“Don’t piss off the sound man” and other useful tips.

There’s tons of little known important tips and tricks to being hired, called back, and liked in the music community. There are many many more ways to lose the job and never get another chance. Here’s a number of things I’ve learned firsthand that’ll help in any live music venue. Okay, some of them are things I’ve learned from friends, but I left out all the urban legends. Don’t worry though, there’s still lots of entertaining feats of stupidity here.

Don’t piss off the sound man.

A thousand examples come to mind for this, both as a musician and a sound dude. Remember, the sound guy shows up early, goes home late, carries more equipment than the entire band, gets paid less, and has to listen carefully to music no one else will.

I was running sound for a medium-sized public outdoor venue. Thrilled to be running audio for a bunch of top name jazz artists week after week, I got the job because I was cheaper than anyone else. This is always a bad sign. I ran the whole thing, schlepping the whole system in and out myself and trying to keep the performers happy while still providing good front of house. Great gig, great music, no support from the organizer. This guy, who also emceed the shows, knows nothing about sound, jazz or music, though he DOES hold a PhD in jazz history or something. Consequently, he has a tendency to say the wrong thing to performers at odd times and ask for equipment that isn’t there… At the last show, he was thanking the crew, management, artists, when I saw my chance. As he got to, “And I’d like to thank Russ Haines, the sound engineer, without whom…” I killed the mains. The lips keep moving, but no sound comes out. He talks a bit more before noticing, so I miraculously turn the volume back up just as we hear the classic, “[thump, thump] …hey, is this thing on?” which causes the audience to crack up. I thought it was a good-natured non-injurious joke, but I didn’t get hired back the next year…

Don’t shake hands with new band members on stage.

Learned this one from Glen Garrett at Northridge. This sounded useless and stupid when I first heard it, but the better you get, the more calls you get to sit in with folks. Eventually, you’ll start filling in for pit bands or play standards in clubs with people you’ve never rehearsed with. If you read well, any band with a complete book can use you as a sub. Most bands can agree on at least a few sets of standards you can safely sit in on. You can always tell the newbie when he shows up on the bandstand and tries to be polite by introducing himself to the other players by shaking hands. As Glen put it, “This is death onstage.” You can do it verbally, you can do it backstage, but shaking hands where the audience can see it just lets them know you’ve never met the other musicians before. They’ve paid to get in to hear the band, or a “name” performer, and they expect the band to be a unit. Shaking hands lets them know they blew twenty bucks on a group that lets people sit in during a gig. Remember that most people can’t tell the difference between good music and music that looks good. Don’t give them a reason to wonder.

Don’t ask for more guitar in the monitors.

There are plenty of exceptions to this rule if we’re talking about acoustic guitar or direct feeds, but not a full stack in a club. A friend was running sound at a big local club. The band was a full-shred death metal local band with pretentions of getting a contract. They hadn’t played out much but wanted to sound cool and professional at what might’ve been their first big break. Lots of props, lots of amps. As I recall there were at least two or three guitarist with at least full Marshall stacks each, maybe two stacks for the lead. This alone was almost a match for the output of the entire house PA. Being a nice guy, my friend agreed to mic the guitar amps, not because he thought it would be needed but because the band really thought it was necessary. After all, he could just leave the faders down on those channels… or not plug in the cables at the board… They get onstage as the second or third act of the night so there’s no sound check except a few “Check, check” by the lead vocalist. The volume they need is clearly going to be a full “10” from the monitors. As they start up their set with all sorts of feedback issues to contend with, not only does the vocalist need more in the monitors, but the guitarists start saying they can’t hear their guitars. “More guitar in the monitors,” was the call over and over again. Call me narrow minded, but if you’re standing in front of a hot full stack on “11” in a club and you can’t hear it, there’s something seriously wrong with you, not the PA. There’s was so much coming out of the stage that front of house was almost completely off. There’s no way to rescue the sound at that point. Remember, it’s the audience that matters. Trust the sound guy or bring your own.

Don’t touch other people’s equipment without asking.

Most musicians have spent more time touching the instrument they play than wearing underwear. It’s a day in, day out commitment. Grabbing someone’s ax without asking is a violation of personal space. If you don’t like that reasoning, here’s some GOOD reasons: A guy picks up the electric guitar just dropped on the stage only to find out it was dropped because there’s AC going through it. Or how about you make a tweak on the board when the engineer’s not watching to make something “sound better”, when feedback ensues the engineer can’t find the source immediately. Just don’t do it. It’s rude.

