Club Gigs – Bringing the Right Gear, Attitude, and Mindset for the Venue

Last week I gave out some etiquette pointers that will go a long way to giving a band a fighting chance at achieving some level of success and more importantly, the individual members will also do well to mind their manners when practicing and gigging, as such simple things like expressing gratitude and bathing really do matter.

One area that I mentioned was the advisory to not bring one’s ‘70s Arena Rock Band gear set up to the local club that has a capacity of maybe 50-70 people. There’s no need to move that much air or create the kind of sound level one would expect from a jet engine off a C5-A Galaxy military transport at full military throttle while on a test stand. So what’s reasonable for a small to medium sized club or private party?

Let's compare two bands in the same club on the same night. This is an analysis of what to do and what not to do in terms of gear and in terms of working with the FOH person.

we'll concentrate on the one not as obvious consequence, pissing off the individual working the club's sound system as the consequences from that faux pas are felt in that same evening and will haunt you and your band for a while if you are in a smallish geography with a limited number of clubs. Trust me, the FOH folks talk to each other.

First, “What Not to Do.”

The Opening Band

Some bands have one or two guitarists (or three if we’re talking a Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute band) and the necessity to keep the volume in check cannot be overstated here. I recall seeing a warm-up band for the headliner that I’ll refer to as the Dingleberry Brothers Band (not their real name) or DBB for short.

This hole-in-the-wall beer bar was small. How small was it? It could accommodate maybe 50 super model skinny people. The DBB showed up at load in and they had a drummer (DBB1), a bassist (DBB2), two guitar players (DBB3 &4) and a keyboardist (DBB5) who shared lead vocal duties with the bassist. I thought the stage was going to be a bit cramped with a five piece.

The Guitarist(s)

That was an understated thought as I’d ever had up to that point. DBB 3&4 proceeded to load in two full stacks, one Marshall and one Orange. Each head was all tube and 100 watts sitting atop its perch of two, 4x12” guitar cabs.

They did share a guitar boat between themselves and the bassist; it was parked off to the side of the stage and was guarded by a dude who looked like Mongo from the movie Blazing Saddles. DBB3 was stage left and DBB4 went stage right. They each had three or four pedals daisy-chained together on the floor and running on batteries. These two were ‘70s holdovers with ‘80s Superstrats and Les Pauls.

The Bassist

The bass player, DBB2, had a mid ‘70s Ampeg SVT head and the obligatory 8x10” refrigerator cabinet that Mongo had to lift on the stage. DBB2 was parked pretty close to DBB4 and his rig ended up behind DBB4 and equal with the drum throne. He had a wireless already to go and I wondered what the point was as he wasn’t going to move more than a step and a half in any direction as there was no room to give him three steps if he mimicked that movement for the obligatory Skynyrd cover that I hear played in these places.

The Drummer

DBB1 had managed to get his kit up on the rear of the stage first as he arrived before the rest of the band. Now he may have spoken to the manager or the FOH guy but I never saw that occur. He just showed up and started setting up gear.

It turns out that he was the brains of the operation, so I reckon he had done some recon beforehand and wasn’t just walking and setting up gear without a prior agreement or permission. That’s a major faux paus to not get clearance first. In any case, I think he had a slightly scaled down version of Alex Van Halen’s early ‘80s kit and yet he got it on that stage and set up before the bass cab moved in next door.

The Keyboardist

DBB5 was the last to set up his gear. It was a Roland 88 key stage synth on the stand and to his right another stand that was sporting two smaller boards (a 49 and a 25 key controller of some sort) and a 3 unit rack module. Under the smaller unit on the right, there was a keyboard amp. I don’t recall specifically what make or model, but it was the size of the contemporary Roland 880 and was as overpowered as everything else on the stage.

The Final Countdown

So here we have a five piece band on stage with absolutely no room to move on account of all the gear. DBB1 let the FOH guy know that it was time for him to start mic’ing up everyone and everything.

FOH guy took a look at the sonic Armageddon on the stage and politely informed DBB1 that the only mics he was planning on running was a simple four mic setup off the drums, the two vocal mics for DBB2 and DBB5 and a DI for the keyboard.

A bit of a tiff ensued and FOH guy finally got it through to the drummer that if the auditory assault was what he envisioned, then the clubs sound system would need all it had to make sure the vocals, the keys and drums would be able to keep up with the two guitar amps and the bass amp.

