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electronic MUSICIAN

Master Class, Ready for the Road

By Steve La Cerra | March 15, 2012


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Funk band Lettuce performs at Camp Bisco X in 2011.
 
 
THERE’S NOTHING better than being busy gigging—and nothing worse than a having a gig mishap that could have been avoided. The busy season is right around the corner, so now’s the time to look at things you can do to make life on the gig easier.

Testing 1-2-3 Part of your routine should be checking out your gear after it comes back from a show. Of course no one wants to start testing gear at 4 a.m., but at some point you need to make sure everything made it back without damage. It’s easy to get lazy, but there are several reasons why you’re better off performing this check soon after returning than you are doing it right before the next gig. First, if something needs repair, you’ll have the time to address it. Second, if some knucklehead spilled a beer into a piece of gear and you didn’t notice it last night (or maybe it happened on the loadout), you have a far better chance of saving it if you get to it before the liquid dries and corrosion starts. Third, when you get an unexpected last-minute gig, you can pack and go without worrying whether your gear is ready. Fourth, if you discover missing items, you can make a prompt phone call to the venue to see if they’re still there. (More about that momentarily.) This is also the time to load digital mixer system updates so you have time to test them. (Save your files to a couple of memory sticks for backup, and make sure that more than one person holds copies of your files.)

Your traveling tool kit should include a cable tester or a simple multimeter that can be used to check cables and electrical outlets (see Figure 1). When using a multimeter, check XLR cables pin-to-pin for continuity and cross-check the pins for shorts. (Ditto for TS and TRS cables.) There are several different types of TS cables: those used for connecting instruments to amps, those for connecting “line-level” gear such as outboard and mixers, and those used for connecting speakers to power amps. Speaker cable is heavy-gauge, unshielded, two-conductor cable, while the other two types are typically lighter-gauge, with a single conductor and a shield. If these cables are difficult to tell apart, label them so you won’t mistakenly use them for the wrong purpose. You should carry spares of all kinds. Questionable cables should be left home until they can be repaired.

 
Fig. 1. Carry a multimeter to check cables and outlets.
Scout the Gig If you’ve never played a particular venue, do a bit of pre-production. (This is especially important for outdoor venues that may not normally host live bands.) What’s the load-in? Is there a stage? Does it have a roof? If not, what will you do if it rains? Is electricity easily accessible? Are you expected to supply music when the band is on breaks? Does the venue have a house P.A., or are you expected to bring your own? Is there a safe place to locate your mixing board and speakers? Obviously it’s less work for a band to use the house P.A. system, but some bands will bring their own “front-end” (mics and mixing board) and either send a submix to the house mixing console or plug into the power amplifiers. If you plan to do the latter, make sure that you have the proper cables.

In situations where the house is providing P.A., sending a stage plot and input list ahead can help the house tech understand your band requirements. The input list is self-explanatory. The stage plot is a bird’s-eye view of the stage setup, showing the position of each instrument and performer. It doesn’t have to be a scale drawing, just something to show the general idea. An example stage plot is shown in Figure 2; notice that the position of the monitors is outlined and the monitor mixes are numbered to facilitate communication between band and engineer.

Electronic equipment—particularly anything with a microprocessor—doesn’t like heat, especially the kind generated by lying out in the sun all day. Keyboards and digital mixers are especially vulnerable to malfunction or damage from heat. You may find that some LCD screens will turn completely black when they reach a certain temperature, making them useless. (They usually return to normal once they cool down.) Space blankets can be a big help for keeping gear cool when it’s sitting out in the sun.

Splurge Whether you are bringing your own P.A., using the house system, or a combination of both, everyone in your band who sings needs his or her own vocal microphone. Using public microphones is unsanitary (okay, it’s disgusting), and you never know what you’re gonna get. Spend time trying different vocal mics, and when you find one that suits your voice, buy it. These days, you don’t have to spend five hundred bucks to get a good vocal mic for live use. There are a multitude of great choices in the $125 range from Shure, Sennheiser, Audix, Equation Audio and a host of other manufacturers. If you own a vocal microphone, you’ll have consistency from show to show, and you won’t have to worry about getting an abused mic that no longer functions properly.

