The Sad State of Sound Checks
Having done a thousand sound checks as a performer over the years and, conversely, having sat at audio consoles trying to adjust someone’s input level while they mumble incoherently into the microphone, I finally understand the critical importance of a thorough, uniform and targeted sound check for every broadcast, performance and recording session.
When I performed in bands, I remember standing on stage sputtering, “Check, check, check” into a microphone as if that would actually help the sound engineer set the appropriate volume level—as if my repeating that one word”check” in my relaxed speaking voice could possibly approximate the frequency variations of my vocalization in a soaring rock ballad.
Watching talent and guests perform sound checks from the safety of a control room is even funnier—and equally useless. Talent always seems bored and inconvenienced by the suggestion of sound check. They ramble about the weather and rake their brains for something to say, almost never using even half of the volume and range they will inevitably use when speaking in animated tones on hot-button issues typically discussed on panel shows and in forums. Trying to think of something to say during a sound check that occurs minutes before the broadcast begins can also be a distraction to the talent as they gather their wits to go on air. And going in front of the camera is every bit as all-consuming as any other job in a television studio.
Here’s one suggested fix for future sound checks–
Rather than let the talent mumble self-consciously through a sound check, as a director, even as a floor manager, and certainly as an audio engineer, I would provide the talent with a short, possibly amusing, paragraph to read, the same paragraph for hosts and guests alike in any given program so that not only volume can be balanced between input sources but also vocal timbre, quality and reverb adjusted to achieve a more professional audio presentation.
On any audio console incoming sound from multiple sources can be enhanced, equalized and balanced before being sent out over the air or out to a recording device. Volume control between a male host with a booming voice and a shy female guest who speaks in quiet tones can be leveled out easily if all performers read the same paragraph. Also, reading something will be much less distracting to a host or guest, than trying of think if something clever to say, while pulling back on volume due to awkwardness.
By the same token, when performing a sound check for a singer, perhaps asking the talent to actually sing would not be out of bounds. If clipping or “bending the needle” occurs in a singer’s upper register, and “riding in the mud” or weak signal occurs in the lower register, then at least the sound engineer will know in advance and be prepared to adjust the gain on the fly to keep periods of distortion and inaudible signal to a minimum, especially if he or she is familiar with the song. (1)
Here are a few suggestion for reading passages:
- From JFK Inaugural: In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world. (2
- From FDR “Four Freedoms Speech” “I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world — assailed either by arms or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace. During 16 long months this assault has blotted out the whole pattern of democratic life in an appalling number of independent nations, great and small. And the assailants are still on the march, threatening other nations, great and small. (3)
- From Shirley Chisolm “For the Equal Rights Amendment-– “Discrimination against women, solely on the basis of their sex, is so widespread that is seems to many persons normal, natural and right. Legal expression of prejudice on the grounds of religious or political belief has become a minor problem in our society. Prejudice on the basis of race is, at least, under systematic attack. Their is reason for optimism that it will start to die with the present, older generation. It is time we act to assure full equality of opportunity to those citizens who, although in a majority, suffer the restrictions that are commonly imposed on minorities, to women. (4)
Though all of the above speech were written in the mid-twentieth century, all seem sadly relevant today, decades later.
- Zettl, Herbert; Television Production Handbook, Twelth Edition; San Francisco State University, 2015: Pages 194-5
- Kennedy, John F., Inaugural Address, January, 1961: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkinaugural.htm
- Roosevelt, Franklin D.; “Four Freedoms” Speech, January, 1941: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/fdrthefourfreedoms.htm
- Chisholm, Shirley; “For the Equal Rights Amendment;” August 1970: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/shirleychisholmequalrights.htm