If you ask an experienced musician for strange experiences, the ones that they will remember the most are the exceptions. They'll remember the time that they were forced to do something that the didn't normally do, and what the results were. You really can't avoid these situations, its part of what live performances are all about.
In some cases you'll depend on someone else to provide all or part of your sound system. Other times you'll find out that to get the job you have to provide the sound system (you often earn more if you do, but not always).
When you buy equipment, its done with a plan in mind - deciding the venues that you expect to be appearing at, and then buying gear that suits that setup. Smaller settings can cause you problems because you may not have any place to put some of your gear once you get there (which effectively means that you have to pare down to the absolute essentials and still sound good). You will probably run into situations where you simply don't have enough speaker cabinets to cover the area because you have never had to scale up to anything that large before.
Outdoor venues are particularly difficult when it comes to determining the right quantity of speaker cabinets or power amplifiers; mostly because of such variables as:
I have been in situations where I was successfully able to borrow gear from people and then be in a position where I had to try to hook it all up and make it sound as good as possible. I rarely ever had the opportunity to even try any of this gear more than an hour before I was supposed to play. I'm not the only one to experience this.
Did I ever have any problems? No more than you will.
If you know that you will have to perform in a place with cramped quarters, you might want to discuss the issue before showing up for the performance and suggest the performers start thinking about what they can do without, or how to move things around to allow them to sound good. They'll be participants with ideas rather than having to suddenly decide what to do without.
NOTE: What ever you do, if you are presented with a large stage, and you don't normally spread the performers out, don't start now. Stick to a known game plan and set up in the same configuration that you normally do, or practice in. Many performers use visual movements and cues to indicate non-verbal messages to each other - spreading out makes those more difficult to follow and drastically alters what you hear.
Don't crank up the volume levels of all of your instrumentation - use microphones in front of instrument amplifiers run thru the PA system to amplify things. Perform at your normal stage volume levels.
You will want the PA Sound Crew to keep track of who is connected to what. You should have a sheet of paper that indicates where everyone will be standing, their names, their instrumentation, any specific details that they should know about and a place to write down what channels each individual will be plugged into. You will be dealing with exceptions to your normal operating modes; start with something you know works.
If you rented a Sound Crew (or one was provided), and they have never seen or heard your act before - they won't have clue as to what to expect. Hand them your players layout sheet and a set list (if you have one). Tell them what kind of performance to expect and make sure that they adjust the floor/near field monitors to your liking. Odds are good that you have under 30 minutes to introduce yourself to the Sound Crew and tell them all that they will need to know to make you sound good. Establish any hand signals that they need to understand. Have a person out in the audience that you trust that can come back to the Sound Crew and report any sonic problems that they hear.
If you have your own Sound Person/Crew, you have the benefit of them already knowing what you are supposed to sound like, but they will be using gear that they may never have seen before. Your players layout sheet will be very important to keep track of what inputs are associated with specific people and instrumentation. You still need to have someone out in the crowd that can report back any sonic problems and get them corrected.
If you are performing in a Show where you have a set time to play (for example, there are 5 bands and they each have 1 45 minute set, then there is 15 minutes between acts, then the next band plays for 45 minutes), try not to be the first band playing. Usually the levels are adjusted during the first bands set and the first 15 minutes doesn't sound spectacular. The exception is if the first band gets to do a sound check - then it could be the best position to be in. Your drummer may not be too happy; sometimes a single drum set is used for all performers and they might use a set that is missing things, or someone may request that all other drummers use your drummers set - this will not be a popular request.
You will usually have a single mixer to deal with - this simplifies things somewhat. Find out what everything does, but don't adjust anything to extremes. Start out with all the tone adjustments flat (ie. 0 db boost), and adjust from there. If you have time, you might be able to do a sound check; Often you may not have this opportunity.
Bring along masking-tape and put strips at the mixer channels and write the name of the person and/or instrument that channel is supporting. These will only be used for that show and you will remove them when you are done. If you are dealing with multiple bands, you might use multiple colors of marking pen ink to label the masking tape strips.
Borrowing and/or renting an additional PA system
When possible, try to keep all of the power amplifiers working with the speaker systems that they normally work with. If your PA system is a part of this setup, use it in as close to normal fashion as possible. Don't forget to mark the mixer with masking tape as indicated above - there will be many opportunities for chaos - prevent them everywhere you can.
