Blog 2 Concert Sound for the Opening Act

Concert Sound for the Opening “Support” Act

I decided to write this series of articles, in response to years of listening to my musician friend’s regale me with tails of woe, about “Bad Sound Experiences.” BSE if you will. Most often, these BSE’s had a common identifiable trait (New or inexperienced sound tech) and almost all were related to on stage monitor mixes. These unfortunate experiences made playing their music un-fun and un-inspiring. Since these are the two reasons most of my friends play music … I thought I’d try to help!
For this article, I added a caveat, to make a larger point … communication … So the first two articles are set in the scariest place in the music business … When YOU is the Opening Act!
This series is an effort to empower musicians on two levels: first with a basic knowledge of “Concert Sound” technology and second with a willingness to engage the concert sound engineers they encounter daily, as collaborators and co-conspirators and not as road blocks to success.

At the end of my last article “You don’t know me….I’m the Opening Act” I closed by saying.
“In the next installment, we’ll talk about a point Bad Blake makes in the movie “Crazy Heart.”
Blake to the sound mixer: “We’re gonna stay here all day ‘til we get this mix right!
Mixer: It is right ….
Blake to his band: They always say that … but they’re gonna make sure the opening act doesn’t sound as good as the Headliner! “
You can see some of that exchange at the link below.
http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1217594393/
It takes a minute to buffer, so be patient, at about 40 sec into the trailer you see part of this exchange between musician and sound engineer.
I’ve been in this exact situation many times myself at sound check, so it seems like a good place to start a discussion about several important points. One would be the obvious … communication between musician and sound engineer, another, the opening act and the headliners sound engineer … maybe one more … the opening act’s sound engineer and the headliner’s sound engineer. Let’s sort through this potential mine field.
TRUST ISSUES:
In our previous example, the musician Bad Blake and the sound engineer Bear have some obvious trust issues. As the scene progresses we find out that Bear is the sound engineer for the headliner but is mixing the “Front of House” (FOH) for Blake’s band (the dreaded Opening Act) at this concert. Everyone seems a little cranky, and time is most likely running out on sound check.
Let’s go back to the “You don’t know me” article for some help. Here are two passages that relate to this point.
“The next most important people you’ll need to find are the sound technicians. I can’t emphasize enough how important – this part of the process – is to the actual outcome of your bands performance. We’ll discus this aspect (Sound) in great detail with a future article.”
And
“One of my favorite IATSE sayings is “Chaos creates CASH.” This is the exact nature of the relationship between the “Production” and the local IA crew. If the production is well planned and organized, the day will go exceedingly well. If the production has organizational issues, these issues will put pressure on the deadlines all day. Stuff happens … Trucks show up late, chain motors break and thunder storms blast in! None of that stuff is the IA’s fault but because their work rules, such as, Meal penalties, will be enforced … the pressure mounts.
This pressure (even on a perfect day there can be pressure) impacts the amount of – production stage time – available to “Opening Act.” The Opening Acts production representative needs to be aware of how the Headliners production is coming together. Show up early and pay attention to the workflow. Monitoring the progress of the production is critical! “
If nothing else, we’ve established that there are forces beyond the control of us mere mortals …
Let’s look at some basic “Opening Act” scenarios from one of the previously mentioned perspectives: Headliners sound tech and Opening Act Musicians.
Let’s take a quick tangential left and define what makes a “Top Notch” sound company? First, the gear has to be excellent and in good working order. They must also be very knowledgeable about the technical aspects of sound reinforcement. Those two sentences describe about 80% of the sound companies I’ve encountered over my 35 years in this business. So if the gear’s good and the sound techs know what they’re doing what’s the problem?
Attitude … not Aptitude
The difference is in the people not the equipment. You can assume, if a sound company is out on a tour with a headliner or they are the Sound Company of choice at a major venue, that they understand the technical aspects of sound reinforcement. Ahhh…. Will they be advocates for your music? That’s the question.
This is how to find the answer!
Some advocates a PAID not born! I’m serious! This is a business! The sound techs work a long hard day. To a sound tech … the most beautiful words in the entire Musical lexicon are, “An Evening With.” This means: No support act, the headliner will go at 8:00PM play a 75 min set plus an encore or (2) 45 min sets with an intermission. The concert ends at 10:30PM at the latest.
The gear gets packed up and they’re on the road HOME before midnight!
It also means, when sound check ends 6:00 -6:30 PM there’s a break until 7:30 PM. Because there’s NO STAGE CHANGE!
The next most beautiful words are, The Opening Act is a comedian … WE LOVE COMEDY … One microphone and one monitor. BEAUTIFUL!
When I was on tour with Ann Murray back in the 80”s Jerry Seinfeld – before he was SEINFELD – was her opening act … Comedians are always nice to the sound techs…. Except for Gallagher … he’s never nice … but he’s definitely the exception.
The ascending hierarchy of love is as follows: Solo Acoustic act, Duet … Trio … you get the picture.
So when YOU show up looking for 32 input channels and 10 monitors mixes for YOUR band…. Remember…. You’re being compared to “An Evening with”
The saying …”To Insure Proper Service” T.I.P.S. is not a bad way to go here. $200 will get you a long way down the road of making “ADVOCATES.” Get the stage manger away from stage, discretely and respectfully offer to “Sweeten the Pot” “donate a little something for the EFFORT.” Without exception they will say, “You don’t need to do that we’ll take care of you” Your firm reply is “I’m not worried about that. I know what a pain in the butt this is for you guys, please accept it as our offer of appreciation for that effort.” It may go back and forth a time or two, but it needs to end with you giving either him or the monitor engineer the $200.
Now there’s a professional demeanor to your end of the production.
My previous article spoke at length about the organization of band gear (back line) and distributing the technical information to the proper channels. The $200 is NOT gonna do much for you if you haven’t taken care of the technical organization and business before this point. It’s the combination of all these things that will ensure your band has a good “Opening Act” experience …. On Stage.
Let’s move on to the FOH (front of house) sound. This is where we started; remember the discussion from “Crazy Heart.” The Headliner’s FOH mixer or his system tech (the guy responsible for the technical aspects of the PA) will be mixing the opening act – assuming the band doesn’t have an actual sound tech. These guy’s have a reputation to uphold, and it’s at stake too. They will make every effort to make the Opening Act sound as good as possible. There is one caveat here so we should talk about it now.
In the dialogue from “Crazy Heart”
Blake to the sound mixer: “We’re gonna stay here all day ‘til we get this mix right!
Mixer: It is right ….
Blake to his band: They always say that … but they’re gonna make sure the opening act doesn’t sound as good as the Headliner! “
Here’s what that means to you. The Headliners sound crew will compress the Opening Acts sound. They do this for a number of very good reasons. Here’s the major reason.
COMPRESSION by this definition is the intentional limiting of the Dynamic Range. That means it lessens the difference of the volume between the softest and loudest sounds in the mix. Compression for this purpose is meant to protect the PA from any over modulated (distorted) audio signals. It is done to ensure that the PA system will be in complete working order for the Headliner.
Back in the previous article I spoke of the possible revenue generated by a single Sport Arena concert as being in the several million-dollar range. If the PA does not work and headliner can’t play…. the money gets refunded. COMPRESSION will be used.
Bad Blake, has a point … and now we all know why. The amount of compression that is applied is the key to success. If the band can stay under control, meaning good consistent audio signals. It will serve to build confidence in the FOH people responsible for the safe keeping of the PA system and they will apply less compression. Understand this and you’ll sound great!

