This weekend I went to an impromptu jam session and admittedly, as low key as it was, it was the first time I ventured outside of my comfortable little studio in the last ten years. I ran into a few hiccups (nothing major) and I found it to be an excellent learning experience, considering I had let so much time lapse since my last live gig.

For those of you with some experience under your belt, you’ve no doubt settled into a comfortable routine you could probably do in the dark, with your eyes shut and a monkey tied behind your back. But for those of you that are relatively new to performing live, you may find the experience a bit daunting and even panic inducing at first. But with some practice, you can lean to identify the weak spots in your live setup so that when you are ready for the real thing, everything will go smoothly.

The first thing I’d recommend doing is reading through Sneak Thief’s excellent live gig preparation write up over @ LivePA.org. He’s done an outstanding job of covering the angles, so I’m going to refer you over to him while I reiterate a few points myself.

The best thing to do to get ready for a live gig is to practice. This will help you in performing your sets, but when you practice, you also need to change up your location. What you want to do is pretend like you’re going to a gig and pack up everything, move to a new spot, set it up again, work on your sets and then pack it back up. It may seem silly at first, considering you’re probably only moving from your bedroom to the living room, but it’s a good practice that will expose any obvious problems that you’re going to run into in a live scenario.

When you’re comfortable with your routine and what you want to bring with you live, make a list of everything you’re bringing with you. When you pack up to leave for the gig, make sure you’ve got it all by checking your sheet. And when you pack up to go home, check it again. There’s so many things that can happen at a gig that can cause things to get left behind one way or the other, so it’s nice to have a reminder of what you brought with you. Write down everything including power supplies, keyboard stands, how many tshirts you brought to sell and anything else you can think of that will help.

When you do play live, you should work closely with your promoter or venue so that you have a good understanding of what the house PA setup is like, what they are providing as far as audio connections, power, tables, etc. before the gig happens. In some circumstances, it’s even worth having a contract to back all of that up.

You probably already have some method of carrying your gear to a gig and then having something to set it on when you get there. A tip here is to leave as much wiring as you can in place. This will reduce the amount of time required for setting up and tearing down a live setup. Many people use Dj coffins or specially constructed boxes that keep all their gear wired up just for this purpose. When they get to the gig, the only thing to do is throw the box onto a table or stand and then wire it up to the house PA.

Such boxes can run a bit expensive, but with some ingenuity, you can probably make one yourself that will fit your needs, such as this hacked Ikea bedside table that does a nice job of keeping a DJ setup together.

Image Credits: IkeaHackers.net

The next thing you need to know is to be sure and label the ends of your cables so you know where they go. This is a huge time saver that will keep you from the tracing the free end to the back of your gear. You can color code them by using colored electrical tape, velcro ties or with a piece of masking tape that you can write on. When you’re done, write up a wiring map that shows what goes where. Cables that run to the same place should also be tied together with cable ties into a snake; running a snake between gear is faster than separate cables. But don’t tie power cables to audio cables! Power cables should always be separated from audio!

Now is probably a good time to mention that if you plan on performing from your laptops’s built in sound card, you’ll need to run a ground loop isolator on either your power or your audio cable because laptop power supplies put a lot of noise into the audio stream and it’s not worth it trying to rely on the battery. USB cards don’t suffer from this problem, however if you do get clicks and pops in your audio, disable the wireless card and other unused services (such as the CDROM & SDCard reader) within your OS.

Speaking of cables, try to avoid using adapters as much as possible. It may be expensive, but you’ll get more for your money in the long run by buying the correct connections you need rather than using adapters. The rule of thumb here is that straight runs last longer and with less noise than if you were using several cables with adapters. That is to say, the more psychical connections there are in your audio line, there is a larger chance that noise will be introduced into your audio stream. For instance, out of my NI Audio2DJ interface, I’m running one stereo 1/4 jack to two 1/4 jacks to run into house PA. I just bought one cable with the adapter built in rather than an adapter and two separate cables.

Also, make sure and label all your gear. I mean everything: your girlfriend, your dog, your tent, power strips etc. Put your email, phone number or website in permanent marker right onto the gear. This will help get your gear back to you if you lose it and at two in the morning when you’re trying to pack up, all those power strips tend to look the same.

One last big tip here and it’s for the PC users in the crowd. Before the gig, make a map of your computer and the USB ports and what’s connected to them. Windows has this weird thing where if you plug in something into a different port, it has to re-install it for that port. So that means when you get to the gig and you accidentally plug your controller into the wrong port, Windows will have to re-install it and you’ll also have to re-map it in your DAW! So make sure you’ve got it all mapped out before you leave.

And then here’s a smaller tip, but useful tip. Get a small tool box, the size of something you can leave in the trunk of your car. In it put:

  • Headache and personal (legal) medications
  • Alan or hex wrenches (they’re for tightening screws on keyboard stands)
  • A multi tool
  • Duct tape
  • An LED flashlight
  • A small first aid kit
  • Cable ties
  • Various audio adapters. Be sure to include both 1/4 and 1/8th stereo adapters and a way to adapt them down to mono 1/4. More than once I’ve had to rely on a headphone out jack when a main 1/4 has failed.

And the number one thing to put into your tool kit:

One or more back up options for your live performance.

Whether it be a couple mixdown CDs of your old performances, or an MP3 of the same on an iPod, have an audio back up of your performance on hand at all times! Also make sure you have the power supply and cables needed to run it into the PA, if you’re using a personal media player.

This one little thing will make the biggest difference between a successful performance and a disgrace. If for some reason, the worst happens and you’re not able to play, letting the audience hear something is better than nothing. And it’s also quite a bit more professional rather than the alternative of packing your gear up with a couple dropped Fbombs and walking out of your slot.

So get out there and rock the block! If you do, get pics, send ’em in and we’ll put em up!