The purpose of this article is to explain the basics and also some of the finer points of professional conduct on the less glamorous side of being a musician. Namely, those less glamorous things include loading in to a venue, properly setting up and maintaining a stage for performance, soundchecking, loading out of a venue, and the etiquette that goes along with each of these tasks. 

Being able to do all of these things efficiently and politely is an often overlooked part of getting your band to the next level. Of course, you have to have your act together musically and performance-wise, but acting in a professional manner at all times is nearly as important. The staff at venues, from booking, to management, to bartenders, to security, and especially sound engineers, all have very difficult jobs.  If you can make their jobs easier by being pleasant to work with and knowing what it is that you’re doing, it will not go unnoticed. Most music scenes are very small and tightly knit, so if you can endear yourself to the staff and booker at one venue, word will get around, and it will be much, much easier for you to get gigs. Conversely, if you are difficult to work with and unprepared, bookings become much harder to come by.

 

The Basics: Load-in

 

The following is a list of simple things that you should do, and also a list of the things you should NEVER do.

 

ALWAYS

1. Show up on time for load in. No exceptions.

2. Introduce yourself to the sound engineer, and remember his or her name.

3. Ask the engineer how and when they would like you to set up. Always do what they ask.

4. Let the engineer know in advance if you need any special accommodations (weird instruments, samples, extra mics, effects, etc.). Try not to need any special accommodations.

5. Load your gear in quickly and efficiently, and stay out of everyone’s way as much as possible.

6. Say “please” and “thank you”. 

 

NEVER

1. Never show up late. Load-in time is load-in time for a reason, and being late will throw off the entire production staff.

2. Never be demanding.

3. Never argue with anyone on the production staff, about anything.

4. Never act like a rockstar, even if you are a rockstar (PS: You’re not a rockstar).

5. Never let your singer get out of loading in. Load-in is an all-hands-on-deck-affair. If your singer pulls the “It’s not my gear” line, find a new singer!

 

If you can follow these simple rules consistently, your load-ins will always be smooth and efficient.  Now, let’s talk about some of the finer points that will make your load-ins even smooooooooother…

 

 

The Finer Points: Load-in

 

1. Get a van or truck.  Having access to one vehicle that can hold all your gear simplifies everything TREMENDOUSLY.  It’s hard enough to get a decent load-in parking spot for one vehicle at most venues, much less multiple lil’ Hondas and Toyotas or whatever.  Having an appropriate band vehicle also sends a subliminal message to the staff that your band is professional and means business.  Buy one, borrow one, or rent one.

2. Have your gear organized.  Don’t come in hauling your gear like a hobo.  Have a single larger case or two smaller cases that contain all of your (neatly wrapped) cables and accessories.  Put casters on all your amps/cabinets so you can just roll them in. Drum cases usually aren’t necessary (and they also slow down load-in/load-out), but you should have a wheeled drum hardware case or bag, and also a cymbal bag (preferably wheeled as well). If you can afford it, get a small dolly/cart to roll in everything that doesn’t have wheels in a single trip.

spaghetti

 

3. Take up as little space as possible.  There are other bands loading in as well, and gear storage space is at a premium. After the sound engineer tells you where to put your stuff, organize it neatly so the other bands have room as well.  Everyone hates the band who gets in the way, so don’t forget that!

 

Setting Up the Stage for your Performance

 

We’ll go instrument by instrument in this section.  Knowing how to properly set up your equipment onstage will minimize mishaps, increase ergonomics, and make you sound better.

 

Guitar

 

1. Push your amp as far to the back of the stage as possible.You’ll hear yourself better, and you’ll be able to turn up slightly louder because you’re further away from the audience and engineer. Also, if your amp has tilt-back legs, use them to increase the benefits mentioned above.

2. Angle your amp slightly towards the other side of the stage. This allows your bandmates to hear you a little better, and keeps your amp from directly blasting the faces of the audience.

3. Loop your cable through your strap! If you learn one thing from this entire presentation, let it be this.  It’s so tragic to unplug yourself mid-song by steeping on your cable (or having your crazy singer step on your cable) when it’s COMPLETELY avoidable by doing this one simple thing.

