Musicians often view the sound quality of their live shows as something left up to chance. Roll the dice, and you might get lucky and will be blessed with a skilled, patient sound engineer who will help you sound your best. But anger the gods, and you’ll have to suffer through a night of feedback squeals and unconfident playing due to mismatched sound levels. We all dream of the day when we’ll be able to afford to pay a personal sound engineer to run sound at our shows, but that’s a reality far out of reach for most musicians. Less-than-ideal sound conditions are unavoidable in live music performance, but there are things we can do to make things easier for the sound engineers we work with.
Simplify your stage setup before the show
Put yourself in the shoes of your average sound engineer. They’re probably overworked, underpaid, and are constantly looking for ways to make sets run as smoothly as possible. You’re likely to get the best performance from sound engineers if you keep your stage setup simple. Whether it’s pairing down your massive drum kit or taking the initiative to share gear with other performing bands, simplicity translates to better sound because it gives the engineer more time to focus on things like sound levels and EQing.
Show up with everything you need to setup your own instrument
This section mostly applies to newer musicians. A sound engineer’s job is to make sure the band and venue’s sound is as solid as possible, not to setup the performing musician’s instruments. Setting up your instrument and showing up with everything you need for the performance (cables, pedals, stands) will save your sound engineers time and frustration.
Know your venue before you show up to play
Perform long enough, and you’ll soon see that every venue is different. Some small and mid-sized venues invest heavily in their sound systems and engineers. Others adopt a bare bones approach best suited for bands with minimal setups. If you’re a part of the growing number of musicians performing along to stereo tracks, then you’ll want to thoroughly research the sound setups at the venues you play. You might have a phenomenal sound engineer who wants to make you sound great, but last-minute miracles can’t be performed if a venue’s equipment can’t handle your sound needs. Life will be much easier for your sound engineers if you know what sort of sound situations you’re walking into before your shows, not after.
Be humble, kind, and patient
Sound engineering is a tough, thankless job. Above all else, your best bet for getting the best performance from an engineer is to treat them with respect and patience. It can be hard to have empathy for other people when you’re focused on putting on your best performance, but your sound will suffer if you’re rude or demanding to your sound engineer.
So many aspects of making and sharing music seem out of our control, but we do have a say in how prepared we are and how we treat those around us. Treating the sound engineers with respect and showing up prepared and knowledgeable about the venue will give you the best chance at getting great sound.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.