Showtime! A Day in the Life of a Guitar Tech Pt. 3 - Line Check

The linecheck is done for the FOH and monitor engineer’s benefit. To them it is vitally important to find out if the lines coming down from the stage boxes really correspond correctly to their mixing-consoles’ channels. The linecheck helps them detect any problems in the venue’s signal routing, and it makes the soundcheck much easier and quicker.

Pretesting my gear

Before the linecheck is due, I try to make sure that all of my equipment is up and running without problems. The rest of the guys shouldn’t have to wait during the linecheck, while you’re hunting for the source of a problem you could have noticed before!

Getting the show up and running may take up the better part of a whole day, yet a guitar technician is only allowed a few precious minutes to pretest his gear. The schedule looks even more demanding, once you realize that many problems with guitar amps only appear, once they’re hot.

I try to do my pretesting as quickly as I can, and without disturbing the rest of the crew. But if there’s a problem I will take my time to get to the bottom of it, even if others get impatient with me. I’m the one who’s responsible for the guitar rig. It’s my head and my reputation on the line, not theirs. If there’s a problem I inform the rest of the crew that I will need more time to fix it.

The drum tech

The drum technician is another backliner travelling with the band. He and the guitar tech often share some common responsibilities. The drum tech is specialized in all things drums and percussion. He assembles the drum kit and changes drum heads, he tunes the drums, and he tries to stamp out any problems that might occur. These days many drum techs are also responsible for setting up the drum microphones on stage (or on a drum riser). Usually the drum tech also is responsible for the correct riser placement on the stage, as well as for handing out the setlists, towels and onstage drinks for the musicians. Together with the local stage manager he also agrees on how the supporting act will get their equipment onto stage and off again. In our case he is also the crew’s stage manager, who manages the local stagehands whenever the production manager is doing something else.

Together with the guitar tech, the drum tech shares the responsibility for all of the band’s instruments and backline. Sometimes the workload is split up between the techs according to their own area of expertise. If there’s no dedicated keyboard technician, the drum tech might set up the keyboard stands, too, and place the keyboards on the stands. Then the guitar tech might be the one who hooks up the keyboard rig’s power supply and audio lines. In an ideal world both techs work as an efficient team, often hired in tandem by several different bands.

Agree on pretesting procedures

If you need to pretest certain aspects in relative silence, you should try finding suitable spots in-between other phases of the general set-up procedure. You could do part of your testing after the drum tech has tuned the drums, but before the monitor wedges are “tuned” for minimal feedback. And then you could take advantage of the short break between tuning the monitors and the equalization of the PA to test the rest of the guitar rig. When the linecheck comes you will be ready to rock.

You could agree on something like the following: Drum tune-up while the sound guys still hook up their equipment. Quick pretesting of the guitar rig. Then the monitor engineer could check the onstage monitors, followed by the pretesting of the bass and/or keyboard rigs. Depending on how things have progressed this could be followed by orientating the lighting rig or fine-tuning the PA.

If these things are not agreed on, you run the risk of several crew members and technicians trying to do their testing at the same time, which will quickly lead to frustration and arguments.

Everyone’s ears (and nerves) are subjected to a lot of hubbub during a tour, so it is only polite to warn your colleagues before you test anything at gig levels. Other crew members should always be given the chance to insert ear plugs or move out of the “line of fire”. You make a lot of enemies if you decide to try out a freshly-tuned snare drum, while the sound technician is plugging in drum mikes with his head right next to the kit.

My channels

Each instrument, each signal line, and each mixer channel is an important part of the jigsaw puzzle that is a band’s live sound. I will do all it takes to get the best-possible signal to the mixing console in the cleanest possible way.

I have familiarized myself with the band’s list of inputs and I know exactly which of the channels are “mine”. As the guitar tech I’m in charge of all stringed instruments, pedalboards and other guitar/bass effects, as well as the amplifiers. Some of my lines are fed by line level outputs, while others are using microphones. We have agreed that I am in charge of the signal until it reaches the stage box. From there onwards the soundmen are in charge. I put up the mics I need and plug them in. Then I connect all the line level feeds to the stage box via DI-boxes.

The sound of the signal has to satisfy both the FOH-mixer, as well as my client, the artist. If last night’s sounds have pleased everybody, I try to stick with the same procedures and set-up I have used before. Usually there will be some degree of fine-adjustment necessary to take into account each venue’s own sonic fingerprint, caused by its size, shape, and the surface materials used in it. These factors have a bearing on the overall sound and the way it is reflected.

A good guitar technician tries to figure out what his client might like or dislike in a venue’s sound. Are there annoying resonances at certain frequencies? Is there a way to deal with them without messing up the guitarist’s core tone? Even when you keep all settings identical, a venue will always add its own flavour to the sound. Not even using in-ear monitoring will manage to do away completely with the impact of a room’s resonances and reverb on the sound of a guitar rig or a drum kit!

