Small Venue Survival Guide – Not Even the Gig Yet


Small venues are everywhere and unless you are doing arena tours there is a good chance you will spend quite a few hours in these. They come in all forms and shapes, and from relatively well-kept to complete car crash establishments. One thing that will always be the same though: you will always be there alone in the middle of the afternoon, with nobody else around, faced with technology that does not always do what it says on the tin, an owner/manager that is nowhere to be found, and a phone line for emergencies that was supposed to be working that isn’t. So, in a nutshell, it’s up to you. As you move up the sound engineer ladder you will be faced with many different challenges but in a way the small venue is the litmus test for people starting out as sound techs with its way of throwing everything at you just to test you out to see if you are actually cut for this or not. It can often be a painful experience and one that is especially daunting because it is often thrown at you right at the start of your journey into sound engineering (which is pretty unfair I think). So here are a few tips that will hopefully help you own the small venue gig rather than the small venue gig owning you.

More often than not the small venue gig will appear out of nowhere. Someone is ill, can’t make it, or has double booked themselves. Oftentimes what has really happened is that they have found a better gig for themselves and are all too pleased to offload the small venue gig onto someone else (that’s you). The good thing about this is that there is a good chance that the small venue gig will turn into a repeat gig. And while not a fanciful location, it will give you lots of opportunities to hone your trade. Provided you are prepared. So, fear not! The following few simple steps should help you live up to the challenge.

In a way, your preparation for this starts long before you find yourself in a dingy basement behind a half-working mixer trying to mix a band. So even if you get called at short notice try to go to the venue a few days before your gig, and try to aim for a night when another gig is on. This may seem like a big-time investment, but it really pays off to not find out about all the things that don’t work when you are there all by yourself. Go there and talk to the sound tech that is there. Look what gear, mixing desk, etc. they have, and where things – mics, stands, cables, DI boxes, etc –  are stowed away. Ask the important questions: what is broken, what is unusual, what do you need to take particular care about. Know the channel count in that venue. Find out which ones do not work (there will always be some) or those permanently used by the DJ / bar staff to play their music over the PA. Take pictures of everything and take notes. Get that sound tech’s phone number if they agree. Spot any kit that is unfamiliar? Make a note. Look it up. Download the manual. And save it on your phone, print it, whatever – you may not have a reception in the venue. Ask if there is a decent start-up scene on the desk you can use. If you can stay for a bit of the gig do so. Take a mental note of what the venue sounds like, walk around, and see if the mix position sounds very different from the audience bit. Have a drink, make friends with the bar people, tell them you’ll be there next, and go home. If you really can’t go there physically try to get as much info beforehand anyway.

Next thing: Get the riders, load in times, stage plots, and backline requirements (and if they share backline or not) for as many bands as you can – email the promoter/venue manager, etc. yourself if you didn’t get any. Still no luck? Try the band’s Facebook/ social media. More often than not bands send the riders and they “get lost” somewhere in translation and they don’t mind the sound engineer getting in touch with them. And while you are in touch with them clarify all other points as above (backline, load in, etc.). And if you spot anything that the band wants that you are not sure the venue has (keyboard stand, special mic….) ask the venue if they provide it, or have at least discussed it with the band….. You may think it’s not your job to sort this out, and you are right, it isn’t. However, if the stuff is missing it will be your fault. Because you will be the only one there anyway. It will also cause unnecessary delays as you – yes that will be up to you as well – try to chase up enough empty beer crates to fashion a synth stand out of. You will run late and the band will be pissed off way before sound check even starts. You may email the venue and try to clarify and you still get no answer. But at least there will be an email trail to show you tried.

After that: Listen to the bands’ music. That fancy vocal effect? Can you do that on your desk? What kind of mix is it? A metal band with heavy guitars and double kick? Or a jazz combo with a harmonium? Think about what mixing these genres involves, in terms of mics you’ll use, how you place them and what effects you need to have dialed in on your desk.