Rehearse with your audio engineer.

Ever wonder why amateur and mediocre bands sound boring after a few songs. There’s a good chance part of it is because there’s no one making valid and interesting changes on the mixer. Getting channels up and down at the right place in a song can give the band dynamics. At least it can keep the stage volume down by giving the right instrument focus at the correct time. It also gives you a chance to get “your sound” across to the audience. There’s a Count Basie record mixed live by a guy who didn’t know jazz and hadn’t heard Basie. Count Basie, for you heathens who don’t know, was a jazz big band leader famous for playing very sparsely often with only one or two notes every few bars. The engineer, thinking Basie should be featured because it’s Basie’s band, mixed the whole album with the piano cranked up like a featured soloist. The liner notes try to redeem the album by suggesting the listener really gets a chance to hear what Count Basie is playing all the time. ACK! It’s a big band. Actually I’ve had the same thing occur when I was in a big band and when I was second (or third) engineer for a big band: the House Sound Dude sets up eight mics for the drums, but can’t find one for the tenor soloist… or the alto… or the trumpet. “It’s a trumpet, we’ll hear it. Trumpets are loud.” Arggghhhh…

Listen to the sound man.

You’ve got to hope the Sound Dude is there for a reason. If you’re lucky, he’s got at least a vague clue how to get a decent sound in the venue. Chances are he’s on your side: the better you sound, the better he sounds. Until you piss him off, then all bets are off. He’s likely to have some suggestions that will help get the best sound to the audience. Frequently this may include turning down an instrument. Guitarists often won’t believe in turning down, thinking their sound will be compromised. But most small and medium venues weren’t designed with acoustics in mind. The frequencies that travel well are the low mids and below; the louder you get, the muddier the sound away from the speakers. By paying attention to the sound man, you might be able to avoid the “wall of mud” syndrome. Maybe the stage responds sympathetically if the bass amp is in a certain spot. Maybe the kick drum slaps against the rear wall if pointed in the wrong direction. There’s lots of things you can’t possibly know if you’re onstage. The sound man may be your best friend. Maybe your only friend.

Don’t choke up on the mic unless you really want that sound.

Wrapping your hand around the windscreen of the mic is generally a bad thing. Many amateurs do it because they think it looks cool. I’ve heard some say they do it to hear themselves better. If choking up helps you sound better, you need to get a better monitoring system. What’s really happening is mostly bad. You’re defeating most of the feedback rejection properties of the microphone, making it hard or impossible for the sound dude to maintain the volume -usually he’ll have to turn down to avoid ringing or feedback if you’re running at more than half volume. I feel embarrassed watching vocalists who choke up on a mic for no good reason or who try to control volume by waving the microphone around. Both of these things are good and useful if and only if you’ve practiced them and know how to control the effect. This is hardly ever the case.

Don’t point the mic at the monitor.

A cool counterexample for this rule comes from a time I was shmoozing with the owner of a large pro audio company. We were at a new venue where he was showing me his live audio reinforcement rig (about 5-10kW). Sitting behind an impressive 12×32 monitor matrix board was the stage audio engineer. He looked like he could have been an extra in any of the albino-mountain-freak scenes in Dueling Banjos. Not only were many teeth missing, he also had a big wedge monitor about a foot and a half from his head at full volume to check the monitor channels. During a set break, the owner took me onstage to run a “sound check” -I think he just wanted people to see he was in charge. Grabbing each mic in order, he would take it off the stand, say “check check” a few times to verify it was on (and they were on and LOUD), then he would point the mic directly at appropriate monitor for that singer and push in until it was about two feet away. No feedback. As it got close, you could hear the start of ringing, but the stage mixer would catch it with a 30 band equalizer before it got bad. I was impressed. Not that there’s anything magic about this, it’s just a matter of knowing your system and how acoustics work. Having enough 30 band graphic Eqs for every output channel is useful, too. But all of this assumes your engineer is good and you’ve planned ahead. What usually happens when the band doesn’t have enough room or time to set up is a lot different. Monitors pointing at the front of a microphone are bad. Mains behind microphones are bad. And I can’t even remember the number of times the vocalist is handholding the microphone and relaxes his arms, inadvertantly pointing the mic at a monitor. It’s even worse when the vocalist doesn’t realize where the feedback is coming from. Absolute worst is when the singer doesn’t recognize the sound of feedback…

Don’t ask the audience if they think the (your choice) is too (loud/soft).

