Mastering the Hustle: Your Sound and Performance

MasteringTheHustle_GatheringSpace_Apr1 (1) RESIZE SOUND

Here at KEXP, we firmly believe that music matters. But we live in a world that is more awash in music than ever before. So how do you, as a musician, make your mark? How do you stand out and create a brand that will get you noticed and while still being true to your image and intent? What tools are best leveraged to amplify your brand out into the world? And how does any of this work, anyway? In our second installment of the Mastering The Hustle workshop series, we invited a panel of Seattle musicians, bookers, and engineers to discuss how artists can improve their sound and performance. This series is in conjunction with Upstream Music Fest + Summit, MoPOP, and KEXP’s Artist Education Initiative — a new program dedicated to providing educational resources for local artists.

Local rapper/producer Grieves and his tour manager Colin Papworth discuss how to handle logistics of a show from the artist end and how to level up your performance. Shaina Foley, Production Manager for legendary Seattle venue The Crocodile, walks through the crucial advancing process and how to communicate with the venue. KEXP Audio Engineer Julian Martlew offers insight on how to best do your soundcheck and communicate with the sound person during the show. Moderator and Upstream Music Fest Head Curator Meli Darby directs the conversation, throwing in tips and tricks from her own experiences as a booker and working with artists.

Advancing Your Show

To kick things off, Shaina Foley gave a presentation walking artists through advancing their shows — from confirming the set to sharing stage plots. While so much time for artists is focused on booking and getting shows, that’s not where the work ends. Advancing is a crucial step in making sure the show runs smoothly — not just for the artist, but for the venue, the sound engineers, and booker as well.

Designate a consistent point person from you band be in charge of advancing on your end will help keep the process streamlined. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a band member — you can enlist the help of a friend or manager to do this as well, just as long as there’s consistency. Whoever you choose will then contact the person that confirmed or booked your show. This person will then connect you with who your advance and day-of-show contact will be. Advancing typically starts two to four weeks ahead of the show, so there’s no need to be eager and get it done months before the show. The exception here is if you’re heading out on a tour, in which case you’ll want to reach out to the venues earlier to establish facts like venue specs and load-in parking. This will save you major stress while on the road.

The advance itself should cover some basic facts: the name of your band and band members, day-of-show contacts, technical specs/tech rider, and verifying if you’ll be using the house technicians or bringing along your own tech staff. The tech is the most important part of your advance. After all the hard work you’ve done rehearsing and crafting your set, you’ll need to ensure that the venue has the capabilities to make it work on their stage. Your tech rider should include the following: an up-to-date stage plot, an input list, any lighting cues you may have, and notes for any guest performers or changes.

Grieves and Colin Papworth shared their own stage plot that they use on tour and walked the audience through all the details. Grieves and Papworth use a program called Stage Plot Pro for designing their plots, which they recommend but also note that you can design your stage plot with Photoshop or even hand draw one if necessary. For keeping track of tour itineraries, there are programs available like Master Tour for an ongoing subscription basis. However, Grieves and Papworth note that they eventually switched over to Google Docs as an effective and free option for keeping track of all their essential details. Whatever the means you take to get it done is up to you. What’s most important is that venue gets the information they need. Watch Foley explain the advancing process in full above.

Translating Your Music to Performance

“People aren’t gathering to hear you recite the stuff you’ve already written,” Grieves pointed out during the panel section. “They want to experience it through you.”

Grieves notes that while your recorded music may sound great, you need to create a new emotional experience in your live performance. This is done with everything from how you arrange your setlist to the arrangements of your songs. Papworth adds that including a “gimmick” can add some flair to your performance. While that word negative connotations, he and Grieves breakdown how some sort of spectacle thrown into your set can help better engage the audience. Maybe it’s a costume. Maybe it’s your lead vocalist jumping in on percussion for one of the songs. Or maybe it’s something as simple as finding a creative way to flow your songs seamlessly into one another. The idea is to mix it up from what your audience expects.

Meli Darby points out that, just like with advancing your instruments, you’ll want to make sure the venue has the capacity to make these elements happen. If you have lasers, banners, projectors, or any other element that’s different than the typical band setup, address it with your advancing contact. There’s nothing worse than getting to the venue and finding out they don’t have the space or electricity to make your well-thought-out performance happen.

