Showtime! A Day in the Life of a Guitar Tech Pt. 4 - Sound Check

The crew has had its lunch. There has been a linecheck and the PA is up and running. We are ready for a soundcheck. Up until now everything has been going according to plan. I have even managed to relax a little and fill up on coffee. It’s not yet clear, whether there’ll be a soundcheck today, but we’re ready for the eventuality just the same.

Some bands feel that a soundcheck disturbs the natural flow of their day on tour, thus having a negative consequence on the show itself. Other acts like to soundcheck for hours, just up until the point when the doors open for the audience. Most bands at least turn up for the first couple of days, until they’re certain that a soundcheck is superfluous to requirements. This means they put all their trust into us, their crew.

Don’t make the artists wait!

The tour manager has informed us that the band will indeed be attending soundcheck today. They have left their hotel a few minutes before, so the crew gets everything ready for their arrival. A touring day is scheduled in such a way, as to make the band wait the least possible amount of time. A delay, right before the soundcheck is scheduled to begin, would put the crew’s work in an unfavourable light. If there’s a hiccup you should inform the artists as soon as possible.

The band arrives, we say hello, and I go over last night’s gig with my client. If yesterday’s show went down well I will keep his set-up and settings the same. The soundcheck is the best place to go over any problems that may have occurred during the last show. Right after a show there usually isn’t enough time for this.

If the artist wants you to change something you should fulfill his wishes. He’s your boss, and he is the one who has to step on stage in front of a large audience.

Rehearsing and songwriting on tour

Even though the primary objective of a soundcheck is to iron out any technical problems, often a tour’s tight schedule can make it difficult for a band to keep up their chops or rehearse new material on the road. Sometimes, when a band know they have studio time booked right after their tour, they will attend soundchecks much more regularly. The deadlines loom and the band want to have fresh material routined and ready for recording.

Luckily, we live in the age of laptops, tablets and portable digital studios. It’s very easy to take inspiring effects and amp-modelling technology with you to the hotel room. Many guitarists carry portable recording equipment with them, these days, and manage to combine combatting the boredom of a long tour with writing and practicing new material. A lot of acts write at least some of their new material while on tour.

Writing on tour isn’t always an easy undertaking, though. A tour can be such a grinding, power-sucking experience that having to write new songs seems too hard to bear. I have great respect for musicians who can be creative in the midst of a tour. If you’re working for a client who seems to be willing to fire up his creativity, you – the guitar tech – can help him.

You could, for example, assemble a compact rig for the guitarist, selecting a pair of headphones, a guitar, a pack of plecks, a guitar lead and a few spare batteries. You could arrange for this compact rig to be made available for your client’s use on the tour bus or in a suitable dressing room backstage, turning songwriting into something of a routine.

People cannot be creative all the time and every day, but it’s good to supply them with the means to hone their craft, in case inspiration might strike them. It’s a good thing if the band can come up with good new material while on tour. If everybody’s really lucky, you might find yourself on tour again next year, on the power of some of the riffs your client has come up with during this tour.

Listen to your client’s wishes

If you’re only beginning your stint as a guitarist’s technician, soundcheck provides a good opportunity to find out how your client likes to work on stage, and what to do in case of a broken string during the set. You should practice emergency instrument changes at least a handful of times, so both of you get at least some sort of feel for the procedure. When the show is on and adrenaline levels are high some details of what has been agreed on can be forgotten easily. You should also discuss where the artist would like to find his plecks, his capo, his slide, his setlist, his towels, and his onstage refreshments.

Build up mutual trust

As a band technician you have to have some social skills, too. There are many different types of personality you may encounter, and it’s important that you know how to calm down stressful situations for your specific client.

You have to be able to communicate with “your” artist. Ideally, you should be able to tell your client if he’s making any small mistakes that have a negative effect on his tone. He (or she) might be hitting the strings in such a way that they hit the pickup’s pole pieces, causing choppy metallic noises. He might be selecting the wrong effects for a certain song, several nights in a row. Your mutual trust should be strong enough that your artist takes in your criticism without getting angry or feeling hurt.

