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Orchestrating the Perfect Sound Check: John Mills

Most of our Shure Notes audience know sound engineer John Mills. He’s worked with many of the luminaries in the world of Christian music –Chris Tomlin, Lincoln Brewster, Paul Baloche, Shane & Shane and many others. He’s also the creator of TechTraining101 offering sound advice for newbie engineers.

But this summer, he delivered the goods to over 1 million fans during the 23-city Kenny Chesney/Tim McGraw “Brothers of the Sun” tour where he was Audio Systems Crew Chief.  The tour ended with two sold-out shows at Massachusetts’s Gillette Stadium where over 110,000 fans broke all records for the most concert tickets sold in New England history.

We’d heard that there were over 69 tractor-trailers needed to move the extravaganza from city to city, so we asked John about that.  The truth was even more jaw-dropping: 22 tour busses, 39 trucks for staging, 40 gear trucks and 10 trucks of terraplast flooring to cover the grass in sports arenas.  That’s a total of 111 vehicles.

A sound crew of 11, including John’s crew of seven and Chesney’s team of FOH and monitor engineers, kept the audio worthy of the thousands of dollars some ticket scalpers were getting for front row seats.

John Mills

A lot of trucks, a lot of dates, a lot of crewmembers and a lot of sound checks. Since most of our readers aren’t traveling with that kind of entourage, we asked John to share his thinking on sound checks for non-globetrotting musicians and their sound people.  Sure, the scale is a little different, but the steps are the same whether the gig is at a local club or Mile High Stadium.

Now back in his Nashville office as Vice President of Morris Light and Sound, he broke it down for us into perfect thirds:

Line Check is when the engineer and a friend verify that everything is plugged in correctly and each wireless mic, personal monitor, monitor wedge, main speaker, subwoofer, etc. is working.  Engineers, we should do this before every performance, and it should be done BEFORE the band arrives.

(Editors’ Note: You can find a preflight checklist in an article titled “Check/Re-Check” on www.TechTraining101.com)

Sound Check is all about the engineer.  Band, we need you to play a small sample of what you are playing or singing that day… no 50% volume here or timid “check 1, 2, check 1, 2”. We really need a decent version of what you’ll be doing.

This is where we set things like gain and EQ, the two most important considerations to a musician.  If you check too quietly, we’re likely to turn you up, but when you give it your all in the show, we will have to turn you down. Therein lies the problem with most monitor mixes.  If you give me quality input level checks at this time, it’s likely that your mix will not change in the live performance.

There are other pitfalls here, too.  For instance, a lot of times I’ll ask the drummer to just play all his drums for a minute.  Most drummers will unconsciously play softer if you just ask for a kick, then a snare, etc.  When it comes to vocalists, I will already have checked the acoustic or keyboard and will have them start the chorus of an easy song so they don’t feel so silly singing all alone.

Once we’ve made it through most of the inputs, I’ll have the band play a short chorus of a song where everyone is playing and singing.  This is often the exact same song every day. When you find one that has everyone playing and harmonizing, it’s a good idea to use it all the time because everyone gets used to it. Keep in mind we have not really adjusted monitors yet. At this stage, I get a chance to see all inputs and make any quick final adjustments to gain levels.

Then I ask who needs what in their monitors and I make those adjustments. If your band is on personal mixers, now is the time to make any adjustments.  Musicians, if you make adjustments to your mix before I’ve had a chance to settle in on gain structure, your mix will change.

The FOH engineer needs to be clear about being finished with this step, letting them know that you’re ready for them to work on their mixes.

Also, when you’re setting gain and rough EQ during this sound check, take no more than 10-15 seconds per input.  Have this discussion, and expect that they’ll give you a reasonable level, then set the gain quickly, grab a quick listen to the EQ and the MOVE ON.

The band loves it when we move fast.  You can always come back during the next section and make more tweaks.  If you spend 10 minutes getting the “perfect” kick drum sound, no one will be interested in helping with the rest of this process. 

Rehearsal. Tell the band “I’m finished adjusting the major components, so does anyone need any adjustments to their mix?”  If the answer is yes, make the adjustments and have the band do another short chorus, ask again, and if everyone’s satisfied, say “Thanks for taking the time, I’m now in tune and can confidently respond to the house mix and any needs you may have.”

What we just did by taking a few minutes (FOH folks, I mean a few minutes — less than 10) is that we have tuned our instrument and can confidently hit the first chord. There may still be a bunch of little adjustments to the mix, but for the most part, you should be in the ballpark.

Performers: during rehearsal, the sound engineer reserves the right to really mess with the house sound.  Sound people, please take the time to mute the mains and see how loud the stage sound is, turn up the harmonies a little too loud so you can get the right blend and then set them back down in the mix.  Turn the drums on and off, turn the subwoofers on and off.  Take some time to see how your instrument is responding.  But do this as quickly as possible, since we also we want them to be able to rehearse.  Finish rehearsals with the house sound on.  Many of their monitor mix adjustments will be very different if musicians don’t hear the house sound blending with their wedge or ear monitor sound.

Once you get gain structure set, don’t change it, especially after sound check and especially, especially (did you hear that?) not after rehearsal.  Unless something is about to explode, do not mix with the gain knobs; doing so will adjust everything downstream, including the bands monitors.  Let me say it again: Unless a signal is about to pop the top off the little red clip LED, leave it alone.  This is why it’s so important that we got the gain right during sound check, and that the band gave us real world rehearsal signals.  If you constantly adjust the gain during the show you’re changing performers’ mixes, especially if they’re on “ears”.  There are these little slider things closer to your hands that we should be using now to balance the mix. That may sound a little sarcastic, but some of us need to be reminded.

What else can change a musician’s mix?  The room and the audience.  Sound check is always different than the show.  I recommend running sound check a little louder than you will run the show. It will honestly seem just a little louder without bodies in the room even with no changes to any faders or gain knobs.  This is because the human body is made up mostly of water (and one of the best sound absorbing materials is big bags of water). It’s normal for sound check/rehearsal to sound louder than the live performance. Making it a little bit louder will also help you establish any feedback issues that may flare up in the show.  When the audience comes in, they absorb some of the sound, so if you have audience mics that the ear monitor folks are relying on or if your band is mostly on wedges, the change in sound when an audience fills the room will change the performers perspective on their mix.

Now that you have run sound check/rehearsal a bit loud, back that main fader back where it belongs.  You have established a max volume as well as knowing you are stable feedback-wise.  Do not “gain up” any inputs, or push the main fader above this point.  You run the risk of not only feedback, but also splash back on the stage that will overtake the bands monitors.  You know you hit this mark if the band is on wedges and they all start asking for monitor changes.

And last but not least: If you’ve had (and especially if you have not had) a good rehearsal, never make any changes based on what you remember you wanted to change.  Meaning —  if the band has left the stage, don’t think “Oh, I needed some gain on the acoustic guitar and I didn’t want to mess him up in rehearsal…. I’ll add it now.”  Stop right there… go back to Line Check in this post and read it again.

About John Mills:  John is a 20-year veteran of live sound. In addition to his work with touring acts, John is Vice President at Nashville’s Morris Light & Sound www.MorrisLightAndSound.com, writes regularly for Worship Musician and is a great resource for church tech teams with helpful advice on his TechTraining101.com website.   He’s also a featured speaker at many pro audio seminars across the country.

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