Does Your Band Need A Sound Man?

By Mark Bendig

I have been running sound for a mostly-acoustic oldies band known as Rusty Strings since the band's inception in 2005. At a gig, typically in a club or restaurant, the first part of my job consists of setting up the mixer, power amp, and effects boxes, running the snake to the playing area, and hooking up the instruments and vocal microphones to the snake. During the show, I ride the mixer faders as needed to keep the sound balanced and respond to requests from the band for level changes in the monitors. Afterwards, I detach and stow all the cables and disconnect and pack up all the PA stuff before heading for home.

Obviously, all of the really big bands have a "sound man," usually several. Sometimes there is even a separate person and mixing position just for the (individual) monitors! At the other extreme, an individual person singing and playing an electrified acoustic guitar in a small club could get by with an onstage amp and a small mini-mixer that he or she could adjust as needed right from the playing position. (I have also seen this kind of arrangement used by duos.) In between these opposite poles is a large gray area where having a sound man would be nice, but may or may not be necessary.

Of course, sometimes the venue has a built-in sound system and will provide someone to set it up for you. I will tell you, though, that in all of the dozens of places we have played in these three years, there has been exactly one club with a sound system already installed and someone to help us set up. So, we never assume that this will be the case.

On Your Own

OK. Let's say you have a band like Rusty Strings that is responsible for bringing and setting up your own PA system - mixer, power amp, effects rack, main speakers, monitor speakers, microphones - the works. We'll start by assuming you don't have a sound man. In this case, you will probably have the mixer onstage for easy adjustment of monitor levels. (Being able to adjust these levels yourselves is one of the few advantages of not having a sound man.)

You get to the venue, you hook everything up, you preset all the mixer's fader levels to their "standard" positions (or just leave them where they were after the last show). At the soundcheck (or during the first song of the first set), one of the band members (lead singer?) should actually go out into the audience area to check the balance of the instruments and any vocals that are happening, as well as the overall volume level of the band. Then that person can rejoin the band for the next song after making small up-or-down adjustments as needed to fix any balance or volume problems.

That's about it! After this initial adjustment, you will probably leave the mixer settings alone and just concentrate on playing your music for the rest of the show. As I mentioned, adjustments in monitor levels are easily made whenever required, but the main levels are treated as "set and forget."

With this arrangement, each vocal microphone and any instruments you have running through the PA will remain at a fixed gain, or amplification factor, for the entire show. This means that the singers must be very aware of their microphone distance. None of this business of being close to the mike for one song and far away for another! Multi-part vocals will have to be physically balanced by the band members, with those singing backup or secondary harmony vocals keeping further back from their microphones and lead singers coming up closer.

In addition, lead parts or signature riffs on keyboard or guitar must be turned up by the players themselves, which is tricky since there is no way to know how far to turn it up to achieve the desired prominence but no more.

A Little Help From Your Friend

All of this changes, almost entirely for the better, if you have a sound man to sit in the audience area and work the mixer for you. First of all, the soundcheck (or first song) will be smoother, since everybody who is actually in the band can play and sing while the sound man quickly tweaks the balance and overall volume level. Secondly, the players don't need to worry about turning themselves up for a solo or special part. I'll do it!

But the most important thing I do for Rusty Strings is vocal balancing. Three of the four band members sing, and many of the vocal arrangements are structured as a lead singer plus two backup vocals, or as three-part harmony. In a few cases there are different lead singers in different parts of a song. With a lead singer and two backup vocals, I have to (a) balance the two backup vocals with each other, and (b) keep their level somewhat below that of the lead vocal. With three-part harmony, I have to keep all three levels about the same. With two lead singers, their levels need to be balanced with each other.

As you can imagine, there is a lot of gain-riding needed to accomplish this, especially when you consider that the singers have a tendency to vary their microphone distances unpredictably. (I have found that I am severely hampered if I can't actually see the band and assess moment-to-moment microphone distances.) Basically, I am tweaking vocal levels throughout the entire show! All to maintain the balances I described in the preceding paragraph.

Needless to say, the sound man needs to know the band and the songs pretty well to pull this off. I am lucky in that one of the band members provides me with a set list with the lead singer and lead solo player (if any) for each song. This "crib sheet" helps me preset the mixer faders before each song. The sound man should also be someone who can tolerate a situation where if the band sounds good nobody thinks about him but one blast of feedback, or not enough volume in the house, and he's in the doghouse! If you know someone like that, maybe you should give them a shot at mixing your band live. It can make a real difference in the quality of your sound as heard by the audience.

About the Author

Mark Bendig is The Cheap Advice Guy, owner and operator of, offering "Tips from the trenches on Songwriting, Home Recording, and Live Sound." A series of eBooks on these very topics will be available on the website in Summer 2008.

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