Fans show up to a show, performance, service, etc for the experience. The music, the lights, the atmosphere, it all comes together for what most describe as a "magical moment". For most, that's all they see. I remember some of the first concerts I ever went to. It was like magic. Sure things probably didn't go exactly according to plan, but I enjoyed it and I was none the wiser that things maybe didn't go 100% smoothly. But I've also been to some concerts and events where things didn't go well at all. The experience wasn't magical. That got me thinking; what makes these experience different? Neither was perfect, but yet some are magical and some are not.
I believe it all comes down to preparation and clear priorities. Whether you're helping put on a show for thousands, or simply entertaining a few dozen at a coffee shop, having your priorities in line makes the difference between having magic potential and disaster potential. I've had the chance to watch a few experienced engineers do their thing and the common denominator between all of them is that they know what needs to happen in the order that it needs to happen. They pay attention to the details that are relevant to making the show a success. Every situation might be a little different, but there is always a way to prioritize in such a way that you can help create magical experiences without pulling your hair out every time.
Before we dive in, I want to encourage you to realize the linch pin to prioritizing is understanding the details. I'm a very detail oriented person. My brain works quickly at juggling all the details of what's happening simultaneously. I realize not everyone is like that, so some of these things might be harder to form good habits on. I would argue, however, that any person that loves their craft and is dedicated to it in a meaningful way can be successful in the production world.
Here's a brief overview of my typical priorities:
- Do your homework on the gig. Know as many of their needs as possible by asking questions.
- Prep gear. Get everything you could possibly need together. Bring a few extra things in case something last minute comes up... because they will.
- Show up on time. This also includes making sure that load-in time is going to give you the appropriate amount of time to setup and line check before the talent arrives.
- PA/FOH then stage gear. If you have the house done first then you can give 100% to the talent when they arrive.
- Line check. Make sure you have as much verified before the talent arrives as possible.
- Greet & serve the talent. Meet them on stage, be personable, and get them going.
- Soundcheck. Set gain, set basic house level, then set monitors. If there is anything sounding off, make sure to fix it at the stage whenever possible. While doing all of this, make sure the talent is happy and have what they need to perform at their best.
- Tighten up the mix. EQ, compress, then effects. Start with the primary and prominent channels and work your way down. Make sure that anything you do doesn't disrupt the talent.
- Be creative. If everything is sounding and working good, you are now free to find ways of making it sound even better.
What if things go wrong? The band doesn't show up on time, they don't have a detailed technical rider, things are buzzing or not working, etc... First, STAY CALM. This is the hardest thing for techies to do, but it is the most critical. If you freak out, everyone will freak out. Tempers will rise and productivity will disappear. So, stay calm. For issues with signal chain, start at the source and work your way back. Is it plugged in? Is the thing it's plugged into plugged into on the other end? Is it getting power (48v, AC, the battery)? Is it patched correctly at the console? Is it assigned to the main buss? Are your console's outputs connected to the PA? Is the PA on (or is the processor setup correctly). Theoretically if you did your homework, prepped your gear, and set up your PA (and tested it when it was setup), you'll find your issues earlier in that process then later. Being able to troubleshoot is incredibly critical for anyone on the production team. That's why we start as interns who run cables and hook stuff up. We being to fully grasp the signal chain and that is critical to all troubleshooting.
It all starts with the talent. Whether you're engineering for a band, comedian, auctioneer, or lecture you are there to help convey their message to an audience. The best thing you can do to prepare for a gig is to know who you're working for. Ask questions about what all they might need, how they like to do things, what to avoid saying/doing, and if they have any special must-haves. Do your homework. But beware, talent isn't always the most technically oriented bunch. They might not know what compressor settings work best on their voice. Don't over load them with the technical, but do your best to get a feel for what they're like. If you're going to be working with a band that you've never heard, do your homework and listen to stuff that's been recorded in the past. Learn their sounds and then impress them by asking them questions about what ways they've found works to achieve their sound. That's the homework. If at all possible, do this research before they walk through the door.
If you've done your homework on the band, you should be ready when they arrive. From the time they walk through the doors to when they walk off stage, your main priority is them. Before you try the new side-chain compression techniques you read about, make sure they are 100% taken care of. This includes making sure everything is in place on stage, monitor levels are at a good level, and that you've been personable to them the whole time. I find a lot of people struggle with that last one, which is why I'm going to be making a post on how to master the various personalities you'll run across. Once the talent is going, it is critical that you don't do anything that could negatively impact their experience. If you're running monitors from FOH, make sure you've got your gains set in a happy place by the time you're setting everyone's monitor levels or else you'll probably ruin all of the monitor mixes pretty quickly when the show starts. This means you need to know what each knob you're touching does, and whether or not it's going to affect them.
As far as prepping gear is concerned, the biggest thing here is to have the outlook that everything is either broken or not in your possession until you confirm it. Don't assume anything. If you last used that piece of gear 6 months ago and you put it away "working"... there's always the chance that the gremlins got in and messed with it since you last powered it on. Do a quick test on as many things as possible. Big things, especially ones you only have one of, should be at the top of this list. I once heard a guy ask another company if they had tested all their cables before loaning them out. The owner of the company said that the gig was his cable test. This is often the most convenient before hand, but when you have 15 minutes before doors and your PA isn't working yet because of a bad cable, you'll regret that decision quickly. Check your gear, prep your gear, bring backups of as much as you can.
