Tag Archives: Logistics

The Story Of A Road Gig, Part 1

It’s more about logistics than sound.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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There’s this quote that I like. If I could find the exact wording, I would put it here for you. As I remember, it was about photographers, and derived from something that Oscar Wilde supposedly said:

“Amateur photographers talk about things like lenses and film speed and aperture settings. Professionals talk about money.”

My take on it?

“Audio craftspersons with less experience do their gig planning by talking about spec sheets, wattage ratings, model numbers, and sound quality. Once they get a few more miles and years on themselves, they realize that it’s all about logistics, money, and vehicles.”

I just recently got back from doing an overnighter roadshow in south-eastern Utah, a gig that took about a month of planning (off and on, mind) to bring to fruition. During that planning, we barely talked about audio at all. It was basically the last thing that got any discussion. The reasons for that are mixed; Some of the issues were specific to the show, and some were more generalizable. The point is that a road gig certainly does have to do with sound, but the sound is wrapped up in a LOT of other particulars.

Some Things We Didn’t Have To Talk About Much

With all my harping about audio requiring planning, time, and foresight to pull off properly, my seemingly cavalier attitude towards the production of a big gig might seem out of character. The important word there is “seemingly.” As always, time and effort were neither created nor destroyed – they were just transferred around. Since the loss of my regular gig, I’ve been putting together a small concert system that I’ve designed to handle pretty much any show that I would be called upon to do. Three consoles (one for FOH, one for monitors, and a spare), two compact subs and four top-boxes for FOH, an eight-mix monitor rig that features a drumfill with subwoofers, tons of mics and stands, more XLR cables than I’ve even counted…you get the picture.

Basically, unless a band has some really specific needs, or the show is for a large crowd, I’m very confident that I will have what’s necessary to pull it off.

And I take everything everywhere, so there was no need to discuss exactly which pieces would be required.

Another specific issue with the show was that the lineup was a bit fluid. Eyes Open was supposed to play originally, but their rehearsals didn’t quite pan out, so they pulled in the Katie Ainge Band to bring some sonic goodness to the town of Monticello. Nobody had a detailed input list at any point, and it wasn’t really necessary. Nobody was being picky, and nobody was likely to become picky.

So, a lot of detailed discussion about production wasn’t going to do anything. We were going to have what we were going to have, and it was going to be fine. “Countin’ mic clips” would be a waste of time.

The Bits That Mattered

What was definitely not a waste of time was figuring out the logistics of the show. Longtime readers may remember my “Five S Festival” article, where I’ve previously discussed how productions have to be about the basic needs of humans before they can be about gear. When you’re in a situation where your involvement is compartmentalized, you still have to figure out the various elements. It’s just that the number of people involved is smaller…maybe even just you.

Because the audio production side was already figured out (for all practical purposes), I was mostly concerned about a number of “P” elements.

That is to say: Power, Peeing, Precipitation, Plonking Down, and Payment.

Power – A PA system is worthless without electricity. I needed to know where it was going to come from, especially since we were going to be outside. (The outside is a strange and wondrous place for sound, usually with fewer acoustical problems. The Yin to that Yang is that electrical outlets are far less plentiful.)

Peeing – The location of a bathroom is not a trivial thing. When it’s time to eliminate some waste, it’s time. Period, the end. You don’t think this issue is serious? Wait until you forget about it sometime.

Precipitation – To be precise, what happens if water starts falling out of the sky? Where can people and gear find shelter? Another thing that falls out of the sky is heat. It’s not precipitation, but whatever, I’ve got a theme going here. Anyway…I’ve been on unprotected hillsides during high-desert summers, and I’ll tell you, shade is something you really, really want. Really.

Plonking Down – Where is a person going to sleep? Whether it’s for-profit lodging or somebody’s residence, you need to know where it is, how you get access to it, and the folks in charge need to know you’re coming. Also, it’s critical to take other sleepers into account. For instance, my snoring is loud enough to drown some drummers that I know. For the sake of other people’s rest and sanity (and maybe my own safety), giving other sleepers a way to get out of earshot is a necessary plan.

