When I lived back East I gigged semi-regularly in a few mid-level cover bands that typically played in alcohol-serving establishments (i.e. in a bar band). We’d get paid anywhere between $400 and $800 a night depending on the venue and gig. Since professional sound would have been more than half of the take that had to be split several ways between members I ended up purchasing the equipment and running sound. Since I’m a fairly technicaly person this came naturally to me and I’ve since decided to write up the knowledge that I gained doing this in as succinct a manner as possible so that others might benefit… also because I sold all of my PA gear before I moved and don’t really feel like doing it anymore so I’m trying to cajole my bandmates into doing it instead if I’m being honest ;-P.
Be aware that this is not a comprehensive technical guide. I’m writing this late on a Thursday night because we have a gig this weekend and I’d like the other members of my ensemble to have good reference material to fall back on. This is meant as practical advice for dealing with lower-end prosumer audio equipment that a typical four to five-piece rock band will encounter; it assumes basic knowledge of audio equipment optimizes for ease of execution and cost before precision and excellence. Yes, you could buy a digital mixer and IEMs and a bunch of other stuff and take this to the Nth degree, but this is intended for people doing this as a hobby playing to a crowd of drinkers. I won’t go into a ton of theory or prognosticate on why or how things are or should be. This is meant to get a band out of the rehearsal space and making an acceptable quality of noise in front of people.
What you will need
Besides your instruments you’ll need a PA and all of the goodies that come with it. You can either buy or rent it; if you gig more than once a month it’d probably be a decent idea to shell out for the setup so that you own it.
The following setup will work for typical bar crowds (50-200 people). If a speaker gives a power rating without specifying type then assume that it’s peak. Although they’ve gotten better in recent years you should avoid anything Behringer because it’s cheap first and foremost. Ditto for Guitar Center house brands like Harbinger.
- 2 x 12" powered PA speakers with at least 1000W peak or 500W RMS power for mains. QSC K12 or K12.2, EV ELX112P or ELX200-12SP, or JBL PRX series are common choices. 15" speakers are serviceable but not preferred.
- Between 1 and 2 x 18" powered subwoofers with a built-in crossover
- Stands for the mains. You can either use two tripod stands or one tripod stand with a pole if the subwoofer(s) has a hole for one.
- Between 2 and 4 x 10" or 12" powered PA speakers with at least 500W peak or 250W power for floor monitors. One is for the drummer and the others are for stage front. More is better.
- A mixer with at least eight mic preamps (i.e. XLR inputs). Typical choices include the Yamaha MG series, Behringer Xenyx series, or Soundcraft Signature series. Any mixer of this size should have everything that you need in the way of accoutrements (aux faders, parametric EQ, etc).
- 12 x 20' XLR cables. You want more medium-length cables so that you can daisy chain them if needed.
- 3 x power strips with 3 prongs on the end with at least a medium-thick cable (so no green 40-year-old Christmas light extensions with a few two prong outlets on the end)
- 2 x 30' extension cords with 3 prongs on both ends and at least a medium-thick cable (see above)
- Gaffer and/or duct tape
If you need a generator and want absolute peace of mind then bring one that’ll handle 7000W continuous minimum for at least 6 hours.
Below are musician-specific items to bring.
- At least 2 x guitars. If something goes wrong or you pop a string then grab the second one - the show must go on and you shouldn’t stop the rest of the band just because you chose to play with rusty strings. If you play in more than one tuning then consider set the other guitar to that tuning so that you don’t have to stop the show to tune.
- A guitar rack or enough stands to hold all of your instruments. Cases take up valuable space on stage and leaning your guitar against somebody else’s gear (or putting it face-up on the floor in the middle of the stage… true story) is not a recipe for success.
- Some way of getting sound from your amp to the mixer:
- Consider using a direct solution like a Fractal/Line 6/Mooer unit. If you like you can usually set these units up to run into a real guitar cabinet while you get a cab-simulated output into the mixer.
- If your amp has a cabinet-simulated out then you can run it to the mixer. These usually don’t sound great though.
- Use a direct box that has a cabinet simulator built-in that goes between your guitar head/combo power section and the speaker. Common choices include the H&K RedBox, the ADA GCS series, and Two Notes products. Make sure that whatever you buy can handle the power section and isn’t just something that gets tacked onto the end of a pedalboard chain.
- You can mic your cab, but this is inconsistent and prone to feedback and bleed. The usual choice is an SM57 but this author finds the Sennheiser e609/906 to be a superior choice. A short mic stand or cab clamp is preferable but a boom mic works in a pinch.
- If you use a direct box or mic then make sure that your stage volume is set before you gain stage your mixer channel. Changing your stage volume after doing this will mess your mix up.
- Instrument-related miscellany like picks, a spare strap, the specific strap that goes with your strap lock on the guitars you’re bringing, batteries for active preamps, strings in case you pop one and have to change during a break, spare preamp/power tubes, etc.
- A spare direct rig if possible. The Mooer Mini Preamp series are great at this and are very affordable.
See the Guitarist section above. The only real change is that 90% of bass amps have a serviceable XLR output so you can probably just use that to get into the mixer.
- Some way of getting a sound out of the kick (choose one):
- A kick drum microphone like the Shure Beta 52A. A short mic stand or cab clamp is preferable but a boom mic works in a pinch.
- A kick drum trigger and trigger module like an Alesis DM series or Roland TM-2. You’ll also need a cable to get it to the mixer.
- A rug to put your kit on so that it doesn’t slide around the floor. At a minimum bring a cement block and stick it in front of the kick. If all else fails then put an amp there.
- Instrument-related stuff like a drum key, drum throne, spare sticks, etc.
