Max Valldeneu photo by: Roman Sobus

There’s more music industry gear available today than at any other time in history. If you’re a music performer on stage, a producer in a home studio, or a live sound tech (or any job for that matter) we all decide which gear to use. With nearly infinite choices of instruments, cables, speakers, amps, monitors and microphones, most will use experience, research and recommendations to make decisions. However, it’s not what gear you use, but why you use it that matters. Here’s two scenarios from small live music clubs. These illustrate three points about gear: every gig is different (adaptation), prepare for the worst (Murphy’s Law) and just saying “no” to gear lust (and saying “yes” to your skills).

Scenario One: Overloaded
I walk into the venue and the touring band is already loaded in. Kudos to them for being early. They also have all their own mics, cables, mixing board and snake. They’ve set up the stage and mics, including a generous array of drum mics including overhead mics. They’ve even run their snake from the stage to FOH! They inform me they are giving me two XLR’s (their main outs) to feed into the house system. Normally, this is to be avoided as the house can’t control the signal, but I determine it’s a safe bet they know what they are doing; we run with it.

During soundcheck, the engineer achieves a mix with the drums, bass, guitar, keyboards that fills the small club with a powerful sound. Then, vocals are added. Yet, we cannot hear the vocals as there’s no room in the mix. He chooses to start with the vocals in the house, and then mix around them.

This is a smart solution as live sound reinforcement in small clubs often forgets that instruments and amps are designed to be acoustic. They are LOUD: their real sound in the room, without mics, is often enough (or a very good start) for their sound in the mix. In this particular room, which is naturally boomy and natural reverb, I rarely use drum overheads as the sound carries quite freely.

In this scenario, it wasn’t accounted for how loud the room itself was, how loud the amps are naturally, and how the drum set needed very little extra in order to be heard. While there was plenty of gear on stage, frankly we didn’t need all of it. A larger venue may have needed it, but in this case, the real sound of the amps and drum set were amplified naturally by the room. No electricity required!

Up in the air: was it a waste of their time to set up mics we didn’t use?… each gig is different, know the venue. Plus, there’s a benefit to letting instruments be instruments. Lots of time, research and scientific testing went into not only creating a loud kick drum shell, but guitar and bass amps that howl loudly. These instruments can color a room and a mix even without live sound support (in a small club or recording studio). It could be argued that any mic adds color to the mix. Unless you are going for a specific sound created by a mic or a processing technique, let the instruments be heard as is!

Chances are, the drums and amps fill the room naturally already. Live sound gear can add support, but the natural sound in the room is eclipsing it.

Scenario Two: It Can’t Happen Here…
The sounds of The Mothers of Invention layering vocals on “Freak Out” album saying “it can’t happen here” is the soundtrack for this section. Very straightforward, as we’ve likely all been there: the one piece of gear you really do need, you don’t have. Or, it’s not on stage with you.

I recall one gig where I was going to go “old school” and tune by ear on stage. Yet, it was one of those days where I couldn’t tell B from G (okay, it wasn’t that bad, but when the audience is waiting, my ears were not Beethoven). There is a prevalence of clip-on tuners and step-on pedal tuners available today. This is far easier to use on stage than say, a tuning fork. I once asked my guitarist, who sports a long white beard, “what did people do in the 70’s, before these tuners?” and he joked, “they just played out of tune.”

While clearly this is just funny stage banter, what isn’t funny is…not being in tune. It’s a small thing, but I’ve decided to stop letting chance, providence and whether or not the Gods are smiling that day determine if my instrument is in tune for the gig. It might be overkill, but I use a clip-on tuner on the head stock of the guitar AND a step-on pedal tuner.

If there’s an aspect of your gig that absolutely must go off without a hitch, how can gear help? Gear is a great way to help thwart Murphy’s Law. Some gear that helps for most basic gig scenarios are: Philips head screwdriver, gaff tape, electrical tape, Sharpie, blank paper, masking tape, extra 1/4” cables which work, 9V batteries, small batteries for those clip-on tuners…make your own list and try bringing a “Music Gig First Aid Bag” to your next gig. It’s the little things that count!

Gear Lust
It’s possible that the amount of gear sold in the first world is greater than the amount of music sold; welcome to the new music industry. If artists aren’t asking you to buy their latest album, gear companies are asking you to buy their latest gear. While a beautiful musical instrument, amp, microphone, cable, speaker, interface or even a cool guitar pick can be an important part of your sound and inspiration, take a moment each week to practice on a crappy guitar and see what you really sound like. If you play another instrument, of course play that instrument and not a guitar. Or, play an instrument you don’t normally play. You will likely see places in your playing you need to work on.

Gear is wonderful but it can often hide our actual technique. Only without all the bells and whistles can we hear ourselves and what we need to work on. The same could be true for a sound engineer– mix at a small club on an old analog board and see what you can do. It’s all about being out of your comfort zone. If you normally play big rooms, stop in at an open mic at a dive bar, it’ll keep you honest. When we don’t have fancy gear to rely on, we have to go back to the basics: interacting with the audience, finding our musical voice, and experiencing what all of this gear is supposed to help with: the magic of music.

Next time you are heading to a gig and pondering what gear to bring, I hope this article helps you be ready to adapt to the situation you find, bring the necessary gear, and know when you need to rely on yourself rather than the gear. Go forth!

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Hannah Frank Biography
Hannah Frank is a freelance live audio technician with over twelve years experience, currently at Chicago venues Original Mothers and Uncommon Ground; also Publicist of Chicago Acoustic Underground Podcast and CAUDog Records. She also works with Strobe Recording Studio, 4Moore Studios and Command Performance. Hear her band at, @HannahFrankGrp. Catch their Album Release show at Martyr’s 4/27/16.