Tag Archives: Preparation

A Long, Strange Trip

The story of an adventure with Mokie, our local Grateful Dead tribute.

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 was finally having a bit of relaxation after the show. We had pulled it off. By the grace of God, and with a lot of help and hospitality, we had made the show work. Everybody had seemed to be very pleased in the end.

Even so, I was not enjoying my turkey sandwich and Sun Chips. Not really, anyway. It’s not that they were bad, just overpriced. It was about the same story for the…well…I guess I’ll call it “Gatorade” that I was having. I was enjoying that even less, because it was tasteless.

Positively unflavored.

Well, I guess it was unflavored. I’m assuming it wasn’t. I didn’t actually taste my drink as it went in, due to its point of entry being an artfully administered puncture wound in my left arm.

As places to have an unplanned afterparty go, the Emergency Department at St. Mark’s is not on the short-list. The staff are great, and the place is REALLY clean, but it’s just not a place you want to be, you know?

More on this later.

The Safety Factor: 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM

Webb A/V is a show-production force in this town because they are GOOD at what they do. Obviously, they have the technical chops and the gear to pull off their contracted events, but there’s more to it than that: They seem to instinctively get that this business is about being a service industry with an excellent safety record. If you are the client, you will be taken care of, and everybody will leave with all the body parts that they brought with them.

I walked up to the stage, with none of the onsite crew knowing me from a hole in the ground, and I was instantly treated with accommodation and courtesy. All I had to do was figure out my own plan of attack. The crew leader, Tom (I think it was Tom, the day kind of turned into a blur) was on top of everything necessary – the first thing being power.

“Hey man,” he said, holding up an electrical quad-box, “you guys are going to have your own, 30-amp circuit for stage. I’m going to give you the X-phase, and we’ll use Y and Z for the PA and lights.” (If you’ve never encountered it before, multi-phase power is common for shows with bigger electrical requirements.) Webb was ready to go, they were ready for us, and the deck wouldn’t have to share power with anyone. That’s a pretty good way to start things off. The provided FOH rig was a “4 over 2” QSC KLA, which sounded pretty darn nice as DJ, the Webb A1, started dialing it up. This left the band and me to do our own thing on deck, which kept things moving along nicely.

Life would have been perfect, except for the weather. The great outdoors has great acoustics, but it also has a great many ways to wreck your gig.

While this particular bout of “Utah overcast moodiness” was hardly a mid-Atlantic storm, it was still producing some noticeable forces. That is to say that, for our situation, the gustiness was tremendous – the problem being wind-related. The various light and sound trees were all firmly weighted down with sandbags, but even so, the crew leader was concerned enough to keep the masts in their lowered positions as much as possible. Air currents would die down, and then whip up with authority.

Did you know that cable-tub lids make excellent gliders? Did you know that ride cymbals are very effective as both kites and boat-sails? Did you know that plastic crowd-barriers LOVE to skitter across parking lots? These are things that we found out.

At some point, a wind advisory was issued. It was issued at roughly the same time the swirling air found some loose dirt, whipping it across my face and arms with an accompanying sensation of being stabbed with a hundred small needles.

On the upside, all the dry skin I had exposed was neatly removed. (Ladies, I don’t know what those fashion mags tell you about skincare, but I’m pretty sure that all the oils and spa-treatments in the world are NOTHING compared to good, old-fashioned sandblasting.) The downside was that things were clearly getting out of hand. About a minute later, the crew lead walked up.

“We’ve got to pull the plug and take all this down.”

…and that, right there, was the ultimate expression of professionalism. The expense and effort involved in putting up a show-rig is non-trivial. As such, there is tremendous pressure to “tough out” any situation. In the end, though, screwing up on the side of safety is always the correct choice. People in this business have died because the drive to keep the show on has overridden a healthy sense of danger. The chances of things not ending well were plenty high, so it was time for Webb to pack up and go.

What followed was a scramble for the band and me to yank down our more-than-halfway set deck, and run everything indoors. As we did so, there was one nagging problem: We really didn’t know what we were going to do once we got inside.

The Hospitality Factor: 4:00 PM – 9:00 PM

Especially when I’m in someone else’s house, I try to assume as little as possible. In this case, I was in The Rock Church’s house, as they were providing the indoors part of the whole equation. What we were met with when we walked in was a stage that was already set and ready to go – for someone else. The church band was that someone else.

To me, the answer was clear. We were going to set up around what was already there. We would use all our own boxes (which we had brought for monitor world) to handle both the stage and FOH. I would use my remotable console as a stagebox, and run things off a laptop with a network connection. We were going to have a show, and we weren’t going to muss up anyone’s hair in the process. The only problem was that I didn’t have any speaker stands with me.

Thinking quickly, I spied a couple of tall, cafe tables out in the audience. I could put a couple of speakers on those, and the result might not completely suck. I grabbed ahold of (who ended up being) Steele, the pastor, and asked if we could “appropriate” those bits of furniture.

“You can have anything you want!” Steele declared, emphatically.