“Can you hear me there in the back?” Dumb question. Of course we can’t hear you, that’s why we’re standing as far away as possible. Usually this sort of problem pops up from the primadonna in a band. Or the vocalist… Yes, you should be concerned with your sound, but deal with it professionally. Asking the audience if the lead guitar is too loud just makes you sound whining and petulant. Deal with onstage ego (volume) problems before the gig. Deal with audio problems during the gig by talking with someone who has their hand on a fader. Send a friend into the audience to check the sound if you’re worried. The sound guy is doing his best to make you sound good until you piss him off. Turning the audience against him won’t do you much good.

Don’t gripe on stage.

You’re in the middle of the gig from hell. The guitar player is playing with five strings. The drummer just launched another stick at your head -DUCK!-. And you can’t hear anything but boomy mud. But the audience will probably never know unless you say something to make it obvious. I ran a survey for a series of performances once. With two or three shows every day for a week there was a good variety of quality. On the way out to the bus, I’d ask a bunch of performers not in my act how my show went. The band agreed on the quality of each performance, the reviewers generally agreed on the quality of each performance. But there was little agreement between the band and the reviewers. One show that I thought was absolutely smokin’ was the poorest received by the audience. The only real difference between semi-pro and professional is that you can’t tell when a pro screws up. Keep that stage face on.

Don’t turn to stare at drummer when he screws up, chances are only 2% of the audience noticed.

People are sheep. Sheep don’t know much about music, but they’ll react as a group if you give them a reason. A guy I know collects classical recordings. He’d try to get the first vinyl pressing of everything that came out. He was knowledgable about everything from concert halls to composers. An audiophile, he had plenty invested in his stereo and good arguments for most of the choices he’d made. Then one day I was tuning my guitar in his presence. He wondered what I was doing. So I made a short explanation of pitch and beating which he didn’t understand. To demonstrate, I played one open string then the next higher string asking which one was higher in pitch. He couldn’t tell. After an hour or so of practice, he could answer correctly for most intervals wider than a minor third if they were in the middle of the guitar’s range. I tried moving on to the concept of an octave, but it wasn’t working. He thought this whole “pitch” thing a great game and a real musical ability that he’d gained. He might be right, be twice nothing is still nothing. No one has heard the song as many times as you have, they’re not going to catch even glaring mistakes if you don’t give them a clue. During a solo, a jazz trumpet player friend hit a clunker, stopped, and said, “It’s in the chord! Flat five! Flat five!” It wouldn’t have been a problem except for the fact that most jazz solos don’t have vocal commentary.

Don’t stop a song when you break a string.

If you’re a bass player, there’s no excuse. Work around it. While playing in a hard rock/funk band, my bass playing muscles got so strong I would tend to break a string every three hours. There’s no reason to play this hard. I liked the sound I was getting, but you really don’t need to do this for good tone. Part of the fun was in playing around the broken string until there was a chance to switch. Once I showed up for a paying gig with a three string bass, having forgotten to buy replacements (always carry backups). The performance went fine until the keyboard player noticed and freaked out. Guitarists with a floating whammy bridge may have to stop playing after breaking a string, but don’t stop the song. For safety at “mission critical” gigs, you may want to set the bridge so it rests on the backstop (body) and only goes down. It feels a bit weird, but a broken string won’t throw the whole guitar out of tune. If you absolutely must have a floating bridge, keep in mind that you may be able to play on one or two strings down a fret after a string breaks. Have a backup ready and in tune in any case.

DO use a tuner BEFORE going on stage.

Do you own a tuner? Why not? An obvious amateur or semi-pro answer is that you can tune your instrument just fine without any help. While this is true for everyone but the oboe in a wind ensemble, it’s death for guitarists and bassists. Though your instrument may be in tune with itself, chances are almost one-hundred percent that it’s not going to match the other instruments. Plenty of times I’ve heard someone off-stage getting their axe in perfect tune only to walk onstage and find that it’s way off concert pitch. Worse, I’ve been in many bands where each string player would make the others shut up while they tuned. So what’s your reference pitch if everyone has to be quiet while you tune? There’s a reason orchestras make all that noise while warming up together. Hearing everyone’s pitch-center ensures coherence between instruments. Tune early, tune often. If you run a cable through the tuner to the amp, you can tune while playing. Pull the input to the amp (at the amp) a half-inch out to kill sound between songs for tuning. Being slightly out of tune is a lame way to turn the audience against you.