The Band finally gets the stage. This is where communication is key, and where the pros excel. Work to ensure the band gets comfortable on stage this is where the music gets made so start … on stage.
All of the PRE-PRODUCTION work bears it’s fruit at this point in time.
Placement of band gear (back line) on stage is critical, the placement of “AC” drops and DI boxes in the correct spots will get you up and running for line check quickly. Have the musicians nearby … don’t let them on stage until line check has been completed. Nothing drives sound techs crazier than having the musicians on stage before the Microphone lines and Monitor mixes are correct and verified. Have a designated person – conduct the communication – between the band and the monitor engineer. Be nice and never blame the gear as the problem until your convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that it is in fact … the gear … that is the problem!
There is an entire section of my book “A Musician’s Complete Guide to Sound” dedicated to “how to conduct sound check.” It can be found at here to go to liveconcertstagesound
Time for a reality check, in ’87 the Opening Act on Whitney Houston’s “Moment of Truth” tour was “Kenny G” … yes before he was “ KENNY G” on Hall & Oats’ “Rock and Soul Review” tour the Opening Act was “INXS.” Yes before they were … you know where I’m going with this … the point is EVERY Band starts as Opening Act … The sound/lighting companies understand that today’s Opening Act is tomorrow’s Headliner, the concert promoters understand that as well. The production personnel will be there to help for all of the reasons we’ve discussed. They are Professionals and they know what’s at stake.
If your band gets to be somebody’s Opening Act, take it seriously, be prepared and be ON TIME!
It’s not a once in a lifetime opportunity … It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.