Your Partners in Good Tone
No two people tune the same, so to avoid a possible tuning discrepancy with your guitar tech, be sure you’re both using the same style of tuner. My personal preference is the TC Electronic Polytune.
Welcome to Tone Tips! This month’s column is all about working with others effectively, but I’m not talking about your bandmates. I’m talking about the stage and sound techs that can make or break every gig you do. With the advent of in-ear monitoring and the trend towards quieter stages, it’s more important than ever to develop good working relationships with the sound techs that have so much control over what the audience hears, and what you hear. When it comes to guitar techs, trust me when I say that having a good working relationship with yours is so important to your effectiveness and sanity when touring. I’m lucky to have worked with some amazing techs over the years, and I’ve finally learned how to communicate what my needs are so I can concentrate on playing well and putting on a good show.
In previous columns, I’ve addressed how to choose the right rig for each gig you do. And if you read those columns, you’ll remember that part of choosing the right rig is taking techs into account. When you share a stage tech with other musicians in the band, it’s important to consider the tech’s overall workload when assembling your rig. If your tech is also taking care of the drummer and bassist, it’s wise to tour with a simple, small rig that you can quickly troubleshoot yourself.
I try and make it easy on my techs by making sure my pedalboards are built professionally, and that my guitars and amps are well maintained. My gear is tight and rock solid when it shows up at rehearsal, because rehearsals are not a good place to put your pedalboard together. I’ve seen guys go into rehearsal with the expectation that their tech is going to assemble their pedalboard and do fairly extensive maintenance on their guitars and amps. This might be okay for famous rockstar guitarists, but us touring sidemen should show up prepared.
Your tech will appreciate it if your rig is in good condition, but it is usually their job to set it up, tear it down, and maintain it while on tour. That said, it’s important to spend some time going over how it works, how it’s hooked up, and how it should sound. Most tour rehearsals will start with a load-in and set-up day, which will give you some time to run through these details with your tech to make sure everything’s working properly. This is also a good time to go take an inventory of all your gear by writing down serial numbers for everything, as you’ll need this information for insurance and carnet purposes. (Carnets are documents that simplify customs procedures when touring internationally.)
Tuning is of paramount importance to me and I’ve learned to always allow time to go over tuning with your tech. In the bands I play in, guitar changes often happen quickly, which means I don’t always have time to double-check the tuning of a guitar that’s just been handed to me. Tuning is such a personal thing—just like no two players play exactly the same, I’ve found that no two people tune the same.
It’s not uncommon for a tech to tune a guitar that sounds perfectly in tune when he plays it, but once in my hands, the tuning will seem out. This scenario can be due to your tech using a different type of tuner, right-hand technique, left-hand pressure, or even the angle at which your tech holds the guitar. So I recommend that you ask your tech to try and copy your pick attack, technique, pressure, etc. when tuning. This will go a long way toward alleviating any discrepancies between your tuning techniques. I also certainly recommend that you and your tech always use the same type of tuner. My personal favorite is the TC Electronic Polytune: I like how accurate it is, how stable and fast it responds, and its bright, easy-to-read display.
Remember that techs and sound personnel are not mind readers. If you want or need something, respectfully asking for it at the right time will help your cause. I’ve seen musicians blow up in anger at their crew, usually over things that could’ve been handled easily with better communication. Never lose sight of the fact that your tech is there to help you, and you’re both important to the show. Treat them with respect, and you will be rewarded with respect in return.
Monitors and FOH
Developing a good rapport with your sound techs is vital. The monitor engineer can make or break your show, especially if you are using in-ear monitoring. And the front-of-house (FOH) engineer basically has total control over your tone as the audience hears it. While I like to be as hands-on as possible, I always respect that these people are pros who have the final say in their department.
When it comes to FOH, I like to walk out into the house at soundcheck while the band is playing (I use a wireless system, so this is pretty easy). I listen closely to my guitar in the PA to make sure my tone is translating in the house, and also make sure my volume isn’t too loud coming off the stage. If my guitar seems bright or dark in the PA, I may ask if I can move the mics on my cabinet, instead of changing the amp settings. Most sound engineers are happy to accommodate, but the mics onstage are their world, so it’s important to ask permission before making changes.
When I ask monitor engineers for an instrument to be turned up or down, I often find that they make either bigger or smaller changes than I need. That’s why this is something I always address with engineers at a soundcheck, since my version of “a little more snare drum” might be different than theirs. It’s usually pretty easy to iron this out. If you’re using in-ears, and your monitor engineer is really cool, you might be able to talk him into letting you tweak your own mix at a soundcheck while the rest of the band is playing. Rather than trying to explain every single thing you want, it’s sometimes quicker and easier doing it this way. But again, the monitor desk is their world, so don’t forget to ask nicely.
Good luck out there, keep on jamming, and see you next month!
Peter Thorn is an L.A.-based guitarist, currently touring with Melissa Etheridge. His solo album, Guitar Nerd, is available through iTunes and cdbaby.com. Read more about his career at peterthorn.com.