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Top tips: surviving in the world of live sound

Shure’s James Allen offers invaluable advice on ensuring live events run smoothly.

Summer is upon us, and with it the possibility of special events, ranging from company picnics and church events to outdoor holiday celebrations and music festivals. Inevitably, that means live sound reinforcement outside the controlled environment of corporate AV.

Audio for live events may be outside the comfort zone of some AV professionals. Fortunately, the same knowledge and expertise you apply to your daily corporate gig makes you well equipped to survive and thrive in the world of live sound.

1. Advancing the event: In the world of touring, I learned that the best way to avoid problems when rolling into a new venue is to have everything arranged and agreed upon well in advance. That process involves talking to every vendor and performer, determining their audio needs, and arranging for those needs to be accommodated.

You’ll need a budget, a timeline, and everyone’s contact info, starting with the promoter and venue. Call them and learn all you can: size of the space and expected attendance, whether the PA system will be flown or ground-stacked, and what type of power is provided.

Contact all performers and request their input lists and stage plots. Find out if they carry wireless and get the details so you can coordinate frequencies. The artist rider informs your staging and PA needs, including how many inputs need to be accommodated.

If possible, do an on-site inspection in advance. You’ll want to eyeball where the speakers will go and where the mix positions are, especially in temporary outdoor venues. Bring a spectrum analyser to learn the local wireless landscape. Use a laser disto to confirm distances.

2. Best practices (technology): Live sound is very digital these days, and with good reason.

Audio networking: Many local sound companies have networkable systems, which can save a lot of time and reduce cabling. Also, most digital consoles offer offline software that allows advance programming of channel assignments, levels, and DSP. This can really streamline set-up and set changes.

Wireless: Be aware of and follow any legal requirements, including licensing and frequency restrictions. Use frequency coordination software to ensure everything will work together. Use war-gaming to test the system. Before the event, physically walk the performance area with transmitters to identify and correct any dead spots. Be aware of interference sources, and make sure that any systems not in use are powered down.

Volume: Be sure to determine what the client is looking for. It’s also important to know and obey any local noise ordinances. Always keep a calibrated SPL meter fired up at FOH.

3. Redundancy for all! Live events are problematic due to their real-time nature. A second take and fixing things in post-production are not possible. So what’s the best way to avoid disaster? Having back-ups for everything.

Many consoles support multiple power supplies and dual Dante networked audio paths. Use them! Uninterruptible power supplies, spare copper snakes and Cat5/Cat6 cables should also be on hand.

4. Tools: Combining equipment from rental sound, multiple bands, and perhaps your own gear inevitably results in random problems. Your best defence is to assemble a tool kit. A good starting point includes a quality multi-tool, flashlight (or my preference, a headlamp), and sharpie markers. In addition to common tools, here are some problem solvers in my workbox:

Adapters: XLR and 6.35mm turnarounds, couplers, 6.35mm to XLR, isolation transformers, ground lift, and y-split cables

Meters: Spectrum Analyser, SPL meter, laser disto, digital multi-meter for electrical

Also: PVC and Gaffer’s tape, cable tester, soldering kit, spare batteries, headphones… You get the idea.

5. Weather conditions: The great outdoors are a constant source of…weather. Rain, wind, and sun all bring problems. Anything loose should be taped down against wind. Any gear left outside overnight must be covered.

To protect electronics, invest in some 6-mil clear plastic sheeting, available in 100-foot rolls at any building supply warehouse (most common brand name is Visqueen). Cut to size and cover everything important, then drape the plastic over the side. If bad weather hits, just pull it back over the gear and you’re protected.

Direct sunlight can also be an issue. Digital consoles and amplifiers get extremely hot in direct sun, so try to provide shade and plenty of ventilation. Consider a tent or canopy (sufficiently weighted against the wind!) for the FOH and other production areas.

6. Be professional: Dress appropriately, don’t drink alcohol while working, and when something goes wrong, don’t panic! Trust me, doing these things pays dividends!

Professionalism also means taking care of yourself. Bring hydration and snacks. Wear sturdy yet comfy footwear. Use hearing protection. Keep your phone charged, and bring sunscreen. Every little thing counts.

This article is really about being prepared. Advance the event, know what to expect, and be ready. On site, get to know the production manager and the other trades (lighting, staging, video) you’ll be working with, plus the contacts for each artist. You’re all in this together. Cooperation and communication go a long way toward making live events successful.