Stan Denis of Denis Entertainment Group is a live sound engineer/system designer and President of the Denis Entertainment Group (DEG). With years of experience producing events and designing sound systems for venues, including Bearsville Theater in Woodstock and Lark Hall in Albany, Stan offers insight for up and coming bands when working with production teams.
In my previous blog post titled “The common production issue musicians encounter during concerts and why it’s a travesty,” I discussed one of the biggest production-related complaints that we get from bands. Bad monitor mixes and feedback from the monitors. You might remember I mentioned that it is often an unorganized, or maybe even uncaring sound engineer that quite literally sets the stage for things to go poorly during the show. Well, like with many other issues in the world, there are at least two sides to this story.
Imagine this, if you will. You are a sound engineer or perhaps part of a multi-member production crew. You have a show coming up in 2 weeks and you have been given the band’s contact information. You reach out to them to do the TECH ADVANCE. You ask all of the appropriate questions. How many members? What instruments are they using? Specifics to the size of the drum set? You discuss the total mixer channel count for this event. You determine that you will need 10 drum mics, 2 mics on the electric guitar cabinet, a bass Di box, and also a separate mic for the bass cabinet. There is a keyboardist with two keyboards that you will run in stereo. There are three horns and four vocalists. You determine that you need six stage monitors to cover the band’s needs. This is all agreed upon during the phone call.
Next, you do what any responsible sound engineer should do before the day of the show. You build a scene for the digital mix console that you will be using, where you spend 45 minutes or so thinking of every detail that you think might occur during the show with this band. You go to youtube and listen to the band’s music. You determine what kinds of effects they are using on the vocals and drums. You study them for a few songs so that you know what their sound is.
On the day of the show, you get to the venue before the band. You place all 6 monitors, run all of the mics and have them positioned the best you can, keeping them out of the way, yet ready to quickly be placed. You “ring out” all of the vocal mics/monitors before the band gets there, ensuring that there will not be feedback and that you will be prepared to give a great monitor mix. Your goal is to save as much time as possible during the band set up in order to be able to give them a great soundcheck. You want the band to have the best experience possible, and you want to wow the audience with the sound quality of the show. In other words, you have done everything that a professional, competent, and caring sound engineer should do.
Next, the band arrives 20 minutes after the scheduled load-in time. They get to the venue, see a few people they know, and start having a conversation. You are already twenty minutes behind schedule and now the band is delaying more. Finally, you approach the band and say “Hey guys, I just want to make sure we have enough time to give you a great soundcheck, so can we please get set up?” Next, the guitarist asks if you have a spare guitar cord because he forgot his. You can’t help but think to yourself how were they planning on performing if they didn’t have what was needed to actually perform. You notice that the keyboard player is not yet there and that there are only two horn players instead of the three that you were told would be playing that show. You ask the band if they know when the keyboard player and the other horn player will be arriving, and they say “oh man, yeah they can’t make it to this show.” You can’t help but ask why they didn’t alert you to this when you did the tech advance for show or when they found out that this was going to be the case. And no answer. So now you look at the monitor you placed, the 4 channels that you set up along with the 2 stereo DI boxes that you ran and positioned. You look at how you positioned everything to give the band a nice symmetrical appearance on stage and you realize that since there is no longer a keyboard player taking up a good amount of stage real-estate, you have to shift everything over for this to look right.
On stage you begin moving things around. Just then the guitarist starts blaring his amp and goes into a loud shred guitar solo instead of helping you to make the stage changes. The drummer is tuning his snare, smashing it even though you are right next to him. They are not at all concerned with the fact that you are the one tasked with making this band sound good tonight and that they are essentially dulling your hearing and more importantly just being rude. There you are sound engineer doing more work and getting further behind because the band did not communicate appropriately with you. No one took the time to alert you to changes. Some members came unprepared to put on a good, professional show. None of the band members seem to be concerned that as their engineer for the evening you did everything in your power to be prepared, yet this band has completely disrespected you and instead of working together, you feel that it’s you against the band now.
Does this sound like an annoying day’s work for a sound engineer? If you said yes then you are correct, and this is far too often the reality for production people.
