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From Clubs To Stadiums: Highlights & Challenges Of Different-Scale Venues

Upsides, downsides and advice when working facilities ranging from tiny clubs to enormous stadiums – perhaps on the same tour...

As the world got back on its feet in 2022 and the live music industry saw a full return to touring, I found myself gigging in almost every style of venue throughout the year.

I mixed monitors on three different tours that encompassed everything from tiny clubs to sold-out stadiums, and everything in between, with some corporate ‘bank-raids’ thrown in for good measure. While I’ve done all of these styles of venue before, it was interesting to compare them in rapid succession.

Let’s take a look at the different highlights, challenges and considerations which they present for us as sound crew.

• Small venues at street level can mean a quick load-in, especially if you’re using the in-house PA. You may even have time to explore a little of the outside world between soundcheck and show.

• Artists often enjoy the close interaction with their fans.

• Load-ins can be arduous when lifts or stairs are involved.

• If you’re touring with equipment, you may have to carefully consider packaging. Small venues can be tight on space and storage.

• If you’re using in-house control and/or PA, the standard and suitability of equipment can vary widely from venue to venue.

• Mix positions, especially front of house, are likely to be small and closely surrounded by the audience. (And watch out for flying beer and people using racks as tables!)

• Communicate clearly with the venue about exactly what you’re bringing in, your control footprint, your power requirements, and whether in-house equipment such as consoles can be removed.

• If you’re using anything in-house, ask for a full spec and get as much detail as you can. Information such as who installed and maintains the PA (and their contact details), console software versions, and whether anyone else will be using the equipment that day, will all serve you well.

• You may need to adapt your pre-show procedure to the physical constraints of the venue. For example, if the monitor engineer normally hands the vocal mic to the singer, is there a backstage walkway so they can return to the console easily? If the only way is across the stage or through the crowd, you may need to rethink the plan.

• Older venues can be beautiful and have interesting histories and good acoustics.

• If the monitor position is in a wing, you can build without waiting for set or lights to clear the stage.

• As with clubs, load-ins can be compromised. In many theatres the stage access is stage left, meaning monitors loads in last to keep the path clear.

• The FOH position might be under a balcony or upstairs (making it hard to get a true picture of what you’re mixing) and snake runs can be awkward.

• Using in-house PA provides many variables with which to hone your skills!

• If the monitor position/system is last to load in, try to source temporary power for the wireless rack so you can set it up out of the way and get tuned. Theatres and clubs are generally in towns/cities and can present challenging RF conditions, so it’s helpful to get ahead of the game while you wait to set up.

• Theatres are often non-reflective due to padded fabric seats and carpets, so you may need to add additional reverb to mixes.

• As with clubs, If you’re using anything in-house, ask for a full spec and get as much detailed information ahead of time as possible.

• Generally the PA system will already be in and the control equipment may be locally supplied, meaning minimal load-in/out.

• The show is unlikely to be a full-length set.

• If the event is in a hotel you may have rooms on site.

• Your show is the entertainment rather than the main event, so you may have to compromise on things like FOH and monitor positions.

• The audience is not the usual group of excited fans – if they’re unenthusiastic there’s unlikely to be much of a vibe, meaning your artist has to work hard to win them over.

• If you usually mix audience mics into your in-ear monitors, be aware they won’t be picking up the usual applause and singing of a crowd full of fans. In all situations, if the mics are too close to the audience they’ll pick up individual conversations, so it’s good general practice to use long-throw ‘shotgun’ mics and place them well above audience head height. At corporates, exercise discernment if you normally dial them into IEM mixes during songs, as people may be talking through the performance.

• For the sake of hygiene have an extra handheld mic available for announcers and/or CEOs who want to come on stage. Make singers aware that a guest mic is ready so they don’t feel pressured to offer theirs.

• Sheds offer the best of both worlds, being both indoors and outdoors at the same time. Facilities are permanent and so are generally of a higher standard than at festivals, backstage and onstage is properly undercover, and you still get to enjoy fresh air and daylight.

• These are custom-built concert venues and load-in is usually straight to the stage, with ample case storage and space.

• The fixed nature of the stage and seating means that there are associated acoustics to manage; however, unlike arenas, the acoustics have often been carefully considered with regard to musical performances.

• Many sheds have an installed PA that you’re required to use. These are often of a high standard, so the usual good communication prior to the event should provide all the information that you and the venue crew will need to have a happy day.

• Big arenas mean lots of space, which makes everyone’s day easier!

• At arena level you generally carry all your own gear, meaning fewer unknowns and greater consistency and control.

• You’ll be part of a larger sound crew (around six audio crew including engineers is normal for arenas), meaning greater mutual support and camaraderie.

• Large arena productions take longer to load in and out, meaning you’ll be in either artificial light or darkness for most of the day. Try to get outside for a few minutes when possible for the benefit of your mental well-being.

• Arenas can be very cold in winter – the dock doors may be open for hours and many arenas host ice hockey, so the ice often stays down with plastic flooring over the top of it.

• Expectations of performers and crew are high at arena level due to greater exposure. Of course we bring the A-game at all levels of live event, but the pressure on bands increases with capacity, and it’s important that we support them with a high degree of crew professionalism.

• Naturally, acoustics vary in all venues, but arenas can sound particularly ambient when empty, and can be subject to greater change once full of bodies than smaller, more acoustically damped venues.