He and another gentleman pulled the tables over to the stage.

“What do you want these for?” Steele asked.

I related my plan to get a couple of boxes up to ear level.

“Man, you should just use our system. Hold on, I’ll give Tim a call, and he’ll get you set up.”

In the space of about 30 seconds, we had gone from piling together a disaster-mitigation rig to being first-class citizens on a system every bit as good as what we were originally slated to use. On top of that, it was all hands on deck, on short notice. Tim came down at full-speed, patiently ran me through the system setup, and then yanked the existing patch entirely so that I would have a blank canvas to use. Everything was at our disposal, and the up-center drum riser was cheerfully removed to make room for Mokie’s two-kit percussion ensemble. They even lent us the church’s uber-rad, SVT bass rig.

On top of it all, Foster hurried down and – with patience as great as Tim’s – worked up an honest-to-goodness light show for both the band AND a hip-hop dance group. In record time. I would later go on record as saying that “Foster’s” is Australian for “beer,” whereas “Foster” is Australian for “killer light guy.”

Now, in my mind, I don’t think that Mokie and I are tough to work with. At the same time, the show (and all our needs) were basically dumped, last minute, on all the folks at The Rock. For that reason alone, they get a massive “Thank You” from me for “putting up with our crap.” Everybody in that building embodied hospitality, and the show happened because of it.

I must not fail to mention another couple of elements: The supreme importance of having a sanely-tuned, sanely-patched system to work with, and the equally supreme importance of having a great band to work with. Mokie is an ensemble that knows how to actually be a band. They would still basically sound like themselves with no PA and no monitors. While it would not be the most fun gig for them, they could pull it off. Because of this, the audio system doesn’t have to work any magic to “fix things.” Rather, the PA is able to act in its best capacity, which is to translate the already cohesive band into the audience. When you add that to an FOH and monitor setup ready to do real sound reinforcement (by sounding nice while being “unhyped”) what you get is a show that can be run effectively in a crisis.

I normally use EQ and compression on my FOH channels in a manner reminiscent of a sledgehammer. I normally have a separate, virtual monitor world. There was no time for any of that on this gig. We had to throw-and-go…and we were fine. I didn’t have all the flexibility I could have used, but that’s just the final layer of varnish anyway. For what was going on, I was able to run my channels surprisingly flat – and get away with it pretty handily.

The Hospital Factor: 9:00 PM – 3:00 AM

As the gig hit set break, Mokie’s fearless leader, Chip, walked out to FOH.

“It sounds GREAT, man. Some of the folks are even saying it’s the best show we’ve ever done.”

“Well,” I said, “clearly this means that the way to do these shows is to set up halfway, tear down and reset in a blind panic, and then just go for it with no preparation.”

I was feeling pretty good about what Chip said, but I can’t say that I was really feeling good in general. I wasn’t incapacitated, but I was definitely wondering what was wrong with myself. I had this weird aching in my upper chest and the top of my back. Even with the show settling into a basically comfortable groove, my heart wouldn’t slow down to a normal pace. I hadn’t done a strenuous gig in a long time, and the sudden call to maximum performance was not treating me kindly.

“Don’t be anxious,” I thought to myself, “because being anxious just makes it worse.”

As the show wore on, the good news was that I didn’t feel worse. I was able to smile through my discomfort and get things done. The bad news was that I wasn’t getting much better. As we ended things and tore down the show, I figured that I just needed to go home and go to bed.

Three-quarters of the way back to the house, on the I80 – I215 collector, it happened. I was barreling along with a vehicle full of gear, when the unmistakable feeling of being about to pass out hit me like a ton of bricks. What seemed like a white-hot lump fell into the bottom of my butt. My stomach felt like it would readily wrench its entire contents out my backside, given half the chance. I pulled to the shoulder and slapped the button for my emergency flashers. I wasn’t thinking clearly. Instead of yanking my brake, I moved the gear-selector to “Park.” The transmission made a howling grind of protest as the parking pawl ratcheted against a still mostly-highway-speed transmission. My hands were tingling.

In a daze, I sat drenched in sweat. A few cars tore by me. I wondered if I was having a heart attack. I thought about what it would take to get my phone out and call 911. I didn’t know if I could get my phone. I figured that I had about two minutes to decide.

Slowly, I started to feel better. The pain in my upper body was mostly gone, actually.

Half of me just wanted to drive home and forget the whole thing. The other half of me knew that treating such an event lightly was not to be filed in the “Smart Ideas” drawer. My more cautious half won the argument, and I drove to St. Marks instead of the house.

At the ER, the various goings-on began to…go on. No, I hadn’t had dinner. Oh…yes, why I DID have a bit of a sunburn. I did feel better now that the episode had passed.

The various tests were ordered, and my aforementioned sandwich was ordered. The nurse obligingly stuck me with an IV so that I could have a big drink without actually drinking anything. I sat, craning my neck to watch my vitals monitor.

That heart rate looks a little high.

Is that ECG trace normal?

Don’t be nervous.

