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Gigging Live On Stage: A Survival Guide

Live on stage gigYOU GOT A GIG! Congratulations! Gigs are where it all comes full circle. You’ve practiced hard, learned your parts, and the band sounds good. Now it’s time to go live on stage. What do you need? What can you expect? How do you handle problems? You will learn these answers over time—one way or another.

What Do I Need When Playing Live On Stage?

Let’s start with categories—

Category One: Instruments

Don’t forget to bring your instrument! That may sound stupid but I’ve seen it happen before, seriously! But even if it’s hard to forget, say, your guitar, it can be easy to forget your guitar stand, or tuner, or extra strings….see what I mean. Unless you have a vehicle or trailer that always has your gear stowed in it, you’re going to be hauling equipment back and forth from your home/studio to your gig. I learned this after forgetting items myself:

—MAKE A CHECKLIST!—

Go over your checklist when packing up to make sure you’ll be all set.

Category Two: Audio Gear

Most bands use their own audio amplification if the house venue doesn’t provide a PA. There are times when bands may need to hire someone to do the sound for them but until you can afford it, running a mixer and PA is something that a band playing live needs to multitask doing. If you are doing your own amplification you will need your:

  • Main PA speakers
  • Subwoofers
  • Stands
  • Mixer
  • Amplifiers (if used for speakers)
  • Monitor speakers
  • Cables that connect all components
  • Power cords

Live on stage mixerAdditionally, you will need to decide who is going to run the system while live on stage. Anyone can run it but here are some things to consider:

  • Who’s best at multitasking?
  • Who has the best ear for volume and tone?
  • Who’s closest to the mixer? (If powered, a mixer usually needs to be placed midway between the speakers due to cable length)
  • How high up can you place the mixer? (Never, ever put the mixer close to the floor. Bending over to make adjustments takes a player too much away from the concentration they need to keep while playing.)

In my band, I take care of the mixer for the band. I’m the drummer so the mixer doesn’t need to be too high since I’m sitting. I’m also in the middle between the speakers for the most part. When adjustments need to be made, I can play with one hand. So, for all those reasons, that setup works best for us. There are always other ways to arrange the setup. The important thing to remember is to designate beforehand the band member that is best suited to cover the mixer.

Category Three: Lighting

This area tends to be the most neglected part of a live on stage setup. Since it doesn’t contribute to the band’s sound or volume, many bands skip out on the lights. If you are playing an indoor gig, the venue may have lights already. Gig lighting for live on stageAdditionally, outdoor festival gigs may also have lighting rigs setup. However, this is not the norm. Chances are, especially starting out, you will be gigging places that barely have enough wall plugs let alone DJ lighting.

Invest in at least two stands and put either par can wash lights or LED lights on them. The main reason you want lights is that you want the crowd to SEE you! There’s also a magical effect that coloring your stage with light has on Live on stage led gig lightingpeople. The colors attract attention—which is something you want—and put people in the mood to dance or at least bop along.

Don’t forget extra black extension cords for the lights. Lights never come with long enough power cables.

Category Four: Accessories

This could be an endless category but there are some essentials that all bands should have on hand.

  1. Water
  2. Spare extension cords
  3. Spare power cables (most powered devices have the IEC style cord. Some call it a “D” cord since the end that plugs into the unit is shaped like the letter “D”)
  4. A plethora of mic cables of varying lengths. Also, have an assortment of interface types—XLR, 1/4″ mono and stereo, 3.5mm (also called 1/8″).
  5. Assortment of adapters—3 way outlet plugs, multi-strip outlets, 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapters
  6. Guitar stands
  7. Guitar headstock tuners (batteries die; have spare tuners. There’s no time to change batteries live)
  8. Drink holders
  9. Pick holders
  10. Covers for tablets or instrument panels (outside sunlight makes these hard to see)
  11. Extra microphone (what happens if one dies while live? Have a spare)
  12. Paper setlists with big font size (someone will always forget to put it on their device or print one out)
  13. Duck tape (or better yet, gaffe tape) – wind can be a problem. Tape stuff down. It’s also a good idea to tape down loose cables where there will be walking traffic.

What Can I Expect to Happen When Live On Stage?

Feedback.

Of all the things you will experience in a band playing live on stage, feedback will be your most common enemy. I will go more in depth on feedback in another post. But, generally, feedback comes from a speaker feeding sound into a microphone somewhere in the setup. That’s not the only way it happens though. Live on stage feedbackHigh-impedance instruments and FX pedals can be troublemakers. If they are blaring too much signal, that can be a source of feedback. If you have time before the start of the gig, you can “ring out” the audio setup by pushing individual levels to feedback and then pulling them back to stop it. Now the overall volume should be able to increase without much incident.

There is a whole science to preventing feedback if a person wants to get into it. A future post will explore what all musicians and bands can do to minimize this issue.

Player dropouts/wrong notes.

How a band recovers from an error is the true litmus test for how far along they are as a group. If you’re an okay musician but you can determine on the fly how to handle screw ups from other members, you’ll go far. Everybody messes up. Some do it more than others. Obviously, bands work to try to eliminate errors, but they will always happen.

Singers botch lyrics, lead guitar players extend solos, drummers drop sticks, players forget to change tunings: all these things happen and more. Where bands get into trouble is when a member only knows his part based on the cue/s from another player. If that second player messes up, the first will follow right off the cliff. Learn your part independent of the other musical elements. Use cues, of course, but don’t be dependent on them; know where you are and you will weather a mess up like a pro.

How Should the Band Set Up for Gigging Live On Stage?

Live on stage setup membersArrangements can vary but there is a customary way to set up when space allows. Generally, the drummer goes in the back, centered. If the drummer is the lead singer, the kit would be setup in the front of the stage. The lead singer goes front and center. The other members flank the sides. If you have more than four members, players will need to share space. Unless you have a wide stage or are playing on the ground, it’s good to stagger where players stand. You’re not just setting up your gig for your advantage, you’re also setting up to showcase your band to the audience. A good stage presence could get you your next gig.

What To Do When Problems Arise Live On Stage?

The ability to handle the pressure of problems assaulting a gig is very valuable. To be able to think under pressure is not something everyone can do. Even if a bandmate starts to freak out (maybe it’s even you), listen to the members that are keeping their cool. Someone will devise a solution. You can always call for a set break if you need to address something. If you have all the spares sited above, you can usually handle troubleshooting. If an instrument goes down (like keys), adjust your setlist and keep going.

Live on stage troubleshootIf something dire happens (like a power outage, or a member gets sick/injured) keep a sense of humor, engage the crowd and thank them for their patience. Even though a gig may fall apart (that’s rare), how you handle it will be what the crowd remembers. It may even get you some loyal followers out of pure respect if you can keep your cool when problems arise.

Have a Great Gig!

You’re going to have a great gig and you’re going to have fun doing it! The work you all invest in your music will show off once you play. If you’re mindful of what can and will go wrong—and if you prepare—you’ll be fine!

I’d love to see photos of your band gigging in the comments!

Jason

8 Comments

  1. Wow, thank you for this in depth guide. I really appreciate your understanding of confronting problems, setting up properly, and managing equipment. It really provided a well laid out plan for performing live. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I never realised that there was so much to organise to perform at a live gig. When people go to see one i don’t think that they really appreciate what goes on behind the scenes. You have given a really good check list for people to read through and i believe it will prove to be a major asset for anyone looking for advice.

  3. Hi Jason,

    Great post. I have a guitar and we used to do open mic days at a place called Kyneton here in Australia. Beautiful old town in the country. So can relate to the feedback issues.

    This is a great post with some excellent information on what to expect and how to handle things when they go wrong. And they always go wrong haha! Cheers,

    Kev

  4. This information was very helpful for me. Me and some friends of mine plan on starting a band soon. Even though we aren’t big stars or known in the community yet. It’s good to read up on things like this so when that time comes we’ll be ready and know how to handle the situation.

    • That’s awesome to hear! Keep driving at it and you’ll have a lot of fun along the way 😉

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