How to perfect your live music set up

March 1, 2019

This is it. Your first headlining show. Sure, it might be a local bar with 70 people, but this is your time. The lights dim. The crowd cheers. You strike a pose. You go to hit that first note. Then, disaster. Pure, awkward silence. You stumble around and realise your pedals aren’t connected.

There is nothing more appealing to a venue than an efficient band who knows what they’re doing. You want to be the bedrock band that sets up swiftly, clearly, effectively, and then provides assistance to all the other amateurs who don’t know their ¼” TRS cables from their male and female XLRs. There are some easy ways to slicken your live music setup and, fortunately, you’re reading an article all about them.

Learn the process

There’s a method to pretty much everything and setting up for a gig is no different. If you can get to grips with the fundamentals, you’re set to rock. Sure, each venue may have some slight tweaks to their process, but the main points are there. For the sake of this post, we’ll presume that the venue has a regular stage setup and has an in-house engineer that keeps everything operating. Once you’ve loaded in, you need to turn on. By this, we mean you need to make sure everything is mic’d up properly. The usual routine for an engineer to check the instruments is as follows:

  • Kick

  • Snare

  • Toms (smallest to largest)

  • Cymbal mics / overheads (from stage right to stage left)

  • Bass

  • Guitars (from stage right to stage left)

  • Keyboards and anything else

  • Vocals (from stage right to stage left.

The order may have slight variations, but it’s fairly self-explanatory. This means you need to make sure the drums are set up first. Sure, you might be more concerned about your pedals being in the correct positions, but the engineer has a job to do and won’t slow down for your perfect tone. Assist your drummer in prepping their kit as screwing on five cymbals takes longer than plugging in a single tuning pedal for a bassist. Once the drums are set up and the mics are active, they can work with the engineer to find a level that works whilst you do your other bits.

Know how your gear works

While the engineer may be used to checking everything sounds just right in the generic sense, it’s up to you to recognise the specifics of your gear. You’re playing your own music, so only you can be sure that you’re getting the right tone out of the guitar and that all of your pedals are working correctly.

In the most basic sense, it’s important to understand the physical restraints of your kit. Make sure you’re aware of the cables you need and how long they are – you don’t want any nasty surprises when you realise your usual set up just isn’t logistically viable in the venue you’re playing. You should also practice assembling your equipment, you’re not Metallica just yet, so don’t think you can chill out in the green room while your roadies do all the work. Like an F1 pit crew, you want to be able to set up and pack away as quickly as possible.

Another solid way to ensure you can set up quickly – and make just about any venue fall in love with you – is by having all your settings ready and memorised before you set up. Okay, you may not have a photographic memory, but you probably do have a smartphone, so snap some photos of your pre-amps and pedals to ensure they’re exactly the same each time. In no time at all, you’ll have a set up process that’s neat, tidy and comes as second nature.

Fail to prepare: Prepare to fail

It shouldn’t need to be said, but it does. Make sure you actually know what your equipment does. It’s incredibly tempting to splash out on wireless units or a dozen pedals, but if you don’t know what they do it will slow you down. There are few things in this world more embarrassing than getting into a shouting match with a mixing engineer about why nothing is working to then realise one of your pedals was muted, unpowered, or even unplugged. Spend your time at band practice learning what your equipment does. Watch tutorials online. Get to know the tools of your trade.

You should also come in expecting the unexpected, whether you’re rocking the small-town live circuit or blowing up Wembley, you can’t just presume everything will go off without a hitch. It’s not uncommon for someone to forget a cable, to break a guitar string or for your drum kit to end up damaged in transit. Prepare for the worst and you’ll be covered in the unlikely event of something going wrong.

Of course, sometimes the venue might be at fault. A blown fuse on a PA system or simply playing a venue with outdated equipment can feel like the night is ruined. If possible, tackle the situation head-on, maybe try playing an acoustic set, whatever the case, the solution is to adapt and overcome.

From a less technical perspective, just make sure you know your positions when you’re playing live. Be aware of which guitarist is on stage left and stage right, decide where exactly your vocalist is going to stand and make sure you’re drummer doesn’t feel too left out at the back. This’ll allow you to put together a far tighter, more organised setup and make everything flow a little more smoothly. For bigger venues, it may also be a good idea to send a comprehensive diagram of your positions and equipment a week or so before you’re due to perform, allowing them to make sure everything is put together correctly on their end.

Still waiting to play the live show of your dreams? To secure a position on your favourite stage, you’ll need a killer demo. Why not book a session at Kore Studios and work with veteran producer George Apsion?