Dealing With Sound Guys

October 8, 2010



I was Music Directing from an electric keyboard in a huge former vaudeville hall in North Jersey, and didn’t know very much about monitoring. It was a keyboard-heavy show, and I had a really hard time hearing myself play. After the first act, I looked down and noticed that I was playing so hard that my pinky fingernail had pulled away from the finger of my left hand, and that I was bleeding all over the keyboard. I showed the sound guy the disgusting scene in the pit and he agreed to give me a monitor. Now I would have asked for it to begin with.


I had been music directing for about 10 years, I had maybe 35 shows under my belt and a master’s degree in theatre, and the new sound guy came down to the pit to explain to me what a stop-and-start rehearsal was. I’m proud to say that I said, “Thanks, that’s helpful.” In my head I had some other words.


I was playing second keyboard in a small house with a very problematic acoustic. I stepped out to use the restroom during a dress rehearsal, and when I came back, I sat in the audience for a moment and listened. I really couldn’t hear the first keyboard. I mean, I could make out that he was playing, but I couldn’t pick out the specific notes. So when the sound guy came down during a break, the MD (not me) began discussing the sound, and the sound guy said the keys were too loud. I spoke up and said that I disagreed. He said that he can barely make out the singers. I said that I sat in the audience and had the exact opposite experience. At that point the sound guy became so angry with me that I was actually a little worried about what he might do.

In reality, we were probably both right. He was sitting in the booth, where the acoustic is very different from the house seating. I was hearing a single number with a quiet piano part, he was thinking of balance across the whole act. He might also have been thinking of MY piano as being too loud, and I couldn’t hear my piano, because I obviously wasn’t playing when I was sitting out in the house. But my cavalier response to his concern made anything else I had to say worthless in his mind, and put us on opposite sides. And besides, I wasn’t even the MD, so it wasn’t any of my business.


Sound guys are the toughest people to deal with as a music director, especially in amateur theatre. They’re almost never paid, which means they’re doing it completely on a volunteer basis; it takes a lot of time and expertise to do it well, and they’re on the hook when anything goes wrong. They take a lot of unfair abuse from the actors, the directors, the musicians, and the audience, and they are frequently ill-equipped to handle difficult audio situations, because they often don’t have enough training to solve some of the problems they face.

The first thing you must do when approaching a sound person is to treat them with respect. If the sound people do not feel that you respect them, they will not be very interested in hearing what you have to say. From the sound person’s perspective, all you care about in the pit is making a lot of racket they have to deal with. When you come up and act like they don’t know what they’re doing, you’re asking for trouble. My father used to say, “Never argue with a man who buys his ink by the barrel” It’s an old political saying meaning ‘don’t argue with the press’. The press can always out-print you. Well, you might say, “Never argue with a man who controls your monitor levels.” They can make your life miserable. They can make you bleed!

There are a few problems you can solve yourself, without involving the sound guy. For example, if you’re using an electric keyboard, point the speaker at the stage, and put the player between the speaker and the stage. Put any amps as close to the player as possible. Do not point your brass instruments at the stage, or at the audience. Angle them to one side or the other. Tell your drummer to use hot rods (those bundles of sticks that make the set quieter) Work hard to keep your group quiet during the underscoring, and get your singers chins up so they can get out a good sound. I read somewhere that George Abbot, a legendary producer who lived to be 107 used to stand in the back of the theatre with a sign that said, “Loud is Good” If your singers project with good support, things get better; the sound guy has something to pick up. But you can’t crank something that’s not there.

If the singers can’t hear the pit, that is not an excuse to tell your players to crank it up. After you hear that comment, go to your sound guy and ask him whether he could hear you well enough. My guess is he’ll say you’re too loud. How do you solve this common problem? The singers need to hear the pianist. Make sure the pianist’s monitor is pointing at the stage. If it is, turn it up. If it’s already too loud for the pit, but the singers still can’t hear it, put the amp on a crate or a chair so it’s closer to the level of the stage. If that doesn’t work, turn down the low EQ on the piano amp or turn up the high EQ. (for the same effect if your electric piano has a dark-bright slider, move it to the bright end, or choose Rock Piano rather than classical piano). Bright sounds can be heard better than dark ones. If that doesn’t work, run a second line off the pianist’s amp to another speaker sitting on the stage or offstage left and/or right, pointed at the singers but not at the microphones.

And as much as you may not want to hear the answer, keep asking the sound guy how you’re doing, and do your best to make him happy.



  1. Very good article, Peter, and dead on. There are a LOT of sound problems caused by amps and monitors that are pointed in the wrong direction, or that are too loud, or that are too low in height. Guitarists in particular can be a problem, …and one of the best solutions for them is simply to tip their amp back 30 to 45 degrees so they can hear their amp better, and then it’s also not aimed directly at the audience (and the guitarist’s knees).

    When there are a lot of amps aimed at the audience, sound guys have no choice but to mix around them – and their control over them is very limited, especially once the audience gets in the room and the show starts. And unless it’s a straght-ahead rock show, with all vocalists closely mic’d, you will almost NEVER get enough vocal sound in the FOH mix under those circumstances.

    I also liked your ideas about ways to get drummers to play more quietly. Often it is the volume of the drums that are causing your guitarist and bassist to turn up in the first place. Now if only we could figure out how to get crash cymbals to have that great splash without all that volume …

  2. Another thing guitarists can do to hear themselves better is to boost mids and roll off lows. A typical Fender amp is voiced in such a way that it has a pronounced mid-scoop when all of the tone controls are at noon. A true “flat” setting is something like bass – 2, mid – 8, treble – 2. Setting the amp with all of the tone controls at their mid-point thus actually results in boosted highs and lows and a mid-scoop that sounds great when practicing in the bedroom, particularly at lower volume levels, but isn’t very conducive to cutting through a mix. If your guitarist is having trouble hearing himself play, have him boost his mids rather than turning up the volume or boosting the highs.

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