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Q. Which should I check first: monitors or FOH?

Published April 2013

I'm responsible for live sound at a lot of small shows where there isn't the budget for a separate monitor desk or engineer. In this situation, I've seen engineers handle things in different ways. Some concentrate on getting the sound right on stage first before bringing up the front-of-house speakers. Some make sure the sound out front is right and only then turn up the aux sends on any instruments that the band are struggling to hear. Others go through, instrument by instrument and set levels for both FOH and monitors at the same time. What are the pros and cons of each approach, and which would you recommend?

Sound engineers can differ over whether to set up stage monitoring or the front-of-house sound first. Our contributor likes to get a rough FOH mix done and then move onto the wedges, leaving fine-tuning until the band are on stage.Sound engineers can differ over whether to set up stage monitoring or the front-of-house sound first. Our contributor likes to get a rough FOH mix done and then move onto the wedges, leaving fine-tuning until the band are on stage.

Lee Entwistle, via email

SOS contributor Jon Burton replies: This is a very common situation and one I've come across many times. When I'm doing monitors from the same desk as the house sound, I always try to use a Y-split cable on the lead vocals. If there are enough channels this means you can split signal across two channels, one dedicated to the monitors and one to the FOH. This has the advantage that you can set and leave the monitor channel optimised for the stage sound, whilst having an FOH channel that you can equalise and compress during the show, knowing that it is not adversely affecting the sound on stage. Even if I can't do this, I always create a rough front-of-house sound first. I set the gain for both channels, then set the EQ flat on the desk, but with the high-pass filter in, if there is one. I will then concentrate on checking all the wedges on stage. If there are any equalisers on the monitor sends, I usually flatten these. I then check each monitor in turn, speaking normally through the mic, using the same desk channel and microphone for each monitor. By doing this I can check that each speaker is working correctly. If they are not, which is not unusual, I'll try to fix them, checking connections and drivers, for example, and, failing that, move the best-sounding ones into the most crucial positions!

If there are graphic EQs, I try not to do too much, as I prefer them to look like smiley faces rather than cross-sections of the Himalayas. If you hack away with a graphic, you'll usually start causing more problems than you're solving. If there are no outboard equalisers, I'll EQ the channel, but only as a last resort.

Having got all the wedges working and sounding OK, I'll then get all the vocal microphones up in their respective wedges. Once I'm happy that vocals sound good on stage, I'll start soundchecking the other channels.

I always leave the vocal microphones open but dipped a bit during the soundcheck, as they will be on during the show and will contribute a lot to the overall sound coming from the stage, adding high-end spill to the drums and other instruments.

After I have checked the vocals, I like to continue with drums, getting the drummer to play a simple beat on kick, snare and hi-hat. I prefer to do all three at the same time, as this way the drummer tends to play more naturally, like he or she would in a show, rather than repetitively hitting a drum, which is monotonous for all — and unrepresentative. Checking all the instruments one by one, I then usually leave the FOH master faders at half volume while the band play a song. During this time, I'll work on the monitors for them, maybe adding keys or kick drum. I always dip the FOH, otherwise the sound of the loud PA in an empty room will drown the stage. If you do leave the PA system at a higher level, you enter into an upward spiral of volume where everybody is competing to hear. I usually know when all the channels sound good and I have a rough balance; the time for fine-tuning will be when the room is full and the first chord is struck!

Before the performance, time is always against you, and I prefer to get the stage sound right as fast as possible, usually before the band arrive. Soundchecking monitors is always easier on a quiet stage without musicians tuning and checking their instruments. Checking FOH is a lot easier, as you can just don a pair of headphones and check your channels, returns and inserts. So I would always prioritise and make sure the monitors are sorted before checking the band.

For more advice see the article 'Effective Soundcheck' in SOS July 2012 (/sos/jul12/articles/soundchecking.htm) for advice from some top live engineers!