Last issue’s Building Blocks article ended with a cliff-hanger. You’ve gone through the lengthy process of sound checking, and your levels are all sweet. Now what happens?
The answer differs depending on your place in the gig line-up. If you’ll recall, stage set ups with multiple bands are like layers of an onion. The last band (headliner) soundchecks first, and usually leaves most of their gear onstage. The next-to-last (middle) band soundchecks next, with the opening band coming last. What happens right after your soundcheck entirely depends on stage order.
Openers – As the opening band you’re sitting pretty. You can leave all your gear as is, though if you’re smart, you’ll grab the guitars, cymbals and snare to keep them safe until the show starts. Anything easy to pick up and walk away with should be back stage.
Opening acts do have to contend with all equipment on stage for the following acts. If your set is only going to be a punchy little flash that gets the evening started, then there’s no need for tons of gear. Established local acts often bring a very reduced backline; smaller amps, 5-piece kit and one lightweight keyboard on a simple stand. It makes total sense to travel light if you want to be in and out quickly. So leave the 4-metre tall replica of Stonehenge at home if you’re opening.
Headliners – If you’re topping the bill then you’re likely to have brought some serious gear; amp stacks, tiered keyboard stands, rack-mounted effects, pedal boards and so on. Perhaps lighting as well.
All this stuff has to stay on stage because the sound guy doesn’t want to deal with repositioning things. The main concern, as you will likely well know by now, is to keep your gear as far back on the stage as possible. There’s a reason why they call it backline.
Not only will it benefit you to not have your expensive kit tripped over by less experienced musicians, but you will also get a far better sound with your amps closer to the back of the stage, and more room for your own act to move around.
Middle Acts – The not-so-lucky bands are the ones in the middle. They may well have to do a bit of changing over after soundcheck, especially if the stage is smaller. This might mean packing amps, kit, and racks to the side of the stage, or better yet, a more secure location if the venue has got an adjacent storage space.
Even if the stage is large, some gear may need to be repositioned to make room for the next band, especially keyboard stands and effects racks. Don’t be jerks and leave your set up in the way of the openers. Not only does that make you look bad, but it’s a sure way to end up with damaged gear.
It obviously simplifies things to share the same backline when possible and this is common practice. If the musical styles are similar, and the musicians are all experienced with getting a good sound out of pretty much any gear, then it’s possible to run many bands in a single night with little time wasted on changeovers.
Then again, differing levels of experience can mean your gear is likely to be damaged over the course of a few such performances. Bands (and venues) have to decide what works best for them, and be aware of both benefits and risks.
This is why some established touring bands of the 1970s and ‘80s would open with a juggler, comedian or magician. Not only would the pay be much less than hiring an opening band, they also wouldn’t have to deal with soundcheck and changeover issues.
Changing over smoothly – Whether you are opening or the middle act, you’ll need to follow some procedures at the end of your set to get your gear off the stage.
The first concern is to make it all feel natural. Finish your last song, thank the audience and venue etc. Then turn down your amp, unplug and leave the stage. Guitarists should be headed straight for their guitar cases. Drummers grab your snare and stick bag, ditto. The crowd will soon start to mingle which is good, because you want attention directed away from the stage as you do your own packing out.
Come back on stage and immediately set to the task of tearing things down, using a system such as described in the first installment of this series. The faster and cleaner this operation, the better it is for everyone concerned. Once again, don’t unplug any live cables! If you brought your own mics, check with the tech that the mains are down. Be careful not to knock over any stage mics, especially those in front of amps and drums. Your tech may want to supervise some of the moving, so always follow their lead.
Always make sure the band before have packed everything out before bringing your gear on stage. And please – don’t take out your aggressions on anything that may have been left behind by accident! Just move it to the loading side of the stage and forget about it. You’ll be grateful for this act of humanity when the tables are turned, and you’re the one to forget your $3000 pedal box.
Once again, the sound tech may want to be involved, to reposition mics, reconnect mains or any other concern, so make sure you know their drill. Having a system really speeds things along, and gives your upcoming set its greatest chance of success. If you’re working with tube amps, you may want to put them into warm up mode as the very first thing on that to-do list.
And don’t take all night! You’ve seen this before – the opening band gets the crowd going strong, finishes their set and then the stage sits there, empty, for ages. 20 minutes goes by before the openers skulk back to remove their gear, and another 15 before the next act does any kind of set up. Finally, nearly an hour has passed before the next band is ready to play. People are leaving, the manager is furious, the tech is shaking his head and the headliners are already looking through their little black book for some more dependable mates to open for their next gig. Or even worse, nobody cares, the house shrugs and the place is empty by the next set – and all that planning and promotion for this gig is a dead loss.
Don’t let this be your epitaph. Respect fellow players by being professional about changeovers. Use the excitement and anticipation of your upcoming set to propel you into setting things up, and your sense of achievement to clear things out. Your set isn’t done until you’ve packed out, so budget your energy wisely and make sure that your link in the chain is strong; music, stage presence and mobility.
Changeover time is significant in another way – it’s the absolute deadline for deciding which songs you’re playing and in what sequence. For more on that essential topic, join me for the next article in this series: Set Order.
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Orchestra Wellington, and his online orchestration course is available from macProVideo.