The old adage of not biting the hand that feeds you still applies. Always remember that when it comes down to it, the artist is your employer, and because he pays you he is always “right”! There might be differences of opinion and artistic taste, granted. Sometimes you will even have to resort to some sort of psychological “trick” to help your client save face and think that a certain change (that you felt was needed) was his own idea, after all. This isn’t always easy, I can tell you!

The height of the mic stand

Once your client has found his preferred spot and height for his microphone stand, you should determine the stand’s position in relation to his pedals using a simple plumb line. Use a non-flexible piece of string or cable with a nut (or a bolt etc.) for a weight. Use the plumb line to determine the height of the mic above the pedalboard, as well as the mic’s position above the ‘board.

Even though the plumb line will give you quite precise mic set-ups, things can still go wrong sometimes. One of the guitarists I have tech’ed for told me it took him the better part of a tour to find out, that the change in mic position was due to the different type of shoes he was wearing for the show. At the soundchecks everything was OK, but after he had changed for the gig the microphone was at a slightly wrong height!

And you shouldn’t forget that many people have to touch their mic before starting to sing backing vocals, regardless of the fact that the mic already is in the correct position.

Should you mute or not?

It is very advisable to get a clear picture of how the guitarist wants to be handed his instrument at the start of the show. Make sure you both are clear on what has been agreed, as during the heady atmosphere at showtime your memories may not be so clear anymore. Does he (or she) want to get the instrument somewhere backstage or in the wings of the stage? Or does the guitarist prefer to find his instrument parked in a stand next to the amplifier? You should also know, whether the guitar’s controls should be turned on or off when the guitar is handed over. Which pickup should be selected? Which amp channel should be running? What effects are on? And most importantly: Should you leave the tuner on (with the signal muted)?

There are several alternative, basic scenarios:

  1. The tuner is on (in mute). The guitarist steps onstage, takes his guitar from the stand and switches the tuner off. Now the signal is on. Most guitarists will scrape the strings a couple of times to make sure there’s a signal. The intro tape is rolling, the crowd are cheering and the PA’s guitar channels are still muted – so nobody will really notice his two little, choppy “chink-chinks”.
  2. The tuner is off (the signal is on), but the guitar’s volume is turned all the way down. The guitarist steps onstage, takes his guitar from the stand and turns the volume control up. His technician watches him closely, ready to move onto the stage to turn the guitar up for him (and maybe check there’s a signal).
  3. Handing over the guitar as the artists steps on stage. You help him put it on, hand him his plectrum and open the volume control. This way practically nothing can go wrong – your client only has to start playing.

Number one in the favoured choice of younger players, while older guitarists tend to prefer number two. Pedal tuners only became widely available during the 1990s. Before then all the tuning was handled by the backliner with a strobe tuner. In the old days players often checked the tuning by holding the guitar against their ear and strumming it, before turning the volume up. Then they would play the show until the instrument was so badly out of tune it had to be changed.

The main thing is that the guitarist can trust in his technician – he must feel sure that everything is taken are of. And he must know that there is somebody to remind him, in case he forgot to turn up his guitar’s volume control.

Let’s do it just like yesterday!

Once you’ve agreed on all pre-show and onstage procedures make sure to stick with them! A seasoned artist may have an ingrained, muscle memory of where all his accessories are. Don’t try to force changes on “your” artist. Musicians tend to stick to their routines even more steadfastly than the crew sticks to theirs. If last night’s show was all right don’t go changing anything. Only change routines if your client asks for a change. Nobody likes surprises during a show. Everybody likes things running smoothly in their usual fashion, helping them to put on a decent show, even if it’s not their “best day ever”.