That doesn’t seem right.

Don’t be nervous.

The MD was ultimately satisfied that I was not about to die. She was also, somewhat surprisingly, just fine with the idea of putting me back in control of 3000+ lbs worth of metal, glass, fuel, and audio gear. She sent me out the door with a stack of papers talking about things like dehydration and near-syncope. I was told, in no uncertain terms, to take it easy the next day. I was happy to oblige, being tired from the whole thing.

The irony, of course, is that I was all set to be “100% for safety” when it came to things like wind and water, but I failed to take care of myself. A few bucks worth of actual Gatorade might just have kept me out of the ER. I have no idea how big my bill will turn out to be – I’m insured, thanks to my mom being very keen on that whole issue – but no matter how much money I end up owing, it still contributes to my final, self-administered diagnosis:

Don’t be an idiot next time.


To Hurry Is Useless

“To hurry is useless. The thing to do is to set out in time.”
– Jean de La Fontaine

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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Especially when it comes to show production, I will say this when it comes to time management:

If you’re in a hurry, you’re doing things the wrong way.

Of course there are exceptions. When a million things that you couldn’t have foreseen suddenly fling themselves at you, teeth gnashing, you can’t blame yourself. It’s entirely possible to get all your ducks in a row, only to have a vanload of psychotic kleptomaniacs with a fondness for waterfowl show up on the scene. The next thing you know, your ducks are gone.

I’m not here to argue the (bogus) point that you’re responsible for every eventuality, just because you have a certain position of responsibility on a show. That kind of thing sounds good for corporate motivational posters, but it’s as helpful as a greasy hammer when it comes to real life.

What I am saying, though, is that boredom is infinitely preferable to panic, and that you can often choose to not be in a pressure situation. You just have to allow yourself significantly more time than you think you need. If everything goes perfectly, then you can lounge around and enjoy being done. If everything does NOT go perfectly, you still have some cushion to work through your conundrum.

Again, what I’m talking about is when there are clear choices involved.

There are people who have a habit of thinking, “We can set up for our gig in the space of [timeframe], so we’ll show up at [timeframe] before doors.” These people CAN have a good show – if everything goes their way, and the folks supporting them are really top-shelf. If anything (at all) goes pear-shaped, though, the trouble will be very serious. The show probably will be late, or on time but something of a mess. The stress factor will be increased, and live music is plenty intense without any additions, thank-you-very-much-folks.

It’s also entirely possible to show up with plenty of time to spare, and then use that spare time poorly. I remember one show that I did where everybody, including me, was plenty early. We got the band’s gear all set up. I had a basic mix dialed in for the wedges before anybody else arrived. (I’ve told this story here before, I believe, but with somewhat less detail.)

And then, we didn’t soundcheck. The band wasn’t interested, for some reason. I stood by my console at FOH, and waited. As Douglas Adams would have said, nothing happened. Then, suddenly, and with no warning…nothing CONTINUED to happen. Roughly 90 minutes passed this way, as I remember.

Finally, at pretty much the precise moment that the band was to start, they took the stage and proceeded to do what they should have been doing all along: Soundcheck. Except, we had no time. We had to pretty much be in full swing immediately. Nothing was really where it was supposed to be, and so there was this flurried and chaotic activity of trying to dial everybody in all at the same time. Everybody needed something fixed in the monitors, and as I focused on one person, another player’s requests got lost. The drummer, in particular, had precisely what he didn’t want (a lot of everybody else’s vocals), and he wasn’t really in a position to communicate clearly about it. I think the poor guy suffered through a significant part of the first set before anything could be done. It all wasn’t a complete trainwreck, but it was an infinitely bigger sandwich-o-crap than it actually had to be.

To be brutally frank, the band could have socialized for a whole hour before downbeat – with everything being in place for downbeat – if we had only taken 30 minutes to get things dialed in beforehand. It might not have even taken that long.

There’s a big difference between not being able to put your ducks in a row, and not even attempting to arrange those little birds in a linear fashion. Why be in a hurry if it’s not necessary?


We Are Water Flowing Downhill

If you’re stuck, try to go around.

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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One of the most lethal threats to successfully pulling off a show is getting stuck.

Or, rather, agreeing to remain stuck when you don’t have to be.

We’ve all seen it happen. You’re setting up and dialing in, and something won’t cooperate. The entire flow of show-prep suddenly diverts towards making that thing cooperate. Minutes pass as more and more resources are devoted to solving the problem. An hour goes by, and you’re still stuck, and you look up, AND IT’S 15 MINUTES TO DOORS, HOLY CRAP!

I’ve been there. I’ve been there (and been guilty of perpetrating it) when a snag has brought an entire production – even a decently planned one – to a grinding halt for far too long. So what do you do?

One thing you can do is learn the lesson of water flowing downhill.

Zen And The Critical Path

Consider the stream flowing down a rocky bed. The current has a destination which it must reach, yet there is impedance to the flow of the liquid. The rocks are obstacles. Snags. The water cannot flow through them.

