By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
There’s plenty to worry about on tour, but when it comes down to it, what’s more important than sounding your very best? We asked recording engineer/tour manager extraordinaire Madeleine Campbell – who is currently on tour with Chvches and Cherry Glazer – for some tips on keeping it pro.
What’s the best way to make friends with a sound engineer?
Start by showing up on time! If you aren’t sure what time you are supposed to arrive, figure it out. If you are going to be late, let your contact at the venue know.
Be patient. Especially in small clubs and venues of a certain capacity, one person is often fulfilling many roles–front of house engineer (mixing what the audience hears), monitor engineer (mixing what the band hears on stage), stage and production manager, lighting technician, loader, among others. A good engineer will move with a sense of urgency and work as efficiently as possible, but recognize and be sensitive if they are balancing many tasks at once.
What should happen before tour to prepare for smooth soundcheck experiences?
Make a complete and accurate input list/stage plot that will let the sound engineer know how the stage needs to be set up for you. Email it to each venue you will play in advance of the show and bring a printed copy with you in case the sound engineer doesn’t have it with them.
Bring a few backups of whatever accessories you need for your set – instrument cables, power strips, picks, etc. These things seem to break and disappear constantly and it’s not safe to assume a venue will have more for you.
Rehearse before you hit the road. Soundcheck isn’t your practice space.
We’ve only played basement shows and are playing a club with a professional engineer for the first time. What should we expect?
When you get to a venue, introduce yourselves to the house engineer. Ask them if they are ready for you to set up your gear on stage or if you should set it up in another particular place until that time. Ask them where your empty cases should go and stack them neatly. As you set up your gear, the engineer will patch the stage, meaning they will plug each microphone input into their stage box that connects to the mixing board. Once soundcheck starts, each musician will play their instrument one at a time as the sound engineer dials in levels for the house PA and in your monitors. Other musicians should be attentive and not play while their bandmates check their instruments. Be patient, especially if one person is mixing both front of house sound and monitors but don’t hesitate to ask for what you need to play your best show. When you are finished with your set, tear down your gear quickly. Changeover for the next band usually needs to happen in 15 or 20 minutes so wait to talk with your friends until after you clear off the stage.
Any other general sound-related advice?
There is a finite amount of sonic space for a sound engineer to work with before audio signals start distorting and feeding back. Understand that if they ask you to turn something down on stage, they are probably doing you a favor. It likely means the clarity of other instruments on stage is being compromised by that particular one. Be flexible and open to making adjustments as sound systems and room acoustics vary wildly from venue to venue.
Figure out a way to communicate your monitor needs to your sound engineer in a way that works for you individually and as a group. Ask for whatever changes you need one person at a time. It can very quickly turn into several people talking over one another which becomes confusing for everyone. Sometime hand signals work well. If you need more or less of a particular instrument in your mix, raise your hand up or down until the level feels good for you, then give them a thumbs up. It may sound silly, but it really helps to be very clear.
Any GENERAL touring advice for staying alive and happy on the road?
Everyone tours differently but for me, eating well is essential to my mental and physical health. I spend a lot more money on groceries than I normally would while I’m on the road but it’s totally worth it.
Get as much sleep as you can. If you are already tired, that after show party or trip to the bar is not worth it.
Be self-sufficient and punctual. Touring can be mentally and physically exhausting for everyone, no matter what their role within the tour is. No one has the energy to babysit you.
Carve out at least few minutes each day for alone time and fresh air, even if it’s just a walk around the block.
Be respectful to everyone, even if you are tired and having a bad show with a mediocre production crew. The touring world is smaller than you may think, and people remember.