Travelling with a fly-in backline
Today all the signs are good. The rainy Finnish “summer” is nothing but a memory. Here, the weather’s fine, which means we won’t get bogged down by mud. We’ve set off by plane to Switzerland very early for a festival gig with The Rasmus. Although I’ve only slept for about two hours, I feel relatively fresh.
We have come with the least amount of equipment possible, which, nevertheless, has to be checked post-flight. One of our guitars has gone missing, and naturally it’s the main instrument. Luckily, the backup is equipped with the exact same pickups and electronics, so I won’t worry about the missing guitar right now.
Others also keep their equipment light for air travel: We run into another Finnish band, HIM, whose technicians have started setting up their gear right next to us. This is one of the very good bits about festivals, you get to meet your colleagues. I was part of the HIM-crew for a few years myself, so it was nice to run into my old pals and brothers in arms.
Are festivals a lot of fun?
Depends on who you ask. The audience sure have a great time, which is nice, but for a guitar technician, a festival is probably the most demanding place to work, ever. In mainland Europe typical changeover times at festivals are very short – typically only 15 minutes.
This means you have a quarter of an hour to perform all the tasks you’d spend many hours doing at a club gig. Additionally, during the same stretch of time the band before you has to get their equipment off the stage, before you can put up your own backline. And everything has to be done in an orderly fashion.
Today we’re lucky, as the festival gives us half an hour changeover. This doesn’t mean we will be goofing around lazily, though – this is still a high-pressure environment, with virtually no time for mess-ups.
What – no soundcheck?
Unless the band and crew genuinely trust each other in any and all situations, a festival appearance is out of the question. The Rasmus’ band members are still in their hotel rooms. I will only get to talk to the guitarist and the bassist moments before they step onto the stage in front of tens of thousands of fans. This means, I have to know the band’s preferences and equipment through and through.
Still, my lot is a lot easier than that of the FOH-engineer. At a club gig, the soundguy can take hours to fine-tune the sound to the surroundings. At a festival, he’s thrown in at the deep end, with mere minutes to go before the gig starts, and with equipment that isn’t his own. Regardless, he (or she) is expected to make the band sound like a million bucks – which is no mean feat!
Up the ramp and into the backstage area
We ascend the backstage area via a long ramp, which is another good sign. There are plenty of festivals around the world that don’t use loading ramps. In those cases every single bit of equipment has to be lifted onto the back of the stage. Very often those are the same festivals that don’t really have a real backstage area, where you can set up the backline in relative peace.
The stage manager takes us on a quick tour of the backstage area, which extends to both sides of the stage, too. We are assigned our own area, where we can set up all the gear, to the point where it will only take a few seconds to plug everything into the PA-system.
The stage manager introduces us to the representative of the local backline rental company. We’d only brought along the bare necessities: guitars, wireless systems, pedalboards and preamps. All the amplifiers and cabinets, as well as the drum kit, are hired in locally. The drum technician often has his work cut out, because he never knows exactly what he’ll get. This time everything looks great.
At festivals, every bit of equipment is put on wheels and tied down safely, so it can be wheeled onto stage without the danger of anything toppling over. You either use flightcases with castors or specially made platforms, called risers. Drums, keyboard rigs and large guitar/bass stacks are normally put on wheeled risers, which the festival crew provides to the visiting acts. You could say that a festival is based on the smooth use of risers.
A riser is like a small stage on wheels. You cannot survive a festival without risers. Sizes are usually standardized in Europe, with a single unit consisting of a 1 x 2 metres riser. For a compact drum kit you’d combine two units (2 x 2 m), while a large double-bassdrum set or big keyboard rig will be put on a three-metre long and two-metre deep riser.
There are lots of wheels and brakes for the band’s techs to go through. You – the tech – are responsible for checking all the brakes on your band’s risers. Believe me, functioning brakes aren’t always a given. Check each brake carefully, and make sure to put the brakes on all wheels of the drum riser! It’s also a very good idea to make sure all wheels are functioning correctly, before you assemble your band’s gear on top of the riser.
You can adjust the risers to different heights by using “legs” (metal tubes) of different lengths when installing the wheels. Usually you’re given a choice of 20, 40, 60 and 100 cm for the tubes. Drums are often placed on 60 cm risers, while guitar stacks tend to be placed on risers that have only wheels and no legs. In this way, the amps are at a comfortable height and the audience won’t even notice that the stack is on a riser. If you can’t fit your guitar rig on a single unit riser, you should probably give serious thought to coming up with a more sensible set-up.
