The view from the sound booth


For many musicians, soundmen are somewhere between club owners and bartenders. The truth, however, is that musicians need soundmen: If the soundman is incompetent, you sound like crap. If they're good, they can make you sound like you want to sound.

I've been fortunate enough to tour as a guitar and bass tech with Sonic Youth, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Air, Luna, Yo La Tengo, the Mavericks, Fountains of Wayne and many others. Some of the guys I've met at work graciously agreed to share, and they have impressive credits of their own. Pete Keppler did sound for David Bowie for two years; he now handles monitors on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Kenny Lienhardt, a former studio owner, is the main soundman for New York's Bowery Ballroom. Mike Fanuele has worked with Dashboard Confessional and Jimmie Vaughan; he also mixed the "superstar jam" at last year's Crossroads Guitar Festival, which featured Vaughan, Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. And former bassist Evan Player's credits include Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn, Fountains of Wayne and the Shins.

I picked their brains to find out how bass players can make thrive in the chaotic context of the stage, which is worlds away from the controlled environment of a recording studio or rehearsal hall. Their suggestions should go a long way toward helping you get along with your next soundman.

1. BE NICE. Think you're the only band the sound person's mixing tonight? Getting on his bad side is a surefire way to ruin your evening. And believe it or not, his job depends on you sounding good.

2. TIP THE SOUNDPERSON. Nothing says "Please don't press the suck button tonight" like a smile, a handshake, and a ten-spot. Try it on your next gig!

3. PLOT IT OUT. Wanna score points With the house guY? Show it at sOundcheck With a printed stage plot indicating how you want the band arranged on the stage and miked. This is an amazing time-saver.

4. BE FLEXIBLE. Be aware of how much space the band takes up onstage. Depending on the stage shape and size, you may have no choice but to change your normal setup. If you're the opener, make do with what you're given.

S. STICK AROUND. Soundmen often complain that we disappear right before soundcheck. We all want to go find the used record shop or meet friends, so be ready to check and avoid wasting time.

6. BE QUIET. Soundchecks can be long and boring affairs, but being quiet when your bandmates are checking speeds things along. Really.

7. GROW SOME BOOTY. If the club's sucking up your low end, get bootyful by placing the cabinet against a wall or, better yet, in a corner. This creates a reflective surface and will boost low frequencies.

8. GET PUNCHY. "How many times have you heard a bass player's open E-string booming -- but you're not sure what notes he's playing?" asks Leinhardt. "Find a tone that's punchy; we need clear notes for the monitors. Cut that low end below 200Hz and let the soundman do the rest using the D.1. line and the EQ on the desk." If the room is big and boomy, try moving your amp away from a comer, or de-coupling it from the stage by putting it on a crate, chair or foam. Bass with excess low-mid presence will often bleed into the vocal microphones, or into the room in general, and overtake a mix.

9. START FRESH. Be prepared to disregard the EQ settings you use in your rehearsal studio. Every venue has its own quirks, and nobody knows the room better than the soundman.

10. LET THE P.A. DO THE WORK. "Lots of bass players make the mistake of jacking up the low end of their rigs to get a super-fat tone," says Leinhardt, "but doing that just unbalances the mix between the P.A. sound and the stage sound. Leave the super-low stuff for the P.A. subwoofers."

11. SOUNDCHECK FOR THE GIG. If YOu won't be slapping on the gig, don't spend YOur sOundcheck plaYing "Higher Ground" -- the soundman needs to get a realistic view of your tone and approach.

12. STOP SMILING. "I hate to see guys with big rigs full of gear, and then their tone is a 'scooped out' sound that has only super lows you can feel but not really hear, combined with a tinny, slappy high end," fumes Lienhardt. "They have a 'smile curve' on their graphic EQs that eliminates all frequencies from 200 to 2000 -- all notes between low E and the highest octave. NO tone!"

13. PRACTICE. Keppler says bad technique causes bad sound, too, "Most of your sound will come from your fingers and the pickup, so work on your technique. Hitting the pickups with your fingers and excessive fret noise will force the soundman to cut upper mids and treble frequencies that would otherwise sound good."

15. SET UP RIGHT. Be aware of how much space your band takes up and where your gear will be set up onstage. Some drummers prefer bass players to set up on the drummers' hi-hat side for easy eye-contact. Deciding before you get to the club will make everyone's jobs easier.

16. DON'T DO IN-EARS UNLESS ... Inear monitors help keep the stage volume down, but you'll probably miss feeling the bass. (Some bassists compromise by using in-ear monitors and having subs on either side of the stage.) Patching to the board can be tricky with in-ears, and if you don't have your own soundman, you'll be at the mercy of the house guy, which can be disastrous.

  • 17. MONITOR YOURSElf, Using monitors and side fills effectively is key to a
  • good live mix. Keppler recommends
  • putting yourself in the wedge to help keep
  • stage level down, and only put what you
  • need in your monitor. And unless you're
  • Celine Dion, skip the reverb and delay.

18. GO DIRECT. Many bass players swear by miked tone, but any soundman'll tell you that the D.L signal preserves the low end and sends a strong, full-spectrum sound to the desk. Sound engineers love it when our heads or combos have level control; ground lifrs -- which should be standard on every amp -- are essential when dealing with questionable electricity or lines shared with lighting systems.

19 BACK IT UP. Should your amp fail, a separate D.L box will ensure that your signal is still going to the house and to the monitors. If you're concerned that the D.L box will change your tone, then be aware of how your amp's D.Lline sounds, tell the soundman what kind of tone you're looking for, and ask his opinion on the best way to achieve it.

20. CHOOSE A 0.1. OVER THE MIKE. Soundmen use mikes for "fingers" and D.L's for ''balls,'' but in small clubs with too few soundboard channels -- or at festivals, where they have 30 seconds to check the entire band -- Fanuele predicts they'll choose the D.L Eliminating or ignoring the bass mike helps the soundperson zero in on the signal in the P.A.; it also removes the chance of phase problems, which might occur when there are two audio sources for the same signal.
should also get to know
their instrument and rig,
Is/our tone a result of your bass
an its pickups or your amp? "Some
instruments need a good amp and EQ to
sound good: others have a distinctive
tone you should enhance," says Fanuele.
ZZ BE PATIENT, You might think the
bass sounds like crap in the house, but remember: Human bodies, which are essentially bags of water, act as bass traps. "Bass players freak out when they sound washy and indistinct during soundcheck in an empty room, but they'll sound much better when the club fills up," says Keppler.

23. PICK THE RIGHT CABLE. Every IS feet of instrument cable robs you of 3 dB of high end and gain. Keep
your cables to six feet or under. Don't mix
speaker and instrument cables. Using thicker,
two-conductor low-gauge cables (12-gauge
is a good standard) will help you send strong
signal to speakers.
Z4 PLUG IN. Avoid going wireless-it
adds another piece of gear between
the bass and the amp and will degrade
your sound. It also invites technical problems.
Z 5 TURN DOWN. "I have three tips for
bass players," says Player. "One:
Tum down. Two: Tum down.
Three: Tum down. If you're too loud, the
soundman will just take you out of the mix." _