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Trial by Fire: Your First Pub Gig

Holding your excitement in check, you pack up your gear and head out for the club.

No matter how well you play, having the right gear—and knowing how to use it— can make or break a performance.

In my previous column [“Choosing theRight Gear for a Pub Gig,” April 2012], we continued with the story of a singer-songwriter— hey, this could be you—preparing to host a series of open-mic nights at a local pub. With the gig secured, we followed him into a music store where he auditioned a variety of acoustic amps, pickup systems, and accessories. And with the helpful advice from the in-store acoustic specialist, he decided on a hybrid pickup system, along with a 2-channel acoustic amp that would allow him to run a mic when playing smaller gigs without a house PA. Now it’s time for the fun part of the tale … the playing.

You’ve spent the week getting familiar with your new gear and rehearsing your favorite material. While the new equipment seemed a little daunting with all the signal-routing options, available effects, and EQ choices, you read the manuals several times and experimented with a variety of settings. You made a detailed set list, complete with notes on the planned EQ settings for particular tunes, and you’re quite happy with the amp’s built-in effects. The reverb and chorus add some nice color on several songs, and you even figured out how to work in some slapback echo on a little ’50s-style rock medley you arranged. Holding your excitement in check, you pack up your gear and head out for the club.

You are a little nervous upon arriving, but relieved to see five friends you invited to the gig sitting right up front. The room is already pretty full and a lively group of guys are at the bar cheering for the local hockey team on the widescreen. With the soundman nowhere in sight, you start to set up your gear in the middle of the stage when you suddenly realize you forgot the 20-foot extension cord needed to power up your amp. The only available outlet is at the back corner of the stage and the manager can’t come up with anything long enough to reach it. A quick run to the hardware store is your only option and you have just enough time to make the run. Not exactly the best way to focus and get mentally prepared for your first set!

You get back to the club with about 10 minutes to spare and find Charlie, the soundman, powering up the PA. For your guitar sound, you and Charlie decide on sending the board a line out from the DI on the back of your amp, and that one of the stage mics through the house PA will be used for announcing and vocals. There will also be a second stage mic and a house DI available for the guest performers.

Showtime! The bartender turns off the TV, the manager introduces you, and you open with an up-tempo Delta blues number that quickly gets the attention of the crowd. So far, so good—the overall sound seems balanced well and your playing is rock solid. Before your second song, you hit the mute switch on your amp and find out just how useful that clip-on tuner you purchased can be in a noisy room. Pushing the volume a bit during the third number, you find yourself experiencing a trace of feedback on certain notes, but a quick flip of the preamp’s phase-reversal switch completely kills this issue. You’re really glad you took time to study the manual! Things are moving along nicely as you settle in and work through your set list, when you come to the realization that the stage sound has a boominess that you can’t get rid of with the amp’s EQ. But you go ahead and finish off the set feeling pretty good and then head over to your table of friends.

The 20-minute break is flying by. After some high fives from your guests, you find out several other musicians have shown up for the open mic part of the night. You introduce yourself to them, pull together a quick schedule for their performances, and decide to conclude with an impromptu jam. With a couple of minutes to go before the next set, you discuss the boominess issue with Charlie. He suggests that getting your amp off the floor and onto a low chair might help. He also mentions that he could hear you using the amp’s chorus on a couple of numbers, but that it wasn’t coming through the signal you were sending to the house. So you quickly check the back of the amp and realize that in your rush to set up, you accidentally plugged the line out into the pre-effects DI. Mystery solved! All is good after a simple switch of the cable over to the post-effects mix DI.

And thanks to the good call from Charlie, you notice during the second set’s opening number that putting the amp on a chair completely solved the boominess issue.

As it turns out, the guest musicians are pretty decent. One of them has a little trouble singing in tune, but overall, things go well and everyone has a good time. The one guitarist who did not have an onboard pickup was having a pretty rough time being heard with just stage mic’ing— reinforcing the value of the gear investment you just made. And you discover that the second channel of your amp can come in handy too. Not having enough DIs to go around for the jam, you’re able to use the second channel for one of the additional guitars.

Your first live experience with your new gear is quite rewarding. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that your friends keep saying how totally cool and professional you were onstage. Now you can’t wait for your next gig to dig in a little deeper and really refine your sound.

Our little tale illustrates a key point: Having the right gear can’t always guarantee your best performance, but not having the right gear will almost certainly compromise an otherwise acceptable performance. Next time, we’ll take a detailed look at the inner workings of the individual elements in your signal chain.

Larry Fishman holds more than 30 patents in transducer and musical instrument design. He is president and founder of Fishman Transducers, which he began in his garage in 1981. In the early ’90s, he also co-founded and managed Parker Guitars (which was later sold to U.S. Music Corp.) with his friend Ken Parker.