vaporise after the support band finishes, and realise that most of the room was made up of their mates, rather than your fans. Die inside a little bit.

Finally, after a seemingly endless wait, it’s time to go on stage – once I’ve herded all the members of the band out of the bar/toilets/kebab shop/smoking area.  We plug in our instruments and start linechecking. Something doesn’t work. This is never the same thing that didn’t work in the soundcheck. We waste precious gig time fixing it.

And we’re off! We start our set, and it sounds completely different from the soundcheck.  The monitor levels are all over the place, the bass sounds like it’s being channelled direct from the centre of the earth, and there’s that peculiar ringing that usually heralds brain-searing feedback.

At this point, I start wondering why the hell I bothered to turn up so early to soundcheck at all. But we get on with it, and then it’s the end – usually a song or two short because the night’s running late.

Afterwards comes the post-mortem – dissecting everything from the sound and the mix to our performance, the audience and the weather. According to our friends in the audience it “sounded fine” and we were “really good”. They always say that…

[Before I get death threats from disgruntled sound engineers, or risk never having my harp heard over the drums ever again, please may I point out that I have exaggerated for comic effect. Thank you.]

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7 responses to “On soundchecking, or “Tech spec? What tech spec?”

  1. I couldn’t sympathise with this more if I tried. It is all utterly familiar, and the reason why the vast majority of gigs on the toilet circuit are unfulfilling experiences in which to take part. To limit the amount of dispiriting evenings, my top tip is to put together a band which has:
    a) searing feedback/howling whines of white noise as a feature rather than a bug
    b) one song that, like a gas, can expand or contract to fill the space available.

    Oh, and just ignore it when the promoter says that you need to show up at 4:30. Most promoters seem to think they’re the next Brian Epstein, which they aren’t any more than the Random Pub Band X is the next Beatles.

    • Have you heard the Monroe Transfer? 🙂 They’re ace, but do fulfill both your criteria.

      I get so angry with the whole “turn up early” thing – perhaps I’m just one of the very few punctual musicians in the world…

      • Er, yes to the Monroe Transfer – we played a gig with them!

        Regarding punctuality, I recommend some good game theory: as long as you arrive five minutes before the next most-punctual person, you lose no face and don’t waste as much time!

      • Doh!! How could I forget!

  2. Ah, sadly, too true.

  3. I feel like I should be defending techies, some of us actually turn up on time to things AND learn to work equipment. Those of us who do are usually also female 😉

    • You’re more than welcome to defend the good ones 🙂 I’ve met some wonderful techs (though only one or two female ones) but also some pretty awful couldn’t-care-less ones. Things have improved a lot since Sunday Driver started taking our own engineer on tour with us too! Now to find one for the Shadow Orchestra…

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