Strap it all in place
Amp heads and cabinets are tied down with ratchet straps. Tie-down straps are one of the most important utensils to take along to a festival. There’s a plethora of uses for straps on risers – there’s no way you can roll on your band’s whole rig onto stage safely and orderly without tie-down straps. Take a look at the guitar stack on the right side of the picture, it’s strapped down neatly and ready to roll.
You can tie down amps and cabinets, racks and other equipment, or even strap a multi-guitar stand to an empty road case. Everything that goes on stage has to be on wheels, and remember to place all moveable items – such as guitar stands, set-lists, towels or drinks – on the risers, ready for action.
Time is of the essence
Even though there are many bands sharing the same stage at a festival, it is usually the last act to go on that is the headliner. This festival is no different. The headliner’s crew have been at it all morning. They have done a soundcheck, and now the band’s complete backline waits in its own backstage tent for the stars to arrive. You won’t find the headlining act in the backstage area, though, they’re relaxing at the moment, and will only turn up in time for their gig.
Can we go on already?
The organizers of the festival will have put together an exact schedule for all the bands, which assigns each act their own slot for set-up and tear-down in the backstage area. If there are a lot of bands, but the backstage area is short on space, this can mean a mere two to three hours of set-up time before the gig. It’s all down to the amount of space and the availablity of risers, which have to be shared among all of the bands appearing on the day. In a worst-case scenario this can mean only two backline sets backstage, which means a very stressful set-up for the drum tech, who has to deal with all of the kit and the micing of the set.
Guitar techs tend to work in the wings, off to one of the sides of the stage. Some prefer to work behind the guitar stack, but most of my colleagues are either stage left or stage right. I have made it my habit to take some time out early on in the day, to go and find out who’s working on “my” side of the stage, shake hands and have a friendly chat. I’ve learned that even in cramped conditions, a friendly, easy-going approach will make it much easier to find your own little corner to work in, even if the headlining act is a legendary band like Metallica, The Scorpions or Motörhead.
Get everything ready in advance!
The drum kit is miked up on the riser, well in advance of the show. Normally, the band’s FOH mixer will go through the microphone set-up to make sure the placement is correct. Getting the whole drum rig up as quickly as possible will give the drum technician more valuable breathing space, when it is needed most – right before the gig. If everything goes according to plan, the drum technician can take care of many additional preparations pre-gig, in contrast to his colleague the guitar tech.
Keeping it in tune
Right before the gig, a guitar tech will be spending most of his time double- and triple-checking the tuning of all of his client’s guitars. Playing outdoors means that sudden changes in temperature (like the sun setting) or humidity (heavy rain) will keep him busy. Personally, I never tune the guitars to concert pitch during the day. I tend to keep them all slightly flat, so the evening cool can raise the pitch without the guitars all going sharp. This has always worked well for me. A sharp guitar would be much slower to tune down, than what it takes to tune a slightly flat guitar up right before the show.
The Rasmus’ festival set-up
Our rider calls for eight 4 x 12" cabinets and four heads, which are only used as power amps. Swiss efficiency and customer service means that the cabinets have already been set up on four risers. The risers will be rolled onto stage according to the stage plan below.
The risers are lined up backstage in reverse order to their placement on stage. Sometimes they’re rolled on from the side, sometimes through the middle. A little planning goes a long way in preventing unnecessary chaos. You want to get the gear on stage and into its correct positions with the least amount of fuss.
I place the four-unit racks and the amps behind the cabs for a clean, neat look. Everything is hooked up carefully. Lastly, I plug in the pedalboards and place them on the racks. This way, all I have to remember during changeover is plugging into mains power and placing each pedalboard in the correct position.
A quick equipment check during changeovers
Even though you won’t get a real soundcheck during a festival, you will go through quick equipment checks throughout the day during band changeovers. At those times you also test your wireless gear to make sure you’re running in a clean frequency band. It’s an unwritten rule that you never, ever switch on your wireless systems, during another act’s performance. But during changeovers there’s a huge rush of activity everywhere backstage. Consult the schedule and find out how many changeovers are taking place before your band is on. Time all your equipment testing accordingly. Check part of your gear with two changeovers to go, and the rest during the next one. And then it will be your turn to go on!
Every second counts!
After I’ve checked the gear I leave the amps in standby with the power running, then I disconnect each riser from mains. In this way I make sure that everything will be up and running once I plug into mains power onstage, saving me from having to switch the whole rig on device by device in a hurry.
