Sound-Check Hell

by Steve LaCerra
in Theory and Practice
Abandon hope all ye who enter here
Abandon hope all ye who enter here

The Ten Dumbest Questions You May Need to Ask When Advancing a Gig

Every once in a while, I need a reality check. Apparently that time is due. As professionals, we ask certain questions when advancing a gig, and often those questions are the same, regardless of whether the gig is an arena, a festival, a theater or a club. Sometimes issues that we don’t anticipate catch us by surprise and make for an unpleasant day. Unfortunately, some such issues were raised at a recent gig, where the house “tech crew” (we’ll be polite here) was extremely unprepared. I thought those days were over, but apparently they are not, thus we have to ask The Ten Dumbest Questions You May Need to Ask When Advancing a Gig.

‡‡         A Questionable Setup

A few weeks before the event, while advancing the show with the house techs, I learned that the venue has one console, and it’s at front of house.

House Engineer: “We run monitors from front of house.”

Me: “I’m sorry, but we don’t do that. We need a separate desk so that our monitor tech can run five stereo IEM mixes plus a wedge mix or two, plus cue.”

House Engineer: “How about if I bring in another (insert name of low-tier digital mixer that I’m not thrilled with, but I acknowledge will do the job) for monitors.”

Me: “Okay, we can make that work.” I’m not trying to drive up costs by making them rent an SSL.

1. How Many Channels in That Snake Actually Work?

I thought this one went the way of the Velociraptor. I should have guessed we were in trouble when we walked into the venue and saw two separate snakes hung from the ceiling between the stage and front of house. Most of those channels worked — at least enough to cover our input list — but I never did get talkback to stage. Oh joy.

2. Do You Have a Mic Splitter? (And do you know how to use it?)

Wow, I thought I could be daft sometimes, but this one is beyond comprehension. Little did I know that I should have asked if they had a split! Imagine our horror when we see two mixing consoles, but no split. REALLY??!!! (I apologize for shouting). Of course, this is after our flight was delayed about four hours, so it’s already close to 5 p.m. If we had arrived at noon, we might have had the chance to round up a splitter locally.

Me: “How in heaven’s name do you propose that we split 30 channels from the stage into two desks without a mic splitter?”

House Engineer: Sheepish look, no response. (But I know he’s thinking “Y-cables”).

Here’s an idea: Perhaps we can network the two desks via Cat. 5 to split the audio. Great in theory, but these desks require expansion cards to network audio, and those cards are not installed. Did I also mention that this is opening day for the venue?

‡‡         Take a Deep Breath…

3. Do You Know the Password for Your Own Router?

While I was busy deep-breathing and practicing relaxation therapy in an attempt to reduce my blood pressure, idea #2 came to my monitor tech, Andy Ascolese. He suggested we could network an iPad to the desk and one of us can mix on a tablet, while the other uses the console surface. Great. There’s got to be a wireless router around here somewhere. If not, we’ll send a runner to Walmart to buy one. Sure enough, there is a router in the venue’s office, but no one knows the password. Duh.

The house engineer has a router in his van, so he gets it. Of course, the passwords are printed on the bottom of both routers, but they’ve been changed, and he doesn’t know them. Can someone please find the box and paperwork from the first router?

Eventually, they do, and we get the password. Meanwhile, it’s getting late -- like, doors were 30 minutes ago, and the first of two support acts are supposed to start momentarily. Good grief. I’m sorry, but they are not starting until we sort out this mess. Have I mentioned that maybe — just maybe — they should have done a trial run before opening the venue with a national act?

Finally, we get the network up. The iPad and the console are on the network and see each other. Great. But wait — there’s more! When we’re using the app, every time we switch between Aux sends (which are feeding the IEMs) the faders snap down to zero! What the fudge? Any attempt to switch from (for example) the drummer’s IEM mix to the lead singer’s IEM mix changes the faders in those mixes. Now we’re really screwed. My monitor tech and I agree that the only way that this show happens tonight is if we both mix from front of house and alternate use of the console between FOH and monitor mixes. Being the steadfast tour manager that I am, I get the opening act on stage. IMHO both support acts should have been cut, but we’ll roll with it.

Opening act #1 is about 25 minutes into their set, and I approach the house engineer once more.

4. Where is the Stage Manager?

Me: “How long are they playing?”

House Engineer: (Shrugs.)

Me: “Tell them that the next song is their last.” The house engineer does so, and they end their set. Yay. Opener #2 starts putting their gear on stage, and they are complaining about the wedge mixes. Really? Too bad. I tell them to start playing and set a time limit. Have I mentioned that they are a local cover band? Are you kidding me? I shoulda’ “trown ‘em out da door” (but I kept my Brooklyn in check).

‡‡         It’s Showtime!

We get my guys on stage (way too late) and of course, there’s mis-patching all over the place.

5. Do You Know How to Count From One to 30?

The house engineer never patched the keyboards or the background vocal mics. It’s a funny thing about wired microphones and DI’s: If you don’t use cables to connect them to the stage box, they often won’t work. To make matters worse, the house engineer has some convoluted routing scheme to patch the returns back to the stage for the IEM mixes. I think it started with the first mix on return H or something like that, which really makes a lot of sense (not). We straighten it out and, finally, the band guys are getting audio to their in-ears. It’s awful, but at least it’s something.

6: Do You Know the Alphabet?

As soon as the show starts, the house engineer and his trusty sidekick completely disappear. I guess they figured it was time for a break, but the way I see it, they were on break for the entire day. In fact I’d daresay that not only were they not helpful but (a) most of my second-year students could have patched rings around them and (b) they were more of a hindrance than if someone had simply dropped a pile of gear for us in an empty room.

7. Will There Be Patrons Upstairs?

Speaking of empty rooms, there was a balcony literally overlooking the stage (you could not see it from the first floor) but someone forgot that we probably needed P.A. cabinets up there. The “house” system was ground-stacked directly below this balcony, firing at the audience. And so (as we have all learned), as there was no P.A. coverage for the seats upstairs, the people in the balcony may have seen the show (barely, given the crappy lighting) but certainly did not hear the show.

8. Where Are My Dancing Shoes?

You shoulda’ seen Andy and I dancing behind the console at front of house. I’d make a move or two and step back, then he’d pull up a monitor mix, do the same and return the console to the house mix. This continued for two hours. I don’t know how the heck we pulled it off. It was like audio ballet.

9. Ask the Obvious Questions

What have we learned? First and foremost, we must be kind to small furry animals and audio techs who are not as blessed as we are. Long ago, I realized that raising a ruckus can be futile in such situations, and energy is better spent finding a solution to a problem — as opposed to complaining about it. If you suspect that you may not be dealing with experienced professionals, recall that advice from my fifth-grade teacher: The only stupid question is the one that is never asked.

And when all else fails, skip directly to:

10. Where is our Bottle of Jack?

Steve “Woody” La Cerra is the tour manager and FOH engineer for Blue Öyster Cult.