The headliner’s backline stays put

After the soundcheck the headliner’s backline and drums stay exactly where they are. It is normal practice that any support act has to put up their own equipment without moving the headliner’s gear. A support act sets up their backline well in front of the headlining act’s. Sometimes this rule causes tensions – especially with inexperienced supporting bands – but there’s a reason to this practice: The crew has spend all day making sure the headliner’s rig is in perfect condition and that the sound is superb, both on stage as well as in the house. If you start moving around risers or monitors this balance is disturbed, and all the work of the band technicians and the soundmen has gone to waste.

A supporting act often tends to try and rush onto stage right after the last note of the headliners’ soundcheck. You must tell them politely to hold their horses for just a little longer. The headliner’s crew first have to make sure that the stage is ready for the support act.

The guitar tech marks out the exact spot for the pedalboards with tape, before removing the ‘boards and their cable snakes to a safe spot behind the amp cabinets. The monitor technician marks the positions of the stage monitors, before moving them to the sides of the stage. All superfluous cables are removed, while the local crew gets the stage boxes ready for the supporting band. Now we are ready to let the support act take to the stage.

The backline is covered up

The crew uses several pieces of cloth to neatly cover up the headliner’s drum kit and amps. There are several good reasons for this: It is considerate toward the opening act to dress up the stage more darkly, because a shining drum kit would distract the audience from the warm-up band’s performance. Secondly, covering the backline prevents dust and smoke from settling on and inside the equipment. Furthermore, you prevent nosey or mischievous characters from tampering with the main act’s equipment. Besides, it is always something special for the audience to get their first look of the headlining band’s shining drum set. We all have our pleasures.

The support act is let in

Once the stage is ready, the supporting band is asked to come on stage. If there are still stagehands hanging around you might ask them to give the support act a hand. If the stagehands have gone home the backliners should be polite enough to help them with their largest pieces of gear.

A warm-up band is always a source for concern to the headliner’s crew. In an ideal world the opening act would take care not to make a nuisance of themselves. A supporting act should be aware of its proper place in the touring hierarchy, by not making life more difficult for the headliner’s band techs.

On some tours the support acts change on a daily basis, consisting of local bands, often hired in by the promoters to give a further boost to ticket sales. This makes life even more difficult for the main act’s crew.

The best-case scenario has the headliner and the warm-up act stay together at least for a whole leg of the tour. This leads to everybody getting to know each other, and working out the best ways to get the shows on stage with the least amount of problems. After a few shows everything will start running like clockwork.

There’s not much time

If the headlining band has had a long soundcheck there might not be all that much time for the warm-up band to get their equipment up and running. A clever headlining act factors in at least enough time (in theory) for a short warm-up soundcheck of the support act’s equipment. But most supporting acts have to live with being forced to set up in a huge hurry, and going on without any prior soundcheck, if they want to stay on the ticket.

If you’re in an opening act, you should prepare yourselves for being pushed onstage with no soundcheck whatsoever. I’ve seen bands who have managed to set up in a few minutes flat, played a cracking show, and packed up in just another few minutes, before loading everything into their own van and setting off for the next stop of the tour. These days, there’s a lot of heavy competition throughout the world. You should be prepared to put in an extra effort to leave a favourable impression with the headliner’s touring organization. Slackers won’t do…

Doors

Just before the doors are opened to the public there is a last rush of activity. There’s always something left to do. Letting the audience in means a complete ceasing of activity on the stage from the crew’s perspective. The venue’s staff ask the tour manager for permission to open the doors. The tour manager, for his part, makes sure that the crew is ready to vacate the stage.

I have a last look around my workspace, grab anything that will not be needed during the show, and make my way to the backstage area. You can already sense the electricity from the fans waiting in the foyer. Soon I hear the sound of the doors opening and the rush of the fans to take their places right in front of the stage. I feel a sense of relief. The next few hours are set aside for rest. Time to make contact with the outer world.

The Story continues next week with Part 5 - Time to Rest and Think

12.11.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (Translated by: Martin Berka, Pics: Harri Huuhtanen) The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast.