Back to the Basics: Line Check vs. Sound Check

This round of back to the basics is focused on differentiating between two related but different tasks that we need to do while we prepare for any event, recording, or live show.  They are line checking and sound checking. The biggest red flag is when you stop doing both on a regular basis. There are a few exceptions for places like Houses of Worship where there is often no change in band setup between weeks (this does mean that if you change something you need to be sure to do a line check before rehearsal starts). On the whole, as we discussed in the first part of this series, the key here is to be completely ready before any band members arrive. I’m not going to lie here, there are have been several weeks when I haven’t been so diligent at making sure that my stage is completely ready for the artists who will perform each week at our weekend services.  Each time it seems, I find myself running around fixing small problems that should have never been an issue if I had done a line check before rehearsal started.

What exactly is a line check you ask? Well that depends on the context really. Sometimes, like on a tour, line check means simply going through each input all the way back to the source and making sure you are getting clear audio with no ground hums or breaks at each new venue.  For a corporate event it may mean going through all the wireless channels and checking to make sure there aren’t any RF issues that will cause issues down the road when you don’t have any time to troubleshoot them.  For a studio, its about making sure your DAW is routed correctly and the audio from each mic is as clear as possible. Lastly, for a church, it’s checking to make sure that there wasn’t any visible damage to gear or wiring that week that you didn’t notice and that everything is patched in correctly.  At CCC, whenever we do a big layout change or a set build and it all has been taken apart, it’s important that I take the time to verify clear audio and correct patching as we have several points of failure/patching in our signal chains from things that were likely disassembled because of the set change. Often I do this step with that first stage setup after a set change or a big changeover after an external event or a special event like Christmas or Easter. Because we maintain our own drum set and keyboard I’ll also take the time here to make sure that aren’t any glaring issues with drum heads or within Mainstage. I try to always remember that when I don’t check or when I settle in and assume that nothing will go wrong is usually when it does and most often when we aren’t adequately prepared to quickly solve the problem.  

If that’s what a line check is here is what a sound check should be, what we actually do with the band before rehearsal starts.  Sound check is meant to be for setting monitor mixes and dialing in the basic settings of the FOH soundboard so that when the run-through begins everyone is able to focus on improving our area without needing to worry about finishing setup or ironing out details. At CCC our soundchecks begin with the click and additively progress through each instrumental input (we hear the whole drum set, than add the bass guitar, add the electric guitar, etc, so that at the end each musician can hear it all together and the first song sounds a lot better).  During this time I always try to make sure at least a basic mix is up and on in the room so the musicians are sure to set levels in response to house levels and not in isolation since the PA will be on during the event.  At the very least we make sure the band on the lead vocalist mics are up and open so we can be sure to listen for feedback issues that will likely show up right away if they exist.  In the studio world this is primarily for monitoring setup and making sure everything in the DAW is working properly before we start recording.  For simpler corporate events this is usually just long enough to put headsets on speakers and get them live on the stage to make sure everything is going to sound great for the event.

In any case, to reiterate, do your best to be finished line checking by the time musicians and vocalists arrive.  As technicians, we need to be sure to honor the time of our artists or customers and make sure that we have already line checked the gear before they arrive so we can get right down to business when it’s time for sound check and rehearsal.

Back to the Basics: Planning and Preparation

Back to the Basics is a series based on things that we should always be doing no matter how big or small our event may be. Over the next few posts we will be talking about 5 stages of production and what is involved from a technical standpoint from each stage. Those five stages are the planning and prep stage, line check and soundcheck, rehearsal time, the show, and what happens after the show is over.  I’ll be using examples from my workplace at Christ Community Church to show what these ideas look like in real life.

This post will cover the planning and preparation phases. The key for this phase is communication.  Take the time to meet and greet the artists that will be playing and to actually see the space or at least get dimensions if it’s a space that you cannot access.  I usually start in our organizational tool,, which allows the band leaders to put in songs, list musicians, instrumentation, vocalists, etc. This information is usually also found in stage riders or contracts for tours or studios.  At that point it’s always a good idea to follow up with the artist if you are looking at riders to make sure that what is in the rider is actually correct.  Many times riders are generalized or for previous tours so there are often details missing or extra items included.  In my case, our tool is updated regularly so the key for me to just check in with our Worship Pastor if I see something unexpected.  