Yet the water is untroubled. It merely flows around the rocks, acknowledging the stones by slowing – yet not stopping. The water continues down the critical path, and thus overcomes the rocks without overpowering them. The current strives against the impedance without effort.

The water does not confuse an obstacle in the path with the ending of the path.


Too often in troubleshooting, we make the assumption that we can not move onto solving the rest of a problem until we have solved each piece of the conundrum in some arbitrary order. However, this is rarely the case. Many shows are inherently “parallel” in nature. The lead vocal has a route to the PA, and the kick drum has a route to the PA. Those routes are very likely independent of one another until they are summed into an output path. If the kick drum’s independent route fails, but the lead vocal can still make it, you have a workable show. It may not be the exact show you were hoping for, but you still have a show.

The critical path is getting whatever MUST go through the audio rig to go through it. Everything else is a bonus. The vast majority of small-venue shows can come to a workable conclusion with nothing but the lead vocal working. Like I said, that may not be the best possible show – but it will still be recognizable as a show. If you hit an obstruction that you can’t quickly clear, take a moment and think: “If this can’t be made to work, is it truly the end of the show?”

If you answer in the negative, you are snagged on something that is NOT on the critical path. Flow around it. You can always come back to it later, but for now, you need to focus on arriving at the minimum viable product. In many cases, people only get stuck on a technical problem because they “assent” to being stuck. They decide to stop and bang away at the issue when there is no physical reason that other (actually more critical) issues could not be addressed first. The longer they consent to remaining obstructed, the more that the effort required to handle the rest of the show is concentrated into a shorter span of time. At some point, a threshold of panic is reached. This is a bad scene.

Do not confuse an obstacle in the path with the ending of the path. We are water flowing downhill.


The Rise And Fall Of A Small Venue – Part 3

2011 was when the settling in got really serious.

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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One day, Mario and I couldn’t take it anymore.

Fats without acoustical treatment was an earth-shattering, punishing experience, and the excitement at the newness of the place was starting to wear off. People were beginning to complain. We weren’t enjoying things as much as we could have been. On one especially loud night, we looked at each other and knew that something had to change.

So, I suggested to Mario that some acoustical treatment might help. I figured that something would be better than nothing, so I proposed a relatively small amount of inexpensive “wedge” foam. Mario was even more receptive to the idea than I had hoped. I was pretty nervous about floating an idea that would cost money, but I shouldn’t have been. As I’ve said before, there was a real enthusiasm in play. We ended up calling a workday, and I walked in to see that about two and a half times what I had asked for had been ordered in.

After the foam went up on the walls, Fats was never the same.

In a great way.

At first, I was reluctant to say that the treatment was really doing much. I didn’t want to overplay the contribution. In the end, though, I’m pretty danged certain that treating the space was one of the greatest “post overhaul” investments that the Fats basement ever had. It made me seem like far more of a sound ninja than I actually am, because it made my job markedly easier.

Seriously, folks. If you fix one thing about a venue, fix the acoustics. I’ll take an okay PA in a great room over a great PA in a tough room any day of the week…and twice on Sundays. I’ve never done a truly quantitative analysis on this sort of thing, but my best guess is that the influence of the space on the sound of a show is at least an order of magnitude more important than the gear involved. (Assuming that any given choice of gear is capable of handling the necessary fundamentals, of course. A half-busted boombox from the Five-And-Dime won’t do any show a favor.)

The same drive for improvement that caused the manifestation of the acoustical treatment also enabled another huge improvement: The custom-built digital console that ended up running the bulk of Fats shows. Mario and Mishell stopped by my family home for a dinner meeting, a meal that took our relationship from “friendly bosses and employee” to “friends.” A lot of hopes and desires for what Fats could become were shared that evening, but the big one for me was an upgrade to the mix rig. I had been nursing the idea of a computer-based console for a while, but now I actually had the income necessary to try it. At the same time, it was a real risk. The chances of it not working to satisfaction were significant.

Mario and Mishell promised to back me up if the experiment ultimately failed, and that gave me the confidence to jump in.

The experiment did end up working, though, and what we got was a virtual desk which could compete with an Avid console in certain respects. I mixed a LOT of shows on that rig, and it’s now very difficult for me to imagine doing serious work with anything that’s less capable.


The year of 2011 was also the year that I met Floyd Show.

Floyd Show, AKA “Tim Hollinger knows more about Pink Floyd than Pink Floyd,” was one of those precious rarities that only comes along once in a great while. They were an ambitious project, with a LOT of people and gear involved. There was so much to them that they initially declined to play at Fats – we didn’t have enough space.

Well, dangit, Mishell wanted some Floyd Show, so Mario extended the stage.

It was completely worth it. From soup to nuts, it was worth it. It was worth it to meet all the players in the changing lineup. It was worth it to work on a show that required multiple techs to operate smoothly. It was worth it to load in and set up all day. It was worth it to make music and friendships with people who respected and adored the source material to a fanatical degree. It was worth it to put in all the effort, and then get to stand back and say, “Check THIS out!”

