What can we do to sort it out, meet needs, and help them put on the best performance possible?
February 28, 2012, by Gary Zandstra
The venue where I serve as technical director has recently had a number of touring acts come through.
With each tour, there are always special technical requirements that the artists need, particularly in these tight economic times where few of them are able to travel with everything they need.
The last three events, the venue was responsible for providing the entire house system, and for two of them, I served as the front of house engineer.
When a tour group comes to a venue they never know what they’re going to get. Yes, the rider said six separate wireless in-ear monitor systems, but the venue only has two and is unwilling to rent any more. Yes, the rider said the PA needs to hit peaks of 110 dBA, but the installed system can only hit 95 dBA. I know, I know…
I understand this type of thing happens all of the time on tours, and I also know it must be very frustrating for touring artists.
On the venue side, I’ve seen many riders that really don’t mean much at all because they’re not specific enough. Things like “concert quality sound system required” or “adequate monitors for the band” are so open to interpretation that it’s almost comical.
I’ve also seen riders that are rife with overkill, i.e., microphone requirements that include every exotic studio mic that you can think of, the latest, greatest stadium-caliber line arrays, and so on.
In light of all of this, what can we do to sort it out, meet needs, and help them put on the best performance possible?
Learn to dance.
I’ve found that every one of the tour groups that comes through has a certain dance. It usually starts during the pre-arrival check-in by the tour manager.
Good tour managers tell you exactly what they need, and are willing to negotiate on the items that you can’t provide without renting or that just aren’t feasible (such as, if your front of house mix position is on the front edge of the balcony, moving it to the main floor may not be feasible).
The ones that are either stubborn or incompetent (and I’ve dealt with a couple who were both) either can’t tell you what they need, or are completely inflexible in their demands.
This initial engagement with the tour manager usually provides a feel for the type of dance you’re going to need to perform.
Here are some dances I’ve done over the years:
Waltz. This tour came in with 18 people crammed in on one bus. Right from the very first contact, I could tell it would be a great event for all. The tour manager was very specific about the technical needs, but also understood some of the limitations that our venue imposed.
Upon arrival, the tour manager immediately came and shook my hand. He then went over all of the details of the day, handed me a schedule, and asked for my cell phone number. He went on to say it was going to take a couple of hours to load in, so he offered to call me when all of the back line gear was in place.
Needless to say it was a great (and very smooth) day. With the extra time, I was able to program some additional lighting looks that enhanced the concert.
Mosh Pit. This was the exact opposite of the waltz. The tour manager never contacted me in advance, and when he arrived, he expressed his frustration that we only had four subwoofers—not the twelve he was used to. Note that our room seats about 1,000, and this was a contemporary Christian band - not hip-hop. To top it off, they were doing what they were calling an “acoustic tour.”
This tour manager then demanded that that the front of house position be moved. I politely told him it was not possible, and mentioned that if he had called me earlier, perhaps we could have rented a console and snake and had it on the main floor. He was not amused and made a veiled threat to pack up and go home.
All day, I had to continue to push back on things that he wanted done, including removing the brick wall compression that our system hits at around 105 dBA (the system just can’t do more that and I was not going to let their inexperienced mix guy blow stuff up!) Needless to say, it was more of a fight than a dance, and unfortunately, the event suffered because of it.
The tone the tour manager set played out in the entire crew and musicians. People were almost at each other throats and the artists didn’t even look happy to perform.
Line Dance. Much like the waltz this event ran like clockwork. As I was the going to be the front of house engineer for the event, the tour manager had contacted me in advance and offered to forward some of their music so I would be familiar with it.
When they arrived, everyone made me feel part of the team. The artists went out of the way to introduce themselves and thank me for being there. The crew asked tons of questions about the set-up, and also came up with some good solutions based on our venue’s limitations.
The entire day everyone seemed in step with each other and performing the same moves. Of course, this turned into a great event, and everyone walked away pleased.
Now, I know there are a lot more “dances” out there, and each tour has its own particular version. To me, the key is figuring out the general dance that’s going to be done as quickly as possible, and then doing my best to anticipate its rhythm and movement. In other words, based on what I learn early in the process, to be well-prepared to meet needs, adapt, improvise, negotiate, and so on.
One thing I’ve found is that it’s almost impossible to get them to change their dance, so I need to be up to speed on all of the steps.
Gary Zandstra is a professional AV systems integrator with Parkway Electric and has been involved with sound at his church for more than 25 years.