What to Expect at a Sound Check | Preparing for your First Gig: 11 Essential Tips
Preparing for your first performance can often be a scary thought. Luckily, there are a few simple steps you can take to optimise your sound check so that you’re more at ease during your performance.
Knowing how to prepare for a sound check is essential if you want to be in with a good chance of sounding great during your first gig. We have the 11 best ways in which you can maximise the efficiency of your sound check.
Understanding how sound checks work and why they’re important are both things that are vital for your success as a gigging artist, and if you don’t know how to prepare effectively, you’re going to struggle to be in with a chance of sounding professional live. Below are 11 easy ways that will teach you how to prepare for your first sound check.
How to prepare for a sound check
It isn’t the easiest thing to know the best ways to go about preparing for a sound check, but there are some simple tricks to making it a little easier.
Following these tips will assist you in knowing how to prepare for a sound check:
- Know why it’s important
- Know how it works
- Arrive on time
- Don’t waste time
- Be honest
- Understand the difference between line check and sound check
- Pick the right sound check song
- Be prepared
- Know that different instruments are checked differently
- Don’t hold back
- Know that the energy will be different when you have an audience in front of you
The importance of sound testing before a performance
Sound checking is about the difference between being happy or not with your sound during a performance.
Why do musicians sound check?
Sound checking is the time to decide on your levels, correct any microphone technique, listen to yourself through the monitors and mentally warm up. It’s extremely important when it comes to preparing yourself for your first gig.
Sound check procedure
#1 Know how it works
At most sound checks, you will step on stage before the gig and work with the sound engineer to achieve a ‘balance’ that you and the sound engineer are both happy with.
It’s important to note that in many live settings, what you hear will be different from what the audience hears. Often you’ll have your own speaker pointing towards you (called a monitor) where you can customise the balance of instruments you hear – this is especially useful if you’re singing with an accompanying instrument, band or backing track.
The main speakers (called the p.a or ‘public address’ system) will be facing away from you. This is what everyone else (including the audience and sound engineer) hears. The sound engineer may be able to see the levels on their sound desk visually, however, it’s up to you to tell them what you’re hearing and how you want the balance in your monitor.
What happens during sound check?
#2 Know why it’s important
As the performer, you’ll need to provide the music for the sound engineer to work from, so typically the engineer will ask you to play different sections of your songs at the volumes that you’ll perform them.
It’s important to get this right because you’ll sound extremely amateur if you don’t sound check and something goes wrong during the gig. It can affect your show which is the last thing you want on your first gig.
Don’t forget also, anyone could be watching in the audience – it’s important to give people a good first impression. Someone from a local venue might want to book you for your next show – they’ll be much more likely to book you if you sound well-rehearsed and well sound checked.
How long does sound check take?
If you’re wondering how long does a sound check take, then it’s important to note that it varies from show to show.
Generally, if it’s a situation where there are a headliner and supports, the headliner will have more time to sound check (up to an hour) whilst the support bands will get less time (usually around 15-30 minutes).
If there are lots of bands, you’ll have to be extremely efficient with your sound check otherwise you may annoy the other people wanting to sound check.
Here are some tips to maximise your efficiency:
#3 Arrive on time
First things first: a sound engineer and/or stage manager is not going to be impressed if someone uses up their precious little time by running in late. Avoid scrambling around for your instrument case and tuning up on stage. Make sure you turn up on time and ready for your sound testing.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so be early and introduce yourself politely to the sound engineer and/or stage manager during the sound testing check when appropriate and maybe offer to buy him/her a drink (optional).
If the offer of a drink is not accepted just tell them where you will be and inform them you will be ready when they are, selecting a place out of their way but in their eye line.
Sometimes the sound engineer might have a working relationship with the promoter or booking agents. If they put in a good word to them about how great and polite you were, you’re much more likely to get booked again.
#4 Don’t waste time
This takes practice, but it’s important not to waste time when you’re on stage sound checking.
For your first gig, try to know what to expect – it’s likely that you’ll need to say what you want to hear more of – avoid saying “can I have more of everything” when you’re deciding a mix with the engineer, especially in a band setting. It’s generally more acceptable to say “it’s too quiet in my monitor” in terms of volume rather than mix balance.
Also, don’t spend your time tuning your guitar or using your phone – try to maximise your efficiency on stage.
#5 Be honest
The whole point of sound testing is to correctly set up the levels in the venue and that includes the (fold back) monitors that you will be hearing during the performance. Be honest with the engineers during the sound check if you’d like your vocals louder or your guitar with an EQ boost.
It’s the sound engineer’s job to make you sound great, so don’t be afraid to say that something sounds bad if it sounds bad, as long as you know for sure that it’s not something you’re in control of.
#6 Understand the difference between a sound check and a line check
What is a line check?
A line check is usually what happens in the place of a traditional sound check when there isn’t enough time to sound check. It normally takes a very similar format to sound checks, but line checks happen just before you go on stage – they happen between acts rather than before the show.
Different types of gigs have different sound check formats:
Sound checking at a festival
Generally, festivals are the most planned-out of all performances, especially the bigger festivals.
They’ll typically have a very competent person on sound, however, because festivals often run during the day, you might not get a sound check before (or even a line check in the traditional sense) because there’s just not enough time.
The headline bands can often get sound checks, but a lot of the time the main p.a system isn’t on full power – the artists will be able to talk to the sound engineer and tweak their monitors, but it often ends up being a hands-on job for the sound guy when the bands actually start performing their set.