The biggest time-saver at festivals is a streamlined mains feed. You want to make sure that everything is turned on by a single mains plug! Especially, when using equipment running on external PSUs, a streamlined power feed is a must. I have equipped all of our racks with 19” power strips, which feed all the equipment on the respective riser.
Another massive time-saver – also guaranteeing consistent sound quality – is carrying your own set of microphones. If you can afford to take your own mics with you, your FOH mixer will have one thing less to worry about. This has been common practice with both HIM and The Rasmus for years, even on fly-in gigs.
I would also recommend sticking some lengths of Gaffa-tape to the sides of the cabinets, so you’re ready to tape down set-lists and pedalboard snakes. This way you won’t have to fumble onstage with sweaty hands and a melting roll of tape, with only minutes to go before your band’s set.
Band positioning and stage sizes
Professional bands keep to a fairly strict positioning of the band members and their backline, regardless of the respective festival’s stage size. The crew usually know the exact distances between microphones, the drum and keyboard risers, and all the rest of the equipment. During my stint with HIM I learned from their seasoned drum tech that a clever tech will creep onto stage during a previous changeover, armed with a tape measure, and mark out the correct spots for his own band’s riser placement. Once it is your turn, all you have to do is just wheel your gear in, and park it at the previously marked out spot. I’m pretty sure my old colleague will be doing his routine at this festival, too.
Shield your gear from wind, rain and view!
If you have to leave your tested backline waiting for an extended period of time, it’s advisable to protect it with cloth covers, or if it’s raining with tarpaulins. When the summer’s over everything will be covered in dust and sand anyway, so why make matters worse?
Grab a bite and make a plan
The crew goes to eat whenever they can. You never know when your next meal will be. The catering table is also a great meeting point for making plans and charting possible pitfalls.
If your changeover slot seems too short, try to draw up a plan on paper. I used to prepare little checklists for different bands on what to do in which order during their changeovers. Don’t panic – anything you’ve talked over in advance is a step forward and will save you time.
Today we could do things like on the following linecheck paper:
- Get the risers in place.
- Connect to the stagebox.
- Check the crew’s talkbacks.
- The drum tech checks all drum signal lines, while the guitar tech fires up the guitar and bass stacks. When the drums are ready,
- the guitar tech checks the bass by playing along a few bars to the drum tech’s drumming. At the same time you make sure the bassist’s microphone and monitor work, and establish talkback contact to the FOH guy. While the guitar tech goes and switches to guitar,
- the drum tech rolls a backing track, and waits for signal acknowledgement from the FOH mixer. Now the guitar tech wields a guitar, and the monitor mixer makes sure the guitar channels are set at the correct levels. The drum tech
- gets back behind the drum kit and plays along to the backing. This way the FOH guy gets a dose of drums, guitar and backing in combination.
- The monitor mixer checks the main vocal mic. This is very important, and takes some time. It’s very important that the singer’s monitoring is just right, same goes for the mic’s sound.
- The final items are the acoustic guitar (guitar tech) and the vocalist’s IEM-levels (monitor mixer).
Using this checklist we will make sure that every signal line is checked as quickly and surely as possible. While the guitar tech goes through a final tune-up, the drum tech distributes the towels and drinks, and tapes the set-lists in the right places. The monitor mixer goes over the rest of the IEM-system and gives a final listen to the main vocal mic.
Regardless of the sequence of line checks, it is very important that the time before the show is used in the most efficient manner. Things have to keep on rolling, so keep the signal going to the FOH and monitor feeds. Often you will start with whichever signal is hooked up first by the festival’s stage crew. It could also well be the main vocals, as they are usually the most important signal. You needn’t always start with the kick drum.
18:30 – Changeover starts!
I’ve parked all my guitars and tools stage right. Everything’s ready to rock and the guitars are in tune. The act before us finishes their last song one minute in advance of the 18.30 schedule. I switch on all wireless systems in our rig – now they’re ready for testing, whenever the risers are in place and mains power connected.
18:32 - The stage is emptied
The previous band’s drum and amp stack risers are rolled off the stage. I help myself and the rental guys by lending a hand to get the bass riser backstage.
The position of the drum riser is the determining factor for everything else on the stage, which is why the drum kit is always rolled on first. To get myself a little breathing space I ask some stagehands to roll the bass riser onto the stage next, with the riser with the additional cabinets placed next to it. Both risers are left deliberately in the corner of the stage, until the drum riser is in its correct place. I get the guitar risers and place them on the opposite side of the stage. The stage is closed and our backcloth is put in place.
