A few weeks ago, we wrote a blog about what you can do to sound great at your outdoor gigs. Not long after that, one of our esteemed colleagues played an open air punk rock festival and was duly beset with onstage problems of axe-smashing proportions (and he swears he reads this thing!). Said colleague managed to refrain from demolishing his guitar in fury, and the crowd remained unaware of the issues his band were facing throughout, so our question is: what happened, and how did the group manage to overcome their tonal demons on the day without it affecting their performance or the atmosphere?
To give a little background, the aforementioned festival took place in Trier, Germany, and there were five bands playing on the day, the headliners being a cult ska punk outfit from California who are most definitely not Sell Outs. Being July, the weather was expected to be fine, and the 1000-capacity show was taking place in a venue that’s actually part of a courtyard on a farm. This meant that although there were surrounding walls to the back and one side of the concert area, the rest was completely open to the elements. And possibly some cow dung.
With the show starting at about 5pm and a pre-midnight curfew, each band would have a fairly decent set length – at the expense of changeover time. As is often the case with such multi-band events, only the headliners were given the luxury of a full-length, mid-afternoon soundcheck, with everyone else having to make do with a barely adequate 15 minutes.
In practice, this amounted to the band rushing their gear onstage after the previous group had vacated the area, before performing a single line level check and launching straight into their set. Not ideal, then – particularly for a full-on ska band with two guitars, bass, drums, vocals and a brass section to think about – but expect to have to put up with situations like this yourself if you’re playing similar shows.
Of course, you can plan for certain eventualities in advance of such occasions. Our colleague had scoped out the terrain, and knew what he would be dealing with. He’s also played outdoor shows before, so had an inkling of what to expect. Consequently, he tuned his amp slightly for an outdoor setting – more mids, please! – and preprogrammed a few tonal settings he would need for various rhythm and lead sounds.
Our colleague also knew that the first few bands – his included – would be sharing some of the backline gear, including a guitar cab. This can be a practical arrangement in some ways, as it cuts down on gear a band has to carry, but as every guitarist knows, every cab is different – and every guitar, amp and cab react differently to one another. Our colleague was able to find out what the shared cab would be in advance, and adjusted a couple of his settings accordingly, but it would be a case of playing things very much by ear come the day of the gig.
After their line level check, then – during which the monitor engineer (who controls the sound the band hears onstage) and FOH engineer (who controls what the audience, or Front Of House, hears) offered no feedback whatsoever, just checked volume levels – the band blazed into their first song, and our colleague couldn’t hear a thing in his own monitor, least of all what he was playing himself. His amp and cab were too far away, and the monitor mix was non-existent.
A brief remonstration with the monitor engineer later resulted in a deafening sound coming from the monitor, before it promptly gave in and died in the 30°C/85°F heat of the late afternoon. So far, so bad, but the monitor engineer then inexplicably decided to route the six-string sound fully into the side-fill monitor on the left side of the stage, deafening the whole band’s collective left ear for the remainder of the show.
Despite the awful mixing going on, the band forged ahead, and were told later by friends in the crowd that their overall sound was fine – and no, they hadn’t noticed that anything was amiss during the show. The ability of a band to hide problems from the crowd can be a gig-saving one, and so it seemed to be in this case.
Our colleague used a few other techniques to further hone his guitar tone during the show itself. The combination of the foreign cab and the outdoor environment led him to spend far more time on his humbucking bridge pickup than usual (his trademark ska cleans are usually delivered via a neck single coil), and his added mids helped with distorted sounds too, although they made solos a little muddy at times. However, he felt he had to keep the extra mids dialed in; the sound was slightly weak and trebly without them.
Sadly, it was not only the guitars that suffered on the day. The band’s bassist was continually plagued by a fizzing feedback sound whenever he stopped playing, and no one could work out what it was. Although the band later discovered the likely source of the problem – a mini fridge onstage for the headliners that was placed in close proximity to the bass amp – there was no time during the show to change anything, meaning everyone had to put up with a little buzzing between songs. Again, no one in the crowd noticed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best sound of the night was reserved for the headliners, who had had ample time to make sure their mix was perfect in every way. It’s often like this, and perhaps the best advice for live players in similar contexts – i.e. playing support on a multi-band bill in the great outdoors – is to just be cool, have fun and play the best show you can given the resources you’re presented with on the day (more advice on how to do exactly that here, by the way).
Our man told us he took that advice to heart, saying he realized that the biggest problems were actually those going on his own head and the heads of his bandmates. Once they got over the issues they were having onstage – which weren’t deal breakers in terms of playing a great show – they were able to loosen up, relax and play to their strengths. In a genre like ska punk, that sense of fun is crucial, and without it, it probably would’ve been a pretty lame gig.
Perhaps that’s the best way to do it. If your amp doesn’t blow up, or you don’t fall off the stage and break your leg in three places, or the entire stage doesn’t get washed away in a ridiculous freak rainstorm, you’re still in a position to have a load of fun playing your outdoor show. Anything else, and the crowd is probably still going to have a great time – and if everyone there’s enjoying it, then that’s surely the most important thing.
Well, that’s our little onstage nightmare story for this week. Has anything worse ever happened to you when you were playing a gig, indoors or out? Let us know, as we’d love to hear how you managed to beat the odds and turn a potentially bad situation into a great one!
First published: August 08 2014. Most recent update: October 16 2015.