You'll need to figure out how to bridge the mixers to get them to have the same sounds come out of each system. In some cases, the additional systems will have a very different set of capabilities compared to your normal PA system. The most common difference is that of frequency response/range - some systems don't handle lows very well, and those will sound very poor if you mix the same signal into all of the mixers and set all of the volume/tone adjustments exactly the same. You normally use a Y'cord to bridge one signal to 2 inputs (or Patch Boxes).
I've had situations where an additional PA system was brought along, set up, tested and then never had any sound run thru it. This was a great waste of my time and effort - No one hooked up any cables that allowed the spare sound system to get any signals from the main mixer. Its easy to forget minor details like this when you are in a rush.
If you have 2 sound systems, and they are operating independently (sharing only input signals), then at least verify that they are working (shut one down, do a sound check, then shut the other one down and do a sound check). Some signals probably won't be routed through both systems, but make sure that the ones that are supposed to be on each system is appropriate.
If you just brought along additional speakers
This can be quite a challenge - How to keep from overloading your Power amplifiers. My PA amplifier can drive approximately 500 watts into a 4 ohm load. I'll want to make sure that I never go lower than 4 ohms and I'll try not to get it above 16 ohms. Unless the Power Amplifier you have is rated for 2 ohm operation, never allow a load to go below 4 ohms.
Hopefully you will have something written in the cabinets to tell you what the impedance is. If not, its possible you know what they are from some other source. Its in your best interest not to guess. Most Pro-Audio 2 way and 3 way speaker cabinets are 8 ohms. If you are using multi-woofer cabinets - there is no way to estimate their impedance nor is there anyway to quickly check with an ohm-meter. Find out what you brought with you before you leave for the job. Often, you can determine what the cabinets impedance is by looking at the back of the power amplifier that comes with the system these are a part of. Car audio speaker systems are typically 4 ohms - Most other systems are 8 or 16 ohms.
When you set the speaker systems up, try to balance each side with the same things. If you have your 2 cabinets and 2 other borrowed cabinets, put one of each on each side of the stage. If it is a open large area to cover, you may have another dozen or so drivers per side. Make sure that each side has the same quantity and types of speaker systems.
The next step is to try to find like loads. If you have 2 woofers per side, these should be wired together (either serial or parallel), and how ever you wire one side, do the other exactly the same way. Now, go to the midrange systems. If you have exponential horn drivers - and you have multiple cabinets - try to wire them the same way you did the Woofers - This only works if you have the same number of woofers as midrange drivers. Do the same for the remaining high end gear. If using 2 way or 3 way systems mixed in, wire them the same way you would do the Woofers.
By this time you will have determined how to make the various cabinets appear electrically the same on each side (or as close as possible). If you are using different power amplifiers for each type of driver, then segregate the cables appropriately so that you don't accidently connect the woofer output to the midrange drivers and visa-versa. Be prepared to do a low volume level sound check to verify the connections.
Figure out what the resistive load per side is for the components that will all be wired together. If you are using passive cross-overs, remember that the different frequencies will not impact the impedance of other frequencies, so if you have 2 woofers and 2 midrange horns per side, each of them will not effect the impedance of the other. If the cabinets do not have passive cross-overs (and they are not woofers), the speakers are expecting the power amplifier to restrict the frequency response to the cabinet.
When trying to figure out how to connect the wiring to many speaker cabinets, it's simplest to break them down in terms of 2 speaker cabinets being grouped together at a time. and them expand upon that. For example: You combine 2 8 ohm cabinet loads in series on each side (16 ohms), then connect each side in parallel (2 16 ohm loads in parallel = 8 ohms). If you keep that simple concept in mind, you are never dealing with more than 2 loads at a time.
If you end up with a 4 ohm and an 8 ohm load that needs to connect together, then you must connect them in series - this gives you 12 ohms. This is safely in the range of 4 to 16 ohms. A set of 12 ohm loads in parallel comes out to 6 ohms - again safe to use in a 4 to 16 ohm stage setup.
Once you are certain that your loads are acceptable, and the cables are connected up correctly - power up your PA system and start adjusting things as you normally do. The additional speaker cabinets will probably sound different than you are accustomed to. You might find that your Low Frequency response is not as strong at higher volume levels - next time, you might rent or borrow a more powerful power amplifier.
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