4. Secure you cable at the amp. This is the amp side equivalent of looping your cable through your strap. You need to take every precaution to avoid getting unplugged! If you have a combo amp, you can loop the cable through the handle, or run the cable underneath the amp (this is my preferred method, as it looks cleaner and is more secure). If you have a head/cabinet, run the cable through the side handle of the cabinet, and under the front caster. 

5. Bring your own guitar stand/stands.  It’s super easy for your guitars to fall over, so let’s avoid that, shall we? J

6. Bring spares of EVERYTHING that can fail. Bring at least two guitars. It’s WAY faster to change guitars mid-song than it is to change strings! Other things to remember are spare picks, cables, tubes, fuses, strings, a strap, and anything else you can think of.

 

 

Bass

 

1. Always put your amp right next to the drums.  The drummer is your partner in the rhythm section, so get in there close!  Either side of the drummer is fine, but most bass players seem to prefer the hi-hat side. Like guitar amps, your bass amp should be as far to the back of the stage as possible.

2. Point your amp straight at the audience.  Bass frequencies are different than guitar frequencies, so straight on is your best bet to be heard equally by everyone onstage.

3. Loop your cable through your strap! If you learn one thing from this entire presentation, let it be this.  It’s so tragic to unplug yourself mid-song by steeping on your cable (or having your crazy singer step on your cable) when it’s COMPLETELY avoidable by doing this one simple thing.

4. Secure you cable at the amp. This is the amp side equivalent of looping your cable through your strap. You need to take every precaution to avoid getting unplugged! If you have a combo amp, you can loop the cable through the handle, or run the cable underneath the amp (this is my preferred method, as it looks cleaner and is more secure). If you have a head/cabinet, run the cable through the side handle of the cabinet, and under the front caster. 

5. Bring your own guitar stand/stands.  It’s super easy for your guitars to fall over, so let’s avoid that, shall we? J

6. Bring spares of EVERYTHING that can fail. Bring at least two guitars. It’s WAY faster to change guitars mid-song than it is to change strings! Other things to remember are spare picks, cables, tubes, fuses, strings, a strap, and anything else you can think of.

 

 

Keys

1. Always bring your own stand.I guarantee you, the venue won’t have one.

2. Bring your own cables.  6’ cables are ideal for keyboards. I also recommend having the end of the cable that goes into the keyboard have an angled plug if possible. That will reduce stress on the jack considerably, and reduce the chances of having a malfunction. Also, remember that venues virtually NEVER have extra ¼” cables available.

3. Bring a spare power supply.  Power supplies fail ALL THE TIME, so make sure you have an extra.

4. Bring an extension cord.  Power supplies usually have 6’ or 10’ cables, and sometimes that’s not long enough.  You never know where the power outlet is gonna be, so be prepared!

5. Bring your own direct box.  Direct boxes allow you to plug a ¼” cable into them, and allows the engineer to plug a mic cable into the other side to connect to the mixer.  Venues generally supply these, but they always seem to have issues. Better safe than sorry!

 

 

Vocals

1. Bring your own mic.  House mics are gross!!!

2. Bring a foam mic capsule cover.  Sometimes venues have REALLY sketchy power, and there is a possibility that the mic will shock you. If you’ve never had a 110 volt shock to your lips, well, I’m very happy for you and I would like you to keep it that way. The little foam cover will keep you from getting shocked if there is an issue.

3.  Help your bandmates bring their gear onstage. Don’t be a jerk. It’s the right thing to do!

 

 

Drums

1. Bring a drum rug.  Most venues have it taken care of, but you never know.  If possible, attach a short 2”x4” to the front with some big bolts and washers to prevent the kick drum from moving forward.

2.  Bring a drum key.  This should be a no-brainer, but we’re talking about drummers here. J

3.  Bring a bunch of sticks.  See above.

4. Make sure the spurs on your kick drum work.  It’s always a bummer when the kick drum starts sliding forward, so make sure your spurs function as intended.  That’s way better than having to put a cinder block in front of your bass drum. 

3.  Bring spares of EVERYTHING that can fail.  Always bring two snares and two kick pedals, and one extra hi-hat clutch.  These are the things that usually fail during a show.  Also bring extra cymbal felts, spare parts for your stands, extra snare cord/straps, extra tension rods, and some cardboard and gaff tape in case your kick drum head breaks.  I’ve seen this last suggestion save MANY shows.

