Hoarding effects pedals is fun, but what’s the point if you don’t play them? I’m crawling out of the Bass Hole this month to offer up some common-sense advice for when you decide to climb out of the basement, load up the VanBot and hit the road! These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned in my 9+ years as a live sound engineer working with everybody from teenagers playing their first gig to Grammy-award winners. I’m also including some of the knowledge I’ve gained from the other side of the stage, helping to book DIY tours for my band Ultrasphinx.
DISCLAIMER: This article assumes that you are in a low-to-mid level band playing in venues (ie., bars and clubs) with full PA and mic packages, using a house sound engineer. DIY house shows have their own etiquette, and you should always be courteous to your hosts. If you’re in a popular band, you have people who do this stuff for you, so don’t worry about it, partner.
1. Communication is Key
Most club gigs operate under a strict timeline, so it’s important that you know exactly what’s happening, and when. Many cities have mandatory curfews that must be met, or there might be an all-night-indie-disco-electro-dance-jam after your show that starts at 10pm and goes ’til whenever.
When booking a show, you’ll want to have clear, in-advance communication with the promoter / booking agent so you know things like:
When is load in?
Is there a curfew?
How do we get paid?
Are there food/drink specials for bands?
When do we play?
How long is our set?
This is a good time to forward your bands’ press kit, if you have one (and you should!) along with your input list and stage plot, so that there’s no confusion before the show and you can focus on hot rockin’.
2. Be Well Rehearsed
There’s a big difference between rehearsal and practice. I think of practice as a time for writing and/or learning songs. It’s a time to solve problems, make mistakes, and create. Rehearsal, to me, is when you put together a show, instead of learning 30 minutes’ worth of music. In rehearsal, I like to do things like:
Adjust stage volumes / create complimentary tones. Spend time in rehearsal to create the blend you want to hear on stage. Rely on stage monitors as little as possible, because you never know what you’re gonna get at the show.
Organize the set list in “blocks” to keep things flowing smoothly and to allocate time for tuning. This also helps to minimize instrument switching, because it allows you to put all the banjo songs back-to-back, for example.
Time the set.
Work out cues/transitions from song to song.
Plan in advance which songs to cut or add in the event of technical difficulties or an encore.
3. Plan to Arrive at the Venue Early!
I can’t stress enough how important it is to get to the club early. It’s not that big of a deal if you’re playing your local watering hole, but on tour, you’ll want extra time to do things like:
Maintain your instrument (change strings, swap drum heads, fix bad patch cables, tune the drums, etc.).
Go exploring! If you’re in a new city for the first time, the venue staff can often point you in the direction of cool stuff to do, and you can venture out without having to worry about finding the club later.
Have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My bandmates and I were lucky enough to sit in on the Breeders’ rehearsal for the Last Splash 20th anniversary tour just because we showed up early to a gig.
4. Be Prepared
It’s a cliché, but to fail to plan truly is to plan to fail. Your band might only have 30 minutes to play, but you have from load-in to showtime to take care of those little odds-and-ends that might not seem important at first, but have an enormous impact on your performance.
Let’s face it, neatly stacking gear by the stage might not be a lot of fun, but doing a little bit of work now can save you from doing a lot of work later. This includes all kinds of boring, but necessary stuff like:
Making sure everything works. Was that weird crackle at last night’s show the PA or your pedalboard? Now’s the time to find out. I recommend learning the over/under cable-wrapping method to keep things tidy and extend the lifespan of your instrument cables.
Checking the batteries in instruments with active electronics. The only way you can guarantee the active pickups/EQ in your instrument will last the entire set is if you replace the battery every show.
Neatly storing your gear in the assigned area. Space can be tight in clubs, so it’s important that your gear is neatly stashed away, making changeovers as quick and efficient as possible. This goes double for drummers.