Make sure that if you use different tuners, they all agree on pitch.

Hard to believe, but tuners may have different ideas of where A 440 is. Most of the crystal driven tuners will be accurate all the time, but older stuff, especially the stroboscopic tuners may vary. Also, make sure the tuner is on A=440 if that’s what you’re using as a reference. Many tuners offer an option of setting the reference anywhere from A=438 to A=446. Some will let you define the reference pitch: be careful of doing this. One of my favorite mistakes is when the guitarist tunes to a keyboard which has been transposed. There was one band I was in where the keyboard player hated playing in F minor. So he’d transpose down a step for E minor. No big deal unless the guitar player bonks on a few piano keys to tune between sets…

MAKE A SET LIST. Don’t waste time between tunes.

Okay, you’ve got a good band. You just smoked the opening tune. Everyone’s out on the dance floor having a good time. You hit the last chord and actually finish together. Then… silence… The audience starts staring at the band. Nothing. “Uhhh, what’s next?” “I dunno, what do you want to do?” The audience starts shuffling around nervously. If this happens more than once, the audience will be afraid to be on the dance floor when the song stops. It feels like being left standing in musical chairs when the music stops. I’ve played in mediocre bands that got great audience response because we never gave the audience time to realize how mediocre the band was: if they’re dancing, it must be good. Conversely, I’ve been in bands where even the set list didn’t prevent long delays between tunes. Maybe the guitarist needed a cigarette, couldn’t find one, bummed one off the rhythm guitarist, finds a lighter, drinks some beer… I don’t care what you sound like if you can’t make music more than half the time you’re onstage. Another way to screw up the performance is to not know who starts the song. This happens amazingly frequently. You’ll know it when the band calls the tune then starts looking around at each other. Maybe you’ll even hear one of the musicians humming the opening phrase to someone. If your band has its act together, the next song should be safe to start as soon as the previous one ends. The drummer shouldn’t have to look around at everyone to get permission to go. Look at the set list BEFORE you finish a song. And while you’re at it, have a backup plan in case you do need to kill time between songs. Be sure that joke you’re saving for an emergency is appropriate to the audience. One vocalist I’ve worked with knows lots of really good jokes, but isn’t safe to let near the mic between songs.

Know who the house manager is and follow his instructions.

Sure it’s “your band”. Maybe you even brought in “your crowd”. But if you can’t keep the house manager happy, you don’t get to come back. Sometimes this is the owner of a club. Sometimes it’s the senior bartender. If you’re lucky it might be the booking agent or talent rep for the venue. Find out ahead of time who’s got the voice of god. Frequently they’ll be so happy you came to talk to them, you can get away with murder. If you can do the subservient act well, you may even get to do more than you want. Free beer, tips, a bonus are all at your fingertips IF you keep checking in with the Official Guy. This is particularly important if you know the Official Guy is often a problem. By pretending to care what he says before and during the show, you may make him think -maybe for the first time in his pathetic little life- that someone is on his side. Even if you’re not going to do exactly what he wants, a little lip service goes a long ways. Changing the EQ on the bass in almost like turning it down… Pointing the guitar amp away from the audience is almost like turning it down… Reaching for a knob and pretending to move it is… You get the idea… One place I played had a problematic person-whose-orifice-must-be-kissed. By keeping in contact with this person throughout the gig, we kept him happy even though we hated his guts and couldn’t agree with anything he said. It turned out he owned the club AND another place we wanted to get booked in.

Don’t keep playing if a fight breaks out in the audience. The management might not notice if you keep playing. Of course, if you play places where they put up chicken wire to protect the band, do whatever you like.

I’ve never really had to make use of this, but it came from a pro who I respect. He was warning about a club I was likely to play for the first time. He explained that management always has a way to bounce problem people and wants to do it as soon as possible to keep the rest of the sheep happy. The band is frequently in the only place to see the whole club at once. A fight will be really obvious in the sudden silence. It also makes it trivial for the staff to get through the rest of the crowd. I was running sound in a club once when a problem patron stumbled out of a brewing fracas. No big deal until he stumbled hard into the boom mic for the saxophonist. The sax player got his horn crammed into his mouth. Which probably didn’t need as much repair as his horn after he litereally drop-kicked it off the stage moments later. Maybe they could have spotted this problem earlier and prevented it. Maybe not.

