Among many of the recent entrants into the sound profession, I’ve noticed a lack of knowledge when it comes to wiring a stage.
Perhaps it’s due to a lot of sound engineering schools being essentially studio-based courses. Or maybe it’s simply that it’s difficult to get a young mind to concentrate on something as mundane as running cable when there is a digital board with loads of lights and buttons sitting in the corner of the room!
Improper wiring of a stage makes for more work when it comes to wrapping up at the end of the night, makes it difficult to trace any faulty cables that may arise during sound check or during the gig, and can cause trip hazards for artists and crew on- or back-stage.
This is the way I was taught years ago, and the basic method is the same on every stage right up to the top level. Before we begin our little primer we should clarify a few terms:
Upstage—The part of the stage furthest from the audience.
Downstage—The part of the stage closest to the audience.
Stage Left—The side of the stage to your left as you stand onstage and face the audience.
Stage Right—The side of the stage to your right as you stand onstage and face the audience.
Heavy mains cable such as 3-phase feeder cable should always be kept off-stage. Excess mains cable should never be left tightly coiled but left in a neat figure of eight pattern under the stage if possible but certainly out of the way of walkways.
When running lighter gauge cable from the mains distro to amplifier racks, use the shortest length possible to avoid having large coils of excess cable in areas where monitor engineers, guitar technicians and other stage-hands are likely to be working. Leave short lengths of surplus cable under amp racks or in the dead space often found behind the amplifier racks.
Try to ensure that all mains cable to amplifiers follows a similar path, to avoid tangles during load out. Make sure it looks neat; if it doesn’t, you probably should re-do your work.
When running electrical cables to on-stage power drops, best practice is to have at least an upstage and a downstage feed.
Try to run mains cable upstage on the drum riser, following other cable runs for monitors and signal cables if possible.
The upstage line will feed mainly guitar and bass amps (backline). The downstage power feed should be downstage of the monitors, and again should follow monitor and signal cable runs. This feed will generally be required to power guitarist’s tuners and pedal-boards and keyboards.
Again, avoid using cables that are too long. Tuck any excess cable under on-stage risers or off-stage where possible. That way, if you need to move the power drop, the extra cable is reasonably accessible. The key is to never cross the performance area (ie: the space between the drum-kit and the monitor line) with cable.
Similar common sense applies to running loudspeaker cable. For onstage monitors, follow the same line as the other cable. Use the shortest lengths required, keep excess offstage, and never leave coils of cable onstage beside monitors. It just looks bad.
If possible use loudspeaker cable looms with breakout boxes for groups of monitor mixes close together. This speeds up both the load in and the load out.
Line systems (multis, “snakes” etc) should preferably be flown from stage to the front of house mix position where possible. Other solutions include rubber mats, cable ramps or creating an audience free zone in the center of the auditorium.
Many venues have cable ducts designed to quickly run line-systems and other control cable to front of house. Modern Ethernet, fiber and lightpipe solutions have greatly simplified this part of cable management.
Onstage, the keys to quick, tidy and accurate signal cable patching are sub-stage boxes and a bit of planning. If you’ve a stage plan, identify where the main cabling areas are going to be.
Drum kits will generally take at least 8 channels, with a couple of channels for the nearby bass rig and two vocals, you’re looking at a minimum of 12 lines pretty close to each other.
Rather than running 12 long cables over and back to the main stage box, drop a 12-way sub stage box in front of the kit and run twelve short cables to the mics and DIs required. It’s simple math: it’s far quicker to wrap up 15m stage box and 12 3m cables, a total of 51m of cable, than wrapping up 12 10 meter cables, 120 meters.
Other areas possibly requiring stage boxes are keyboard-land, the front line of vocals with acoustic guitars, and so on. Label stage boxes with the main input number and what this channel is for (center vocal, snare, kick, whatever).
Once again, the same rules for running cable apply: follow the other cabling routes, use shortest cable necessary, and never cross the performance area or stage-access routes.
Finally, leave any excess neatly coiled under mic stands. Always keep excess as close to the source – this makes it easy to move a mic later on.
Always start by running your mic cable from the main stage box or the sub-stage box. There are two good reasons for this: (1) it means the excess will always be by the mic and, (2) if you are working in a team, there is no chance of one of you accidentally plugging in the wrong mic into the wrong channel.
Lastly, keep a few cables handy onstage as replacements if needed. Don’t close the cable box and stash it in some hard-to-access place.
Remember the old saying: the load-out begins at the load-in. By using some common sense, you’ll have more time to make sound, tune the system, and troubleshoot any problems arising by following these ground rules.
In addition, your stages will be safer, your cables will last longer, and you’ll make fewer mistakes. And you’ll be heading home from the gig earlier.
Alex Fernie is the founder and managing director of Alex Fernie Audio Ltd., a leading Irish sound reinforcement rental company based in Galway on the west coast of Ireland. Follow @alexfernieaudio on Twitter.