Festival season is right around the corner. If your band is lucky, you’ve booked several local or regional fests as either an opening or headliner act. While few fests will require you to provide a PA system for your show, the good news is you have less gear to transport. And since the festival organizers have secured a sound & lighting company to handle this aspect, things should go relatively smooth. But for those of you who are new to this, or who haven’t had to deal with a sound company and moody sound technicians, there are a few helpful and important tips I’ll discuss here.
Once you’ve booked the gig, ask your fest organizer to provide you with the contact information of the sound company. Reach out to them. Introduce yourself and ask what they need from you concerning your act. The sound company will likely want to go over a few items such as how many performers in your group, instrumentation and a few other basic information gathering questions. You may also be asked to provide a stage plot which should outline the stage positioning and instrumentation of your band.
It’s a great idea to have one of these updated and ready to distribute when requested. Keep in mind that just because you have one stage monitor listed for each musician doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll get. Since the sound company has been hired by the festival organizers, they have already agreed upon what type of mains and monitor systems will be utilized for any given festival. And forget about bringing extra monitors to “patch-in” to the sound company’s system. It’s not that easy and will likely cause more problems. Additionally, the sound company may send you a small questionnaire that will help them get a better understanding of your act so they can be better prepared to help you sound your best. But the most important thing I can stress here is…. don’t just show up to the festival with no prior contact and expect to be treated in a professional manner.
Respect is a two-way street. And since the soundman controls everything the audience hears while you are performing, it’s a good idea to play by the rules or chances are you’ll sound like crap. Lastly, let the sound company know if you are requesting to use your own person to mix your sound. While it’s often allowed, sometimes the festival organizers want complete audio cohesion for their audience with no outside sound technicians allowed. If you are allowed to use your own sound person, remember that the sound (and safety of the company’s gear) can be overridden by the house soundman, should a problem occur.
So now it’s the day of the gig. The weather looks good and you start your journey to the fest stage location. Here are some things to remember when you arrive…
- Get to the specified load in location on time and be ready to take the stage for setup when called upon. Don’t begin to throw your gear on the stage like you own the place…. The stage is the complete responsibility of the soundman, his crew or a designated stage manager. Piss them off and it’s going to be a long night!
- The sound crew doesn’t work for you! They are there to work with you and the band in order to allow the final product (your performance and sound) to be the best it can be for the audience. The sound crew are not your roadies.
- Keep your egos and attitudes in the car. Do I really need to expand on this? Getting in a verbal altercation with the person who has control of the sound system will obviously yield bad results. I’ve been a part of this scenario and seen crappy attitudes bring a whole performance to a grinding halt.
- If your band’s submitted stage plot indicates five performers, don’t expect to take the stage when you show up with six. The sound crew won’t be ready and likely won’t allow it. Remember, this is a professional, contracted and paying gig you’re doing. It’s not “jam night” at the local pizza joint.
- Once you’ve been told to take the stage for setup, get moving and place your gear where your plot indicates. Almost always there is very little time to setup, set the stage and do sound check before your allotted performance time begins. If you miss your window to start, you’ll lose and won’t get to play past your ending time. So be prepared.
- When you hear the sound tech say it’s time for sound check to begin, be ready and only play when he or she points to you to start. Have your rig ready for the technician to check its sound through the PA. There isn’t time to start messing with your amp or tuning your drums.
- At this time, the stage monitors will also be checked allowing you to request more or less vocals or instrumentation in a monitor. Since the monitors have been rung-out and EQ’d for the stage setting, don’t waste your time asking “can I have more high end in my monitor”. It likely won’t happen. And most sound techs think musicians are deaf anyway…
- Once individual band members have completed their sound check, you may be asked to play about 30-seconds of a song. Be ready and know what song you will do. Again, being unprepared will screw you in the end.
- If your contract says you start at 8pm, that’s when you start. No exceptions. If you start late, you only get to play less.
- Once your set starts, be patient. The sound tech has many channels of sound to adjust in a short amount of time. Waving your arms around and yelling into the mic saying you “need more monitor” will make you look foolish. For me, I’ll always make sure the audience mix is generally good before I start worrying about the band’s monitor mix. The same goes for what I’ll call the “traveling band family” (wives, girlfriends, roadies) running up to the soundman during the first song complaining that he or she can’t hear the rhythm guitar. From a soundman’s perspective, it will take several songs to get the band “dialed-in” to his liking, with minor adjustments being made through the evening.
- A few tips for musicians. Vocalists – Bringing your own mic or wireless mic system is fine but don’t expect the sound crew to set it up or know how to use it. Don’t cup the mic head like a rapper. It sounds like crap and will likely cause feedback. Drummers – Don’t get pissed if the soundman can’t put mics on every one of your double-base, 10-piece kit. Often mixer channels are limited, so be ready to make concessions. Guitar Players – Keep the stage volume reasonable! Bass & Keyboardists – not too many issues arise with these instruments, however volume level inconsistencies can be difficult for the sound man when trying to control a keyboard’s patches and varying settings from song to song.
- Guest appearances are often frowned upon or simply not allowed. The festival organizers only booked the band and the audience came to see only the musicians. Nobody wants to see “my buddy sing Free Bird” or my daughter take the stage singing an out-of-tune version of Landslide. It’s unprofessional and makes everyone look cheesy. And I almost forgot, if you bring your kids to the gig, keep them off the stage! They can get in the way of our work and potentially get themselves hurt.
- Keep the beers off the PA gear. If you’re dumb enough to use your guitar amp as a coffee table, that’s your business. But you’d hate to have to pay for a new PA amplifier because your drink spilled on the amp rack.
- Now that your show has ended and the audience is clapping, give a look to the soundman for approval for an encore. Time may not allow it. Your continuing to play only interferes with the next band’s ability to be ready for their performance. If you ignore the soundman or fest organizer and play another tune when they said stop, they can easily turn down the PA. Problem solved.
- In a festival or multi-band setting, it is critical to clear the stage when you are done with your performance. It’s easy to want to rest when it’s 95 out. But, like you, the next band has to setup and is waiting for you to remove your gear. You can talk to your friends and family or get that hot chick’s phone number after you’ve torn down and cleared the stage. If she can’t wait, she’s probably not worth it.
- Take inventory. By this I mean do you have all the gear you arrived with? Often, in the frenzy of a stage turn, it can be easy to forget, lose or miss something. I can’t begin to tell you how many guitar and cymbal stands, cables and effects pedals I have acquired through the years from musicians leaving them behind.
This has been a quick snap-shot of some rules of the road for bands at a festival or a multi-act gig. It’s fast passed and a lot of fun but can be very frustrating without a little planning, communication and respect. I’ve been on both sides of this. As a musician, my goals were a great performance and to get paid but also to get booked for the same gig next year.
For years, people have joked and have often dreaded working with stubborn and grumpy sound crew members with attitude. From the crew’s perspective, they have become this way from having to deal with ego-driven, disrespectful musicians. But don’t be apprehensive. Most sound company personnel are great to work with and will go out of their way to make your show a success.