 

 

Soundchecking

 

Soundchecking is a CRUCIAL part of ensuring that your performance comes off as seamlessly as possible.  Knowing how to do this task quickly and efficiently will also endear you to the sound engineer, which is always a good thing.

 

Once you have your equipment set up on the stage, the engineer will come up to mic everything.  Stay out of the way!  Once they have all the mics set up, be ready to soundcheck immediately.  The engineer will call each instrument one by one to do a LINE CHECK.  This ensures that sound from the mics is making it to the PA system.  As you are line checking, the engineer will first get the sound straight in the front of house speakers.  Once that is squared away, he or she will put your instrument into your monitor until you are satisfied with what you hear, then the rest of the band will be asked how much of your instrument they want in their own monitors.  Once this process is complete for everyone onstage, the engineer will have you play an excerpt from a song (NEVER play the same song you’re going to open the set with!) so he can fine tune the levels in the front of house speakers.  Listen to your monitor mix very closely during this time, and then ask for monitor leveladjustments to fine tuneyour onstage mix.  Once you’re onstage and playing, you can ask for adjustments after the first or second song as necessary.  After that, just work with what you’ve got.

 

A few important tips…

 

1. Never ask the crowd, “How does it sound out there”?  Sound engineers find this very insulting, as it subtly implies that you don’t trust them to put your mix together competently.

2.  Don’t be too picky or demanding.  Every club is different.  Some have great onstage sound, some don’t.  Follow the steps listed above to get a basic monitor mix, then deal with it.  Sometimes it’s great sometimes it’s not, and you need to be prepared for anything.

3. NEVER noodle while another instrument is soundchecking.

4. Never, EVER, get on the engineer’s bad side.  If you think it sounds bad when the engineer is doing their best, imagine how bad it will be if you make them angry! JSound engineers are a stereotypically cranky lot, so always be polite, efficient, professional, and accommodating.  It’s in your own best interest.

 

The order in which the instruments are soundchecked is generally drums, bass, keys, guitars, then vocals, so that is the order we’ll go in to list out the specifics for each instrument.

 

 

 

Drums

 

1. Always hit the drums as hard as you’ll hit them when you are actually playing.  For some reason, drummers tend to pitter-patter a lot during soundcheck, resulting in SUPER loud kicks and snares in the FOH mix.  Hit’em like you mean it!

2. When checking each part of the drum kit, do it with medium tempo quarter notes, and keep doing it until the engineer tells you to stop.  The order the set will be soundchecked is kick, snare, rack toms, floor tom, and finally the hi-hats.  You can go ahead and play something fancy when checking hi-hats because the engineer needs to hear if the mic is picking up the details. 

3.  When asked to play the whole kit, make sure you play a good mix of techniques.  Start with a straight beat for a few seconds, then work your way around the kit to see if anything sounds wonky.

 

 

Bass

 

1. Pick a good riff that involves a lot of eighth notes on the low E string.  That’s your lowest note, so play it a lot and play it hard so the engineer can adjust the levels and frequencies to optimize you in the mix. 

2.  If the engineer tells you to adjust your EQ or turn up or down, do it.  Always follow the engineer’s instructions. They are there to make you sound good!

 

 

Keys

 

1. Play a good mix of big chords and single note lines.  This lets the engineer really fine tune where you sit in the mix.

2. Cycle through a few of the sounds that you are going to use during the show.  This lets you double check that the levels on your patches are roughly equal in volume, with no weird volume drops or jumps.

 

 

Guitars

 

1. Play a good mix of big, open chords and palm muted chugs on the low E string.Don’t get too flashy and noodly up there. It’s annoying.  Just keep playing basic rhythm guitar stuff until the engineer has your sound dialed in.

2.  Check both your clean and distorted sounds.  They need to be balanced volume-wise.  Adjust each one as the engineer directs you.

3. When playing distorted, accentuate the midrange frequencies on your amp and pedals.  The midrange frequencies are where the voice of the guitar lives.  Occupying the sonic space that is intended for the guitar will help you sit perfectly in the mix, without the need for excessive volume.  Dial back the bass and treble a bit, as those frequencies just get eaten up by the bassguitar and cymbals, respectively.  You may find the tone a bit “boxy” by itself, but once the other instruments kick in, you’ll get the picture.