The Soundcheck

Everybody dialed in and the song they used was ironically enough, Autograph’s “Turn Up the Radio” and Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”. By the time FOH guy did his best to balance the drums, the keys and the vocals against the wall of string and fret amplification, the bar’s sound system was telling FOH guy, “Captain, Ah’m ah givin’ it all she’s got ahn I can’t giv’ya any moh.”

It was barely enough. I realized why the DBB5 had that overpowered keyboard amp. It was how he was able to hear his keys and his vocals over the rest (I figured out that he ran his SM58 vocal mic into keyboard amp before he sent it the feed to the board). DBB1, 2 & 5 had wedges so they could hear themselves in what approximated a mix.

FOH guy diplomatically asked them to turn down at least twice, but to no avail. I have no idea how DBB3 & 4 heard each other, but they managed. Still, the band could have been tighter and I know it was on account of the stage volume being over the top for even someone like Ted Nugent in his loin cloth days.

The Show

The club was packed and the DBB played two 45 minute sets. Having all those bodies packed in there in close proximity was a blessing as all that human flesh and bone took maybe 15 dB out of the assault. Still, it was the crappiest sound in a club that I’ve heard in over three and a half decades. When it was over (it reaffirmed for me that there is a merciful God in Heaven), the DBB was reasonably quick and efficient at getting their gear out of the way for the headliner to set up.

DBB3 had the temerity to complain to FOH guy that the mix was horrible and that maybe FOH guy should hang up his headphones and go sell used cars. Apparently a “friend” of the band had reported that the mix made the DBB sound really bad.

The truth is that DBB made themselves sound bad by not having the right tools for the job and not being the least bit flexible with the multiple suggestions to turn down. FOH guy showed incredible restraint and did not take certain steps that would have ensured DBB3 walked out of the club with his zebra striped, pointy head-stocked, Jackson Superstrat hanging out of his prison wallet.

Second, "What TO Do."

The Headliner

The headliner aka Commensurate Professionals (also not their real name) or CP was a four piece. CP1, was the head honcho and the drummer also. CP2 was his guitarist, CP3 the bassist and CP4 played keys or rhythm guitar, depending on the song.

All four had vocal mics and except the drummer, they were all using Shure SM58’s. While the DBB looked to be about 35-40 as an average age, CP1 and his band were a bit younger than my age at the time; they appeared to be in their early to mid-twenties.

The Guitarist(s)

CP2 and CP4 both had 15-20 watt, all tube, combo guitar amps with 12” speakers. CP2 played what looked like an early ‘70s Gibson Les Paul through a Black Face Fender Deluxe and CP4 had what looked like a mid ‘70s Ibanez, double cut-away SG175 (like Santana played) through a Vox AC15 for his guitar songs.

CP2 also had a modestly appointed rack case under his amp and had his amp tipped up towards his shoulders. The rack gear was controlled by what looked like a custom built MIDI foot controller (ubiquitous and factory built now). CP4 had a similar set up, complete with the tipped up amp. Both amps were mic’d with the trusty Shure SM57.

The Bassist

CP3 had a smallish Ampeg Combo with a 15” speaker. It wasn’t a B15, but of more modern manufacture at the time. She played a Fender Jazz Bass through it and had a set of the chromed sheet metal tilt-back legs on it so as to point the output at her head. It too was mic’d with a Shure “bullet” mic of some sort that one is used to seeing to mic the bass drum in a kit. I need to add, that in her vocalist duties, she helped with harmonies and had a couple of duets that she sang with CP1.

The Drummer

CP1 had a modest 4 piece drum kit a la Ringo Starr. FOH Guy mic’d the kick, the snare, the high hat, and both toms; there were a pair of condenser mics, each on its own boom and overhead to capture the cymbals. The classic seven mic drum set up. CP1, being the lead vocalist also had some sort of headset mic. As I was extremely green still at this time, I can’t recall what it was, but it allowed him to move around and sing while he played, not having to keep his head locked in one position to sing.

The Keyboardist

CP4 had a Yamaha DX7 and ran DI, getting what he needed through the stage wedge when he was not engaged in his rhythm guitar duties.

The Final Countdown

Everyone was set up and good to go in 10 to 15 minutes. FOH guy already knew how he’d run the mics and he took maybe 5 minutes to set up with the help of each member positioning their mics for instruments as desired while FOH guy ran the cables back to the buss.