18:37 - Get the linecheck going
A linecheck is like a soundcheck in fast-forward, and without the artists on stage. Each signal source is played for a short time at a healthy signal level, to enable the FOH and monitor mixers to set their gain levels correctly. Both sound guys acknowledge in turn, once they’re done. Then you move on to the next channel, and then on to the next, and so on. At least on paper.
I step on stage from the left side, bass in hand. The bass riser is powered up and connected to the stagebox. I switch off standby and pluck a string.
18:42 - Is there a sound?
If I hadn’t checked the bass stack beforehand, I might have been in for a lot more stress. The bass amp works well, but there’s no DI-line in the house audio system. Well, there is, sort of, but it’s very weak and breaking up noisily. Because the drums haven’t been linechecked, yet, I put the bass on the stack, and rush over to the guitar stack to make sure there’s a signal in the guitar lines.
I grab the guitar, switch on the amp, and there’s the reassuring sound of electric guitar in my in-ears. A few moments later I get acknowledgement from both sound guys that the signal is good. I switch to acoustic guitar, strum it a few times, and this works well, too. I pick up both pedalboards and put them in place. Ready.
Now, back to the problem with the bass feed.
18:45 - The line is dead, why?
While I was linechecking, the drum mics have been plugged in – now the drum check starts. This gives me a few precious minutes to locate the problem with the missing bass DI-line.
The signal is fed straight from our Kemper Profiler’s XLR-send and hardwired to the rack’s output panel. There seems to be no sound. I take a spare instrument lead and connect it to the Kemper's 1/4” line level output and borrow a DI-box from the rental guys. No sound. I suspect a bad line in the house multicore cable, and request a channel feed change. The switch in the signal path doesn’t seem to make any difference – still no bass signal.
All this time I had sound coming from the bass stack, which is an indication that the bass and the cables to the amp seem to work fine. Is phantom power switched on in our active DI-box? Yes, it is. I try connecting to the mixer via a DI-box plugged into the pedalboard. No sound, nothing…
18:50 - The blame game
The stage technicians suspect a fault in my cables. This is nothing new, as everybody is always quick to assign blame away from themselves (and their equipment) in situations, such as these. Despite the pressure bearing down on me, I calmly explain to them that, due to the fact that the bass comes over loud and clear from the bass amp, my leads must be working OK and a good signal must be going to the DI-box. The guys don’t believe me, and start unplugging all my cables instead. As a last resort they try running a passive DI-box, which gets the job done. Kind of a relief.
While all this was going on, the drum tech finished the linecheck for the drums and distributed drinks and towels. Drinks are served in plastic bottles, which have their bottle tops unscrewed first and then screwed back on. If there are ventilating fans in use, they too are usually the responsibility of the drum technician. Finally, he tapes the set-lists into place.
18:52 - More problems
Our linecheck has kicked up another, potentially more fatal problem: some of the eight channels of our backing tracks aren’t reaching the mixing desks! The backing tracks are a vital part of the show. The band play to a click, and if the backing doesn’t play correctly, there’s no show, basically.
18:57 - ”Three minutes to go”
…our grey-haired, seasoned stage manager informs us. I don’t know why, but I feel I’m in a calm, Zen-like zone today. I feel confident, we’ll get to the bottom of this on time, so we dedicate ourselves fully to the mystery of the missing backing track channels.
The stage manager asks me if we’re ready to go, and should he get the band on stage. I tell him, not quite, but that we will be ready in time, when he turns up with the band. “We’d better be ready!” I think to myself…
The seconds tick away, and in the nick of time we locate the missing signal feeds.
19:02 - Two minutes late
The intro tape starts rolling while I rush to the side of the stage for the first guitar, ready to hand it to the guitarist.
Should I place the amp heads on the side of the stage?
Because you’re always concerned about quick changeovers and adequate soundcheck times at festivals, some might ask themselves: Why not place the amp heads next to the guitar tech, and run long cables to the cabinet risers? This would give you more time to check the amps during the day, and you’d really be ready come changeover.
Lots of bands do it this way actually, with KISS, Metallica and Alice in Chains first coming to mind. They all use similar rigs that send all the sound from the side of the stage, with only the cabinets actually being onstage with the band.
And you needn’t be a mega-successful band for this to work: The Rasmus used a similar set-up during the period of 2004–2012. There are many advantages to these rigs:
- All amps and racks are up and running on the side of the stage hours in advance.
