September 09, 2011

What to Expect: A Typical Live Sound Day

Here we are in September, and that means that many of you have just wrapped up your summer internships. But in many markets, fall is primo concert season – skipping the extreme heat/cold of summer and winter, while tapping into the absurd amount of disposable income in the hands of newly independent college students. (What are student loans for, after all?)

So for those of you trying to tackle both classes and a live sound internship . . . well, good luck. It can definitely be done, but not without some finagling – and some understanding professors. I was lucky enough to pick up my first steady live sound gig in September of my senior year of college. This was an excellent opportunity for me to get my feet wet in pro-level sound, but it meant missing more than a few classes. What's a guy to do?

Fortunately, my teachers in the music industry program were willing to listen to me, and agreed that an actual job in the field might be just as educational as a class about how to get a job in the same field. They let me use my job at the venue as an internship, and were very accommodating as far as scheduling.

If, on the other hand, you're planning to 'sneak' your internship hours in around your class schedule, here's what you should plan for a typical day at a midsize concert venue:

12 noon – Load in: This is exactly what it sounds like. The band's road crew and the venue's stage hands (probably you) schlep all the objets d'rock out of the trailer and into the venue. Sometimes this is the most disorganized part of the day, with big road cases just being pushed around by people with too much muscle and not enough sense – usually, though, this operation has been honed to a science during the previous forty-odd days of the band's tour.

Don't expect to see any actual band members here, though. They're back at the hotel nursing hangovers and tweeting about how excited they are to be in . . . wherever they are. The road crew are nursing hangovers too, which I think explains why you never see a roadie wearing bright colors – too hard on the eyes.

2:00-3:00 – Roadie line check: After the various techs have assembled, powered up, and tuned the gear, there is usually a roadie jam session enacted under the pretense of “making sure everything works.” This process is vital to the success of the show, and usually requires the crew-band to perform “Crazy Train,” a slap bass solo, an oft-indiscernible (but sometimes surprisingly awesome) sweep picking lick, and exactly the first 38 seconds of “Sweet Home Alabama.” I've always wondered whether the band knows that their gear is being played in their absence by people who may or may not have washed their hands after using the bathroom. (Tommy Lee, would you care to set the record straight?)

4:00-5:30 – Sound check: Back at the hotel, some brave soul in the band's management team gently pokes each band member until he/she falls gracefully out of bed and to the floor. (This staffer, like the dude who opens the crate in Jurassic Park, is usually devoured alive and never seen again.)

Arriving at the venue, the band goes through several numbers to make sure that (a.) each member can hear him/herself onstage, (b.) the audio crew can have enough time to get a general mix together, and (c.) the band can take a few practice swings at some of their iffier songs.

As an audio intern, you'll spend the first two weeks of your internship gaping in amazement as the bands that defined your teenage years play what amounts to a private concert just for you. After those two weeks, you'll leave the venue as soon as possible and get a cup of coffee at the nearest convenience store.

6:00-6:45 – Support load in: At this point, the touring support bands will bring their gear in. The headlining band's road crew will grab a much-deserved dinner, while the venue's crew will huddle together in a dark corner, communally ignoring each other while playing Angry Birds. (Please, if you find yourself in an internship like this one, resist the temptation to hide in a corner and play Angry Birds – people will notice, and you will get brownie points.)

6:45-7:00 – Local support shows up/loads in/sound checks: As a rule, local bands define themselves by showing up late – bass players are terrible with directions – unloading an inordinate amount of gear from five separate vehicles, and taking an equally inordinate amount of time to set up said gear onstage. After discussing with each other how much they like their current guitar pickups, our local heroes usually have to be reminded that there is a schedule to be followed. This leaves approximately three minutes for a sound check, most of which is consumed trying to explain that having the keyboard player mumble into the lead singer's microphone is not the same thing as having the lead singer do his best Courtney Love impression. (I have no shame in asking singers to do this when trying to get an idea of how loud they'll actually sing during the concert.)

For those of you out there with bands lucky enough to snag a local support slot for a bigger show, I dare you to prove me wrong. Find out exactly when you're supposed to show up, and show up on time with the least amount of the best-sounding gear you can get your hands on. Four-piece drum kits are wonderful. Single-speaker guitar amps are wonderful. Bass amps with XLR DI outputs (that work) are wonderful. Be the band that promoters want to work with – trust me, word gets around.

But I digress. This brings us up to . . .

7:00-8:00 – Doors: 90% of the work is done by this point. Ticket holders are entering the venue, crummy music is playing softly over the PA, and you're probably on your way across the street for another cup of coffee.

8:00-11:00 – The show: There's not a whole lot to be done until after the show's over. Try to help out during changeovers between bands, but keep in mind that eight meandering people onstage are not nearly as effective as three people with a plan. Sit back and enjoy the show – unless you're more than two weeks in, in which case you'll probably hide in a dark corner and play Angry Birds.

11:00- . . . Really, that late? - Load out: This is the time of the night that really goes over well with the masochists out there. You're tired, you're hungry, you have a 9AM math class, and . . .you're pushing a guitar cabinet (used purely for show) up a ramp onto the trailer. The band is eating pizza in the green room, the venue audio guys are swilling beers at the bar, and suddenly it seems like you're the only person left who hasn't gotten paid yet – that is, if you get paid at all. Quite frankly, this sucks. But it's also a surefire test as to whether you'll be able to hack it in the live sound world: If you can go through all this and actually look forward to coming back tomorrow, you'll be fine.

Rock on,

Nathan Schied

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