When he got to CP1 and his drums, he was pleasantly surprised that CP1 already had everything in place and all FOH guy had to do was plug in the seven cables to their appropriate channels. He quickly did a once over on the positioning that CP1 had done and was satisfied. To note also, in order to manage the stage volume, the amps were all tilted up and pointed where their ears would be able to pick up the majority of the output. Another smart and pro move for a club or bar act.

Hint: Only do this if you really know what you’re doing and your FOH person is cool with it. Some can be territorial. Some appreciate the help, especially if they can see that you know what you’re doing and they know beforehand that you’re willing to do so.

The Soundcheck

The soundcheck was smooth. Jackson Browne’s “For A Rocker”. Everything was dialed in to the band’s satisfaction before the end of the song. The band could hear what they needed to hear.

In reality, the stage volumes were so low, that the PA was the primary conveyor of what was heard in the club. FOH guy was quickly able to mix what he needed to from each vocal mic and from the various instruments. CP4 switched from keys to his guitar for the last third of the song, so even that was good to go.

The Show

They started off with The Cars "Shake it Up" and as cramped as it was, the crowd was doing their best to dance and move. The sound quality was crisp and clear, not too loud, but loud enough that the music could be felt.

The vocals were crisp and clear, the instruments sat in their respective places in the mix and were clearly distinguishable instead of being the ear splitting cacophony of mud, smear and grating brittleness that was representative of the low end, mids and highs from the previous band.

The band introduced themselves briefly and they thanked the crowd, they offered some recognition to the DBB even though it wasn't really deserved, but they realize that this is de rigueur and as professionals, they acted accordingly.

They had more than enough room on the small stage to move around and groove as they played. I realized that had they been a five piece, because of the paucity of real estate taken up by their gear, there would have been plenty of room.

FOH guy rode the faders for guitar solos and a couple of bass solos. There was more than enough "head room" in the overall mix that allowed him to make the individual performer shine when there was a solo. Again, while FOH guy was doing his job, the CP band made that part easy for him by bringing gear that sat really well in that small room.

In fact, as I'd learn later on, that gear would have served well in any venue with an adequate PA. Even in the '80s, PA gear had gotten pretty powerful and sophisticated, running at a price point that would allow the average venue to be able to provide the right gear for the venue's size. This wasn't true in the 60's and a good part of the '70s, where I think the DBB was still stuck.

CP played two 60 minute sets with a 15 minute break in between where CP1 and CP3 went and worked the merch table of T-shirts and cassette tapes. This was the first merch table I'd seen in a club/bar before. They talked with the crowd and had a sheet where people could list a name and address and once a quarter, CP's fan-oriented, band newsletter went out via snail mail.

Almost to the second, they excused themselves, with the promise that they'd be back after the last set if anyone wanted to purchase anything or visit for a few minutes. The second set opened with The Scorpions "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and they really rocked it. That second set was as solid and tight as the first and seemed to be over almost as soon as it started.

CP3 and CP4 were at the table this time doing as before. CP1 took care of business with the manager and CP2 along with two other folks I'd not noticed before broke down all the gear and loaded out. I guess they were friends, family, part time roadies...all the above?

Then CP1 came over and thanked FOH guy and me. CP1 was grateful for the stellar sound presentation, as CP1 one had received feedback from friends of his in the crowd that they sounded great. He told us that after speaking briefly with the manager (when I saw him taking care of business) they apparently would be back every week for the rest of the year and that filled their schedule up to five nights a week playing paying gigs.

The reason I was there that night is that FOH guy was a friend of mine, a mentor really, and I'd asked him if I could shadow him a few shows and see what he did as I wanted to learn more about doing live sound and he was cool, so long as I stayed out of the way and didn't touch anything. I was cool with that.

He was about 50 years old and I really respected him and his incredible knowledge base. Sadly, he passed on about ten years ago. Still, over the years we kept in contact and I took a few opportunities to remind him how grateful I was that he'd kind of taken me under his wing and taught me the basics. That was the foundation of my FOH knowledge and it's been built on layer after layer since.

The Aftermath

CP left and as I helped FOH guy put away mic and speaker cables and stow mic stands, he commented to me, with a few well-chosen profane epithets, that the DBB was his nightmare scenario.

