In this final article in our series, Chris Lyth talks you through the process of getting ready for your first live gig
In the previous two articles, we’ve talked about how to build a suitable set-up for live perfomance, and how to prepare and structure a live set. In this last part we’ll look at some points for final preparations and the night itself.
1. Check your references
Once you’ve got an idea of how your set will evolve on the night, it’s time to reference your set against some appropriate material. This should be genre-appropriate music you know well and have preferably heard played in a club. Adjust the relative volumes of your own material throughout your set. This will take some time - pay attention to kick, hats, bass and lead lines. You ideally want all of your parts at a similar level, so once your kick channel is set you won’t get any surprises. The idea with reference material is to keep you grounded: it’s easy to drift off course tonally when you become ensconced in your own microcosm of sound. We will come back to your reference material in point seven, below.
Leave plenty of headroom on your individual channels, as lots of clean headroom not only sounds smoother on the ear, you may find that you need to raise the level of something once you’ve heard it in the club. Don’t worry about your overall volume (volume is easy to fix and overly obsessed about) as you can always push your master fader and gain on the DJ mixer or mixing desk. You really don’t need a compressor or limiter on every channel.
3. Prepare and communicate
Communication is the connective tissue that holds society together, and a lack of it when preparing for a live event will be deeply mourned at a later stage.
Before you arrive at the venue, check with the promoter that there is adequate time and physical space for you to set up properly. Be realistic: measure your set-up and send a picture so there is absolutely no ambiguity on this matter. Find out if you will be going into the DJ mixer or into a stage box/main FOH desk. You may need to bring along different cables depending on what you are going into. I can’t stress this one enough: do NOT assume that the venue will have the cables that you require!
4. Time and tide
Time is likely to be short when you arrive at the venue, so make sure that you have all the cables, plugs, adaptors, four-ways and equipment you require. I’d recommend taking a clip-on task light as the chances of getting one from the club are negligible at best. If you are playing abroad, make absolutely sure that you have the correct mains adaptors. That lead that cuts out sometimes yeah? Launch it into the Sun! And carry some spares as well - just in case. Make yourself an inventory of what you will need to bring and check it off as you pack up.
5. First things first
When you arrive, speak to the engineer (if there is one) and have a chat about where and how best to set up. They will likely have a lot of experience setting up events and of the soundsystem, so it pays to follow their advice. Speak about any concerns you my have so that everyone is on the same page.
6. Check check!
Double-check all your connections. It’s all too easy to make a mistake when setting up in a different environment, I’ve heard a few tales of live sets rapidly journeying south due to an incorrect MIDI set-up.
7. Soundcheck… one two, one two
If you are lucky enough to get a sound check (from my experience it’s not always possible), here’s a few things that have helped me both as a performer and venue engineer…
Play your reference tracks from before to give you an idea of how the room and system reacts to familiar material. Then play part of your set, compare how your signal sounds - both in the booth and on the dancefloor - and make level and tonal adjustments. The reference track also gives the engineer an idea of the sound that you are going for. Hats and high-frequency percussion in the 2.5kHz-8kHz range may sound fine on your monitors, but can sound painful on a large system. If so, use a master EQ and bring them down to a point where they are not so harsh. Don’t go crazy though, as the room sound will change when people arrive. If time allows, quickly play through the important points in your set and finesse as much as possible within the time allotted to you.
If you don’t get a sound check and arrive at the venue when the night has already started, it’s likely you will be plugging into the DJ mixer. Remember to switch the input selector, so you are live on the line channel. It’s also a good idea to have the mixer fader down so you can silently play a snippet of your set. This will allow you to visually set your levels on the channel VU meters to the same as the act before you. If appropriate, try fading in the kick channel in your opening track so you can correctly balance it to the system.
8. A question of limiting
If you are using a limiter on your master channel, I would caution against being too heavy-handed. Go to the most intense part of your set and adjust the limiter so it’s giving you about -2dB gain reduction. Smashing your signal with a limiter is an extremely poor way to achieve a loud and punchy sound: it’s the producers’ equivalent of a DJ redlining the mixer.
The mixer or your signal will start to break up, the bass being the first casualty. You think you are getting louder, but in fact the signal is getting squashed and has lost all dynamics. Ultimately you can only be so loud on any particular system. Once you hit the peak level of any given system, either the engineer will turn you down or a system limiter will. It’s far better to hit that peak level with a clean, dynamic signal than a distorted, squashed one.
9. Accustom your ears
During the night, it’s important to spend a little time in the DJ booth beforehand to get a feel for how things are sounding and feeling. Also spend a few minutes on the dancefloor to see how the sound translates between the booth and the floor. If you have not had a soundcheck, this becomes doubly important as your booth monitor will be your only reference.
10. Closing thoughts…
• There’s nothing wrong with having a few notes written on your hand to remember important stuff
• It’s worth keeping your intake of alcohol or other 'refreshments' on the light side until you have finished.
• Keep people and drinks away from your gear.
• Take a little time to focus yourself beforehand. Run through the important parts in your head a few times.
Ultimately, playing your first live set will be massively instructive and you will learn plenty to take away with you. Every gig has a different set of variables so there’s never a one-size-fits-all, there’s only preparation, practice and adaptation. Just remember that mistakes are part of the learning process, that your last gig doesn’t define your talent and that even the greats started somewhere, and you’ll be headlining Printworks with your own sell-out live show before you know it. Well, hopefully!
Words: Chris Lyth