At this time, right after I’ve learned who the band is or what the songs are I like to see if I can find any existing published recordings so that as the mixing technician I can understand what kind of sound the band is hoping to achieve. If they haven’t published anything I always try to talk about what their “sound” is so that when I recreate that in the mix I am not mixing against their style as a band. Because mixing audio is so subjective, we need to be sure as artists ourselves that we are accurately portraying the band and their style not our own style. Our job as sound engineers is to accurately recreate and amplify the sounds the sounds to band is making while making sure we are only fixing issues created by that process.  

Now that we have a band composition and are ready to mix the artist it’s time to think through a patch list.  Yes, make a patch list, a complete patch list.  This should include all inputs, sub-snakes, outputs, monitoring, and wireless channels.  So often we see this step skipped and when you go to fix a problem, add an input, or do something in a pinch, you have no idea what you can do or what you’ve already done so what should just take a few minutes takes much longer than that.  We use our patch list at Christ Community for so many reasons.  Our patch list is also a live google document so we don’t need to print it and it can be updated on go from any location. We also can track changes from each week so we can go back and see what we had going the last few weeks if we need to.  Lastly we use our patch list to help disseminate information.  As the Audio Director I do all of the setup but two other people mix in the room with 3 or 4 more volunteers mixing monitors so it’s important that we all have a common place we can go to find any information that we need regarding how the stage is configured.  Patch lists can also be helpful for recordings and shows made within digital sound boards so you can easily recreate the show without too much work in figuring out what you did if one or more of the configuration files are lost and inputs are changed.  

After you have a patch list, it’s time to start thinking through stage setup.  It is easy to overlook the smallest things that can impact your mix in a big way.  Whether you’re in a studio or on a live stage, if you put a vocalist right by your drum set, you will get snare bleed into that vocal mic, not to mention the cymbals. The location of any acoustic instrument in relation to any percussive instrument should always be considered as well.  But there are also musical considerations.  For instance, I always try to keep the drums and bass guitars at least near each other, there are a lot of things that they do together musically along with the keys and vocalists and the guitars to each other.  Just thinking these things through and talking with band about it allows the band to know that you are not only thinking of the final mix but also about how well they will be able to play in the space. Hopefully they get the idea that you are trying to set them up for a win!  Lastly, in regards to stage setup you really need to consider any live amps that you have on stage.  What microphones will pick those amps up? Are you able to isolate them from the rest of the band? At CCC we don’t use a bass cab (we have sat down with our bass players and developed an amp model in our FX rack) and isolate our electric amps off stage so they can run at full volume and not interfere in the least with anything else on stage.  A lot of issues can be avoided in any mix by simply just thinking through who is standing where and make sure there aren’t any issues that can be avoided just by moving things around a bit.

We have a patch list and now it’s time to get the recording, backline equipment, and/or soundboards all ready to go.  If you’re in a studio make sure all your hard drives have plenty of space on them and that your interface is working and ready to go as well as all the gear that you are providing like keyboards, amps, or drum sets.  In the live world it’s time to patch the FOH and monitor consoles. Be sure to label them appropriately so that anyone operating them will be able to do so quickly and efficiently. The key once again is to overprepare so that when the band arrives everything is ready for them.

Lastly, this is the most important step in my opinion, as a tech, we need to get the space ready.  Completely.  Take your time and make sure all the mics are ready, everything is wired up, wireless guitar packs and handhelds, IEM packs, music stands, guitar stands, power strips, and everything else in place before the artists show up.  This includes line checking.  You need to be sure that there aren’t any problems that need solved that only can solve.  Patching issues are your responsibility and no one else’s. At Christ Community that means whenever the band members show up, all they will need to do is place their gear and grab their ear foamies.  I am usually on stage when they arrive as well to get their pedal boards plugged in and make sure they have everything they need.  Ahead of time, I’ve put out music stands for everyone and put their mics and packs on the stand so there is never a time when they are walking around needing to ask what is theirs to use.  If you have prepared appropriately there shouldn’t be a need to be running around, sitting behind the board, or doing anything else but getting those last few things finalized before rehearsal starts.