Payment – How much is the gig worth to everybody? How can you accommodate the event budget? You have to figure out how to cover your transport, wear-n-tear, food, and lodging costs while making a profit and NOT costing too much for the folks writing the checks. Lowballing and being greedy are pretty much equally bad.

None of the above items are audio. All of the above are logistical considerations. The conversations that I had with the Eyes Open guys consisted of about 98% logistical issues and 2% show production. That might seem a little bit weird, but I can tell you that a gig sits on a lot of “infrastructure” support. Fail to get that figured out, and the gig will collapse just as surely as if the PA is all wrong.


The Van Buying Experience

Don’t rush, and remember to do your homework.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I recently plonked down a bunch of dough to buy a cargo vehicle. If you are a show-production human or a musician, you are probably going to end up doing the same thing at some point.

Let’s face it, gear is large and heavy, and at some point you’ll want to haul more than what a regular passenger car will let you get away with.

Vehicles are a major expense, and in fact, that’s my first tip: A vehicle should be a significant expense. This is not to say that you should be reckless with your money – you should buy well within your means. At the same time, you should buy a vehicle that’s worth having. All that cool gear that you’ve researched, tweaked, and horse-traded for? It’s worthless if you can’t get it to the gig. So, if you wouldn’t buy a half-dead guitar that’s on sale for $50, why would you buy a half-dead cargo hauler that’s on sale for $500?

A vehicle is an investment in the future of your profession, so treat the decision like it actually matters.

(Side note: Yes, you can trade purchase-price for a willingness to work on the vehicle yourself. If you’re determined to buy a $500 mechanic’s special, be sure you’re actually a mechanic.)

Please be aware that this is NOT a definitive guide to purchasing a cargo vehicle. I would consider this a decent primer based on my experience, but I’m only slightly less new to all this than you are.

Decide What Actually Fits Your Logistics

First of all, you have to figure out what you’re hauling. Gear? Humans? Both? Humans require a LOT of space, so take that into account if your “ship” is going to have to do double duty.

Especially if your prospective van is going to be all things to all people, be ready to find something in the heavier-duty range. Basic models won’t cut the mustard, especially if you need to fill the main vehicle…and then add a trailer. Do your best to overestimate the space AND (very important) the weight of what you’re going to haul around, because you want to avoid a vehicle that can just barely handle either one. In my own case, I thought I was overestimating, and I basically hit my cargo volume right on with a bit of play in the gross weight. It’s very easy to think you’re getting more van than you actually are.

I myself am not planning to add a trailer anytime soon. However, my personal feeling on trailers is that you want to have the actual leftover capacity to pull the maximum GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) of whatever trailer you’re interested in. That is, don’t assume you’re only going to pull what you’re going to pull right now. Rather, act as though a trailer capable of operating at a certain gross weight actually has that much mass when empty. It’s much safer to overestimate your potential vehicle weight than to low-ball. Remember that the more internal payload you have in the van, the less trailer you can pull. Yes, the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) really does matter, and no, you should not play any head games with that number. Safety matters a lot. Other things that matter a lot are your engine and transmission, and they don’t like being overloaded.

Now, with all that, there’s a wrinkle you have to keep in mind: The bigger the vehicle gets, the tougher the care and feeding can be. Parking a big vehicle can be a real bear; Be ready to tell show organizers that you absolutely MUST have a ready-made place to put vehicles with a total combined length of however much you’ve managed to string together. The bigger it is, the tougher it is to store. The bigger it is, the more fuel it will consume – and be aware that getting into really “big dog” territory may require you to get a van with a diesel power plant. (Diesel isn’t anything to be frightened of, but it’s not as familiar as gasoline in the USA, and not every mechanic can work on diesel engines.)