Vocalist (lead or backup)
- A microphone (duh!). Shure SM58s are the most common choice but a more live music-oriented mic like the Shure Beta 58A or EV ND96 should be preferred for superior gain before feedback. If you’re a drummer consider getting a “Britney Spears” mic that’s on a headset. Put it on the same side as your hi-hats so that you pick up less noise from them.
- A mic stand. Boom stands are preferred. You’ll also need a clip that screws into. There are different standards for thread sizes so test this before you get to the show. If you forget to do so then use some tape to secure the mic and Goo-Gone it when you’re finished.
- Water, honey, and cough drops (Fisherman’s Friend) can help your voice in a pinch so you should bring some.
- You’ll want at least 10' x 10' of space for the band.
- Place the subwoofers together at stage front side that’s closest to the majority of the crowd. Don’t fall into the trap of placing subs apart for greater coverage as this is a myth.
- Put one of the PA speakers on top of the subs and the other on the other side. Make sure that the mains front of the band so that the mics that you’re singing into aren’t pointing at the speakers.
- Put one monitor stage front so that it’s pointing at the lead vocalist. If you have more then put one on the rear of the stage pointing sideways at the drummer then arrange the remaining ones stage front pointing at the other musicians.
- Place instrument amps on the periphery of the stage to the greatest extent possible so that they’re pointing at the musicians that need to hear them.
- Place the mixer near whoever will be using it the most. On top of one of the subs works in a pinch.
- If mic’ing a guitar amp then point the microphone towards where the cap of the speaker meets the cone at a 30 degree angle relative to the front plane of the cabinet. Use a flashlight or your phone to see through the grill if necessary.
- If mic’ing the kick drum then place the mic facing the edge of the resonant drum head and adjust to taste for tone. Do not put it in the drum head hole unless you like the sound of farting into a pillow.
Hooking things up
- Go from the main out on the mixer to the following pieces of equipment in a daisy-chain fashion in this order:
- Subwoofer 1
- Subwoofer 2 (if applicable)
- Whichever main is closest to the subs
- The farther-away main
- Go from the aux out of the mixer to the nearest monitor. Daisy-chain the remaining ones
- Hook power up to everything. A typical arrangement is to deploy one power strip to the subs and main, another for stage front and the other main, and another for the amps and drum monitor.
- Run cables for all of the instruments and vocals into the mixer. Use the lower-numbered channels with more features for the lead then backing vocalists in descending order of preference. A usual choice would be something like
- Lead vocals
- Backing vocals
- Backing vocals
- Bass guitar
- Electric guitar
- Electric guitar
- Kick Drum
- Try to run cables around the edge of the stage. If you must run a cable across the middle of the stage then tape it down.
To prepare the speakers do the following:
- Ensure that all EQ is off. If it has presets then set it to “Flat” or “Live” if the former isn’t an option.
- Set the gain/volume knob at unity/0 (if 0 is above negative infinity) and ensure that the input type is set to Line. If the levels aren’t clear then set the knob at 3/4 max.
- Disengage the crossover on the first subwoofer in the main chain, then engage it on the second
- Disengage the crossover/subwoofer button on the mains
To prepare the mixer do the following:
- Set the graphic or output EQ to be flat
- Ensure that all channels have the Pre-Fader Leveling (PFL) disengaged
- Turn down all faders
- Engage mute
For all mixer channels do the following:
- Set the equalizer flat and the gain knob all the way down
- Engage the low cut unless it’s for a kick drum or bass guitar
- Turn the compressor knob all the way down and disengage the limiter
- Ensure that the master and aux send buttons are engaged unless it’s for the kick drum (in which case you should disengage the aux send)
Now you’re ready to fire things up. Turn the mixer on, then turn on the speakers. Set the monitor/aux fader to about one-half. Sound check a single channel, set levels for the mains and monitors based on it, then do the rest of the instruments.
To sound check a channel do the following:
- Disengage mute and engage the PFL button
- Play the instrument the way that you would play it at a show. Don’t repeatedly shout “CHECK” into the mic - sing with your chest. If it’s an instrument then play it every conceivable way that you would during a song: stomp the hell out of the kick pedal, chug the guitar, engage your boost and meedly-meedly high up on neck, slap the bass, etc.
- Turn the gain knob up on the channel until the level indicator says you’re a few dB south of unity. If there’s no level indicator then go until the signal light is mostly-on and the clip light isn’t turning on at all, or turn it up until it clips then back it down until it stops. Do not touch the channel fader.
- Turn the aux/monitor knob up until you can comfortably hear yourself. Anticipate the drum levels and set accordingly.
- Turn the channel fader about halfway up.
- Disengage the PFL button
Once everything is sound-checked individually you can crank out a song. Turn up the master fader and play! Adjust individual master fader and monitor knobs as appropriate to tweak your sound. If something sounds truly gross then you can use EQ, but it should be a last resort.
What to do when things go wrong
Feedback is a very specific term. It does not mean “noise that you don’t like”. Feedback happens when a mic picks up its own sound coming out of the speakers then makes it louder and louder until it “runs away”. This usually sounds like a sinusoidal squeal that causes everybody to reflexively stick their fingers in their ears. If this happens then make sure that the mics are pointing away from any PA speakers or monitors (which should already be the case if you followed the above placement advice). Failing this you can try and EQ the specific feedback frequency out if you have graphic EQ on the mains or parametric EQ on the channels. As a last resort you can run the gain down and the level up but this is a dubiously-effective technique as the whole system is linear.
Noise or hum
Try engaging or disengaging the ground lift on the device that’s causing the problem (amp or mixer).
Vocals aren’t loud enough
Bump the high-mids (between 2.5 and 4K) on the channel or engage the limiter/compressor a bit.