One of the most annoying problems on a gig is a microphone stand that doesn’t stay put. Give some love to those forsaken mic stands! Take some time to figure out what’s wrong and fix them. A replacement clutch for the height adjustment costs about two bucks, takes five minutes to install, and spares you the hassle of dealing with a mic stand that falls while you’re playing. The boom pivot also tends to wear down most frequently, but this is an equally easy fix. Take a look at Figure 3, a close up of the pivot on a typical mic boom. Notice the two leather disks in between the metal flanges of the boom and the mic stand. (You can see the stitching in the photo.) These disks (which are sometimes plastic) are the culprits when it comes to booms that sag. They are easy and cheap to replace. If you want to extend the life of the boom in the first place, don’t over-tighten.

 
Fig. 2. Sending a stage plot can help the house tech understand your band requirements.
Keep it Simple Your setup time can be decreased if some of your gear is pre-configured. For example, if your band is carrying a mixer, outboard gear, and power amps for house speakers and monitors, load all of the gear into a single rack and pre-wire as much as possible. You’ll still have to run cables into and out of the rack for microphones and power amps, but even that work can be simplified by making or purchasing a rack panel with the requisite connectors and mounting that on the rear of the rack. This helps avoid visiting the interior of the rack every time you set up (in the dark, in small uncomfortable spaces, with drunk people hovering over you). A mic input panel may be financially out of reach (at around $200 for 16 female XLRs on a 2-space panel, sans extensions), but a panel with speaker output connectors helps reduce wear and tear on the power amp and can be had for well under a hundred bucks. In cases where power amps employ binding-post output connectors, you have the option of “converting” the binding posts to the infinitely more durable and secure Neutrik speakON connector. If you are concerned with heat inside the rack, a panelmounted fan can keep things cool.

A road-case rack is overkill if you are handling your own gear; stick to a molded case with a metal frame, which costs way less than a road rack and saves your back on the load out. On the inside lid of each case, tape a list of every item that belongs in that case to avoid leaving items behind (especially small items) and alert you immediately if anything goes missing. Damage to speaker cabinetry can be avoided by using padded covers, which are far lighter than cases and take up less room in your vehicle.

 
Fig. 3. The disks between the metal flanges on your mic stand will stop it from sagging.
A Word to the Wireless As of June 2010, it is no longer legal for the audio community to use wireless microphones, instruments, or ear systems that operate in the 700MHz band. (You can find tons of info regarding wireless regulations online.) Some wireless manufacturers offered limited trade-in programs so that people who already owned these systems had opportunities to exchange them for systems that operate in other frequency ranges. Some folks got stuck with wireless systems that can no longer be used. Unfortunately, shady characters use Flea Bay and Craigslist (not Anderton’s!) to try to unload this obsolete gear. If you decide to purchase a used wireless system, make sure that you know exactly what you are buying. Something that appears to be a good deal could end up being an expensive paperweight. It’d also be a good idea spending some rehearsal time “coordinating” your band’s wireless systems to ensure that the lead vocal is not stepping on the bass player’s transmission frequency.

The Musician’s Emergency Kit Assemble a small tool kit that lives with your gear. Pack the usual suspects like flat-head and Phillipshead screwdrivers, pliers, and a hammer. A set of hex wrenches and miniature screwdrivers come in handy for guitar or bass work. Other items to pack include the aforementioned meter, a soldering iron, solder, and a wire stripper for making cable repairs; extra TRS, TS, and XLR connectors; diagonal and needle-nose pliers; heat-shrink tubing in various sizes (to insulate wire and provide strain relief on cables); UL-listed electrical tape; a work light; flashlight; utility knife; and of course, duct tape. It’s also a good idea to pack items such as a drum key, spare guitar tuner, peg winder, bass and guitar strings, drumsticks, cymbal felts, ear plugs and sun screen. A ground lift can help temporarily solve a ground loop issue. Don’t forget fuses in the proper values for the instrument amps, P.A. amps, and mixer. It might not be practical to carry an owner’s manual for every piece of gear you own, but you can probably find PDFs to put on your iPad or laptop. Ditto for re-initialization procedures for synths and digital gear—information that may not always be found in the manual. Dutch Light & Sound Engineering has a great web page that includes re-initialization procedures for a plethora of gear (dlse.nl/synthrepair/reset.html). Most important: don’t forget to pack your sense of humor!

Steve La Cerra is the tour manager and front-of-house engineer for Blue Öyster Cult.

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