Everything starts before the person or group we’re mixing for even gets there. If we’re lucky, they’ve sent ahead a input list or technical rider that tells you everything they expect. If you’re less lucky… well hopefully you’re good at winging it!
Whether it’s something given to you or something that is in your head, knowing where everything is getting plugged in and sent to the mixer is the most important thing we can do. It doesn’t do any good to know the piano needs to be louder if, by the time you find the piano’s channel, the pianist has moved on to another section in which the piano is just the right volume. Board tape and a sharpie will help this, but if you can develop a consistent way of hooking things up that works for you, you’ll always know, or at least have a pretty good idea, what channel something is in.
Everyone does this a little different, of course, but here is how I will generally set up my input lists. (Let’s assume a 4-piece drum set, bass, keyboard, 2 guitars, and 3 vocals)
- Mounted Tom
- Floor Tom
- Overhead Left
- Overhead Right
- Keyboard Left
- Keyboard Right
- Guitar 1
- Guitar 2
- Vocal 1
- Vocal 2
- Vocal 3
While this will vary depending on the mixer I’m using, in general, my inputs are grouped as: kick, snare, toms, cymbals, overheads, keyboards, other instruments, guitars, vocals; multiple instruments of the same type go from left to right as I am looking at the stage. This way, whatever I have to mix, I have a good idea of what channel everything will be in no matter what.
Sound check is the easiest way to get a mix ready to go before the event actually starts. You can get each channel sounding the way it’s supposed to and even take the time to blend the whole mix, so that when it’s actually showtime, everything sounds great for the audience right away. Unfortunately, in the real world, we too often barely have time for a “line check”, so it can take the first song to get everything dialed in correctly. But, no matter if you have 2 hours before the event or 2 minutes, it’s important to make the time for something so the audience has a good experience from the start.
The first step in a sound check is the line check. Most mixers have some kind of level meter with a “0dB” indicator, and it’s best to set the gain of your source so that it hovers right around that zero. This gives you enough signal to be louder than any noise in the system, as well as giving you enough extra headroom so as to not cause problems. (It may be a good idea to set your gain so the level is a little bit lower than 0dB, as musicians will often not play as loud during sound check as they will during a performance.) Then just bring the channel’s fader up until it’s at a reasonable volume.
If the musicians have a monitoring system, and you are responsible for it, the next thing you should do is make sure the musicians can hear themselves. Interact with the musician being sound checked (and the other musicians available) to get their levels where they want them. Do note that musicians will often want louder monitors then they’ll actually need. This can happen when musicians keep asking for more volume, but don’t ask for less. If you can hear the monitors from your mix position, ask if there is anything too loud in the monitor that can be turned down; work together to create the best sound for the audience.
If you don’t have a lot of time, between the line check and setting monitors you have probably reached the point of being “good enough” and can mix the rest on the fly. Remember: the more time you take for sound check, the better and more consistent a mix you’ll produce. Use as much time as you can to get as much done as you can.
When it comes to setting effects, it’s best to start ones that make the biggest changes and work through to the smaller. Usually I’ll set my highpass filter first, then the gate, followed by EQ, compression, and finally the modulation and echo effects. This method gives you the least amount of having to repeat yourself — it’s no fun to create the perfect reverb and delay combo only to have it all ruined once you change the channel EQ.
Where to Begin?
Almost always, when I’m on the musician side of a sound check, as a drummer I get to go first. Most sound checks start with channel 1 (usually the kick drum), gets it sounding good, mutes it, and moves up from there until each channel has been checked in turn. This is a fine and good system, but it does have a problem. The mics most likely to have the other instruments bleed into them are the ones you check last, giving you no way to account for the snare drum getting picked up by the guitar amp mic!
Instead, I like to start my sound checks with the microphones most likely to pick up the most stage noise, and leaving those mics on while I check everything else. This effectively works backwards, starting with the vocal mics, progressing through the guitars, and ending with the drums. This way, when the guitar amp gets picked up by the third background vocalists microphone, it’s not a big deal. You’re already accounting for that when you sound check the guitar after the vocalists.