If you didn’t have a sense of pride after constructing a Floyd Show gig, you couldn’t possibly have been paying attention.

That first time that Floyd Show started playing, Mishell, Mario, and me all had our jaws smack the floor. It was as though the real thing had been crammed into a Sugarhouse basement. There was a sort of unreal magic to what happened at that first night, even though we had to submix a bunch of channels. (We didn’t have the new FOH setup yet.) On subsequent nights, I would feel disappointed that the same magic hadn’t quite happened again.

With Floyd Show, you were in the presence of folks (especially Tim), who made you want to do more and more for the production. When Tim asked if it might be possible to mix things in quad-surround, what do you think I said? And, of course, we did. We got the routing figured out, ran cable, and put FX behind the audience. We also talked about how cool it would be have to some real, honest-to-goodness, moving-head lights. I got it into my mind that it would be great to surprise the group at one show with some kind of intelligent lighting setup. I started putting plans into place. I was going to blow everybody’s minds.

Before I could pull it off, Tim passed away suddenly. No more would I hear the refrain when he came down Fats’ stairs: “What’s up, Danny? Do you have your toolkit, man?” (The dude’s guitar rig was always broke, and he always got it fixed before downbeat.) The unending stories about how Pink Floyd’s albums were created, and the jokes about technical problems being all David Gilmour’s fault, halted into silence with the abruptness of a tape machine that had stopped with a bang.

Of course, all of Tim’s friends put together an epic show to bid Mr. Hollinger (and the band, because he WAS the band) a fond farewell. The result was as unforgettable as could be imagined, with days of preparation leading up to a roaring finale that – finally – recaptured the elusive spirit which had permeated the very first night. We had bottled the lightning once again, and on the day where we absolutely had to do so.

Plus, I had those moving lights. I sprang for them a little bit early, because I knew that I might not have any more chances, ever, to do a gig with Floyd Show.

The house was packed.

The players were on point.

The mix cooperated beautifully.

It was incredible.

It was the show I had so wanted to do with Tim.

Floyd Show Folks (18 Different Ones)

the-floyd-show-and-yours-truly

Pigs (3 Different Ones)


Load Out Begins Immediately Upon Load In

Everything is prep for something else.

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.

cycleWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

You may not have known this, but loading in and loading out aren’t different processes. They are the same thing. Setup and teardown also share this behavior.

Basically, every part of doing a show is the preparatory step for what comes after it. If you’re lazy about the prep (and we all get lazy from time to time), you are making the next bit harder.

For example, let’s say that you load in a show with gear going absolutely everywhere. It’s spread out all over creation. There’s no plan, at all, for how things should be grouped. It all looks like a giant two-year old was given a set of blocks that look like flightcases, amplifiers, and storage tubs, and that two-year old suddenly decided the world was unfair and threw a major fit.

Nobody knows where anything is, exactly. Not even you.

How do you think setup is going to treat you, starting from a place of chaos?

If setup treats you poorly, how will the show go?

If the show goes poorly, as most amalgams of entropy and stress tend to do, how will teardown go?

If teardown is a ball of stress, sullenness, “I don’t care, just throw it in,” and general capitulation, will loadout be easy on you?

What will the next show be like, probably?

Problems cascade. It’s just like breaking a microphone’s cable: For that microphone, every other connection is effectively broken. If any part of the show is afflicted with disorganization, every other part of the show will suffer from the effects.

On multiple occasions, I’ve been told that I run a very tight stage. That is, I try to start with things in a neat and orderly configuration. I’ll tell you right now that such habits, for me, are not just about aesthetics. Yes, I do appreciate the look of a clean and organized show. I’m aware of the “political” implications of presenting that kind of setup to musicians, and I think those implications are worth the effort all by themselves. However, it’s also about survival, plain and simple.

There are people in this business who I term “sound ninjas.” They can take any mess and make it functional in the space of a few seconds. I’m not so skilled as to pull that off. I have to be able to understand what’s going on with the rig, and have some “homework” done if I’m going to do a decent job at selective noise-louderization. If the system looks like some giant violently vomited black spaghetti and steel poles all over the place, I’m going to have a bad time.

So, I try for the opposite, because I want to have a good time.

…and, of course, any show will involve the setup racing towards the maximum possible entropy. If the system’s entropy – the chaos and disorder involved – starts as low as you can get it, then its end value will be as low as the circumstances allow. If the entropy starts high, it’s only going to get higher by the time you’re ready to pack and leave.

Pack the boxes neatly, and it will be easy to find things at the next setup. It will also be much easier to setup in an organized way.

The show will be pulled off much more easily.

The end level of disorganization will be lower, making it easier to pack neatly.

Pack the boxes neatly, and it will be easy to – (You get the idea.)

The time and effort required to make a show happen can not be created or destroyed. It can only be transferred around. Spread it evenly, and the process stays manageable. Pack it all into one huge lump, and you may not be able to handle it all.