Show up on time. Half of that battle is fighting for enough time at the venue, or enough time for sound check. Ultimately there will be times when the schedule isn't ideal, but learning how to do your prep homework and how to be efficient with your time will help you overcome most obstacles. I try for a minimum of 1 hour per band to sound check. For large bands I love to have 2 hours. If I'm setting up a PA, I gauge the timing on the size of the PA and the help I have. Sometimes it's 30-60 minutes, sometimes it's the day before! Having time to tune and align the PA when the room is quiet is critical. You don't want the band noodling on stage or causing a racket in the house while you're trying to time align delay/fill speakers!
If you have the personnel to do PA setup and stage setup simultaneously that's nice, but logistically the PA (mains/subs/fills/delay speakers) will almost always need to be in position before anything else. Of course, if you're having a stage at the event that will need be in before anything, so make sure that's scheduled ahead of time! For those of you trying to juggle everything yourself, I strongly suggest having FOH up and running before the talent arrives. This will let you focus on them without having to have them stand around while your label and route channels. Finally, tuning. If you're in the position to do a detailed tune (meaning you actually have time left over) make sure you rough in your system EQ and all of your delay settings implemented. Don't chase the rabbit too far on system EQ, but get it to a point where your system tuning content sounds good and you're achieving good, quality coverage. Remember, most rooms sound a lot different when it's full of people. Most of the time that difference is positive and improves your overall system tuning work.
Check 1, 2... check check. Check 1, 2... Why can't sound guys count to 3? Because on 3 they have to lift something. Anyway, after the PA is set and you've started pinning the stage, make sure to line check. For those of you who lost me at "pinning the stage", all that means is routing your cables for mics, DIs, and various sources from stage. Not everything will be in the perfect spot, but it'll be close when the talent arrives. Make sure if you are pre-pinning the stage (before gear for the talent arrives) that you leave plenty of room for folks to walk around the stage. Don't create trip hazards and don't place mic stands where they'll have to be moved for someone to setup their gear. Most of the time you'll probably be running cables, stands, and mics either while the talent is setting up, or if you're lucky between gear load-in and sound check. Either way, as you get things set, check them. iPad apps for consoles are incredibly useful tools for this. It's the #1 feature I love about my Midas M32 is the app. I can walk on stage, go up to a mic, patch it, gain it, and check it all from the microphone itself. I can see the levels and know everything is working. Most of the time this line-check will sort out anything major that will delay your sound check process. Quick tip, for DI's, you can do one of two things during line check: plug a sm58 into the XLR just to make sure you're getting signal, or tap the ¼" cable to make sure you're getting signal (don't put that sound through your PA or monitors though! Keep it muted and just check your signal meters!). Just remember, line check will help make your talent happy because you'll sort the issues out before they walk on stage.
Sound check is your moment to get things to a spot that when the band plays their first song, or your talent speaks their first words, they will sound decent. Maybe not perfect, unless you have lots of time or a pre-show rehearsal, but decent. Then as the next song or two progresses you can tighten the mix. If you're a smaller operation and doing monitors from FOH, this is also the time to get monitors dialed in. Now, here's where I have a little different outlook. In my work flow, I always fight for the ability to turn up the band in the house first, and then do monitors. I'll have them play, set gain, turn it up, do a quick EQ and compression, then move on to the next source. Once I've visited everything in the band, then I turn to monitors. Doing the house first gives me 3 things: 1. I know that the source sounds ok. If a mic or a cable isn't quite right, I will hear it immediately and go fix it at the source. 2. I get a chance to tweak the EQ and compression in a more controlled sonic environment. I won't spend a ton of things in isolation, but fixing or adjusting the main things I hear are critical at this point. Often if doing monitors from FOH this EQ and compression may also go to their monitors. If I make drastic EQ changes after the monitors are set it will effect the band's mixes. I try to avoid that if at all possible. 3. Last but not least, it's psychoacoustic. If I have the band at a normal volume in the venue they won't need as much in their monitors. I've watched many a "sound guy" set all the monitors before they turn up the mains. By the time they're done they hardly need to send anything to the mains (especially in smaller venues). The result? The mix at FOH sounds like crap, or is waaaayyyyy too loud. Yes I want to make the musician happy on stage, but if the audience is sacrificed the venue will probably not welcome you back! Finally, if you're mixing on digital, save your work! Save and save often, but make sure not to overwrite your talent's scene when you start the next band!
If you're in an environment where you're doing change-overs on stage, I suggest implementing this mindset: If you turned it off or unplugged it, consider it broken until you check it. Most change-overs have time for a quick line check (again, iPad mixing apps FTW). Once the talent takes the stage and starts, you will once again need to prioritize. What's the most important thing to be clearly heard in the mix? Most of the time it's vocals. I love to take a whole song to make sure I'm getting vocals to sit just right. If one or two instruments are sounding too far off I'll jump over to them to make sure they're not distracting from the vocals. From there, I focus on making sure the impact of the music is properly translating. Is it a hard hitting band that needs some work on compression and punch? Or is it a more delicate compilation of instruments that needs precision EQing to finest everything in together? Focus on what's important the the overall sound, and then work on the fine details. Just make sure everything you're doing is complimenting the talent. My biggest adage is that I'm there to faithfully reproduce and reinforce what the band is doing. I'm not there to make it sound like how I want it to sound, I'm there to make it sound how they want it to sound.
I know that was long, but thanks for holding in. I hope you got a chance to learn something or validate some of the things you're currently doing to prioritize your workflow. Did I miss something? Mention it in the comments below! Have a different perspective? Feel free to share it. Just because this is how I am currently doing things doesn't mean it's always the best formula for every instance!
Above all, be prepared, serve the talent, do your best, and walk away from every gig with something you've learned that you can implement on the next gig!