The monitor engineer

The monitor guy is the third technician working in the wings of the stage to take care of the band’s sound. He takes care of mixing the sound for the band’s monitor wedges and/or in-ear monitors, as well as being responsible for all vocal mics. Naturally, the most important vocal microphone is the one for the lead singer of the band. Very often the onstage monitoring is geared towards the singer’s needs. You could say that the monitor mixer is the singer’s own technician, and his/her closest support person during the show.

As the monitor desk is fed the exact same signals that go to the P.A. system, the monitor engineer is the easiest way for us backliners to find out where a signal’s gone MIA. If the monitor guy gets a clear signal feed from your rig, but the front-of-house guy can’t find the signal, the problem’s very likely down to the venue’s multicore hook-up.

During linecheck – while we backliners play “our” instruments at stage levels – the monitor engineer walks around the stage with a wireless vocal mic rigged to the monitors. He is hunting for possible pockets of feedback. Floor monitors can feed back easily at full gig volume, which is why the elimination of feedback is one of the monitor technician’s most important duties.

Helping the soundman

The band technicians play a short linecheck-number, closely mimicking the band’s style, to give the FOH-mixer a realistic picture of the onstage sound at this night’s venue. The soundman uses the music to adjust the PA-system as closely to the final sound as possible. We all know our own areas of responsibility, knowing whose sound, and whose monitoring, needs the most attention. Working as a close-knit team allows you to develop your own set of routines and techniques. We use this “pre-soundcheck” as a fail-safe, in case the band cannot make it in time for soundcheck (or can’t be bothered today). In any case, the crew now has got the backline, the monitors and the PA all sorted for tonight’s show. The artist gets his money’s worth in peace of mind, and an added degree of freedom.

Front-of-house

The soundman manning the PA, also known as the FOH-engineer, puts the finishing touches onto the signals he receives from the stage, and turns it into the band’s live sound. Much hinges on the way the backliners and the soundman work together. If they work as a good team the result will be a fantastic sound. Sometimes, though, the backliners and the FOH-guy don’t seem to find common ground and pull the sound in different ways.

When looking for the “perfect tone” guitarists and guitar technicians often fall into the trap of forgetting that the guitar only makes up a single segment of the whole tonal range of a band’s live sound. You try out the guitar rig without the rest of the band, and start adding lots of fat bottom end (to compensate for the missing bass guitar) and plenty of top-end sizzle (to make up for the missing cymbals). You end up with some sort of a full-range sound, but leave the all-important midrange undernourished.

The FOH-soundman has no such personal agenda. He sees the guitar in the right context – it’s just one part in a complicated puzzle. A mixer with well-tuned ears will know exactly how to place the guitar’s sound in the context of the complete tonal spectrum of a band’s sound. And he will want to get the sound right on the stage first.

The band must be able trust their FOH-guy and his vision of their live sound. The mixer also must be able to stand behind his own decisions, because his judgement is always the main focus of critique. A bad sound will be noticed, and word will reach the band, sooner or later.

Would you please turn down!

One of the main causes for concern for a PA-soundman are too high sound levels on stage, taking away the mixer’s sound-shaping possibilities. A lot of bands simply play far too loud on stage. This dilemma requires quite a bit of psychological finesse from a guitar technician. His client wants his amp turned up to 11, so he can “feel” the sound, while the mixer, quite rightly, complains that the noise coming off the stage is louder than the whole PA.

There are plenty of solutions available. You could try orientating the cabinets differently. You could also put a perspex plate in front of the stack, put much more guitar into the guitarist’s monitors, or maybe use a power soak between the amp head and the cabinet. Or you could decide on a clean guitar feed and use digital modelling instead of a physical amplifier.

This tug of war is here to stay, and any workable solution is allowed. If there is a clash between your client and the soundman, you should discuss the matter openly and look for a resolution which will leave both parties satisfied. Turning down will make the mixer a happy man, and make it much easier for him to blend a killer live sound for the fans.

The lighting guy

Of all the crew members, the lighting guy is the one person a guitar technician has to deal with least. That is theoretically and from a technical standpoint. In reality we often have to work around each other on a very cramped stage, which doesn’t always happen without a little friction. There’s only so much space and everybody tries to make the most of it. Everybody has his own rig to take care of, trying all the while to get the job done without being too much in another crew member’s face.

Yes, it’s true, I think that “my” guitars and backline are the most important things of the show, but I also try to imagine walking in the lighting technician’s shoes. Many members of the audience will remember the group’s vocalist and the lighting (and special effects) of a show. The exact placement of the guitar rig will mostly stay unnoticed.

Nevertheless, the position of the amp stack is of vital concern to a guitarist and his guitar tech. The exact placement of an amp has a direct bearing on how (and what) the guitarist will hear on stage. If the client is left dissatisfied with his guitar sound, you can be sure who is going to have some explaining to do – right: the guitar tech.

The backdrop

The backdrop is the easiest way to customize the look of your stage, which is also why it is used so widely. The lighting technician is responsible for the backdrop. The visual appearance, the onstage look, the presentation of the band is what he (or she) is there for.

It is important to decide on a workable and practical size for the backdrop. Three by six metres seems to be a widely-used format. The backdrop should have brass-lined eyelets, which allow you to use rubber loops and/or cable ties to hang the cloth from a lighting truss (or similar fixture).