• Arena stages are generally high, and the monitor console is often off stage. It’s wise to make provision for a low riser so that the monitor engineer can maintain line of sight with the performers. If the stage is a rolling one, it’s helpful for the monitor riser to be on wheels as well, allowing you to set up and then roll into position when appropriate. It’s useful to carry a long power feed cable so that you can power up before you’re in position and simply pull it back when you roll.

• Consider that the cable runs onto stage will be longer than in venues where the monitor position is on stage.

• Another bonus of a monitor riser is that the engineer is saved from standing on a frozen floor in ice arenas – FOH engineers are wise to carry a thick rug!

• If the weather cooperates, being outdoors with fresh air and daylight can be very pleasant.

• Most festivals are in open-air fields, which have the benefit of no architectural acoustics.

• If you’re high up on the bill, you’re probably carrying your own gear and so have a reasonable degree of control.

• Festivals are a great opportunity to see some other bands, and probably bump into lots of industry buddies.

• There will rarely be a sound check, it’s usually line check and go. Ideally there will be a system in operation where at any one time band A is on stage, band B is set up on rolling risers backstage and line checking, and band C is loading onto their risers, all with sensible changeover times allowed. In practice, a lot of festivals don’t have the space or facilities to operate in this way, and so you’ll need to be very organized so that you can get set and line checked as fast as possible when your time comes.

• Mix positions can be compromised, especially for bands who are on earlier in the day.

• Your day is largely dependent on the organization and professionalism of the festival crew.

• FOH engineers often have their work cut out to get through the crowd to the mix position – allow plenty of time to get out there from backstage.

• The fast-paced nature of festivals means that good prior communication with the festival audio crew and high levels of organization are critical. Help them to help you by giving them as much info as you can weeks ahead of the festival – accurate up-to-date stage plots and patch lists, desk session files if you’re using in-house consoles, power requirements and so on, and get an email conversation happening so that you know it’s all been acknowledged and you know what is being supplied. There are few things more frustrating to festival crew than having you tell them on the day that they have old information and everything has changed!

• As with arenas, you carry your own equipment and have a great degree of control, and being outdoors can be very pleasant.

• There’s a lot of PA to hang so the audio crew is larger again, often numbering double figures.

• The audience vibe can be excellent – stadiums shows are a premium event and fans are happy and excited.

• PA layout and coverage can be challenging due to the size of the space and the varying height of the audience – delay towers and patching into house ring delays will be required and an experienced system tech is vital.

• Despite being outdoors, stadiums acoustics are not like being in a open field. Stadiums are basically giant roofless arenas, and the high seating and architecture present all their associated challenges.

• Even if the rain holds off, the weather can present other challenges. Wind can play havoc with PA coverage, and as night falls and temperatures drop, the risk of feedback increases – what was “safe” at sound check might now be closer to the edge.

• There are often strict noise limits at stadiums to respect nearby residents’ right to peace, both in terms of when you can make noise and how loud the system is. There’s usually a tight “noise-making” schedule, during which all noise propagation, system tuning, and sound checks must happen. The rules tend to be rigid and penalties for over-running are high, so everyone needs to be ready in good time.

• The sheer size of stadiums means that getting around takes extra time, whether that’s getting to catering, FOH, the bathroom, or taking IEMs to dressing rooms.

• Where the band will enter the stage can vary, so coordinate with the stage manager about pre-show procedures.

• Monitor engineers often become de-facto switchboard operators at very large events, dialing comms into IEMs, show mixes into comms, talk mics to wherever they need to go, preparing multiple tech mix IEM packs, and so on. There will often be a dedicated comms tech, and together you should discuss requirements with the stage and production managers well ahead of the event so that you can be prepared and consider how best to approach it. A small dedicated console can be a helpful addition to the set-up.

• Stadium gigs are premium events for any artist, and expectations are high. Even experienced artists can get nervous at stadiums – most of us would be with close to 100,000 people watching us! As an engineer, the best advice I can give is to be extra diligent so that you feel well-prepared and confident in your process, and don’t pay too much attention to the vastness of the crowd. Just keep your cool and do your normal gig – level heads will always win the day!

Switching between gig styles can mean significant variations to your general operating procedures – you’ll probably have to physically downsize your gear if you go from, say, arenas to clubs. If you know there are a variety of gig-styles coming your way, consider how you can make your set up more modular and what you can do without in small places. You might need to switch to a smaller console – what’s the most compact version of your preferred brand that you can sensibly mix your show on?

Whether at FOH or monitors, you’ll probably find you have to alter the mix between venue types – for example, drums and backline amps feel way louder in a club than in an arena or outdoors, and there’s a lot more spill to deal with in terms of vocal mics in small venues. (You might want to consider a drum screen in clubs – they’ve saved many a vocal mix for me!)

Onstage monitor fills that might be necessary on a huge stadium stage where you can’t feel much coming back off the PA will be overkill in a small room, and the reverse applies when switching from indoor gigs to outdoors – what felt like plenty of the band in a singer’s IEM mix indoors might need boosting once you get into the great wide open of a festival when there are no room reflections coming back.

It’s entirely possible to encounter all of these venues in the space of one tour – bands might be huge in one country and just breaking through in another, or a big stadium band might have intimate club gigs and corporates scheduled in the same campaign. Usually though, there will be similar sized venues throughout a tour, which makes it easier to get into a rhythm.

Huge gigs don’t matter more than tiny ones – at every venue there are fans spending their time and money to hear their favorite music played live, and we’re there to help deliver exactly that. No matter the venue, we show up and we bring our A-game, because we are the road crew, and we’re here to take the rock to the kids!

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