The Splendid Magic Of The Set-List

It’s basically rune-paper of future-sight.

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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Some of the best bands I work with have never, and probably will never hand me a set-list. This is important for me to say, because I otherwise might give the impression that bands who don’t hand set-lists to audio-humans are falling short of being professional. That’s not what I’m trying to get at.

What I AM trying to say is that providing a PA driver with a set-list, especially an annotated one, can be a very good thing for everybody. When well done, a document such as the one pictured is actually very powerful. When you get right down to it, what you’re providing a sound craftsperson is something that you might only expect to find in the fantasy worlds of JRR Tolkien or D&D:

A set-list is, for all practical purposes, a low-level, magic scroll of foreknowledge and telepathy. It grants people like me a bit of prescient vision into what you’re going to do next, and this can be a nice enhancement to your show.

If an audio operator knows what’s going to happen, they can anticipate the event and be “right there” when it’s time, instead of having to catch up. There’s less chance of an awkward delay between something needing to be addressed and the appropriate action taking place, because the audio-human can address the issue (or be ready to do so) without the issue having happened first. “Scrambling” can be greatly reduced by the application of a well-formed set-list.

Examples

The set-list pictured above is clean and organized, and it also packs an enormous amount of “procedural information” into a small space. All that’s required is for me to interpret it correctly for the specific situation. For instance…

“Megaphone” – This is going to be loud, band-limited, and the loop gain through the megaphone may contribute to feedback problems. Be ready to deal with that.

“VD” – Vincent D, who’s sitting in with us, is going to have prominent vocals on this tune. If you’ve pulled him down to save loop-gain for other things, you’ll need to be prepared to push him back up and otherwise adjust.

“Harp” – There are prominent harmonica bits in this tune. Be thinking about where to put the fader for those.

“Banjo” – This instrument is not going to sound the same as the guitar that’s normally plugged into that amplifier. You might need to pull some fast work with your channel EQ if things are really out of whack, and you might also need to “get on the gas” with the fader.

“Acoustic Guitar” – This is plugged into that direct box which you’ve connected to a channel that is currently muted. You’re going to need to unmute that channel, or things will be awkward for a minute.

The other thing about that little piece of paper is that it tells me an expected start and end time. This is great, because I don’t have to wildly guess at when the band will go on, nor do I have to speculate about how long they’re planning to go on. They’ve told me. (This is also an indicator of Hectic Hobo’s professionalism. They have a plan regarding their spot in the lineup, and they’re going to try to stick with that plan so that Tycoon Machete gets to utilize their slot to the fullest.)

Making Your Own

If you decide that you want to provide your friendly, neighborhood noise wrangler with a set-list, I can give you a few pointers as to what works best:

  • Maximize your simplicity. Try to find the most basic way possible to convey the information you want to convey. Color coding, for instance, IS neat, but if I need to consult a “map key” to remember what all 20 of your colors mean, you may be getting in your own way. (Also, some folks are colorblind, and colors are harder to discern in low-light. See below.)
  • Make things highly readable in low-light. Big, blocky, and simple fonts, plenty of “whitespace,” and generally high-contrast help with this in a big way.
  • Avoid skimping. If you think something’s important, include it. If that means printing out several sheets in order to play nicely with the first two points, so be it.
  • Don’t take offense. Some audio-humans won’t seem to care about your show, or your set-list. Give them the opportunity to care. Maybe they will. If they don’t, at least YOU tried.

For those of us who do care, and do read set-lists, I can tell you that being able to partially read your mind and see a little ways into the future is a super-spiffy power to have. A little bit of paper from you can grant that power.


An Audio Human’s Guide To Auditioning Pretty Much Everybody

My latest for Schwilly Family Musicians.

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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“Now, why in blue-blazes would a live-sound engineer talk about auditioning people for your band?

Simple.

I deal with the fallout if you louse it up.

There have been many instances in my time where I’ve had to struggle with a band containing at least one member who was a terrible fit for actually playing shows. It usually makes for a frustrating and bad-sounding gig, in which a large amount (maybe all) of the available electro-acoustical headroom for the show is DEVOURED in trying to fix the problems. Nothing is left over to otherwise translate the show to the audience in a cool way. It’s all been spent on mere survival.”


Read the rest of this article (for free!) at Schwilly Family Musicians.


Turning Down A Gig

If you’re unsure that you can do a show justice, don’t do it.

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 really can’t say I’m on board with the concept of “Say ‘Yes!’ to everything!” I certainly agree that pigeonholing one’s self might not be a great idea, especially if you’re just getting started. An opportunity might get held out to you, and if you have too narrow a vision of what your career could be, you might miss something brilliant.

What I worry about, though, is the idea that all gigs are good gigs to do. They aren’t. I’ve had some really lousy experiences, and while they ARE good for learning, I would prefer to have missed them altogether. Blindly agreeing to take every show offered (whether on the production side or the performance side) just isn’t smart. There are things you can’t do, and things you probably shouldn’t do, and sometimes you get both at once.