Consult The Car Gurus

Making use of more than one online vehicle listing service is very helpful, but in my opinion, CarGurus.com is the place to spend most of your time. It has one of the better search interfaces out there, where the listed automobiles can be generally counted on to have been posted with all the relevant information provided. The point is that you don’t want to spend time hunting around in “free-text” for the specs you want. At CarGurus, you can ask for a lot of specifics, and if those specifics haven’t been put in correctly by the seller – well, that’s too bad for them. The vehicle won’t show.

In my opinion, you should start this bit several months before you actually want to make your purchase. Do lots of searches. See what’s out there. Change your mind a few times. Stop and think. Just like when setting up for a show, you don’t want to shop for a van while under the gun.

As far as my own personal feelings about what to look for:

  • Buy from a dealer. I’m not saying that a private-party sale can’t be okay, but dealers are meaningfully regulated; You have at least some chance of official recourse if you end up getting bit, and a dealer running a legitimate business has real reasons to want to preserve that business.
  • If it’s less than five years old, you’re probably paying a big premium on newness and depreciation.
  • On the flipside, a vehicle with more than 10 years on the clock is going to be more of a risk in terms of general deterioration.
  • Cargo vehicles are meant to go a long way over the course of their lives. Even so, 150,000 miles is probably the maximum that want to see on an odometer. I would personally consider that the point for most of the original parts to be at least “halfway used up.” (I’m really not a car guy, but I can do some educated guessing.)
  • If the engine doesn’t have at least eight cylinders, be wary of it. Even a smallish van is a heavy creature. Also, remember that not all engines are created equal. More displacement rather than less is generally a good idea, if you have the choice.
  • Filter out anything that has frame damage reported. The frame is a fundamental, bedrock part of the vehicle, and “one shot.” Again, I’m not really a car guy, but everything I’ve heard has lead me to believe that an automobile’s frame is not really “unscrewuppable” after it’s taken a major hit. If you’re going to save money, don’t save money by way of the frame.
  • Also, set that “Accidents Reported” slider to zero. You’ll have fewer vehicles to choose from, but they’ll be the ones that weren’t unloaded due to being wrecked.
  • Anything other than a clean title means “no deal.”
  • A vehicle tall enough for you to stand up straight in is really neat, but will cost you. It will also be tougher to drive, harder to find indoor parking for, and likely to catch crosswind in a manner similar to a kite.
  • Hydraulic lifts are a neat idea, but remember that they have real weight, take up space, and are a whole separate mechanical component that your average auto shop can’t be counted on to know how to deal with.
  • Cargo vans have an alarming tendency to have a bunch of shelving and other crap bolted into them. For electricians, plumbers, and other similar trades, shelving is a plus. For audio, not so much. It’s a waste of space and weight.
  • Look carefully at the pictures. Does the poor thing have the appearance of being abused? The appearance is likely the reality. Also, if the seller only shows one side of the vehicle, ask yourself what’s being hidden.
  • Obviously, you should not buy an overpriced vehicle. Also, though, be wary of anything listed way below the market rate. The seller might be trying to throw out a problem child.
  • Backup cameras and backup sensors are a really good idea. Even if you’re good at knowing where all parts of a big automobile are at all times (I’m not), all the assistance you can get with maneuvering will be helpful.

Get yourself a short-list of candidates, and then…

Get Your Mitts On One Of Those Suckers

Go look at your favorites. Physically. And REALLY look. Get close to everything and note the wear and tear. Ask to have the hood opened. Get on your hands on knees and take a serious gander at the undercarriage. If it seems sketchy and beat-up, guess what – it is. You don’t have to be an expert to notice if something major is rusting through, leaking profusely, or otherwise about to fall off your potential purchase.

Remember, by the way, to be cordial, friendly, and patient with the dealer. Smile, shake hands, try to look people in the eye, and have a sense of humor. Bring your best manners, and if your best manners aren’t all that great, bring the manners that belong to a respectable somebody else. Being picky requires being nice. If you’ve got an attitude, that needs to stay home. Say “please” and “thank you” at every opportunity.

