Location, Location, Location
Where you play has a lot to do with both what gear you need and how you approach your gig. Here are some tips for venues of all sizes.
Many people start their gigging careers with Sunday church
gigs, and this can be great if not simply because the supportive
and appreciative audience can really build confidence. Small,
older, intimate, or low-tech churches don’t always have sound
systems that will handle live music, so they often use sound
systems that only allow one signal to pass through at a time.
In this case, a personal amplification system is absolutely necessary
for the congregation to be able to hear every detail of
your joyful noise. There won’t be a lot of distracting noise, so
you won’t need anything massive. Usually, a 50- to 60-watt,
2-channel amp will do the trick unless it’s a very large room—
in which case you’ll want something more powerful.
Big, modern churches frequently have theater-style sound
systems with jacks built into the stage and speakers distributed
throughout the house. For these venues, you’ll need your axe, a
guitar cable, and whatever EQ, effects, or preamp rig you prefer.
Gotta love that simplicity!
Eating/drinking-establishment gigs can be some of the most
frustrating performances ever. But because listening-room
and concert-hall dates are few and far between for most of
us, we’re forced to make the best of playing at venues where
we’re simply part of the atmosphere.
An acoustic amp (with vocal channel, if that’s part of your
thing) will probably suffice in most places. However, if there’s
a lot of ambient noise from the kitchen and clientele, you may
want to consider a PA system. A versatile, affordable system can
be assembled with a small mixer such as a Yamaha MG102c
($99 street, yamaha.com), two powered speakers, and possibly
a floor monitor. This is a time-tested way of making a lot
of noise while sounding as much like yourself as possible—and
it’s a preferred option if you’re working with an ensemble bigger
than two. Entire publications have been devoted to PA systems,
so we won’t dwell on that beyond presenting it as an option.
If you don’t need that much power but do need monitors,
check out the Fishman SA220 or the Bose L1, both of which
can be placed behind you to provide monitoring and the main
signal at the same time. Either system can be used as a standalone
unit—i.e., you can plug your vocal mic and instrument
directly into them—or with a small mixing board to increase
the number of channels.
Concert-hall and Festival Gigs
It goes without saying that hall and festival dates—the gigs
where people actually show up specifically to hear you do
what you do—are dream gigs for most acoustic aficionados.
You almost always get to sound fabulous with a minimum
of effort at these gigs.
Most of the time, the venue or event will supply the PA system,
so all you have to do is show up with your rig early enough
to get in a really good soundcheck. Many acoustic amps have a
direct-out (DI) output on the rear panel. This is handy because
it allows you to send your signal to the PA and retain control of
your EQ and effects settings, while letting the sound tech simply
handle levels. If you don’t know the sound tech (or perhaps if
you do), this can be a great way to ensure you sound like you,
rather than a craptastic version of you. (If you haven’t already
discovered this, you will eventually: There are some wonderful
sound techs in the world … but there are also guys who end
up running the board because the regular guy has the flu.) Even
better, if you use your amp’s DI function, it also enables you to
use the amp itself as a monitor. Another option is to mic the
cabinet, but this can be tricky with acoustic guitar amps, and
should only be done by a really good, experienced sound tech.
Concert halls are usually optimized for acoustic music—
usually classical or jazz—and therefore minimal sound
reinforcement is needed to present the full harmonic and
dynamic range of the music. In these scenarios, a less-is-more
approach is often the way to go. If ever you are going to simply
mic your guitar, this is the place—that is, if you or the venue
has a high-quality stage condenser that can capture all the
detail that wooden baby has to offer.
Conversely, at an outdoor festival, the sound seems to leave
your instrument and disappear. Depending on the configuration of
the stage, it can be hard to get enough of a monitor mix without
getting feedback, which makes it hard to know how you actually
sound to the audience. As you can imagine, this can be very
frustrating. Not being able to hear yourself causes a multitude of
problems, not the least of which is wearing yourself out by overplaying
and oversinging. Be patient, be willing to compromise,
and have respect for the sound tech—that’s the best way to
handle these situations in a way that doesn’t look unprofessional
to the crowd and make enemies with the sound crew. The last
thing you want to do is alienate the guy who controls how you
sound out front.
The other festival frustration for acoustic artists is that the
acoustic stage is frequently stuck with leftover gear so that the bigger-
drawing electric bands can have
the good stuff. I once played a festival
where my awesome hi-tech active
pickup was overdriving the antiquated
and poorly maintained board so
badly that you could hear nothing but
distortion. I now have a guitar with
a passive K&K Pure Mini pickup for
these kinds of situations, and I never
leave home without an L.R. Baggs
Para Acoustic DI. Lesson learned.