I Respectfully Decline

I was once offered a “one-off” show at a well-known club. The regular audio-human couldn’t make the night, and I was on the list of “people who can probably get this done.” The main act was a lower-level national, the kind where you would recognize the name of the bandleader based on their previous work with another band.

I can’t deny that the gig offered a special sort of opportunity. I would have the chance to get my hands dirty in (what I consider to be) a top-shelf club, working alongside folks who had really been places, and being “the dude who made it happen” on the behalf of another craftsperson whom I respect.

But I ended up turning the show down. You might think that’s a crazy decision, especially because of the opportunities presented above. However, my belief is that my decision to decline was the smart one.

Why?

Don’t Jump In Lakes With Unseen Obstacles

Jumping headfirst into unknown water is dangerous. You can hit an obstruction and end up badly injured. The analogy also applies to shows: Just “going for it” without really knowing what you’re getting into is risky. You can certainly get lucky – even very lucky – but you can also get very unlucky. If you end up in a situation where you’re not actually capable of doing the job adequately, some pretty serious fallout is possible. You can damage your reputation very badly…and damage the venue’s reputation badly, AND damage the reputation of the people who vouched for you.

In the case of the gig I turned down, I was dealing with a LOT of unknown terrain. I considered the venue to be one of the premier spots locally, but that consideration was by reputation and not empirical knowledge. I hadn’t been in the place physically. I’d never touched any of the installed gear before. I didn’t have any idea of how the FOH PA, monitor world, and the room acoustics “talked” to each other.

And it was a high-stakes show. When a national act at any level comes in, the rewards for success are high, and the penalties for failure are similarly large. I’m not saying that local bands aren’t important, or that their shows can’t have a lot riding on them. What I am saying is that a recognized act, on a one-night stand, where people are paying extra money to get in, is definitely a show where screwing up is NOT an option.

When screwing up is not an option, it’s a really bad idea to be in a possible pressure situation, in a room you don’t know, running a rig where you don’t have an established workflow. If something goes really wrong, you might just be toast – and your lack of familiarity with your work environment increases the chances of something getting away from you. At my regular gig, I know what’s likely to turn around to bite me in the face. At this other place? Not so much. At my regular gig, I have a carefully built set of tools for doing battle with things that are trying to bite me in the face. At this other place? Not so much.

In the end, I did not feel that I could reasonably guarantee a satisfactory outcome for an especially important show.

Consider The People Involved

Like I said before, the proposed show would have been done on behalf of another audio human. I respect this audio human and would want to work alongside them. (In fact, I really like the idea of working a show with this tech, in the aforementioned club, with the tech being in charge. The pressure would be low, and I could get a feel for how things work.)

However, for this gig I would not have been working alongside that craftsperson. I would be flying solo, so my closest working relationships on the night would have been with the bands. The thing is, the headlining act in question was stated to have a bit of an ego issue.

Working with egos is something you have to deal with. It will only be on occasion if you’re lucky, but you’ll still have to handle it. However, egos, plus a high-stakes show, plus unfamiliarity with the room and the PA is an unstable combination. Players with egos are used to having their needs met, and met quickly. If you’re going to work with folks like that, you need to be sure that you can deliver. If you can’t deliver, you might have a really ugly night. In an unfamiliar situation, you can’t be sure that you’ll be able to deliver. I don’t recommend doing a show like that by choice.

Like I said, I wasn’t sure that I could do the job adequately. I could not, in good conscience, claim that the only thing that would stop me from doing national-worthy work would be catastrophic equipment failure. So, I passed on the show.

Confidence Does Not Substitute For Ability

But, shouldn’t I have been confident?

No. I was right to not be confident.

When other people’s reputations are on the line, unfounded confidence and bravado are inappropriate. (Heck, they’re inappropriate when you’re the only one on the line.) There’s this notion that the best weapon against unfamiliar situations and difficult circumstances is an attitude of “I can do anything!” Unfortunately, believing that you can do anything and actually being able to do something (especially under pressure) are not equivalent.

I do things under pressure all the time, but that doesn’t mean that I can do any specific thing at any time, under pressure, and without preparation. Preparation was something that I would have had in very short supply.

Bands, venues, patrons, and fellow production craftspeople deserve a level of work that’s commensurate with the show. You can’t ethically claim to be able to deliver that level of work if anything internal to you would prevent you from executing. Lacking familiarity with a rig and a room are factors internal to me, and they can stop me from doing work that sits in the same class as the gig. In such a case, I have to turn down the job.


Zen And The Art Of Dialing Things In

Good instruments through neutral signal paths require very little “dialing in,” if any.

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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Not long ago, Lazlo and The Dukes paid me a visit at my regular gig. They were coming off a spectacularly difficult show, and were pleased-as-punch to be in a room with manageable acoustics, a reasonably nice audio rig, and a guy to drive it all. We got settled-in via a piecemeal sort of approach. At one point, we got Steve on deck and ran his dobro through the system. He and I were both pretty happy within the span of about 30 seconds.

