Looking for some inspiration for your Christmas list? Check out our round-up of live sound gadgets.
With Christmas just around the corner and Santa’s elf-sweatshop ramping up its productivity, I thought now would be an excellent time to recommend a few very useful little gadgets that have made my life in the trenches of live sound that much easier. Most of these are small enough to fit into an average Christmas stocking, too, so if you’ve been a very good little sound engineer this year, you might want to add some of them to your list. (Santa has a very keen ear, of course, and has been known to take feedback and poor gain structure into account when distributing his festive gratuities.)
I’ve avoided the usual culprits here (as a soundy, you should already have a lifetime’s supply of gaffer, sparky tape, Sharpies, cable ties and what-not); instead I’ll be running through some of my lesser-known (though no less useful) secret weapons.
Right at the top of my “I didn’t know I needed this until I had one” list is a phantom-powered noise generator built into an XLR shell. We reviewed one back in SOS December 2012, but there are a few of the things around (typically, they can output either white or pink noise, and also have an LED at the end to indicate correct XLR wiring).
What makes them so useful is that they let you test several things at once. Say you’ve got your stagebox set up and connected to your front-of-house desk: if you turn on phantom power on all of the channels on your mixer, wind the gains up a little on each input, turn all the monitor sends and masters up, and finally all the channel and master faders, you’ll be able to check almost every facet of your system from on stage in one go, without having to run back and forth between the stage and the mixer, or having to ask your assistant for help (this will free him or her up to go and fetch some food, untangle some cables, or do whatever it is your exploitative employment contract obliges them to). By simply plugging the noise generator into each stagebox input in turn, you can verify the phantom power on each channel, the stagebox wiring, the wiring to the main and FOH speakers, and the health of the speakers themselves (a blown driver quickly gives itself away after a pink-noise test).
But the fun doesn’t stop there! You can also use your pocket noise machine to figure out any acoustic anomalies in the venue, as a guide for setting up your graphics (it helps to familiarise yourself with the dulcet sound of pink noise beforehand), or for testing your mic cables. And you can also make cool swooshing noises by combining it with a parametric EQ — it really is the gift that keeps on giving!
Another handy little gizmo I’ve encountered recently is the TC Electronic PolyTune Clip guitar tuner. What sets it apart from most other clip-on tuners is that, if you strum all the strings on your guitar at once, it will immediately tell you which ones are out of tune — and this saves you going through the whole EADGBE rigmarole every time you tune up.
Even if you’re not a guitarist, one stocking filler I can highly recommend is a Neutrik Silent Jack instrument lead. The Silent Jack has a cunning bit of magnetic switching going on that eliminates any nasty pops when it’s being connected and disconnected — and while I’ve gotten very good at pre-empting the careless unplugging of instruments with a lightning-fast flick of the mute switch, having one of these cables has undoubtedly made my live-sound life less stressful.
A little off-piste, this next one, but very handy nonetheless: if you pop to the Fishing & Outdoor Pursuits section of your local Aldi, you’ll find, for under a fiver, a natty military-green baseball cap that has an LED torch built into the peak. I’ve found these to be especially handy at festivals, where lighting around the FOH position is often scarce (though even ‘proper’ venues are frequently woefully lit), making navigating your mixer a pain in the arse. Illuminated fishing lights are also handy for startling your enemies (ie. people with opinions), while the camouflaged exterior helps you blend seamlessly into nearby foliage should you need to make a stealthy retreat.
Speaking of festivals, which are usually very noisy places, a set of earplugs would be a very useful thing to ask Santa for too (just remember to check the very bottom of your stocking, as they can easily become stuck in the toe part). It doesn’t seem fair to subject an audience to sound levels you wouldn’t be comfortable with yourself, so I personally don’t use them for mixing (though they can be very handy for playing on loud stages), but if you’ve been up until wrong o’clock working at a festival, then you’re likely to want a lie-in the next morning — and that can be made damn-near impossible if, like me, you seem to have a near-clairvoyant ability to pitch your tent right next to the psy-trance stage. Those bastards start at 10am on the dot every bloody morning, and I assure you it’s somehow simultaneously the most tedious, repetitive, yet difficult to ignore style of music ever conceived. Bonus points if you can also hear a reggae stage at the same time; by the time you’ve waited for that blissful nanosecond during which the two sound systems are in sync, you’ll realise you haven’t slept a wink and that it’s time to set up the first band of the next day — assuming you don’t murder anyone on your way to the stage. Earplugs save lives!
While we’re on the subject of aural accessories, consider asking Santa for a set of closed-back headphones. Not only are these great for identifying any nasties in your mix (or as an aide memoire for when you’ve forgotten which musician is plugged into which DI box), but in combination with an iPod they provide outstanding isolation from the Queen’s speech.
Finally, and in the spirit of naff Yuletide attire, why not ask Santa for a nice Moog or Metallica T-shirt? When properly cared for, these can last for many decades, and will leave no punter in any doubt about who the sound guy is.