Lastly? Do you have more than two bands? Make a festival input list. Make sure all inputs of all bands can fit somewhere on your mixer. Got five bands and a 16-channel mixer of which two are not working at all and one is not passing phantom? Plan ahead how you’ll squeeze them all in. And how to easiest bring it all together. Print the list with a number of copies (you’ll lose one immediately), take a pen to amend (the riders will be wrong). And put the vocals at the end, starting from your last channel (as the riders will be wrong). You may end up with a gap between your last instrument and the vocals but at least you won’t have vocals and then more bongos, keys and some violin after that when every band turns up with an extra musician (or two).

Ok so, the day of the gig is there. Go to the venue early and I mean early. 2 hours before the first band rocks up is no luxury as you have a lot of work to do before they arrive, as we’ll see below.

Step 1: Make sure the PA works. This may sound like a given but in small venues, it, unfortunately, isn’t. A working PA means: both sides of speakers work (usually, in some form or other), all drivers in the speakers work (sometimes), sound roughly the same (rarely), both subs work (sometimes), and the PA is plugged in the right way round meaning L is L and R is R (not always). You do this by either sending pink noise into each of your buses in turn or by plugging your phone (but be careful with phones and mixing desks, see below) into a line input and sending it to all buses in turn (L / R and matrices or delays if there are any).

Step 2: Make sure your monitors work using the same technique. Don’t be alarmed if none of them sound the same. That will usually be the case, unfortunately. I’ve often pondered if this is an issue but have decided that since each musician only hears their own, it isn’t.

Step 3: Make sure the desk does what you want it to. That show file you were advised to use? Make sure there are no fancy leftovers from others. Plug in your phone or a mic and send the signal to the FX, to the mons, to the mains. If weird stuff happens, reset the desk and rebuild your own scene. If you have an analogue desk, zero whatever can be zeroed and check all routing is correct, outboard works, etc.

Step 4: Make sure all your stage inputs work (almost never). The way I do this is I raise all faders, raise masters, put all settings (gain, EQ, etc.) at the same levels, unmute, and plug in either a signal generator, a mic, or the phone into each channel (and check channel after channel). This way I can hear from the stage if it all works/sounds roughly the same. Make absolutely sure your phantom power is off though as the 48 volts will fry audio outputs of phones etc. in a second. That’s why I do not really recommend using the phone for that. A cheap cable tester that also does test signal is the trick here.

Worse than the completely non-working channel though is the one-legged channel. It will seem like it passes audio fine (although a little quieter) but a one-legged channel will, depending on which pin is not working either pass no phantom, or no phantom and only half the audio. So how do we find out about this? This time you mute all the channels but put phantom on. Plug an active DI with a light into each channel (channel after channel) and if the light does not come on, you’ve got a one-legged channel. That does not mean you can’t absolutely use it. Oftentimes you will have to use every channel you can find. But you should not use it on very quiet sources, or anything that requires phantom, like a condenser mic, or an active DI.

Step 5: Make sure all cables work. This is where the humble cable tester is the small venue engineer’s best friend. Take 10 mins to go through all the ones you’ll use. Because if one doesn’t work it absolutely will end up being the one for the main vocal and not that second rack tom or bottom snare.

Step 6: Ring out your system: Set up your vocal mics where they will be. Don’t know how many input lines? Put them at the end (or very beginning) of your input list. EQ both FOH and monitors to remove feedback. If you have an iPad that is where it will be really useful as you can position yourself right on stage and do your ringing out from there.

Step 7: Set up most other mics before the band arrives. Get the stands out, put the mics into the clips, and cable them up. If you don’t know where on your input list the vocals get plugged in, or how many lines you’ll end up with, plug them in at the end (or the beginning). Prepare DIs with cables etc.….

And so, when the band finally arrives you’ll have a working system, that is rung out, and all your mics will already be ready to go. And most importantly you’ll have that confidence that you’ve checked it all and normally everything should work.

Next: Small venue survival guide – Part 2: The gig, and what’s in my bag

Gertie Steinacker started out in live sound, after working in production for a number of festivals, about 15 years ago in Switzerland, attending a 2-year course then working in local venues. Later on, music production became the priority but a few years ago she got sucked back into being behind a mixer again. Her time is now split between live sound, translation work, trying to finish a Ph.D., and music production.

You can currently find her at FOH or on monitors in various venues around London and Sheffield such as the 100 Club and the Foundry as well as working with a number of independent and underground promoters.


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