Know, at least, how each tune starts and ends. Seriously, you may be used to dribbling into a tune and ending when the drummer gets tired. Make sure everyone knows what’s happening.

If you’re mostly a rehearsal band, you may get used to weak starts and fade-outs. Then suddenly, you’re onstage in front of people and you realize just how stupid it sounds live. Even if you do it intentionally, make sure each musician starts with authority and ends with conviction. Trying to pull off a decrescendo to end a song often makes me want to yell, “Live Fade! Live Fade!” just like really hokey tricks in a three-dee movie makes you want to yell, “3-D! 3-D!!!” For a lot of songs, just having someone who will wave an arm to strike the last chord is enough. In jazz, you may want to agree on the end before getting there. There are some standard ways of getting in and out of tunes that can be implicit or agreed to with eye-contact. Find out ahead of time. A good example of a bad way to perform live is frequently seen in amateur vocalists who call a tune and start singing without even get their pitch from the band. Once again, the difference between semi-pro and professional is that you can’t tell when a pro makes a mistake. The beginning and end are the most obvious places to notice obvious blunders. The other obvious place to notice a mistake is the middle, which about covers the subject.

If someone compliments you, say “Thank You”. Don’t say, “You should hear us when we’re playing well” or “Are you kidding? We suck!”

Right or wrong, you’ve got to accept a compliment. It takes extra effort for someone to say something nice to the band, whether it’s deserved or not. Be being polite and appreciative you’ll fool them into thinking you’re twice as good. Thanking someone isn’t being immodest, you’re simply acknowledging what they said. You don’t need to agree to with them thank them. And if someone asks for an autograph, don’t freak out. Just do it and be happy someone might think it’s valuable. My natural reaction to being asked for an autograph is, “Get real!” This is absolutely the wrong answer. Luckily it’s not an issue very often for me…

Look at the audience. You’ve had plenty of time staring at your instrument, don’t do it now.

After thousands of hours practicing your instrument, you may be in the habit of staring at it while playing. Bad idea. You can fool a lot of people into thinking you’re good if you make eye contact while playing. Spread it around. Look at the other musicians once in a while, maybe you’ll learn something. Maybe they will. Making eye contact doesn’t mean staring at them, just look at someone consciously once in a while. If you’re lucky enough to play in front of more people than you can actually see individually, use the actors’ trick of looking out over the crowd. By keeping your head up and looking out to the back of the house, you’ll appear as is you’re involving the whole crowd. This is more effective and important than you would possibly believe. A lot of amateur and semi-pros never convince the audience there’s anything go on simply because there’s no involvement. People are sheep. If they can’t tell visually you’re having a discussion with the other musicians, they may not hear it, either. By looking into the audience, you may be able to fool them into thinking they’re part of the act. And if they think they’re involved in what’s happening on stage, they’ll have a harder time believing it sucks.

Settle your contract before you go onstage. Know how long and when you will be playing, at least.

After you have enough problems with verbal contracts, you may start insisting on paper. But I’ve had decent luck on the casual casuals just making sure I repeat back the facts during a phone conversation. Make sure you know the difference between arrival time and the downbeat. You may hear “We want you there at 8pm.” But it could mean they expect you to start playing at 8, or you can start setting up at 8. Big difference. Lots of people seem to think a band can walk in the door and start playing immediately. Make sure the person who is going to pay your check agrees to your concept of set length and breaks. Three half-hour sets isn’t enough for playing a bar, but might be ridiculously too much at a club as part of the show. If you’ve worked up “the perfect set” only to find the guy writing the check needs another fifteen minutes, you could be out of luck if the only thing left in your list is a polka version of “Rawhide”.

Don’t get twisted before your show. You don’t sound better, honest.

The audience isn’t drunk before you start playing, so you probably shouldn’t be, either. If you’re nervous at the start, you’re normal. Cope with it. Getting altered just before going on can throw off the whole night. If things don’t start out smoothly it can escalate quickly while you fumble for solutions. Every player I’ve worked with who says, “I play better stoned/drunk/shrooming/bent/dosed,” has been wrong. They may think they sound better, but it usually just leads to rambling pointless solos and playing too loud. If the gig is running well and the audience is getting toasted, you might have a bit of fun, but don’t get a head start on the whole thing. Also, it’s kinda lame in most shows to have the guitarist throw up. Some bands, that’s a highlight, but don’t count on it.