Advice for Artists: 10 Ways to Avoid Sucking Live and Having People Hate You

by Jordan Roherty
in The Rant Zone

Jordan Roherty is the technical director of the Regent Theatre in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada and is also an accounts manager for JMS Audio. You can catch Jordan on ProAudioSpace.com or follow him on twitter @soundguyjordan.This is adapted from a recent post on ProAudioSpace.com, and we thought we’d share it with a wider audience. It’s definitely something that a lot of artists could benefit from. Enjoy! —ed.

I’ve been doing sound professionally for close to a dozen years. I started in clubs and moved onwards from there. Currently, I’m quite comfortable as technical director and FOH mixer for a 600-seat theatre in Ontario, where I have the pleasure of working on a nice Meyer/DiGiCo rig, but I’ve done it all. Toured the U.S. and Canada, mixed in venues from tiny clubs to arenas to sheds, and mixed the Much Music Video Awards live to a million people on TV. Music is super fun. Playing and mixing it are amazing. And getting paid to do those things is even better.

I have seen a number of similar lists and/or posts, but I think I have a few pearls of wisdom to share. I should mention that there are a lot of references to “sound guys” in here, but the same can refer to sound gals as well. And some of the following items may seem like plain logic, but I’m putting down all the ones I can think of — in no particular order...

Sound Check is Not Rehearsal

Seems pretty simple right? The definition is in the name, after all. But not so much. Here’s how it works; you run through all the inputs — kick drum through vocals — putting it in monitors where required then in the front of house system. A good way to do this? As the sound guy (either at monitors or from FOH) calls each instrument, raise your hand if you want it in your monitor, then lower when there is enough. Then run a couple songs to make sure everything is good. Running your whole set is not an option. Despite that...

Soundcheck is for the Artist, Not the Sound Guy

I don’t care what the venue is, generally speaking they are empty for sound check and full of people (hopefully) for the show. I call people “meat baffles” because I enjoy dehumanizing an audience and because of the astounding amount of audio a human body absorbs. Get your monitors and stage volume right. I can make a band play 10 songs during sound check to get the mix perfect, but as soon as the audience arrives, all that work goes out the window.

Turn it Down. Turn it Down!

Even you, drummer. This is gonna take a while. So you played your heart out one night, got off stage and had your afterglow ruined because your buddy says he couldn’t make out words you sang or your lead guitarist’s solos. You spend the rest of the night sulking in the merch booth and staring daggers at the sound guy. Guess what? It’s almost certainly entirely your fault. Think back...what was the second thing you did during your set? Right after you checked to make sure your crotch stuffing was dressed left and right before you pulled your long glossy locks out from under your guitar strap. That’s right, you turned your guitar amp up. And now you can’t hear your vocals in the monitors, so you asked for more of that. Then your bass player decided he should turn up because it’s the only way anyone will pay him any attention. And your drummer is kinda inexperienced, so he hits his cymbals as hard as he can, and also constantly, so now the sound guy is crying in the fetal position and your loyal audience is listening to a pleasant mix of guitar fuzz, bass rig shaking itself apart and cymbal hiss. Get your stage volume right at the start of sound check and leave it. This theme will be revisited in later points.

I Can’t Fake Dynamics

One of the most important skills a young band needs to learn is dynamics. By this, I mean a volume knob, and the difference between loud and quiet. Cymbals and snare drums are often main culprits here. Hitting them too hard makes everyone else try to play louder (see above). Another common problem is volume differences between a guitarist’s amp channels. Nothing sucks the power out of a change between a clean intro and dirty hook than stepping on your distortion pedal and having the volume drop. Imagine this happening at the start of “Smells like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana or “Song 2” by Blur. The rule is: if the clean channel volume is X, the dirty channel is X + 3 dB, and the lead channel is X + 6 dB.

Never Ask the Audience “How Does it sound?

It sounds great. If it doesn’t, as we’ve discussed, it’s probably the artist’s own fault (or at least the guitar player who turns it up to 11 after the soundcheck). But the audience always assumes it’s the sound guy’s fault, and now the artist is really, really mad at you.

Never Discuss Anything Technical in a Way the Crowd Can Hear

Mixing monitors and front of house simultaneously sucks, but until you reach a certain level, that is usually how it is going to be. If you need more monitors during your set, ask yourself “Did I turn my guitar amp up? Maybe that’s why I can no longer hear my vocals.” Now that you’ve worked out that you are dumb... you still need more vocals in the monitor. Meet the sound guy’s eye, point at your mouth, point at the monitor, point up. Every sound guy on planet earth will understand these signals. Doesn’t seem to be happening? The sound guy may be talking to a hot girl/guy. There is only one way to verbally request more monitors mid-show; in a friendly, polite voice, ask the sound guy (preferably by name) for a touch more vocal in the monitors. Be aware of your tone of voice (this is good practice for being married). Do not ask more then twice. Sometimes speakers can only go so loud, and remember, this wouldn’t have happened if you had not turned your guitar amp up.

Keep It Simple

I once had a band with two guitarists expect me to mic six guitar amps. I don’t care who you are, but that is not necessary. I will excuse this kind of behavior in certain rock stars because they are supposed to be excessive. It is never necessary. Similarly, I have had an opening band bring a drum kit that Neil Peart from Rush would be jealous of. I’m talking two kick drums, two snares, 10 toms on a rack, roto-toms. How many mics does this guy think I have? Always assume you are opening, always assume you have no time for changeover between bands. You should be able to set up your entire rig — by yourself — in five minutes.

Keep Backing Tracks to a Minimum

I’m a purist, I like to see people playing what I’m hearing. But I understand some songs sound better with a string section, and some bands can’t afford to tour with an orchestra for one song. So I get that backing tracks have a place in live music. But do us a favor; make sure these backing tracks are mastered, volume has been normalized and by God, don’t play it off an iPod. At least if you do, make sure you plugged it in. If your tracks sound like crap, it will become very obvious going through a high-quality sound system. Also, if there is lead vocal in your backing tracks, you are lame. Quit now.

Practice your Banter

This sounds lame but is really important. If you feel awkward talking to the audience, then, chances are, you sound awkward as well. Speaking off the cuff usually is at best boring at worst is misconstrued to be offensive. Remember; just because you meant it as a joke when you said “Hitler had some good points” doesn’t mean everybody gets your twisted sense of humor, you freak. Also, it’s a guarantee that someone with a popular YouTube account was filming at that moment, so you better be ready to back up your “Hitler was great” thesis to the whole world with some interesting new facts.. On the subject of planning your banter, unless you are in Phish...

Rehearse Every Second You Are Onstage

Rehearse setting up your stuff. Rehearse walking on stage as a band and every move you make until you push your way through the screaming fans to get to the tour bus after the show. Hell, rehearse pushing through fans if you can. I’m not saying do everything in ‘sync (pun intended), but the only way to look natural on stage is to rehearse until it is natural. Set lists are not just the songs you are playing in order but should also have breaks and banter notes. DO NOT STOP between each song — ever! Nothing takes the wind out of your sails and kills energy like pausing between each song. Your set should look something like this: three rocker songs, pause to say hi; two rockers, pause to intro ballad; ballad, pause to apologize for ballad; two rockers, pause to say bye and thanks, close with one or two rockers. Oh, I was kidding about apologizing. there are no apologies in rock ‘n’ roll.