Speaking of drummers, take some time during the previous band’s last song or two to set up your kit. This keeps the show moving and buys you gobs of goodwill from the sound engineer and other bands on the bill. If you have a large kit and/or a drum rack, get a drum buddy to help you move it. After the show, remove the kit in as few pieces as possible. Nothing is more infuriating than a drummer fiddlin’ with the wing nuts on his or her splash cymbal onstage during a changeover. Pull a move like that on my stage and I’ll slap your damn wrists.
5. Shows are for the audience, not the performer.
At an Evens gig in Akron, Ian MacKaye said, “If you were not here, we would be practicing. Think about it. The audience is part of the show.”
No matter the size of the audience, always remember that they’re the folks paying the cover charge, buying drinks, spending money on merch, etc., and there’s a good chance that you’re sleeping on their floor tonight. It’s your responsibility to provide the transcendent rock and roll catharsis they’re been waiting for their entire lives. Or at least be reasonably fun to watch.
This sounds obvious, but I’m sure we’ve all seen a trainwreck of a rock show caused by one round of shots too many. It’s not fun. Sure, it’s charming if you’re in the Replacements or Guided By Voices, but unless you know that your audience is the hard-partying type and they’re okay spending their hard earned cash to watch you stumble around up there, it’s best to keep the substances under control. That’s what the afterparty is for.
6. Rock Show Order of Operations
As the house sound engineer at a small club, I’ve witnessed all kinds of chaos. Sometimes shows get derailed for legitimate reasons: vans break down, people get sick, emergencies arise, and that’s okay. We can deal with it.
On the other hand, I’ve worked shows that run behind schedule because so-and-so forgot to switch his schedule at work, or the opening band “doesn’t feel like playing first.” I’ve seen disorganized rock shows end in riots, and even lost some teeth along the way. Not cool, man.
I’m not naming any names, but if [drummer] from [band] can take his pregnant, in-labor wife to the delivery wing at the hospital, come back for soundcheck, go back to the hospital, drive back to the venue to play the gig, and be back to the hospital in time to welcome his newborn baby boy into the world, you can show up on time for your gig. Yes, that actually happened. It ruled.
So, just so everybody’s clear on how this works, I’m proposing a standardized Rock Show Order of Operations for low-to-mid-level gigs. If you ride in a bus, this won’t apply to you.
Load In – at least 2 hours before advertised door time.
Soundcheck – at least 1 hour before doors.
Doors – This is when the audience arrives.
Showtime – 30 minutes to 1 hour after doors. This is when the first band plays.
Changeover – 15 to 20 minutes between bands, as time allows. Repeat as necessary.
Headliner – At smaller local shows, this might just be “the last band,” as opposed to the “headliner.”
Load Out – Time to remember where you parked the van.
Settle Up – This is when discussing payment terms in advance comes in handy.
These are the general guidelines I use when booking shows and for live sound gigs. One of the most important things on this list -- to me, anyway -- is that soundcheck is completed before the doors open. From an audience perspective, few things are more impressive than seeing a band walk onstage and start killin’ it right away, without the sound engineer fumbling through the mix during the first song. Sure, there will be line checks throughout the night, but those move quickly once things are dialed in. Most of the crowd will be at the bar, anyway.
It’s easy to forget that the majority of the audience has no idea (and little interest) what happens before the show. Sorting out the mix (even if it’s rough) before the audience is in the room gives the performance an alluring mystique that would otherwise be missing if the crowd was present during soundcheck and could see how this particular musical sausage is made. Let the band seem like rock gods (or goddesses) and let the audience stand in awe.
7. Never Ask, “How’s It Sound Out There?”
In a world where every laptop comes equipped with free recording software, there’s no shortage of armchair audio engineers. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and there’s nothing worse than sorting out a mix with a punter standing over your shoulder, telling you the guitar “sounds weird.”
A good sound engineer will be attentive to the mix and work at the best of their abilities so that you sound good and the show runs smoothly. A bad sound engineer is the one you’re stuck with anyway. Do the gig with what you have.
Inviting the audience to tell the engineer how to do his or her job is insulting, and best avoided. If you need something in the monitors, ask! If your buddy standing right in front of your raging Marshall full-stack can’t hear the triangle player, that’s their problem.