This is an excerpt from Ari Herstand’s book How to Make It in the New Music Business (second edition).
As much time as you spend in your rehearsal space perfecting your sound, it won’t mean anything if it’s botched coming out of the P.A. All the money you spent on new pedals, amps, guitars and strings doesn’t matter if the mix is off in the club.
The sound guy (or gal) is the most important component of your show that most bands don’t really think about. He can break your set (few sound guys can actually make your set if you suck). First off, they like being referred to as front of house (FOH) engineers. So, this is a good place to start.
You have to know how to approach sound guys right and get them on your team for the short amount of time that you have with them.
1. Get His Name The first thing you should do is introduce yourself to the sound guy when you arrive. Shake his hand, look him in the eye and exchange names. Remember his name—you’re most likely going to need to use it many times that night and possibly a couple times through the mic during your set. If you begin treating him with respect from the get-go, he will most likely return this sentiment.
2. Respect Her Ears All sound guys and gals take pride in their mixing. Regardless of the style of music they like listening to in their car, they believe they can mix any genre on the spot. However, most front of house engineers will appreciate hearing what you, the musician, like for a general house mix of your band’s sound. Don’t be afraid to tell her a vibe or general notes (“we like the vocals and acoustic very high in the mix” or “we like keeping all vocal mics at about the same level for blended harmonies” or “add lots of reverb on the lead vocals, but keep the fiddle dry”). She’ll appreciate knowing what you like and will cater to that. She is most likely a musician herself, so treat her as one—with respect. She knows musical terms—don’t be afraid to use them.
3. Don’t Start Playing Until He’s Ready
Set up all of your gear, but don’t start wailing on the guitar or the drums until all the mics are in place and the sound person is back by the board. Pounding away on the kit while he’s trying to set his mics will surely piss him off and ruin his ears. Get there early enough for soundcheck so you have plenty of time to feel the room out (and tune your drums).
4. Have an Input List Print out an accurate, up-to-date list of all inputs (channels). A stage plot can also be very helpful, especially for bigger shows. Email both the stage plot and the input list in advance. The good sound gals will have everything set up before you arrive (this typically happens only at BIG venues). If you’re at a line-check-only club, then just print out the input list/stage plot and hand it to the sound gal right before your set.
There are some great stage plot software options, like StagePlotPro, that allows you to simply create a graphic stage plot without needing image-editing software. At the very least, though, print out an input list like this:
Channel 1—Kick Drum mic
Channel 2—Snare Drum mic
Channel 3—Hi-Hat mic
Channel 4—Tom 1 mic
Channel 5—Tom 2 mic
Channel 6—Drums Overhead mic
Channel 7—Bass Amp DI (upstage right)
Channel 8—Guitar Amp mic (upstage left)
Channel 9—Fiddle DI (stage right)
Channel 10—Acoustic DI (center)
Channel 11—Keyboard DI (stereo-L) DI (stage left)
Channel 12—Keyboard DI (stereo-R) DI (stage left)
Channel 13—(lead) Vocal mic (center)
Channel 14—Vocal mic (stage left)
Channel 15—Vocal mic (stage right)
Channel 16—Tracks DI
5. How to Insult Your Sound Guy Address him as “Yo, sound man” if you want to piss him off. You got his name—use it. Or ask him politely again if you forgot. Don’t tell him that the house mix is “off” or “bad.” Everything is subjective. It may not be what you like, but it’s obviously what he likes. He most likely has much more experience mixing than you do. So get specific about what you like and don’t like for your band’s house mix from the beginning or keep quiet.
6. Know Your Gear Know how you like your vocals EQed generally so you can say that. You can say, “Can we drop some of the highs on the vocals in the house?” You shouldn’t say, “The vocals sound piercing—they hurt my ears.” You should know how your gear works inside and out, so if anything goes wrong, you point to the sound gal last. Pointing to her first is a sure way to piss her off.
7. He’s Part of the Club The sound guy, door guy, bartender, booker, managers and servers are coworkers. They hang out, have work parties, hit the bars together and they talk. If you’re a d**k to the bartender, he’ll tell the sound guy and the sound guy may then decide to ruin your set out of spite. Or just not put any effort into mixing you.
8. Everyone Wants a Great Show Believe it or not, your sound gal wants to perform at her best just like you do. Make her job easy by showing up prepared and not sucking. She most likely has her sh*t together so make sure you have your sh*t together as well. Remember, the stage is not the time for you to “see how it goes” and try stuff out. That’s what rehearsal is for. Show up prepared.
9. The Chip There are sound guys out there (we’ve all worked with them) who seem to have a massive chip on their shoulder from the moment they step into the club. These guys are typically older, failed musicians who have been at this club for decades. They are hardened from years of working with holier-than-thou musicians who not only suck, but believe they are rock stars and that the sound guy is a peon—and treat him as such. You may not be able to change his outlook on life, but treat him with respect and dignity from the get-go and he may lighten up just enough to put some effort into mixing your set.
Even though it should go without saying, apply the golden rule. If you treat your sound guy as you’d like to be treated and work with (not against) him on putting together a great show, you most likely will have one.
Ari Herstand is the author of How To Make it in the New Music Business (second edition), a Los Angeles based musician and the founder of the music business education company and blog Ari’s Take. Follow him on Instagram @ariherstand.