Sound checking at a gig
These are also often well planned-out. Depending on the gig though, you may find that bands are late for their sound check which can throw a proverbial spanner in the works.
This can happen, but it’s important to realise that circumstances can change at gigs – be ready to adapt and potentially have a shorter sound check if this happens to you. Try to stay courteous though.
Most importantly, make sure the late person isn’t you!
Gigs also have a competent person on sound, however, sometimes if there are a lot of acts, the supports will have a very short sound check (or even a line check). Remember, do your best to maximise your efficiency when you step on stage for sound check.
Sound checking at an open mic
These are normally the most spontaneous of all the types of show. Often there won’t be much of a sound check for these. If there isn’t, it may be a good idea to speak to the person on sound for the night and tell them what you want the balance to be like before you step on stage.
Open mics can have a competent person on sound, but sometimes it’ll just be down to the people there to figure out what sounds good. Learning how a p.a functions is never a bad thing to do though.
You may not have your own monitor, so you’ll have to bear that in mind when playing. It might sound quieter or more muffled than it sounds to the audience.
If you do get a sound check, it’ll be a line check, unless it’s a more serious open mic with people who want to run a more professional event.
Sound check tips and live sound tips: Best songs for live sound checks
#7 Pick the right song
If you get to sound check, make sure to pick a song that’s a good sound check song.
What’s a good sound check song? It depends – you’ll need to showcase the dynamic range at which you’ll be performing. If your entire set is soft singing with fingerpicked guitar, the sound person will be able to turn you up a lot more as your average sound dynamic range, not only quiet but narrow.
If you have a range of songs that are both very loud and very quiet, pick the loudest part of the loud song and check that, then pick the quietest part of the quietest song and make sure it’s still audible and balanced.
Sound testing tips
If you’ll be switching from loud to quiet (and vice versa) very quickly throughout your set, it might be a good idea to control it on your end. For example, if you’re a singer, use microphone technique (pulling it away and towards your mouth) to control your dynamics.
It’s important to decide what song(s) you’ll be playing before the sound check though.
Configure this with yourself and anyone else you might be playing or singing with.
Advice for sound testing
#8 Be prepared
As well as being on time for your sound check, make sure you are tuned up if you have an instrument or have completed a vocal warm up at least.
Ahead of the day make sure all your equipment is reliable and works and you have spare batteries and leads if applicable. Be ready for a quick switchover between acts and you’ll look good if you’re prepared.
#9 Different instruments are checked differently
Sound testing for singers
When you’re checking vocals, make sure not to fall into the trap of mumbling “check… 1… 2…” over and over again; it’s fine to speak words when the sound engineer is just turning the microphone on, but once you can hear yourself in the speakers start singing.
Sing exactly how you would with full accompaniment behind you – it’ll save the sound engineer time, as they won’t have to re-adjust between your speaking voice and your singing voice when you run a full song.
If you’re using a backing track, make sure that the sound person has got the balance right between your voice and the backing track.
Equipment needed for live acoustic performance – sound checking with an acoustic instrument
If you’re playing with an acoustic guitar, ukulele or another acoustic instrument, be aware of something called “feedback”.
Certain frequencies will resonate in the room you’re playing in more than they would normally – be aware that this is normal and work with the sound engineer to eliminate these frequencies. They’ll be able to do it on their desk with equalisation (E.Q).
If you want to go the extra mile to avoid feedback, you can buy rubber pads that can go over the hole underneath the guitar’s strings.
Also when sound checking, if you mix up your playing technique by both picking and strumming, make sure to test both in the sound check.
Sound checking with extra equipment
In a similar vein to backing tracks, make sure to sound check your loop pedal (if you have one). Build up the loops to the maximum volume you’d play them at, and then get the sound engineer to keep it under control from there.
If you have guitar pedals, test all of the ones you’re using for the exact same reason – you probably wouldn’t want an overdrive pedal to be half as loud as the rest of your playing!
Sound checking for pianists
Pianos are generally less complicated to sound check, at least, once the microphones are all set up.
Make sure to play sections using your pedals during sound check to give the sound engineer more of an idea regarding your dynamic range.
How can I make my voice sound better live?
#10 Don’t hold back
As mentioned before, the idea of sound testing for singers is to set up levels, so if you’re holding back and not playing or singing as loud as you would do in the actual performance, it becomes pointless to a degree.
A lot of venues have digital desks so they can automatically store your settings. It doesn’t make sense to store it all and then have the sound engineer re-adjust when you come out hitting notes twice as loud as the first time. Try to stay consistent between performances – you won’t have to worry about that for your first gig though.
Solo performance tips
#11 Know that the energy will be different when you have an audience in front of you
After you play your first gig, you’ll realise that it’s easier to perform when you have a crowd on your side. During your first gig, don’t be put off if you find that you’re putting in more energy than in sound check – it’s completely normal.
The sound engineer will be expecting some slight variations between sound check and live performance, so make sure to not hold back on either, but especially not the performance because that’s what really matters.
It’s also important to note that it will sound different anyway when you play in a room full of people – their bodies will absorb some of the noise so it may sound drier. Again, don’t let this put you off.
Here are some top tips on performing to a live audience.
Bonus tip: Remember, it’s the actual performance that matters
No matter what happens in sound check, always remember to sing or play confidently when you’re actually performing your set in order to convey your musical message – that’s what’s important after all.
Have you already played your first gig? What advice would you give to others preparing for a sound check? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!