Thursday, April 21, 2011

Putting Together a Live Rig

I get a lot of e-mails from new artists and bands asking about how to put together a good set-up for live performing. Given that record sales seem to be on a slow death spiral, the importance of playing live is becoming more important these days. So today, I'll share some thoughts about things to consider before hitting the road.

Backing Tracks
Most electronic acts have at least a portion of their set in one pre-recorded format or another, whether it's coming off a tape machine or a high-powered laptop running Ableton. There are a few important considerations you should mull over before deciding on a format to host those tracks.

• How Much Are You Doing Live?
This is most important in choosing a means to play back your backing tracks. Do you need to change the arrangement on the fly while you're performing or will the song structure remain consistent from night to night? If you need to change things while you're performing, then a laptop is really your only option. However, for most people, something a lot simpler might make sense.

• Replacement Cost
I'm going to share with you a universal truth about touring. Sooner or later, your equipment will get stolen, get left behind at a venue, or simply stop working (usually at the most inopportune moment). Everyone thinks they'll be the one lucky enough to never have something like this happen to them, and soon they learn the hard way. So something to consider when choosing a playback method is how much is it going to cost you to replace it? Do you really need to have a $2,000 MacBook onstage among the heat, stage smoke, and errant fan drinks, or could you get away with using something like an iPod which would cost a fraction to replace and can be found damn near everywhere?

• How Easy to Back-up?
It is imperative that you travel with as many back-ups of your set as possible. So the more possible ways you have to retrieve a corrupted set, the better. A full set-up in a sequencer with audio tracks, samples, etc. is going to be rather large. A great back-up option is to have all your files available on a server to grab as you need them. The weakness here is that you may not have Internet access where you are (and if you scoff at that idea, tour eastern Europe some time). My band uses mastered WAV files to play our backing tracks. Everyone on the tour has copies of the songs and playlists on their personal laptops, they're backed up as both audio and data CDs, and the files are saved on my phone.

For 90% of the bands out there, using the same house monitors that everyone else uses will do just fine. However, you will quickly learn that all monitors are not the same. I've played venues where all but one of the monitors was busted, I've played giant venues with monitors that were so under-powered, you could only hear the echo of the house speakers, and I've played tiny, sketchy-looking venues that had amazing monitoring. You just never know what you're going to get. For some people (especially vocalists), it is worth considering springing for your own in-ear monitoring set-up. There will be some variation here, too, but much less so than relying on the house system, and since it pipes directly into your ears, you don't have to worry about monitors with super narrow "sweet spots" or weird room acoustics messing you up. The downside of these systems is that they're quite expensive and not always easy to replace on the road.

A lot of this is going to be dictated on what your existing band is like, but choosing between acoustic and electronic drums is worth thinking about if you're not married to a particular approach. There is no question that acoustic drums sound amazing live - very powerful and expressive. But if you're playing mostly small club venue, they can occasionally overpower the PA (cymbals especially). Acoustics are also going to take up more room in the van, require a longer soundcheck, and leave you open to a lot more technical problems if your sound guy sucks. If you can get away with it, consider using an electronic set.

Vocal Effects
This is a tough one. On the one hand, most small to mid-sized venues have pretty bare-bones options when it comes to vocal effects. On the other hand, a vocal effects chain you programmed in your home studio may sound like absolute garbage live. I would say the rule of thumb should be, don't try to do your own vocal effects unless you have your own sound guy. I've lost count of the number of bands who tried to control their vocal effects live who ruined otherwise great sets with horrible-sounding vocals swimming in a total overkill of effects. Remember, you're playing live... you're supposed to sound a bit rawer and more immediate. Spend more time working on your voice and less time trying to haul a rack of effects around with you that might just end up making a mess of your vocals.

My bandmates and I have a bit of a running joke where we can tell how long an opening band has been performing by how much gear they have onstage. The more gear, the greener the band. Unless your last name is "Jarre" and you have an army of techs and roadies to haul all of that stuff around, you're going to find that keeping it simple is usually the best option. Aim to get the most out of a smaller amount of gear. The more gear that's on stage, the more channels you'll need, the more the sound guy can potential screw up, and the more stuff you have to load in and load out. That wall of 6 keyboards looks significantly less bad-ass once you've had to carry it up 5 flights of stairs in a venue with no elevator. It takes up room in your trailer/van too. As the old axiom goes, KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID!

These are just some random thoughts that came to mind on the matter. Anyone else out there have some handy tips from the road?


Scott said...

I use MainStage 2 (that comes with Logic) when playing live. Feature-wise it's pretty good. I use it to run synchronised backing tracks so I can have a different monitor mix to the house PA. It also means if I want to take the bare minimum of stuff I can put guitar and bass through it as well, and save lugging amps and pedals, which worked well when we played in the US. The only problem is stability. I played a gig once and it just stopped playing a song halfway through - twice! This has never happened before or since so I had no way to diagnose it. Sometimes I wish I just played in a standard rock band without a relying so heavily on technology! :)

brad said...

Great article, thanks.

I spent a long while getting my live setup into an easily portable rig, here's my post on it:

Bringing a DI strip around with me has made my setup way more adaptable, I don't need to rely on the venue as much and it's worked with the worst sound guys.

I'd really like to replace the whole laptop with a dumber solid-state multitrack device or something (preferably small and cheap enough I could pack a couple) but I haven't come across anything interesting.

fractured said...

In regards to your mention of in-ear monitors, I have one very important point. As the sound goes directly into your ears, you need to take precautions. A solid blast of feedback in an in-ear monitor can spell disaster for your hearing. Ensure you have the incoming level low while the sound person is working with you initially. Move around the stage before you bring up that level to reduce the risk of getting hammered by a frequency jacked directly into your ear.

Unknown said...

Two things: first, set up your live rig isolated from your home studio: run a single extension cord to where you'll set up, then set it all up in that location. verify that everything works, that you have enough power, power strips, etc.

Second, write down all the steps in the setup, and try to make sure that there's a test at each step. This makes it much easier to verify that things are working, and that you don't have to tear a bunch of stuff down to find a problem.

Anonymous said...

Wow! This is all great info! Keep it coming...

Tom said...

@Fractured - Good point, although most in-ear systems have a built-in limiter to prevent such horrors. Indeed, one of the advantages of in-ear systems is that they don't need to be as loud as stage monitors, and since they seal you off from the "real world" they can actually serve to protect your hearing compared to the usual way of doing things. It's always worth taking precautions when it comes to your hearing, though, no doubt!

Mark Vs said...

Interesting post. I'm not a performer but always wondered what kind of decisions go into live gear. Assemblage 23 had such a minimalist approach on stage and I was impressed. No need for flash because the music says it all. I saw Legendary Pink Dots also recently at a small club and they had a fascinating approach: a lot of really small instruments and gadgets. I could swear Ka-Spel was playing a Micro Korg, but not sure - couldn't even tell what they were playing. But it was a BIG sound.

nulldevice said...

I'll second the bit about DI's - if you're playing small clubs or "rock" clubs then you're likely to find a dearth of DI - especially if more than one electronic band is on the lineup. You can get a 1u strip of 4 DIs for less than $100 - not behringers, either! - and they will be lifesavers.

It's great, I have my DI's racked and patched so basically all I need to do is add power and plug into the snake.

Propecia said...

Not sure if it works,LoL

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