Your First Gig

In honor of our Performance month, a frequent visitor to Guitar Noise decided to make that grand leap of faith and get a gig for his band. Of course, as most of us end up doing, this first gig is going to be right in his own backyard. As part of our correspondence, I realized that this was a good topic for a Performance article. So I’m going to use this gig as an example, but I’m going to modify the facts a little to fit my column.

Disclaimer: While I believe that outdoor gigs are fun, remember to invite your neighbors so they don’t complain, and have someone there who is sober and in charge of party-crashers. It never hurts to let the local police station know that you are doing this either. Also, you should have a plan for if it rains, including postponement.

Setting the Stage

For this example, the band is a 3-piece “power trio”, consisting of guitar, bass, and drums, and they want the minimum PA possible, as this is a free gig.

As often happens on a small stage, the drummer will set the volume. You don’t want to mike the drum kit, and you need to balance out the instruments. In most cases, a 30-50W guitar amp will work well with a standard drum kit. For the bass, 200W is about what you’ll need, although you can get by with 100W if you aren’t playing hard rock. If either amp is noticeably smaller, then you may want to get some help from the PA. If your amp has a “line out” jack, connect that to the mixer, otherwise, you’ll have to put a mike in front of the amp.

Look at the diagram below. Set up the stage with the drums in the middle, and the amps each of the back corners (green = bass, orange = guitar), so the drummer can hear them. This way, each of you can hear the balance of the instruments at the front of the stage, which will be similar to what is heard by the audience.

Set up

Renting the PA

So now you just need a PA for your vocals. For this you can rent any 200W/ch amp and a mixer. The older Peavey’s or newer Mackies are good for this, as they are combined mixer and amplifier, and they have internal reverb as well. But just about any combination will work. Be sure to get a good 2 channel EQ as well (the new Mackies have this as well). Get 2 full range speakers with mounting poles. JBLs are probably the best, but just about anything will do. You’ll need one microphone (yellow) for each singer, plus a spare (read “Expect the Unexpected” below). Don’t forget to get all the cables, including a long power cord and a multi-outlet strip.

Warning: Do not use home stereos or guitar amps as a PA. Home stereos are not designed to handle the continuous overdrive of live music, and guitar amps can’t provide the range or clarity needed for vocals.

Set the mixer (purple) on a table on one side of the stage, closest to whomever feels most comfortable making the adjustments. Set the PA speakers (blue) on their poles just in front of the stage. The speaker closest to the mixboard should point diagonally out to the audience, the other speaker should point diagonally back on the stage to be your monitor. The monitor should be far enough away from the stage that the person closest to it doesn’t get blown away. If you have time, set up early and get a friend to help you set the levels. The trick is not to get louder than the drummer.

The last step is to clean up the stage and your cables. Bundle all of the cables together and use duct-tape (or gaffers tape – it’s better) to hold them in place. Put a carpet over the power cable so that no one can trip over it. Check that no one can get hung up on the speaker cables either. Make sure that everything is neat and stable on stage, be sure that you’ve left room for your guitar stands and effects pedals, and tape down those cables too.

Expect the Unexpected

Now all of this sounds real easy, and most of the time it is. But here are a couple of common problems you may run into. First, the kick drum almost never has the oomph to be heard. You should plan on miking it as well. Second, since you are outside, the EQ is going to be very different. You may need to boost both the mid-bass (200-300Hz) and the mid-high (4-8KHz). If you are miking either the bass or the kick drum, you may need to extend the low end down to around 100Hz. Remember that it’s not good to keep any low end range that you’re not going to use. Also, without any walls to reflect the sound back at you, you’ll need to add more reverb than usual. Last, if you have a stereo amp, use the pan pots on the mixer to keep the bass and kick drum out of the monitor speaker, and only put in the guitar if you’re having trouble hearing it on stage, otherwise, just put the vocals into the monitor.

Note: To save you some serious embarrassment, I will remind you that the jack labeled “Monitor Out” on the mixer is not intended to drive a speaker. This is a line-level signal that must go to another amplifier to drive a monitor. The set-up I have described above does not require a separate monitor channel, and you should only need a true monitor system when your stage gets bigger and louder.

All-in-One Mini-PAs

Recently, Fender and JBL (and others) have re-invented the all-in-one PA. These units have a 4 or 6 channel mixer, with extra inputs for CDs, and come with a pair of powered speakers. These systems are wonderful for low-volume rehearsals or acoustic gigs at the local coffee house. All of the components are is designed to work well together as a system, and the sound is pretty good. However they are essentially a “consumer” product, and I do not recommend them for any heavy duty tasks. If you are going to get loud, especially playing with a drummer, or in a large or outdoor space, I would suggest getting a more “professional” PA. The JBL system I heard sounded very bad when it was overdriven, and it just wasn’t as loud as was needed.

Other Places to Jam

While your backyard is a good choice, not all of us are blessed with the acreage (or climate!). I do not recommend playing in your garage or basement at any serious level (eg with a drummer) as it’s really hard to sound good in such a small space. Here are some other places you can check out that may be free or at least reasonably low cost:

  • Local School auditoriums
  • Church basements or meeting rooms
  • VFW, Elks Lodge, or other community halls
  • Teen centers or coffee houses

So if you and your band have been practicing for months on end, but you’re not sure how to get that first gig, throw it yourself! Get out there and play!