It’s show day! You’ve rehearsed your set until there’s no more room for improvement, changed your strings, sent all the Facebook invites weeks ago (right?), and you’re ready to bring down a packed house tonight.
But before you melt any faces, you have to arrive early to the venue and soundcheck.
You’re a band full of pros, so everything goes basically as planned. You introduce yourself to the sound engineer and establish a good rapport, nobody noodles onstage when it wasn’t their turn to check their sound, and you flew through the line check. Then you play through a couple numbers, check everyone’s monitors, and all in all, it’s pretty darn good.
But come showtime, you plug in to play the downbeat, and things are sounding a little wonky. You can’t quite hear yourself as well as you could before, so you’re inclined to turn yourself up. It seems like the drum mix is different from soundcheck.
Did the opener mess up your channels on the board? Maybe the bass is less present than you remember. You don’t know what it is, but everything is wrong!
You might be inclined to throw some fierce shade in your front-of-house-mix engineer’s direction, but chances are, he or she has actually done everything in his or her power to make this right for you.
Let’s take a look at the culprits, both real and perceived, that might “ruin” a successful soundcheck and figure out why it never seems to sound the same as during your performance.
The Audience Changes Your Sound
An empty cement room with sound bouncing every which way off of concrete floors and ceilings, a wooden bar, the mixing desk, “dead” cases devoid of gear, and whatever other hard obstacles are sitting in the space, is not a space ripe for instant harmonic cohesion.
Most of these rooms are dependent on the highly absorptive water sacks known as “fans” to do a good deal of the necessary work to glue the sonic environment together. So once an audience enters the venue, the sound you perceive onstage will be inherently different. Always.
Usually, the absorptive quality of an audience has positive sonic characteristics, including a tighter, more pristine low end, and a reduction of heavy reflections from the walls and other hard surfaces — effects that generally enhance clarity.
As such, maybe you’ll hear other, more minute problems with the sound that you couldn’t previously hear, and those could throw you off. It’s also likely that the engineer will need to pull some frequencies from the PA during the empty-room soundcheck while fully aware that he or she will need to fill those frequencies when the room fills up as a result of more noise differences between soundcheck and show.
Another quality of an audience is they’re hot! Between the rise in temperature and the humidity of the mere presence of bodies, your sound can change in quite perceptible ways. If you’re performing at an outdoor festival, environmental factors can be that much more dramatic — if the weather changes at all, the sound can change quite drastically and quickly.
Settings Were Switched Between Soundcheck and Show
If you’re only playing in large halls and are lucky enough to travel with the same board every night, run by the same engineer, with all the same equipment, you’re at least ruling out a lot of potential room for error.
But most of us touring around the country, playing clubs and trying to get our music out there, will more than likely be working with in-house staff on smaller, older analog boards with several other bands who might not share anything in common with us.
Chances are that a three-band (or more) bill won’t fit neatly onto one 16- or 24-channel mixer, especially in the age of digital doodads and gizmos. That means some channels and DIs will get switched out, and maybe switched around, between bands.
Also incredibly likely is that your monitor mix will need to be completely reset to the levels you checked, unless you’re working from a digital console and can save the session settings (although there have been plenty of times where my band’s settings have been “lost” somehow before getting onstage, so you can’t always count on that, either).
Most clubs will probably only have two or three auxiliary sends from the mixing board, meaning they’ll only have two or three separate mixes to send up to the stage, and they’ll need to be set specifically for each band.
While it’s likely that the lead singer of each band will be center stage and will want his or her voice in their monitor mix, you can’t necessarily even count on that level being the same from band to band.
So, chances are, your monitor mix might be different by the time you get up to the stage.
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It’s All in Your Head
The truth of the matter is that your perception of what’s happening onstage in soundcheck versus during the show is always going to be different because of your energy and mood.
You and the band might be a bit nervous heading out onstage to show the world what you’ve got. The stage lights may be hot and bright beaming down on you. There may be industry personalities present in the audience. Or perhaps you want to impress someone in the front row. Adrenaline is almost always at least a little present at the start of a show, and it can mess with your head.
There are a few problems that can arise from heightened, adrenaline-driven perception. You may want to be able to hear certain aspects of the mix perfectly, especially parts you control or that give you cues within songs.
This inclination can lead you to turn up your own stage volume, thereby altering everybody else’s perception of the mix and their place in it. Do not do this. Instead, motion to the engineer to increase your own sound or monitor levels and let him or her do it for you.
One bonus soundcheck tip is to check the drums by having the drummer play a simple beat rather than checking each drum individually. Drummers tend to hit harder when they’re really playing rather than tempering their individual hits to ease the annoyed ears of their bandmates. It keeps them engaged and gets a more accurate level reading to reflect the live performance.
Ultimately, if your sound is drastically changing between your soundcheck and set, chances are it’s just because the room is filling up with loads of fans, new and old, anxiously awaiting the chance to absorb the air pressure disturbances of your sounds into their open minds, ears, and hearts — and their aqueous bodies.
The fact is that you’re reacting to the sound with your own heart and soul pouring out of you, and that will simply never sound quite the same as it does in an empty room.