Soundcheck… the most elusive practise in live sound. The soundcheck is considered the sacrificial buffer between loading-in, and showtime. It’s critical for an engineer as it’s the only real chance to hear each instrument in isolation through the system as well as the only time when you can physically walk around the space to hear exactly what you’re dealing with. It’s also essential for musicians to make sure they can hear what they need to hear to put on a great show. Soundcheck is meant to answer important questions for both musicians and engineers; How does the room sound? Can the PA compete with the backline volume? Is there enough cowbell in my monitors?
Making the most out of what little time you have available in your soundcheck could make or break the show (or at least the first few numbers!). In my early years I made the mistake of spending 10 minutes EQ’ing the Kick, 5 minutes notching-out the toms and then being left with 30 seconds to do the rest whilst I receive angry glares from the band and production crew… take it from me, this is not the best use of your time.
Nowadays, there’s a handy tool at our disposal that we can use to help make the most out of what little soundcheck we have; it’s called ‘Virtual Soundcheck’.
Virtual soundcheck is the act of recording the live multitrack files from a band either during a performance or during soundcheck and then playing those recorded files back through the console and down their respective channels.
This allows engineers to carry on soundchecking once the band have left or gives musicians a chance to adjust the FOH sound away from their instruments and in front of the PA.
With VSC at your disposal, you can focus your allocated ‘live’ time slot by properly gain staging, adjusting monitor mix levels and getting a rough mix through the FOH. Then you can use your virtual soundcheck files to playback each instrument individually to make any required adjustments. For me, hearing these stems back is a really eye opening experience as it can identify a multitude of issues with the backline, such as volume, phasing issues and mic bleed.
VSC can also have advantages if you’re on a tour. Imagine getting to a new venue and then playing back last nights show through the system without the band being in the venue. This is a great way of tuning the room using authentic playback as your reference rather than a commercially mixed MP3. You could even use the VSC to focus on certain band members whilst by playing back just the missing elements of the instrumentation whilst the others play along. You could also use VSC to make adjustments to your cues and snapshots; perhaps the monitors need adjustment for a certain song in particular or you want to adjust the reverb effect for a certain song in your set, you can do that whilst standing out front and without your fellow bandmates or clients.
It’s great to know the advantages of VSC however it’s also important to understand VSC’s limitations. Whilst it’s a great tool to aid and extend the soundcheck process, it’s not a time to channel your inner Trevor Horn. In smaller venues, the PA only accounts for a fraction of the overall sound. In these situations, the PA’s job is to amplify vocals, keyboards and acoustic instruments to compete with the backline. During virtual soundcheck when you haven’t got 100w Mesa Boogies, Ampeg 8x10’s and Snare drums blasting off the stage, you will feel inclined to boost those instruments to create a balanced mix out front; but by doing so, you will end up with an extremely over amplified and unbalanced mix when the band do eventually fire up. Mixing with that in mind is very important.
Instead, I find virtual soundcheck a great time to experiment with things like effects, compression and corrective EQ. During VSC, you can listen to the vocals in isolation through the PA, send your desired instruments to those FX busses and then prepare the FX return to blend-in during showtime. EQ requires a bit of a different approach. It’s all well-and-good EQ’ing guitars to sound massive through the FOH, however when the backline arrives and are contributing to the room sound, then you may find you need to use the console’s EQ to bring back some high end definition to compliment the backline. I find this is the case especially with boomy bass guitar; use the PA to fill-in the gaps within the frequency spectrum, not just to make things louder.
With EQ it’s also important to remember that whilst you can boost the EQ to your heart's content during VSC when there are no live mics open, any over-indulgent EQ moves could cause havoc on stage for monitoring or cause feedbacking issues when the mics are open and the band begins.
If you’re a musician, then it’s important to know what to listen for when you walk out-front. Those vocals may seem extremely loud and your bass guitar may be inaudible, however when you’re the other side of the speakers and playing your instrument, you should be contributing enough to make a balanced sound. Being aware of this effect should save a lot of arguments and having trust in whoever is mixing outfront will make you feel a lot better.
Achieving a Virtual Soundcheck:
So, I may of convinced you that VSC is a great idea, but now you may be wondering how you can actually achieve it using your setup.
Digital consoles such as the Soundcraft Ui24R feature built-in virtual soundcheck facilities. The Ui24R uses direct-to-USB-stick multitrack recording which enables you to record all 24 input channels directly to a USB stick as individual files without the need for 3rd party converters or a laptop. The Ui24R also features automatic Virtual soundcheck patching so that with a touch of a button, you can play those audio files back through the console to begin your VSC.
For consoles that do not have built-in virtual soundchecking capabilities, then you can still achieve the same setup by using a laptop as well as a USB audio interface to get audio into the laptop via the console. Most mixing consoles feature USB streaming interfaces that connect directly with a laptop. Other consoles may utilise a Dante or MADI option that you can record with using Dante Virtual soundcard via Cat 5 or a 3rd party MADI to USB converter.
Finally, you’ll need a DAW installed onto your laptop so that you can record the incoming audio. Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase... they’re all good bets for this task however I’ve had great success with Reaper; a very lightweight but powerful DAW with a great audio routing matrix that makes patching very easy.
The final piece of the puzzle is to set up your console to send unprocessed direct outputs of each input channel into individual tracks within your DAW for recording. For playback, you need to do the reverse; set up your console to receive your DAW tracks into the corresponding channels; usually that would mean switching the input source of the mixing console. Some consoles even have a ‘Virtual Soundcheck’ button (Ui24R for example) that will automatically switch the input patches to USB returns at the touch of a button.
If you are using a hybrid analogue console such as a Soundcraft Signature 22MTK, then you can do a Virtual soundcheck with the above process using the console's built-in 24in/22out audio interface. The console also has a handy Input source switch for each channel that will swap the channel source between the USB playback and analogue inputs.
Look after your files, and your files will look after you...
Virtual soundcheck can also prove invaluable in case of an emergency. If you have a desk failure or you need to swap to a different console manufacturer, being able to play your stems through the console to help setup the new show could be invaluable for ensuring routing etc is done properly. Properly organising and managing these files could prove invaluable for the band and yourself; If you do record the show and it was a particularly good night, then you have that performance immortalised - you could even charge for your services to mix it back at the studio…
These virtual soundcheck files are also the greatest possible resource for console training. If you need to learn a digital console in an environment that is non-critical and stress-free, you can use the stems to familiarise yourself with the gear and the band’s sound before you mix the real thing.
If you are a musician that mixes your own band then having these stems is a great way for practising as well as getting new or depping musicians up to speed.
Virtual Soundcheck has been around for a while on high-end touring consoles however it has only really become accessible for everyone since the introduction of recording interfaces on small-format digital consoles, but it has already proved itself as an invaluable tool to help put on the best possible show by performing a first rate Soundcheck.