Modern backdrops should all be non-flammable. When you order your own backdrop remember to ask the supplier for a certificate of non-flammability! Professional venues have zero tolerance, when it comes to flammable backdrops onstage, these days (which is a good thing). So be sure to carry the certificate with you at all times. It is not unusual that the local stage manager will even ascertain himself of a backdrop’s non-flammable status using a cigarette lighter.

While the crew linechecks the artist is on promo duty

The linecheck is crucial for the band technicians. Each sound source, each line feed, and each channel are listened to one by one, making sure every sound comes through loud and clear in the correct mixer channel. During the linecheck it is best to keep the band members off the stage to prevent them from pressing the crew for a soundcheck. Usually this isn’t hard to do: During the day the band will most likely be sightseeing or taking care of promotional duties, such as photographs and interviews. The more famous your clients are, the greater the media’s interest will be. Some big-name artists are even forced to combine their pre-show dinner with giving interviews to the press. In some cases the band might do promotional work right up to the point they step onto stage, which means it has been a long day of work for them, too.

Get some rest whenever you can

The linecheck commences with a constant stream of bass drum kicks. I have finished my pretesting, which allows me to nip off to the backstage area. Linecheck’s always loud enough for the sound to reach me there, too. There’s no sense in standing next to a drum kit being linechecked. I know from experience in which sequence our drum technician works his way through the set and mics. The last two lines checked are the overhead microphones for the cymbals, after which he will play the whole set for a short time.

The boom-boom seems to drift further away. Maybe it’s best to programme an alarm into my phone. Time seems to lose its meaning, and thoughts begin to flow freely in my mind: Did I really hook up the second amp stack? Should I change the strings on the backup electric after all?

My phone’s marimba-tinged alarm tone rips me from my doze, and I wake to the sizzle of cymbals. The sound melange manages to shake me awake immediately – I know where I am and why I’m here. I roll off the sofa and get ready for linechecking the bass rig. I’m ready for action with the bass strapped on and a cup of java in my hand. I’m waiting for a sign from the soundman for me to start. I’m ready!

Power naps

For some reason a little nap during the day works wonders for your concentration, as long as you don’t fall asleep for too long. A good interval for a power nap is 15 minutes. Another technique is to doze off sitting upright on a sofa with a set of keys in your hand. When you drop the keys you’ve crossed the line and have almost fallen asleep. Often this is all you need to reset your brain. Making you feel considerably sharper.

Practice makes perfect. Some might even like to have a 30-minute nap, but waking after a longer sleep might prove rather difficult. You can make do with less. Fifteen minutes of quiet during the day can feel like a long time.

Don’t shread!

Your soundman needs you to riff away in an even loop to help him gauge the venue’s sound. AC/DC-riffs always seem to do the trick! Every mixer likes to hear big chords and simple riffs. Another benefit of choosing AC/DC-material lies in the fact that many of their songs don’t feature any bass during the verses. This gives the soundman the opportunity to make informed decisions based on the drum and guitar technician playing together just by themselves.

A linecheck is not the right place to try to impress everybody with the newest tapping shenanigans you’ve just learnt. You will only get on everybody’s nerves. When the main rhythm sound is done I turn to all of the lead and effect sounds. You should always try to step through all effects combinations (or memory slots) in the same order. This way you won’t forget to check any of the sounds, which means less possibilities for a foul-up during the show.

Having a full crew with you on tour means that a traditional soundcheck often isn’t necessary anymore. The band can relax and take care of their own business. For the crew, the presence or absence of the band can be a double-edged sword: On one hand, not having to do a soundcheck means more time off for the technicians. But on the other hand, having a souncheck will leave everybody better-prepared for the show in the evening.

If the crew and the band have agreed on holding open the option of a soundcheck, everybody has to stick to the agreement. But there should be time scheduled in for the crew’s lunch in-between the linecheck and the soundcheck. Otherwise the sinking blood sugar concentration will make it hard for the crew to stay focussed during soundcheck.

Good food does boost morale

Sometimes you might be tempted to keep on working on a guitar, while all the others shuffle off for lunch. I have learnt, however, that it’s best to finish up with what you do, and then join the rest of the crew for lunch.

Skipping lunch will invariably lead to overeating at dinner time. This, in turn, will lead to all the carbohydrates slowing down your metabolism and making you tired. It best to simply stop what you’re doing, and continue after lunch where you’ve left off.

The crew has assembled to sample the delicacies dished out by today’s catering company. The catering is in direct relation to what had been asked for in advance. If a gig is sold out the promoter often likes to celebrate the occasion with good food. The band will usually still be at their hotel, but the crew will take to the buffet like a pack of hyenas to a fresh carcass. It’s always fun to watch this diverse group of people eat. The coffee’s flowing freely and there’s chatting and joking. The most-demanding part of the day is still a few hours ahead.

The Story continues next week with Part 4 - Sound Check

5.11.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (Translated by: Martin Berka, Pics: Harri Huuhtanen) The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast.