Onsite tips about proper prep and common sense to help save your rear end.
Goldline’s GL1K microphone input testing device.
EVERYONE HAS A FAVORITE horror story about gigs gone wrong, memories that continue to elicit shivers years after the fact. You know the nightmare: the intermittent cable that everyone thought they checked; ground loops and other audio hash that appear out of nowhere; microphones that disappear after an otherwise perfect show; and so on. While some of these incidents can be filed under the “just plain weird” heading, most could have been avoided by some basic prep work and common sense. Following are a few tips and tricks that might make your gig bag a little heavier, but your life a lot easier.
Tip 1: Inclement Weather
In some cases the show must go on, even if that means working in the rain. George Petersen, an industry veteran, periodic SRO contributor, and editor of SRO's sister publication, Mix magazine, suggests a simple — yet, often forgotten — preventative measure: Carry plastic bags in your equipment bag. Believe it or not, the thin plastic does not destroy the signal, and it actually sounds pretty decent. If you don't believe us, run a test in your studio or during a sound check at a gig. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
Tip 2: Those Pesky Connectors
Many, if not most, failures can be attributed to poor connectors and not the cable they're wired with. In the end, a cheap connector is no bargain, so don't skimp in this area.
Also, major problems frequently crop up when you try to interface consumer equipment with professional setups. In particular, RCA and 1/8in. ports are particularly vulnerable when connected to heavy adapters. Remember that the weight of some professional adapters can be too much for the jack to bear, and therefore, the solder points inside equipment like portable CD players and laptop computers can be damaged. For this reason, purchase and keep appropriate breakout cables in your gig bag. These smaller items can be lifesavers.
Tip 3: Testing
Companies like Whirlwind, Neutrik, GTC, and Goldline all make cable testers that are useful in a pinch. Whirlwind's Tester, for example, is available for less than $50, features connectors for RCA, XLR, and 1/4in. standard, and tests most cable for shorts, opens, and polarity reverse. Its hands-free design also allows manipulation of the cable to locate intermittents.
Goldline's GL-1K, also available for less than $50, features an XLR male connector with a built-in 1K tone generator that is triggered when it detects phantom power. This is particularly useful when used as a line identifier for cables within a snake.
Tip 4: Don't Dress Before You Test
Don't dress too soon — your cables, that is. Make sure everything is working up to par first. There is nothing like duct-taping a 50ft. snake only to find that one cable doesn't work or it's the wrong cable to begin with. Though this sounds pretty basic, this issue routinely bothers otherwise well-prepared audio crews.
Tip 5: Powerless?
Of course, some problems trace back to your power outlet. For around $5.99, you can pick up an AC outlet analyzer from Radio Shack. This low-cost tool will tell you instantly not only if the outlet works, but also if it is wired properly to begin with.
Tip 6: Media for All Seasons
Always carry test media with you to jobs. Keep familiar reference CDs for testing the system as well as for walk music. These days, laptops serve as multipurpose A/V test sources, be it for outputting audio or for testing a PowerPoint presentation. Ditto for DVD players, which let you test image, as well as sound.
Speaking of DVD players, here's a suggestion: If you can isolate the center channel's mono dialog feed off the 5.1 outputs of a DVD player, you can use it to judge speech intelligibility.
The Whirlwind Tester can check most cables for shorts, opens, and polarity reverse problems.
For all-around test media, you might want to consider the Mix Reference Disc (currently $19.95 on the Web, and available through www.artistpro.com), created in partnership with Mix magazine. This audio CD disc is useful for a variety of tasks, including audio gear calibration, diagnostics for troubleshooting, and testing system performance.
Tip 7: Make Copies
Although it sounds glaringly obvious, nearly every sound person, at some point, makes the mistake of failing to back up crucial discs. Therefore, duplicate all discs. Nothing is quite as frustrating as reaching into your gig bag and suddenly realizing your test CD is still sitting in a sound booth somewhere in Idaho.
Tip 8: Music to Walk By
Often taken for granted, so-called “walk music” helps set the mood for the audience at major events. Often, instrumental music for this purpose is less intrusive than music driven by vocals. There are some notable exceptions, of course, such as Donald Fagan's “Nightfly,” which was an industry favorite years ago for both walk music and for testing systems.
George Petersen still recommends George Benson's “Breezin” and the New Glenn Miller Orchestra's “In a Digital Mood” as two favorites. Whatever you choose, make sure it is appropriate for your event.
Tip 9: Battery Issues
The industry these days seems to embrace the option of going wireless — even in cases where there is no particular reason to do so. With wireless, though, comes a variety of issues to consider, including the issue of battery power.
Many techs routinely forget to change batteries before gigs, and then they experience that sinking feeling a while later when the mic cuts out in the middle of a client's presentation. Therefore, change batteries at every intermission or break, whether they need it or not. Being thorough here will help ensure that you get hired again.
Speaking of batteries, remember that there is currently no industry standard size for 9V batteries — not all heights are the same for those batteries. Therefore, be careful about which battery brand you select, and then if it works well, always stick with that brand for your system. In cases where the battery is too long, you can strain your equipment and possibly damage connections. When the battery is too short, it might fail to make contact with the spring clip.
Tip 10: Preventing Theft
The key to dealing with equipment theft is deterrence. This could be as simple as walking across the stage and removing mics from stands as soon as a gig is over, or finding a secure way to lock or store gear while you are working at another location onsite. Think about your gear's environment in advance of the gig. You may still end up losing some gear over the course of several jobs, but such losses shouldn't occur because of a lack of diligence on your part.
As to specific mics, keep in mind that Shure's Beta 57, Beta 58, Beta 52, Beta 56, 545, 565, and SM58S (the switched version of the SM58) microphones all have a threaded hold for a locking set-screw, which allows you to lock the mic to the XLR connector. In 1998, Shure discontinued putting holes in the standard SM57s and SM58s, but there are tons of them out there that have the hole, which is a 4-40 thread. Making the right choices on such matters can save your inventory.
Also, in order to mitigate potential losses in situations where equipment security will be particularly complicated, keep in mind that lots of companies make inexpensive microphones that probably won't be stolen, but if they are, your financial losses will be minimal.
Industry manufacturers also make a wide range of other security-related devices for audio equipment. Axman, for instance, offers a 2-, 3-, and 4-rackspace locking drawer, available for around $80. It's great for storing laptops and other devices while you are busy wandering around the job site.
Still, if a laptop computer plays a particularly critical role in your day-to-day work, consider investing in two so that you will always have a backup computer.
Alex Artaud is a writer, sound engineer, and musician living in Oakland, Calif. Special thanks to George Petersen for his anecdotes and advice.