Advice from Sasha- If the Sound Guy (or Girl) is happy, everyone is happy

The Sound Guy

Making the “Sound Guy” Happy. (Please note that “Sound Guy” encompasses both male and female professionals who run live sound for bands.-I’m looking at YOU awesome sound lady from Howler’s in Pittsburgh!)

Reporting to you from Charlottesville Virginia, your rock ‘n roll ambassador from Maine, Ms. Sasha Alcott is ready to tell you how to make your Sound Guy happy. We’re on tour which means that there are some gigs along our journey during which we might not be able to pull in a big crowd. I’ve never been to Charlottesville, and neither has Chris. So there’s no one on our list of friends or fans that we can call upon to come out tonight and enjoy a set of When Particles Collide songs.  This particular circumstance of the “gig without a crowd” is often the status quo for the unsigned touring band. Point being, tonight we might very well be playing to the other bands, the bartender and of course, the sound guy.  During this scenario it is of the utmost importance that we create the best possible live music experience for those in attendance. Even more so than the other bands and the bartender, it is of the utmost importance that we make a good impression on the person running sound. And honestly, even if we were playing to a sold-out crowd at the State Theater in Portland the next night, the same principles of “how to make your sound guy happy” would apply.

One of the reasons why I want to write this column is because, on Saturday night, we had the pleasure to share a bill with a band possessing that rare combination of inexperience, humility, talent and sincere creativity. At a club in Staten Island NY we watched three young women run through a set of original tunes during which they sang heartbreaking harmonies, combined creative drums/bass and guitar lines in simple but new ways and charmed the audience with their heartwarming interpersonal interactions. They also provided many challenges for the sound guy, and at the end of the night, I just couldn’t help but tell this promising young band how to make their transition from living room song-writers to indie-rock darlings smoother for everyone involved.

Among the nuggets of wisdom I shared with these young ladies, are the following:

  • Get your face right up on the microphone. The ability of a microphone to amplify sound is (in most cases) related to the inverse square of the distance between your mouth and the mic. Too much math? Simple interpretation: The closer your are to the mic, the better. If you’re far away from the mic, then the sound guy has to turn up the gain on his or her end making feedback and the amplification of unwanted sounds much more likely.  As a general rule of thumb for myself: If I don’t put pink lipstick all over the mic, I’m simply not doing my job.
  • Practice in a “live” configuration. In other words, place your singers with their backs to the drummer and make sure your instrumentalists can play facing the audience and can let go of the need to look at the drummer and each other.
  • You can ask for more or less of whatever you need in your monitor, but after the third song, just deal with what you’ve got and play your best. No audience member and no sound guy wants to fiddle knobs throughout your set.
  • Keep your amplifier stage volume as low as you can. Playing a show is not like rehearsing. When Chris and I practice I like to literally feel the push of air molecules from my guitar amplifier. I like to feel surrounded by sound. But this is not the best recipe for live sound. Giving the sound guy the cleanest palette with which to work means that the sound in the room will be the best sound possible. If I can hear my vocals nice and loud, catch the pitch of the guitar and hear the smack of the snare and the kick of bass drum, then I can deliver the best possible vocals and rhythm guitar performance possible without muddling my own vocal and guitar performance. The sound guy can blend all the well delivered sounds from the stage at his or her console and finally give the audience that sense of being enveloped by the sound. If my stage volume is too loud, then the audience will struggle to hear the vocals and feel like they are surrounded, not buy the sonic blanket of rock ‘n roll but by the oppressive and relentless mire thick and distorted mud.
  • When the sound guy is putting mics on your amp/drums etc. DO NOT play your instrument. His or her ear, while setting up is usually very close to the origin of these sounds and they need to protect their ears. Good ears are how they make their living.
  • Let the sound guy know, up front, how much reverb you would like on your vocals.
  • When you run a song as part of a line or sound check make sure you include your loudest and softest volumes. Even if you need to play a bit of one song and then a bit of another, let the sound person know what your upper and lower decibel levels are going to be.
  • Take the time to get the tones/monitor levels that you need, but be as quick as possible. Be a professional, don’t be a prima donna. If you’re an indie musician, the sound person is getting paid, you may or may not be getting paid. Treat the true professional with the respect he or she deserves.
  • Get off the stage as quickly as possible.

If I think of some other tidbit of advice I have thus far neglected in the “Sound Guy” category, I will update this post after we complete our February tour. Until that time, please support your local musicians, work graciously with your local sound people and enjoy all the glory and humbling experiences of being an independent musician. We’ll see you soon Maine.