ProTips / Performing Live
Pro Tips for Performing Live
This is where we can share the collective experience and wisdom of those who have performed live with those who have not. There are no universal answers but this should be a good starting point to help you prepare…and then come back to share what you learned from your own experience.
Questions you should ask the host when arranging the performance:
You should always go to see the place and talk face to face with the manager or owner. Find out what (if any) PA system is there, and if there is a sound engineer, talk to him/her too. Find out how you will connect to the system - do you need a mixer? Where are the power outlets? Is there stage lighting, and who is in charge of it? How does monitoring work? Any special technical issues like use of projectors and smoke machines should be brought up as well (smoke machines can trigger the fire alarm).
If you are organising your first gig, there is always the question of money. Do you get paid, or do you on the other hand have to pay for a hire charge, will you get a part of the door money, is it break-even, etc etc. These are issues you should be entirely clear on before you go ahead with anything. Some places will let you bring a few bottles of drink in with you, others will be deeply offended if you do this. Do not assume anything. Also it is likely that your friends will ask you to be on the guest list so clear this one up as well if you are not in charge of the door.
Things you should always take with you:
Always bring more than you think you will need. Have extra cables and every possible type of conversion plug out there, all the extention cables you will need (extra long spares so you can reach power in difficult locations) and spare power adaptors. Gaffer tape and a flashlight, some kind of multitool are standard accesories. You may want a lamp if you are performing in low light. If you are planning on doing a lot of live performances, you should get pro cases for everything and also stands, as you can't rely on the venue to supply you with a proper table every time.
Even if you won't be using them during your set, bring headphones - closed back ones preferrably, the type that completely covers your ears. They are great for troubleshooting and checking mixes. You should also take a nice pair of earplugs - even if you don't trust them for your own set, you should avoid ear fatigue before you go on, if you happen to listen to other's sets before yours.
If you know how to use a multimeter and soldering iron, these may be handy as well. Also, anything that contains a hard disk can be sensitive to vibration, so having something that can dampen this and isolate it from bass frequencies is good. Last but not least bring backups of all your data if you can. Some people also recommend a UPS (uninterruptible power supply).
Also a word on lending stuff out: If you are performing as part of a lineup of multiple artists, there is a chance that you will be asked to lend some of your stuff. This could be a mixer or a cable converter. Never ever lend anything that you are not prepared to lose, because chances are high that you will lose it or that it will at least get damaged. Don't say that I didn't warn you.
What you should do when you arrive:
It is always better to be able to set up before the place opens for the night. If you are part of a lineup you may need to wait patiently while others sound check. Every place has its own ways of doing things, but often I find that the last act soundchecks first, and then everybody in reverse order of playing order, so that if you are the first act, you will sound check last. The type of PA system varies wildly from place to place, so to make sure that you are a bit in charge of the sound, you should have a mixer with a simple EQ (a DJ type mixer with 3 bands will do) just to make sure that the bass isn't overwhelming, for example. The more professional the place, the less you have to worry about things like that.
What you should not do when you arrive: start drinking. This is my opinion, but the higher the profile, the more seriously you should take it, i.e. not be drunk. So you might as well make a habit of it and not drink until you have finished your set. You owe it to your music if you take it seriously. It is a myth that a couple of drinks douses the nervosity before the gig; you do in fact need quite a few of them before it starts affecting your nervous system - which kinda defeats the purpose. In the end it's your choice. Nuff said.
What the sound engineer expects from you:
You should be as flexible as possible, being able to set up and sound check quickly. Keep things as simple as possible for yourself. Don't place too much faith in the sound check - it will sound different when the place fills up anyway. This is one of the important little experiences that you will learn early on as you start performing - it is always different on the night!
What you should expect from the sound engineer:
You should hopefully have some kind of monitoring on stage, but don't count on it. If you are experienced with doing live sets you should be able to do without in an emergency, but having headphones will save you here in a worst case scenario. A sound engineer will know the sound system and how to translate your expression to it. Or at least that's the ideal. Often things do not work out as imagined, and if so it will be nescessary for you to communicate clearly what you think is wrong. Keep any emotions out of it and remember that the things you worry about rarely even gets noticed by the audience anyway.
Playing live in front of an audience, no matter how small, is a very different experience from making music at home. The first time you go live can be a big culture shock, and to soften the blow you could do a few rehearsals in front of friends just to get a feel for it. You could also do a live performance on the radio here on electro-music.com where you will know people are listening but you don't have to drag your equipment out of the house to a venue for it. We have a few radio based events a year where many people come together and perform from their respective studios around the world. Just listening to these is very inspiring and could give you lots of ideas.
To make things as easy as possible for yourself, you should always set things up in the same way. Muscle memory is an important part of music performance, so use this to your advantage and have everything set up the same way as when you rehearse or perform at home. This includes having the mixer channels set up exactly the same as well. You should mark the channels but strictly speaking you should know what's on each channel without looking. Knowing your gear inside out is obviously a plus, so if you are constantly getting new things this won't do you a favour. Learning how to strike a balance between control and simplicity is a vital lesson you will learn as you go along. This will obviously be very different for every individual, and will probably also change as you get better at it.
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