After the number of years that they had been playing, they should know better than to bring large club or outdoor gear to a small club like this and have any expectation that it would sound any other way than it did. He commented to me that the CP band was a pleasure to work with because they came with the right tools for the job and that allowed him to do his job to the limits of the club's equipment.

He added, noting the age differences of the two bands' members, that "someone must have raised those kids right". They obviously had a mentor somewhere early on that pointed these nuances out, like having good manners with the crowd, the venue owner and with the sound people especially. By not making the FOH job impossible with overpowered gear or by playing too loudly, the mix practically dialed itself in.

See it wasn't the quality of the gear that DBB brought. The gear was top of the line for the day (and still is really) and yet it was the quantity factor. Not only were they each pinned to one spot because the gear took up most of the room, it was way too loud for the size venue.

My mentor and friend FOH guy being criticized for not knowing his job or for the venue having inadequate equipment was out of line. Even in my early years of understanding venue sound management. I recognized that there are limits placed by the laws of physics that no one, no matter how skilled and no sound system, no matter how powerful, sophisticated and capable, can overcome the result of poor planning and bad manners by a band of uncooperative musicians.

Suffice it to say that I never heard or saw any more of the DBB in my region. The CP band however, grew in their regional popularity and then a couple of years later broke up. That was sad and I don't know the reason, although I heard rumors that two of the members were romantically involved and due to a nasty breakup, could no longer work together.

The good news is that they all went on to bigger and better things from what I was told. Two of them the reader has possibly heard of by name and the other two, well the reader has definitely heard them, as both became first call session players in Nashville from what I understand.

A Few Extra Pointers and Le Fin

The moral of the story is don't come over gunned for the gig. With this being the era of the lunchbox amp, and some rather toneful, affordable units out there along with decent 1x12" and 2x12" cabs for guitar and similar 1x12" and 2x10" bass cabs, there is no reason to bring the fire breathing monsters to these small venues.

If that's all one has, there are some attenuators out there that can be had for a couple of hundred bucks. I know attenuators are a controversial subject, but the trick is to not run your amp full bore. Just dial it up enough to get a passably decent tone and drive the front end with a pedal. The attenuator will keep your stage volume manageable.

Some FOH folks will even give you tips on getting a decent tone with a pedal and your current rig with no attenuator. It's to their benefit to do so if you think about it. Same goes for the elaborate drum kits and the multiple stands of keyboards. A four or five piece kit with a crash and ride is more than enough. One 88 key or even a 61 key should be adequate for a small club gig.

If the FOH person asks you to turn it down, just suck it up and do it. It's really to your benefit. They aren't part of some neopuritanical conspiracy that's infiltrated the local music scene and are hell-bent on keeping anyone from having some R&R fun. Really. They want to deliver the best mix possible and 120 dB stage volumes really interfere with that kind of thing. If you can't hear yourself or a bandmate, they can always dial what you need up in the monitors.

If you use wireless, In-the-Ear Monitors, let the FOH person know way in advance. Most have encountered them before and know how to integrate your system into their board. The only exception is if one is playing a bar in some place like Battle Mountain, Nevada (If one is traversing the state of Nevada on Interstate 80, it is the small town that has the town initials emblazoned on a small mountain next to the town in the huge white letters "BM" and it's visible for miles...I bet they have an abundance of restrooms there too) or the bar has a board that was new when Bush was President...I'm referring to George H.W. and not George W.

Any special needs should be brought to the FOH person's attention well before the first downbeat. Be courteous. Be kind and accommodating and show your gratitude. Offer to help. The person behind the board can break your show if they are annoyed or downright pissed off with you.

I'm not talking about having to chap one's lips on their rear end. I'm just talking about the basic courtesies that one should utilize in everyday life. Remember, if you're playing in this small bar or club, it's either that you're starting out or it's because you're a has-been going down in flames or trying to resurrect a dead career. In any of those cases, leave the ego and diva attitudes at home.

You don't have the ability to cash the checks that those obnoxious qualities tend to write when you're working with others. Besides, why write them in the first place. I bet you put your trousers on just like everyone else.

Humility and courtesy go a long way to getting what most desire in this world. If you don't believe me, do a little research on the late Riley B. King, aka BB King. In the meantime, make friends and not enemies and be sure the FOH person at the venue is near the top of your list.

-Kirk Bolas - MU Columnist
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