Darby also stresses the importance of being flexible as an artist. Sometimes the venue just won’t be able to make it work. Have a backup plan just in case your full presentation isn’t possible. This idea also goes for any hiccups you might experience in your performance, like a sound issue that’s taking some time to sort out. Grieves says be prepared to fill in the awkward space with stage banter or even keep something like an acoustic guitar backstage to keep the show going in case something like the power goes out or bring an iPod with backing tracks ready to go should you need it. He also adds that you should rehearse for problems so you’ll know exactly what to do in case something goes wrong. It’s important to go with the flow — don’t draw attention to any of the issues. More often than not, the audience won’t notice what’s going on unless you point it out. Watch the panel discuss other performance elements below.

Sound Check Etiquette and On-Stage Sound Issues

Running sound is a collaboration between the sound person and the artist performing. Julian Martlew and Grieves were able to shed some light on this process from both sides of the conversation. Quickly, they both were able to address the tone and manner of how you communicate with your sound person. Being rude or dismissive of your sound person, even if you’re having technical issues, is never a good idea. If you can tell that the sound is going bad, Grieves says the artist just has to push through. Meanwhile, the sound person will do their best to address the issue. When you notice the issues, don’t call them out from the stage during the performance.

“Every time you give the audience an opportunity to feel like their input is valuable to the front of house person, you’re increasing the chance that that person is gonna get more and more irritated as the show goes on,” Martlew says. By pushing back on the sound person during the show, you run the risk of upsetting them and them not being motivated to resolve any of the issues. It’s a lose-lose situation. If you happen to be picky about how your sound is done, Grieves suggests bringing in your own sound person who knows exactly how you like your levels and develop a communication system with them. During your soundcheck, Martlew suggests getting your vocals checked first so you can have a clear way to talk back and forth with your sound person and keep things moving along swiftly.

Before you even arrive at the venue, however, there’s work you can do to prepare your band.

Martlew suggests bands figure out how to hear each other and balance in your practice space, then replicate that for each show. i.e. if your drummer is too loud, you’ll know you’ll need to turn up your other instruments.

“If you can play a show where the only instrument in the PA is vocals, you can a house party and you can play an arena and you’re going to be fine.”

When you’re billed as an opening act, there’s a chance that you won’t be provided time for a formal soundcheck and have to do a line-check. The more bands playing, the less time you’ll have to check your levels. Instead, you’ll just have to plug in and quickly run through each instrument to make sure everything’s good. Martlew suggests developing a soundcheck song, even rearranging your first song to start with drums, then bringing in the bass, and the other instruments. This will speed up the process.

When checking your monitors, focus only on the essential instruments. If you’re the bass player, you need to hear the drummer. If you’re a vocalist, you’ll need to hear yourself to stay on pitch (although if the monitors are turned up too loud, that can sometimes negatively affect your pitch as well). While each instrument is checking their sound, the other band members should indicate if they need that sound in their monitors (i.e. the bass player is checking their levels and the sound guy goes through the other members and asks if they need that in their monitors). It’s okay to ask for more or less of something in your monitor during a soundcheck. Once the soundcheck is done, don’t touch any of the levels on your amps or you risk ruining all the hard work you’ve just gone through.

This workshop on sound and performance is the second of twelve in the Mastering the Hustle series. Join us in person, or follow along here in the KEXP blog, as we bring you stories, tips, and strategies from the best voices in the industry.

Key Takeaways

  • Have a point person in your band designated to taking care of your bands’ advances
  • Advancing typically starts two to four weeks ahead of the show
  • The advance will come from the venue, covering the name of your band and band members, day of show contacts, technical specs/tech rider, and verifying if you’ll be using the house technicians or bringing along your own tech staff.
  • Your tech rider should include the following: an up-to-date stage plot, an input list, any lighting cues you may have, and notes for any guest performers or changes.
  • You can use software like Stage Plot Pro and Master Tour to create your stage plots and itineraries, or you can take a DIY approach. All that matters is finding a method that works for you and keeps your organized.
  • Find a way to keep your performance fresh and exciting. Consider adding some sort of spectacle, whether that’s a visual element like lights, lasers, and projections or collaborative instrumental piece that’s not on your recordings. Just be sure to check with the venue and make sure they have the capacity for your full presentation. As an artist, be prepared to be flexible with the venue.
  • Be prepared for if things go wrong. Have backing tracks ready or an acoustic guitar on deck backstage to keep things moving in case the sound/electricity goes out.
  • Be polite to your sound person. Don’t call them out from the stage.
  • Before you even show up to the venue, figure out how to best hear yourselves in your practice space and then try and replicate those levels at the venue.
  • Develop a soundcheck song to speed up the process. Focus on the essential instruments you need to hear in the monitors to save time.



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