- At the start of changeover the stage crew first hooks up the system to the FOH-stagebox. I could start linechecking almost immediately, before the drum linecheck.
- During the drum check I could put the pedalboards on stage and hook up the cabinet cables to the amp heads.
19:04 - We have lift-off!
Today, here in Switzerland, everything is different. I stand alone at the side of the stage, without any means to control the amps and the wireless system directly. Luckily, these days there’s only one wireless to worry about in our set-up. I can even see the receiver’s level indicators from behind the guitar stack, which is a good thing. And this rig is way easier to transport than a 16-unit rack.
Our show started late by two minutes, which means we have to make sure not to run over schedule. Many large festivals fine acts for running over time. I’ve heard talk of fines of up to 1,000 € per minute. So, better leave a wee little bit of air in your set-list, and do a bit of call-and-answer singalong with the crowd to time your set accordingly. It would be a shame if you had to leave the stage before your final song, only because you’ve crammed your set-list too full and time is up.
19:06 - Does everything work?
The first couple of songs are usually spent with a keen eye and ear on the equipment. In a festival situation the band has put all of their reputation as performers in the hands of their crew, so you will want to make sure there are no foul-ups.
The combination of a festival slot, rental gear and (especially) equipment transported in an aeroplane, strikes fear into any band crew. You definitely don’t want to be embarrassed in front of a large audience and your colleagues at the same time!
You can only hope that all of the hundreds of tiny metal strands inside the equipment stay in place during transport. You only need one tiny bit of copper to go astray on route to the festival, to cause a blown fuse, or worse, a fried amp or rack effect.
19:15 - The pulse normalizes
The pressure starts to drop. Everything seems to work perfectly, so your pulse normalizes. Now you can even afford to look around you a little bit. There are additional pairs of eyes behind my back. As the show rolls on, it is quite normal at a festival for other bands’ crews to go and have a look at what’s going on. At festivals this is usually tolerated well-spiritedly, especially if it’s other techs and musicians watching from the wings. Next time it may be you watching...
19:45 - Changeover approaching
As the show draws to a close, you start to think about packing away the first bits of gear. All the songs using the acoustic guitar have already been played, so I switch off the acoustic’s wireless transmitter, wipe off the guitar, and put it in its case. I won’t need my mobile workbench anymore, so away it goes, as does my talkback mic. I tune the spare electrics once more, and then pack away the tuner. During the last chorus of the last song, I switch off my IEM-system and change over to regular ear plugs, and then put the spare guitars into their cases. As the band get off, I take their instruments, wipe them off, and stow them away, too. Done!
19:57 - Get on quick, get off even quicker!
It’s even more important to vacate a stage after your set than it is to get your stuff on before the show! HIM’s guitar tech is on his way onto the stage, as I start ferrying our backline off. We say “hi”, and I get back onstage quickly to get the risers ready for transport off the stage. You roll the risers off in the same direction that you get onstage, which means down the middle in this case. So, it’s the drums first, today. Everything goes quickly – I put the pedalboard back onto the rack, disconnect all XLR-plugs, as well as the mains line. We’re ready to roll!
The same procedure for the second set of risers. In two minutes flat the stage is empty. The rest of the tear-down is done backstage. I put the leads and snakes into the pedalboard-cases, as well as into the racks and the protective Pelicases. A little careful planning goes a very long way.
20:04 - Enter the next act
HIM’s risers are rolled on at full steam. Their crew had already marked out the stage beforehand, so the risers are put in place in no time. Next up is a well-oiled linecheck regiment.
This is a band and crew who have had their stuff down pat for quite some time, already. Well before my stint with them, and ever since then. These days, you could already call it an institution. A well-oiled machine that keeps on running smoothly, even through any personnel changes. Most of this is thanks to their experienced drum tech, a very humorous Brit, who takes his football extremely seriously.
I get off the stage for the last time, but not without thanking the stage manager. I meet him on the ramp, we shake hands, and I can see him smile, thanks to the extremely smooth changeover.
“Thank you very much for this great day!” I say to him.
“The pleasure’s all mine. I hope to see you again soon!” the stage manager replies. I can see in his eyes that he really means it.
25.6.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma
The writer is the owner of Custom Boards Finland. He is a veteran guitar tech who has toured for years with Finnish bands HIM, Amorphis, Michael Monroe, The Rasmus and Von Hertzen Brothers. Today he designs pedalboards and runs his own web shop in Helsinki, Finland.