Soundchecks are typically considered one of the more tedious parts of being on the road, especially on lengthy tours. Artists and crews often need to leave one tour stop early in the morning to make it to the next one in time to play several songs in an empty venue, while house and monitor mixes are set up and saved for the show. Even playing locally, artists regularly arrive halfheartedly for soundcheck, hoping the one player who habitually shows up late doesn’t.
A practical solution is to use a virtual soundcheck, a tool that was only available to mega-budget touring acts until recently. Virtual soundcheck was developed by live mixers, who would record a multitrack mix of a concert to a digital audio workstation (DAW). Then, at the next location, they would play the multitrack recording through the PA system while recalling and updating their console snapshots before the show. That way, engineers could tune the PA and monitors before the musicians arrived on stage.
As virtual soundchecks became more common, new applications emerged. The process can be very helpful in acclimating stand-in or replacement musicians, who must quickly learn a set of songs. This often comes into play at theme parks, on cruise ships and in worship bands, where players are regularly switched. For example, if a band has a replacement drummer, the multitrack recording can play back the band’s tracks while the drummer’s mics are live. This allows the replacement to play along with the multitrack recording, and stop and repeat sections to become familiar with the set before the rest of the band arrives. Hours later, when the band comes in, they can do a quick check of one or two songs and be more refreshed and ready to go for the live show.
Another advantage of virtual soundchecks is that artists rarely perform at soundcheck with the enthusiasm of a live show, which can affect the mix. Also, having an audience between the speakers and mixer can significantly impact the room’s acoustics. Using virtual soundcheck to tune a room can help impart a more authentic sense of a show environment and minimize the need for final adjustments as the crowd comes in and fills the venue.
Virtual soundcheck functionality became commercially available several years ago in large consoles that cost $50,000 or more and required computers and extensive routing. As virtual soundchecks grew in popularity with bigger tours, acts with smaller budgets began exploring creative ways to take the edge off touring by deploying their own virtual soundchecks. Engineers came up with numerous configurations of hardware and software, but many were cumbersome and required multiple operators to work in time-sensitive situations.
Some engineers approximated virtual soundcheck technology by playing a CD through the console, tuning the system to their liking, saving a snapshot of the mix and then playing the CD at various venues while tweaking the EQ to suit the room differences.
Recently, though, an innovative approach to deploying virtual soundchecks at smaller events uses a console that enables the engineer to record 24 inputs directly onto a USB stick. The recording can then be used for soundcheck playback directly from the USB stick without any need for a DAW. The new Soundcraft Ui24R mixer is being used by hundreds of acts that can work within its 22 inputs. The three-space rack box provides a simple, cost-effective digital mixing and multitrack recording system with a mobile user interface and dramatically simplifies the virtual sound check process.
Hitting playback of the multitrack recording from the previous night’s show plays everything as if it’s coming from the microphones through the system again. That way, the mixer can check and tweak the house PA and subwoofers, floor wedges and in-ear monitors. They can EQ for that particular environment, set and balance levels, and adjust the subwoofer levels and crossovers, as the position between the mains and subwoofers are often different at each venue. They can perform many of the tasks that previously entailed having a band stand around on the stage, playing the same song six times. Now, mixers can get ahead of schedule by starting virtually.
The Ui24R is also a valuable tool for musicians who control their individual monitor mixes. Twenty years ago, bands often had one monitor mix for all the wedges on the stage. Now, they typically have four or five wedge mixes, and some players have in-ear monitoring. It’s nearly impossible for musicians to effectively adjust their monitor mixes while playing their instruments. One of the great things about virtual soundchecks is that they allow singers and musicians to set up their personal mixes on their smartphones or tablets without playing a note. Because the Ui24R is entirely HTML5 browser-based, it’s actually a web server that pushes out individual web pages to each musician. There’s no need to install apps. The process really makes playing live an easier and more satisfying experience.
Are you a front of house engineer, tech or artist who uses virtual soundcheck? Share your insights in the comments.