“Can you come to our church and run sound in a few weeks?”
“Can you run sound for my band next weekend?”
Work as an audio geek long enough and you’ll get these questions, usually followed by the statement, “Don’t worry, we’ve got all the gear, you just need to show up.” Danger Will Robinson!
I’ve been in these situations and one thing’s for sure: it’s never as easy as it sounds. Standard equipment is lacking, or outdated at best, and waving a magic wand isn’t an option.
While I can’t do miracles, taking the right tools has enabled me to survive such gigs.
1. Gaff Tape. It sticks to anything so it’s great for securing cables to stages/floors, and it’s easily removed. Gaff tape is not duct tape, which is the silver roll the drummer hands you when you ask, “Do you have any tape?”
I use gaff tape on just about anything except gym/basketball flooring, which can be hit or miss with any type of high-strength adhesive. I’ve seen it remove the oil gloss from these types of floors when pulled up. And, gaff tape is also great for volume critics (forget I said that).
2. Cable Tester. Never assume cables are good when doing a one-off gig. From personal experience, I know some musicians will use gear until it dies. If they have to flex a cable just right so it works, they’ll do it.
Cable testers range in price based on brand and functionality. I have a Live Wire Solutions LWSCT tester that works with Speakon, XLR, RCA, MIDI, TRS, banana, and USB/Firewire cables.
Make sure to test all of the cables in use, and if one fails for any reason, even if it’s only when twisted just right, replace it. Testing only takes a few minutes and may save you from a notable glitch and the embarrassment that goes with it.
3. Whirlwind QBox. Kent Morris, audio engineer extraordinaire, notes that he carries one for those times when he doesn’t have any “helping hands” for line checks. This little box has a microphone, speaker, and test-tone generator, so performing a line check on all cables and audio sources is pretty easy.
For example, place it in front of a wired mic and then go to the console and check that the signal is being detected. Or plug it into the cable and talk into it, which sounds odd until you work with vocalists who insist on carrying their own mics and typically don’t arrive until the last minute. (Not as uncommon as one might think.) The Qbox helps get the line check accomplished when you’re the only one on the job.
4. Multimedia Passive DI. These days, folks are connecting everything from iPhones to laptops to mixing consoles, but too often it’s not being done correctly. The most common mistake I see is taking a stereo TRS and plugging it into a mono channel jack, with the assumption being that’s all it takes—but the console expects a balanced mono signal.
As a result, the outcome varies. Some mixers are forgiving (I doubt intentionally) and they’ll pass the audio without any problems. Other times, the mixer won’t pass the audio or it will do some really funky signal level fluctuations so the volume goes up and down.
Carry a multi-media DI like the Radial ProAV1 or Whirlwind pcDI that takes a stereo signal and transforms it into a mono balanced signal. Another tip: make sure the device is sending the strongest signal before touching the channel gain. This eliminates line noise problems.
Also note that Radial, and a few other manufacturers, offer tools like the BT-Pro, which uses Bluetooth technology to make the DI connection to the device.
5. Headphones. Never assume a venue or the band has headphones at front of house. And let’s be honest, wouldn’t you rather wear your own?
Headphones are helpful for checking channel EQ and tracking down problems, and also when working in a noisy environment.
At one gig, the house loudspeakers were silent, and I couldn’t tell if the problem was them, or the amplifiers, or the console routing. By plugging my headphones into the console, I was able to check the signal routing and solve the problem.
Traditional cans, in-ears, or ear-buds—it’s up to personal preference. For mix work, go with a solid brand with high fidelity.
And be aware of the frequency response of the headphones. For example, some might accentuate the low end too much (great bass sound! yeah, whatever mister marketing genius).
6. Batteries. Never, ever assume a venue or band keeps spare batteries. Oh, it’s their responsibility, but you’re the one who’ll be asked to solve the problem. I’ve had to make runs for batteries, for cables, and even for the band’s dinner. Nothing like being in a long line at a sandwich shop and then telling them you have seven orders.
Carry a variety of batteries, including 9-volt, AA, and AAA. This takes care of wireless mics, guitar equipment, and any other common battery-powered audio gear. A useful tip: when replacing batteries, carry the new ones in the right pocket and the old ones in the left pocket. (Unless they’re new 9-volts, which like to connect with car keys and warm up a pocket in a hurry.)
7. SPL Meter Here we get on shaky ground. A variety of SPL metering apps are availavle for smartphones, but there are a few problems to be aware of. Some apps are limited to 100 dB, and some don’t indicate if they’re measuring dBA or dBC, let alone providing the sampling rate. One that does do these things is SPL Pro by Studio Six Digital.
The thing is, a smartphone isn’t a sound meter, so results can vary. Some techs have told me that their phone metering is accurate, while others have said it isn’t even close. I prefer a dedicated SPL meter because my phone has another job.
Whatever you choose, be consistent—use the same SPL meter every time so venue comparisons are spot on.
8. RTA. A real-time analyzer displays all detected audio frequencies. It’s helpful to see the sounds of the room when it’s empty to identify any possible problem areas, as well as to actually see the make-up of a mix. And particularly when working a new venue, you can see how the house EQ (the one locked behind the steel door) is affecting the sound.
RTA capability used to be offered only with high-end equipment, but thanks to app development, it’s now available on the cheap. (I use the Spectrum Analyzer app.) Yes, these apps rely on the phone’s mic, but MicW offers the i436 for iPhone and iPad. The i436 package includes an omnidirectional measurement mic as well as a cable, splitter, and storage tube for the mic, protecting it from damage when not in use. Also note that some digital consoles include an on-screen RTA that receives input from a measurement mic.
RTAs include various settings, such as for sampling rate and scale, which are important for viewing a useful chart. I use an FFT size of 4096, fast rate, and simple graphing.
The Take-Away. While it’s helpful to have all of these tools on hand for working in different venues and gigs, it’s also important that they be available at your usual workspace. Right?
And before the complaints start about the price of gaff tape, trust me, it’s money well spent.