Also, do some feeling around. Get your hands up in the body and interior overhangs, claw around a bit, and see if you come back with dirt, leaves, sticks, or other debris. If you do, that’s a bad sign. The vehicle may have been flooded. Use your nose, too, because a van that smells like it’s been sitting at the bottom of a swamp may indeed have been home to water, mud, alligators, and a wayward outboard motor or two.

Ask to see any and all documentation that came with the vehicle. Get a Carfax (or the equivalent), and actually read through it. You want to know as much about the van as your brain can hold.

You did bring your driver’s license, right? Good, because if the vehicle doesn’t scare you, you do want to drive it.

Try to get a feel for how the van behaves in a variety of situations. Try some non-trivial maneuvering in reverse. See what the thing is like on surface streets, and also on the freeway. (A vehicle can be fine at low speeds…and downright terrifying on the highway.) Can you see what you’re doing? Does changing lanes cause an unsafe spike in blood pressure? Are the mirrors actually helpful? What do the brakes feel like when used normally? What do the brakes feel like when you really get on them? (Seriously, folks, be sure that the brakes don’t scare you. It’s far better to be stopped, desperately wishing that you were moving, than to be moving, desperately wishing you could stop. If the brakes don’t feel smooth and perfect, forget about it.) A real road test doesn’t – and shouldn’t – take a whole day, but you also need more than the five minutes it takes to find the pedals and the turn signal.

Use these hands-on experiences to work up your short, short, short list, and then pick your favorite.

The next thing to do is to have the short-list leader inspected by a third-party mechanic. At the very, very least, take the vehicle to a dealer who sells brand-new versions of whatever you’re buying, and have their service department do a “tell me what’s wrong” workup. If you’re serious about the van, but have some misgivings, make an appointment for a more thorough, more extensive going-over. It will cost you some money, but you’ll know more.

If things still look okay, you’re ready to “light the candle.” Ask about what proof of insurance will be necessary to drive the van off the lot, and then procure whatever is necessary to get that proof immediately before taking actual possession. After that, put as much real “cash” as is prudent into the purchase, so as to minimize any interest payments to be made on financing. Remember that there are fees aplenty that get tacked onto the advertised price, so multiply the sticker by about 1.1 to get into the ballpark.

When it’s all said and done, you should have a basically decent vehicle that you can put to work.


Seventeen Days For Three And A Half Hours

Production success has just as much to do with logistics as with any other factor.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Last week, I worked on a special birthday show for Amanda Grapes. Amanda handles various fiddle and vocal duties for The Nathan Spenser Revue, The Puddle Mountain Ramblers, and The Green Grapes Band. All three groups played that evening. It was excellent. I also enjoyed the cupcakes.

My opening sentence makes it sound like the day of the gig was the day that effort was put in. Actually, Amanda, the other band members, and I worked on putting the evening together for over two weeks – and that, right there, is a stumbling block that has tripped up a good number of bands. There are plenty of folks who think that the most important work on a show happens just before downbeat. That’s incorrect. Loading in, setting up, getting checked, and all that great stuff is the most ACUTE work of the show, but that activity is preceded by the logistics that make it all meaningful.

The more work I do in this business, the more I see “production execution” as entailing almost trivial concern, and logistics as a major factor that has to be worried over.

Why? Well…

Just Getting The Date Settled Is Hard

Think about the challenges involved in wrangling a band of 3-5 people. Imagine the schedules that have to be coordinated to both practice for, and arrive at some sort of show. Now imagine doing that across three separate bands (11 regular players), a couple of guests who’ll be sitting in, and an audio human. Now visualize doing that while trying to nail down a “moving target” date with the venue booker.

Sound “fun?”

