Know Your Sound Guy.

Sound setup in action
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Know Your Sound Guy.

Posted On27/04/2019
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It was a hot April afternoon (read: 43 degrees Celsius), and i got a chance to attend the sound-check of a band that was visiting from another city. They had brought along their own FOH (Front Of House) engineer. The communication between the FOH engineer and the band members on-stage went on smoothly, as they have been working together for several years now.

The end-result at this concert? The audience was pleased with what they heard and experienced. And danced away to famous tunes with a lot of energy, till the Supreme Court order of 10pm set in.

Switch to another Hindustani classical concert (sometime in the winters last year), where the sound setup is usually different (read: basic). The audience is seated on the floor here. The “sound guy” is a local fellow working with the local sound rental company. And he is seated… behind the stage! Maybe we could call him a BOH engineer? Ahem, bad joke.

This eminent Santoor player walks in a dignified manner on the small stage, after the tanpura players and the tabla player have taken their places. The mics have been kept in position. But it is only now that the tanpura, tabla and santoor tuning begins in front of a waiting audience. In one such concert i had attended years ago, Ustad Zakir Hussain joked to the audience – “You will now hear a Chinese piece of music for a short while… It is called ‘too-ning’ ”. The audience burst into a laughter. Smart way of handling situations where the sound-check begins with a seated audience.

Let us get back to the classical concert scenario: Our Santoor player gives some instruction to the sound guy, and so does the tabla player. They speak into the mic directly for him to hear on the main speakers, and for all to listen. After a while, the audience starts getting a little impatient.

The musicians on stage have never met the sound guy before. They don’t know his name either. And they keep saying, “bhaiyya do this… bhaiyya do that.” And the obedient bhaiyya (brother) tweaks the knobs on his console to get closer to their demands. But even during the performance, some in-between vocal instructions – (no hand signs because our friend is behind the stage) – like, “EQ sharper / add more reverb / lower the tabla, etc.” hamper the overall experience.

And this is where lies the importance of a sound-check much before a concert begins at the advertised time. And more importantly, knowing your “sound guy” on the console is crucial.

The sound guy (or girl) is a very important part of a musical event that most bands or musicians don’t really think about – unless he is touring with you. He can make your show a hit or a flop, in spite of your skilled musicianship! Really? Ask any audience and “sound mast tha” is one key feedback. Pun not intended.

So, you have to know how to approach the local sound guys, and get them on your team for the short amount of time that you spend with them. Many musicians even shout at them (watch this video) once in a while for not getting the sound right! The artist / band or their fans may attribute or defend such behaviour to extensive travel, the heat or something else. But is that okay?

Here are some suggested tips to help build a quick rapport with the local sound in-charge as soon as you reach the performance venue.

1. Remember 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 of times during your show. If you begin treating him with respect from the word go, he will most likely return this sentiment.

There are various sound guys out there – good ones and “bad” ones. Their equipment may or may not be world class all the time. Maybe the sound guy at one of your shows is a typically older, failed musician who has been at that venue for years. They usually get treated like a sidekick or an idiot by many young bands who themselves have no experience on performing live.

2. Don’t start playing till everything is ready
Set up all your gear first, but don’t start wailing on the guitar or hit the drums until all the mics are in place and he’s back by the board. Unlike in the West, we in India try to start warming up till we are told to do so by the sound guy. And even when he is checking a flute player’s levels, the drummer keep fiddling with his own kit. It’s a very irritating and an unprofessional thing to do.

3. Send your Tech rider in advance
Most well-paid bands do send a tech rider (a list of preferred sound equipment) to the event company so that there is no confusion on stage when they arrive to setup their own musical instruments. However, in case the local PA guy (who may not have the best mics you may want) does not deliver, try to work out alternatives. Hence arriving for a sound-check well before the show starts makes a lot of sense – especially in the smaller towns of India.

4. Thank your sound team after the show
Yes it is tiring enough to perform live, and then sometimes the band has to head straight to the airport from the venue. But take 2 minutes and personally go thank the sound and light crew to tell them how you felt, how they could do better, or share some kind words. It will go a long way.

So the next time, you utter “O sound-wale bhaiyya“, make sure you be-friend him first. And let the audience enjoy a truly great show. Keep rocking.

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