There is a team required to put on a great, successful show. There is the venue, the promoter, the production crew, and the band. Everyone needs to know the plan. Everyone needs to be on the same page working toward the same goal. The band and the sound engineer need to be working very closely together since they are both an intricate part of the actual live performance. There needs to be mutual respect between these two parties. You need each other in order to put on this event. So how can you help your production crew to take care of you?
I’m glad you asked. Let get into it.
Putting yourself in the shoes of the production crew is imperative to know what you can do to help make their job easier and most effective.
Let’s start with the TECH ADVANCE.
Every musical act, even if you are a solo performer, needs a document that explains what you need on stage and what your production requirements are. There are generally two separate pieces of information that a sound engineer needs from you to be prepared for your show: a stage plot and an input list. Many times these two documents can be combined into one stage plan.
Stage Plot. This is an easy-to-read map of how you would prefer the band and all of your equipment to be located on the stage. This document should make it easy for the engineer to know exactly where to locate stage monitors, mic stands, stage rugs, DI boxes, and such. As an engineer, I should be able to look at your stage plot and easily layout the stage before you arrive. Don’t get too fancy. Keep it simple to read. When we are providing production for festivals we may encounter as many as 10-15 different stage plots per day. An organized production company will locate printouts of all of the bands’ stage plots on both stage left and stage right. The crew needs to be able to look at your stage plot and quickly know how to set the stage for your set. Make sure you include things like how many drums are in the drum kit that you will be bringing.
Input List. This is a document that shows how many channels you require as well as the microphone and direct input compliment that you are requesting. Do you want two mics on the kick drum? How about the snare drum? Are you requesting just a direct input of the bass or do you want a mic on the cabinet as well? Are you bringing your own vocal mics or using the “house mics?” If you are bringing your own mics, then what model are they?
Show up prepared. How many cables should a guitarist have when going to a show? Well if you require two normally then you need at least three. Always have a spare. How about a spare snare drum head or better yet a spare snare drum? If you break your snare head, what’s your plan? Keyboardists, you should have enough cables for a sound engineer to be able to put your instruments into the PA using stereo (2 channels). I don’t know how many times I’ve had a keyboardist show up with a $3,000 stereo keyboard only to have one crappy 1/4 inch cable. Come prepared, have enough cables and at least one spare. Guitar pedal patch cables, strings, power cables, drum sticks, instrument stands, a drum key, etc..
Show up on time. In the world of live music, very often the biggest obstacle to putting on a great show is time. Be at the venue by the agreed time. Be ready to quickly load-in and set up. Leave social time for after sound-check. You never know what issues may present themselves, so make sure you have left time to deal with them.
Understand the reality of the sound engineer. Production crews are usually people who work very long hours in what can be harsh, unforgiving environments, dealing with disrespectful musicians and know-it-all audience members. Being under a time crunch is the norm and there is barely enough time to get things done properly, even if everything goes as planned. What does this mean? It means that you need to take care of the production crew, just as they need to take care of you. You need to understand what they may be going through and you should try to make their lives as easy as possible. You can’t have a great show without them, and they can’t have one without you.
You have heard of the grumpy sound engineer, right? If you perform enough shows you, will eventually encounter one or more of them. You have the power to turn the grumpy sound engineer into a positive asset of the band. You simply need to show them that you understand and respect their position. Be the breath of fresh air. Be accurate when discussing the tech advance, come on time and prepared, be kind, and understand that something you think is no big deal may present a sizable problem for them.
The music business is all about relationships. You will usually find that it’s the people who know how to create friendships and who are a pleasure to be around that have the best experience in the music industry. If you do not have promoters, venue owners, booking agents, managers, and production people on your side, you will find it tough going in music. I know of more than a handful of bands who are known for being difficult, arrogant, or clueless and probably don’t even realize that they have been basically blacklisted. Everyone knows that doing a show with them is simply too much trouble, and so they are on the bottom of the list when it comes too booking. If instead you are known for being an artist or band who are fun and rewarding to work with, then you will likely find yourselves with more shows, more compensation, and an overall more enjoyable existence in the world of music. Take care of the production crew. Make their already difficult job as easy as you can. Remember, they want you to have a great show as much as you do. Their reputation is also at stake with every show they mix. The band and the production crew are on the same team. Take care of each other.
Now go have a good good time with your new friends, the production crew.