In this environment, the organized have a much better shot at survival than the disorganized. Yes – there are artists who do well in spite of not really being “with it,” but I’ll bet a good percentage of that cohort is being helped along by people who are REALLY good at managing the details.

Being proficient at managing these kinds of logistics is a big part of what separates the “varsity level” bands, venues, and production personnel from the JV crowd. Shepherding such details is the very root of getting shows done, because if the scheduling doesn’t happen, then…what?

No show. At all. Discussing the production doesn’t even matter, because there’s no production to do.

Further, handling the details just well enough to land the night, but not well enough to really know what’s going on – well, that ends up putting a lot of stress on the production side of things. If you don’t know who’s going to show up, and with what, then how do you prepare production for the gig? Your effectiveness drops like a rock. You either have to over-prepare (which isn’t necessarily bad, but can be annoying in larger doses), or just throw things together at the last minute (which can be a recipe for awful production, riddled with technical difficulties and evil surprises).

On the other hand, it’s a joy to work with the folks who are effective at getting the whole herd pointed in the same direction and moving at the same speed. Things just become easier.

It Ain’t A Good Plan If It Won’t Fit The Van

Another make-or-break factor that rests on logistical prowess is making sure the production fits the boundaries it’s going into. One such boundary is the transport of all the gear and people involved, which I won’t detail here.

A boundary which I will get into a bit is that of venue production – and this lies near the core of my feeling that “production is easy, and logistics are tough.” At some point, production techs begin to realize that the biggest shows, with the most complex execution, are just lots of simple bits that are plugged into each other. A 10,000 scene light show is built a step at a time. You need to do some weird thing with lots of mics and lots of monitor wedges going every which way? It’s not really a big deal if you arrive on time, and the routing and hookup is handled methodically. The problem really isn’t the number of “moving parts,” just by itself. The problem is the number of moving parts can be practically stuffed in the box that is the venue.

Figuring that out is logistics, and thinking is DEFINITELY required.

This is why audio humans love to get accurate input lists. It’s also why we like getting an accurate picture of how bands want the night to develop. We like to get both because the intersection of the input list with the show-flow is “A Very Big Deal Indeed.”™ It’s “A Very Big Deal Indeed”™ because a show that isn’t repatched midstream can easily overrun the capacity of the stage or mixing console.

And many small-venue gigs are not repatched in the middle, because reworking what’s going into the snake can be pretty challenging when you only have one production person on hand.

In fact, I very nearly got “bit” by a channel overrun problem on Amanda’s show. It was because I temporarily became lazy about working out that intersection between the input lists and the show’s progression. I read the input requests that I’d been given, but only considered them individually from band to band. Turning them over in my head, everything seemed dandy. The day before the show, though, my cautionary inner voice started to nag me:

“You really should write this all out.”

I listened to that internal warning and wrote up an input list that considered how the night would actually happen: We were not going to repatch anything. Every channel had to be ready to go from downbeat to the last note, because there wouldn’t be time to futz with what was going on at the snake head.

It was lucky that I wrote out the no-repatch input list, because it exposed a problem that I hadn’t considered. Without a repatch, we would not have enough channels to do the show “exactly as written.” If I had just gone, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll be fine,” the show would still have happened – but we would have had to cut down the drum mics at the last moment. That would have been unpleasant and unprofessional.

…but armed with my discovery, I could now use another bit of good logistics to manage the problem. I could call the drummer’s number (which I had been thoughtfully provided with in advance) and discuss the options ahead of time. We decided that he would submix the drums to two channels, which neatly fixed our “not enough inputs” problems, and there were no surprises on the actual day of show. Much better.

**********

The point of all this is that, again, the assembly and operation of a show’s production is basically academic. You place and plug in what you need, check that it’s working, suss out the connection problems and the feedback issues, and off you go. What makes it possible to be effective and focused in that process is the organizational work that “sets up the setting up.”

That’s why it can take 17 days to do a three-hour and thirty-minute show.