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Sound Techs, Set Ups and Monitor Mixes! Oh My!

Article by Jayson Brinkworth // March 02 2009
Sound Techs, Set Ups and Monitor Mixes! Oh My!

How many sound techs does it take to change a light bulb? Five, one to change it and four to rewire the circuit for maximum output! How ironic, a drummer telling a joke about someone else on a gig. Another great quote from a sound tech is “everyone has two jobs: theirs and sound.”

Seriously though, I have decided to write about sound techs this month and give you my thoughts on becoming a teammate with the tech behind the console. I have had opportunities to work with great sound techs and not so great sound techs, and have learned a lot from these experiences. The great ones are super passionate about their craft, and do—or have—played an instrument at one time or another. The not so great ones, to quote my friend Ken, have “owned a home stereo and think they can mix a live band.”

I have been spoiled in the past year as we have had the same sound crew for every show—one tech doing front house and one doing our monitors. The front house tech controls what the crowd hears, the monitor tech controls what we hear. I view both of these people as integral parts of our show and have nothing but respect for what they do.

THE SOUND TECH

So here it is, you show up at a gig, setup your gear and meet the sound tech for the first time. The tech goes about placing mics on the drums, maybe on stands, maybe clipping them onto the rims. Do we strike up a conversation with this stranger? What do we ask? Do we just let him/her go about their business and keep quiet?

Well, here is what I do. I like to strike up a conversation right away and find out a bit about the person who is in charge of “amplifying” our stage performance. The reason I view this as amplifying instead of mixing is because a good band of players should be able to have a decent stage mix, and the mics just get that loud enough for everyone to hear. I ask questions like, what kind of gigs do they usually mix, or what instrument do they play? I try to get insight into their thoughts on drums in their mix. If they usually mix metal (we are a country band), I sense a lot of bottom end and the vocals being buried. If they have done a good cross section of work, I feel comfortable with them having us sound like we should out front. If they have never played an instrument, I wonder what their sense of dynamics and interaction of instruments are based on.

If they have played, I like to find out what and the kind of music that they dig. If they play drums, we can totally geek out and go on and on as we drummers do. This exchange of conversation can get us all on the same page and make working together more of a pleasure than a struggle. If they mix in the room we are playing all of the time, I will ask questions like, what type of stage volume works best for them? I will also ask about trouble spots such as cymbals and snares and how they carry in the venue. There is nothing worse than having a sound tech that tries to tell you how to play your instrument. I can understand a dynamic concern he/she might have, but I have had techs tell me what sizes of drums and cymbals I should use! With these individuals at the controls, I know the gig will not be what it should be, but I will still try and make the best of the situation.

I love having a positive individual who cares about how the band sounds, and how the material we are playing should sound. They will also have a vast knowledge of micing techniques, instrument placement and overall musicality of the situation.

THE SETUP

When I refer to the setup, I am not speaking only of the drums but of the whole stage, including monitors, main speakers, amplifier placement and mic placement. The placement of mics and monitors is quite crucial as the sound can get caught in a loop and create feedback. I have worked with sound techs who have quickly become known as “Feedback Fred,” as they have had bad stage setups coupled with a limited knowledge of frequencies. Once again I am spoiled because I am able to use my in-ear monitors 98% of the time, making the feedback on my side of things nil. When the stage is filled with live monitor wedges, instead of using in-ear monitors, the mic placement and monitor placement becomes quite crucial.

For the amplifiers in a “dynamically challenged” venue, some sound techs like to move them back stage if possible. If not, they can have them face the back wall or go to an extreme and place plexiglass around the amp. If a tech complains about the stage volume, and does nothing to try and help the situation, I get quite frustrated as this will affect our performance. I know the stage volume has to be controlled, but not to the point of making people play differently than they usually do. This is definitely the case with drummers as we have no volume switch (unless we are playing an electronic kit).

You can refer to my past article on dynamics for more of a rant on this subject. I will always bring thin cymbals and smaller drums to cater to the room—without having to change my playing too much. In a situation where there are a lot of live mics on stage with horn players and vocalists, I will adjust my setup accordingly. I will keep cymbals lower than usual, and I will also muffle the drums a bit and use smaller sticks or brushes. If the sound tech gets what he/she wants off of the stage and the players are comfortable, it should be a great show for everyone.

MONITOR MIXES

The idea of a monitor mix is very subjective and personal. What one person wants to hear on stage can be totally different for the other players. Again I am spoiled as we use the same digital monitor console for every show providing the utmost of consistency. When I do gigs which require me to build a monitor mix, there are a few things I keep in mind. Ideally, I would like to have the same mix as the crowd has, as this would be a great representation of the band’s sound.

This is easier said than done, so when I need to change my game plan here is what I like to hear. I don’t like having a lot of drums in my monitor and really dislike the “drummer PA” that some techs think is necessary. My drums are right in front of me, I can hear them, thank you. I might get a hint of kick, snare, toms and overheads if possible. I also take a minimalist approach to my mix and go in with very low expectations on what I am able to have. I can function without a monitor and definitely have had to…my ears just have to adjust quickly to the atmosphere.

When I do have a monitor, I like to have a bit of bass guitar, just enough to sit on top of the kick drum. The distance the guitar amps are away from me will determine how much I will want in my mix. I like to have a nice stereo picture of the guitars on stage, especially if they are acoustics. As for vocals, I like to have them right out front, usually the loudest thing in my mix. Piano and keys will sit around the guitar volume with additional instruments just below.

As I mentioned this is very personal; I just don’t like a really loud mix. Too much volume can be very distracting and exhausting. I need every ounce of energy for playing the whole show. Also on the subject of mixes, I will use whatever strengths the band has to my advantage. What I mean is, if the bass player is very solid I will bump him up in the mix. If the keyboard player tends to rush the time, I will take less of that outside interference. When I play I am at work, and I need to do my job to the best of my ability. No excuses or exceptions.

If you get a chance to have your own monitor mix on a gig, make sure you take the time to hear what you need. This might take some time to even realize what you need to play your best, but working together with the sound tech will be the start of the process. I also can’t stand when musicians become monitor prima donnas and tweak everything to the last bit. If you are on a gig where there are quick change-overs and several bands, your monitor mix is the last priority. I will make a list of five things I need in my monitor and will let the sound tech know even before we setup. I will write this down for him and save some time with fiddling in a panic. This allows others (the lead singer) to spend more time on their mix, and develops a professional relationship with the show’s tech.

We have to realize that when we play, it is not about us, it is about the music and the team we are working with. The sound tech is an important part of this team and should be respected as such. On your next gig take the time to get to know the sound tech and chat. You will quickly realize that the sooner you get them on your side and breakdown the musician/ tech barrier, the better the gig will be for everyone.




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About the Author
Jayson  Brinkworth

Jayson Brinkworth is an accomplished drummer, percussionist, vocalist, educator and writer based out of Canada. He is co-owner of the Saskatchewan music school Music In The House, as well as the founder of both the Regina Drum Festival and The Stickman Drum Experience.

Jayson proudly endorses Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Evans heads, Impact cases, Kickport, Flix, Future Sonics and Mountain Rhythm. Visit Jayson online at www.jaysonbrinkworth.com.



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