4.  If the engineer tells you to turn down, TURN DOWN. Guitarists for some reason always want to be the loudest thing onstage.  Excessive stage volume compromises the entire mix, so get a tone you can work with at the lowest possible volume, and then ask for what you need in the monitor mix.

 

 

Vocals

 

1.  Use proper mic technique.  Get very close to the mic (about one inch from your lips is ideal), and sing DIRECTLY into the top of the windscreen.  Vocal mics are very directional, so any change in distance or the angle that you sing into it can have DRASTIC effects on tone and output level.  Also, don’t cup the windscreen with your hand.  Admittedly, it looks pretty cool, but itmakes you sound like you’re singing in a cardboard box.

2.  Say “CHECK, CHECK, CHECK, CHECK” like a MILLION times. The “ch” at the beginning of “check” is called a plosive, which is any vocal sound that is created through a sharp output of breath. Plosives create sibilance, which is distortion of the miccapsule.  The engineer uses the info from this to adjust the levels and frequencies in the mix to keep that distortion from happening and messing up your beautiful vocal sound.  Keep saying it until the engineer tells you to stop.  You can say other stuff too, but “check” should always be your main thing.

 

 

 

 

Stage Management/Troubleshooting

 

Once the show starts, you still need to be cognizant of what’s going on around you to see if anything goes haywire, and you need to know what to do to fix any problems that occur quickly and efficiently in real time.  Sometimes there is a person in the wings that takes care of this stuff, but more often than not, everyone onstage is responsible for it.  Here are some helpful tips…

 

1. Periodically check mic positioning onstage, ESPECIALLY on guitar amps and kick drums.  As you move around onstage, sometimes mic stands get bumped.  Moving mics even slightly is big deal to the overall sound, so get them back in place as quickly as possible.  The de facto position for a guitar amp micis about halfway between the center of the cone and the edge of the cone, pointed straight at the grill cloth, anywhere from about an inch away to actually touching the grill cloth.  For kick drum mics, just make sure it stays inside the hole on the front kick drum head. 

2.  If something stops making noise, check the signal chain starting at your instrument and work your way back.  Always start with the volume knob on your guitar/bass/keyboard.  That fixes a LOT of situations.  Make sure you’re on the right pickup, thencheck your cables, power to any pedal, any direct box you might be using, your amp, any power strips, and the wall socket.  Above all, STAY CALM.  If you work methodically and calmly, you can usually identify and fix the issue quickly and jump back in.  THIS is why bring spares of EVERYTHING that can fail during a performance! 

3. Use gaff tape to secure any wires/cables that go from the front of the stage to the back of the stage.  There is NOTHING more embarrassing than tripping and falling on some random cable when you’re performing.  Take the proper precautions!!!

 

 

Load Out

 

After you are done performing, if there are bands after you, follow this one simple rule: GET THE HELL OFF THE STAGE.  Time is of the essence.  Grab your gear and hustle it off as quickly as humanly possible.  Be aware of the next band, as they will start moving gear onstage before you are completely finished, so maximize efficiency here by paying attention.  Follow these helpful tips… 

 

Load-Out Tips 

 

1. NEVER break down drums onstage.  This is the cardinal sin of cardinal sins.  Everyone will HATE you for it.  Everyone grab a piece of the drums and move offstage and out of the way of the next band.  This is a GREAT way for vocalists to make themselves useful. 

2. Pull up and dispose of all your gaff tape.  It’s just the right thing to do.

3. Once you are offstage, pack and stow your gear neatly.  Get it packed up and ready to go and out of the way.

4. If there are bands playing after you, DO NOT LEAVE.  This is unbelievably rude, and amateur bands seem to do it all the time. Professional bands NEVER do this.  No matter where you are on the bill, watch every band, and be conspicuous while you’re doing it.  Network with EVERYONE in EVERY BAND on the bill.  Other bands can get you gigs, and the band that opened for you today might be headlining somewhere else tomorrow.  BE A PRO, WATCH THE SHOW.

5.  Thank everyone on the venue staff, and try to lay the groundwork for a follow up gig.  If you put on a solid performance and acted professionally, the venue will be happy to have you back.  Also, always send a follow up thank you email to the booker for the great opportunity.

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