Later, Steve gushed about how I “just got it all ‘dialed up’ so fast.” Grateful for the compliment, and also wanting to be accurate about what occurred, I ensured Steve that he was playing a good instrument. I really hadn’t dialed anything in. I pushed up the faders and sends, and by golly, there was a nice-sounding dobro on the end of it all. I did a little experimenting with the channel EQ for FOH, wondering what would happen with a prominent midrange bump, but that was pretty optional.

In terms of “pop-culture Zen,” Steve had gotten dialed in without actually being dialed in.

How?

Step 1: The Instrument Must Be Shaped Like Itself

The finest vocal mics I’ve ever had have been the ones in front of terrific singers. The very best signal chains I’ve ever had for drums have been the ones receiving signals derived from drums that sound killer. I’ve hurriedly hung cheap transducers in front of amazing guitar rigs, and those rigs have always come through nicely.

Whatever the “source” is, it must sound correct in and of itself. If the source uses a pickup system, that system must produce an output which sounds the way the instrument should sound.

That seems reasonable, right? The first rule of Tautology Club is the first rule of Tautology Club.

Especially with modern consoles that have tons of processing available, we can do a lot to patch problems – but that’s all we’re doing. Patching. Covering holes in things that weren’t meant to have holes. Gluing bits down and hoping it all stays together for the duration of the show. Does that sound like a shaky, uncomfortable proposition? It does because it is.

But, if the instrument is making the right noise in the room, by itself, with no extra help, then it can never NOT make the right noise in the room. We can do all kinds of things to overpower and wreck that noise by way of a PA system, but the instrument itself will always be right. In contrast, an instrument which sounds wrong may potentially be beaten into shape with the rest of the rig…but the source still doesn’t sound right. It’s completely dependent on the PA, and if the PA fails to do the job, then you’re just stuck.

An instrument which just plain “sounds good” will require very little (if any) dialing-in, so long as…

Step 2: The Rig Is Shaped Like Everything

Another way to put this is that the instrument must be filled with itself, yet the FOH PA and monitor rig must be emptied of themselves. In technical terms, the transfer function of the PA system’s total acoustical output should ideally be flat “from DC to dog-whistles.”

Let’s say you want to paint a picture. You know that the picture will be very specific, but you don’t know what that picture will be in advance. What color of canvas should you obtain? White, of course. The entire visible spectrum should be reflected by the canvas, with as little emphasis or de-emphasis on any frequency range. This is also the optimal case for a general-purpose audio system. It should impose as little of its own character as is reasonably possible upon the signals passing through.

At a practical level, this means taking the time to tune FOH and monitor world such that they are both “neutral.” Unhyped, that is. Exhibiting as flat a magnitude response as possible. To the extent that this is actually doable, this means that an instrument which is shaped like itself – sonically, I mean – retains that shape when passed through the system. This also means that if there IS a desire to adjust the tonality of the source, the effort necessary to obtain that adjustment is minimized. It is much easier to, say, add midrange to a signal when the basic path for that signal passes the midrange at unity gain. If the midrange is all scooped out (to make the rig sound “crisp, powerful, and aggressive”), then that scoop will have to first be neutralized before anything else can happen. It’s very possible to run out of EQ flexibility before you get your desired result.

Especially when talking about monitor world, this is why I’m a huge advocate for the rig to not sound “good” or “impressive” as much as it sounds “neutral.” If the actual sound of the band in the room is appropriate for the song arrangements, then an uncolored monitor rig will assist in getting everybody what they need without a whole lot of fuss. A monitor rig that’s had a lot of cool-sounding “boom” and “snap” added will, by nature, prioritize sources that emphasize those frequency ranges (and this at the expense of other sources). This can take a good acoustical arrangement and make it poor, or aggravate the heck out of an already not-so-good band configuration. It also tends to lead to feedback problems, because the critical midrange gets lost. Broadband gain is added to compensate, which combines with the effectively positive gain on the low and high-ends, and it all can end with screeching or rumbling as the loop spins out of control.

The ironic thing here is that the “netural” systems end up sounding much more impressive later on, when the show is a success. The rigs that sound impressive with walkup music, on the other hand, sometimes aren’t so nice for the actual show.

So – an audio-human with a rig that is acoustically shaped like nothing is in command of a system that is actually shaped like everything. Under the right circumstances, this means that a signal through the rig will be dialed in without any specific dialing-in being required.


Always Multiply Your Time-Estimate By Four

There is no such thing as a simple project.

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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Just a quick aside.

My Dad says that “everything costs more and takes longer than you think.” He’s right.

Case in point: Prep for last Friday’s show, where a simple “I’ll swap this snake because the fan-end is getting weird, it’ll take about 15-20 minutes,” turned into an hour-long slog through the production equivalent of quicksand and monkey guano.

I spent at last half of the time with my body bent over the console I/O rack, a screwdriver in hand, trying to break off a couple of stuck XLR jack latches…and repeating, as though it were a mantra, “Are you EFFING KIDDING ME?”