Make the most of Sound Check for a Chorale or Acapella

A reader asked me about sound check for a choir and acapella performances after seeing my blog post on sound check for bands. Because sound reinforcement for choral music works very differently, I realized the topic requires a separate blog post. I have worked with numerous gospel choirs and acapella groups and here are my observations on what usually goes wrong.

A few pointers before I dive in to the technicals:

1. Most musicians from choirs and acapella groups are also a part of rock/pop bands. They spend more time with the bands and assume things work the same way for a chorus on stage, but it doesn’t.

2. The reason you have a choir/acapella is because you intend to use ‘voices’ as an ‘instrument’. If you have an army of other instruments ‘backing’ your group, you better have voices that can be heard over them, of course without sounding like they are straining.

I would like to stress on this point a little more, because many have got this wrong. For instance, I did a concert with a choir of 10-12 kids (aged 5-8 years) performing, backed by a full rock band including bass, drums, two keyboards, two overdriven guitars, an acoustic guitar and percussion.

Of course, stage-fright got the better of a few kids before they even started. What did it sound like? It sounded like a rock band playing an instrumental with some kids screaming in the background, back stage probably.It may not always be this extreme, but you get the idea. Balance is very important and very easy to lose. You’d rather have a few extra voices than run borderline.

3. Speaking about balance, choir/acapella, like I said earlier, is simply an ensemble of voices. For an ensemble to sound good, you need the right blend of every instrument. In this case – soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Not just volume-wise but in terms of the number of voices too.

Four voices are always better than two. Also, if you have one loud tenor, it doesn’t mean you cut down in that department. You should instead increase the voices in tenor to help that voice blend. You don’t want unplanned solo performances.

4. I have seen a strange habit of spreading out sections in a choir, it doesn’t always work unless you know what you are doing. It’s easier and usually better if sections are together.

Let’s get a little technical now. Here are some pointers and rules:

1. Plan a sound check! Most choirs avoid a sound check thinking it’s ‘just’ mics. Because it’s just mics and sometimes many, you really need a sound check. Go in advance and speak to people managing the stage, sound and lights. Put a performance together, not just a song.

2. Inform your sound engineer about the arrangement of the choir in terms of parts/sections. You can simple say – “1st row, left to right. 4 are sopranos, next 4 alto voices. 2nd row, left to right. 4 are tenors and 4 are basses”. Or you could have a simple “top-view” visual representation of the choir with parts/sections labelled. (Refer to the example below.)

3. On the same sheet you drew the choir, you could mention the instruments you are using and if they need mics or ‘jack’ connections and power supply.

Sample Sheet with Stage Layout and Tech info for a Choir – Rahul Samuel

4. If your group has less than 10-12 persons, try and get one mic per person when it’s possible, and close mic, like you would when singing solo. This is the best way to go about using mics.

5. You would already know which voices are really loud – mark them on the sheet. By letting the sound engineer know, you will help him/her place microphones better. This way, the other voices are not lost when he/she turns down a mic to control the louder voice.

6. Bring mics as close to the choir as possible. The closer they are, the lesser the chances of feedback. But again, too close and you will hear the voice closest to it. So keep at least 6-7 inches away from each voice (if you are using one mic for 2-3 voices) and not more than 18 inches from the closest, and furthest voice in case of a larger area covered by each mic.

7. Start with setting levels of your accompanists on stage. Keep it as low as possible while making sure everyone can hear it. Move monitors around on stage if you have to, but don’t bring them too close to the choir.

8. For the voices, sound check in parts first. Get each part to sound good by itself. Then combine sections one by one until they all sound right together. Don’t start singing all at once, it doesn’t help figure which sections need to go up or down.

In case the hanging mics are fixed – which is wrong in the first place – be prepared to move the choir around on stage to get mics to pick all the sections evenly. If it’s one mic, you could form sort-of-a semicircle around it. If the mic is too high up, get them to bring it lower. These sort of set-ups almost always have a provision to pull the mic up or down. Insist and it will be done.

9. The squealing/howling sound you hear when mics are turned up, aka feedback, can be avoided by taking a few steps. Feedback is caused when you point a mic at a monitor speaker or when you cup/cover the mic. Yes, covering the mic with your hand doesn’t ‘cut’ it out, but makes it more sensitive and omni-directional, letting people hear what you don’t want them to.

10. Sending the choir’s sound back on to a stage-monitor is a strict no! The mics are set up on high-gain and tend to pick sound from a distance, including most other sounds in the room/venue. They will also pick their own feed on monitors, causing feedback before you attain decent gain and level on the mics. Adding the mics on to monitors are a formula for sure disaster.

The NO-monitor rule applies for acapella unless they are a small group using one mic per person. This is one of the biggest mistakes made by most choirs and sound engineers. Please ask your engineer to take the choir mics completely off the stage-monitor. Stage monitors are most compromised system we have, in-ear monitors are the way to go.

If you are about 6 people, you can get yourselves on the monitors only if you are close-miked with one mic each or even better, get in-ear monitors. Strategize your placement on stage so that you are always near people you need to hear cues from. This will help keep your monitor levels low, or preferably off.

Usually, putting the accompanists on the monitors helps keep time and pitch, but too much of that will get picked by the choir mics and will drown the voices on stage.
If the choir can’t hear themselves, try and figure out what they are hearing instead. It could be an accompanying instrument set too loud, or a background noise like the air-conditioning, generator, etc. Get the choir to do an acapella and play accompanying instruments one-by-one to check what is inhibiting them from hearing themselves.

11. Anti-Spinal Tap style! Please turn down anything on stage that you can do without. The quieter the stage, the better you will sound.

Edit: Added suggestion for IEM on 14 June 2016

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