Stage gear takes a lot more punishment than studio equipment, so investing a few quid in suitable protection for it has to be worth considering. But what do you need to know before buying?
Once you've spent hard-earned cash on equipment for live sound use, it's the generally accepted wisdom that it will need protecting against bumps and scrapes along the way. Captain Kirk could look after the Enterprise by simply saying 'raise shields' but for the likes of you and me, it's 'flightcase'. You might think that the cost of flightcases to properly protect your valuable gear against damage will be quite high (although cases don't actually cost as much as you might expect). However, investing in suitable cases not only offers protection against damage, but has other 'on road' benefits too, in terms of added convenience and flexibility, not to mention the professional look it gives you.
If you try a Google search on 'flightcase', about two million results will be returned, the first page or so of which are likely to refer to flightcases for the entertainment and corporate advertising industries. No matter what the object is, the chances are that someone, somewhere makes a flightcase for it, or is quite willing to do so if asked. In the field of live sound, we need cases in which to hold, operate, store and transport our equipment. The degree of protection required and the overall design and quality of the case will depend not only on the gear itself but also on the intended or potential use. When I started out I couldn't afford much in the way of decent sound gear, let alone cases to put it in, but as I've built up and improved my PA inventory I've tried to ensure that it is packed and protected as well as possible. In choosing which cases are the best for your needs, don't forget that they will add to the overall size and weight of the gear you need to move around; many full flightcases are heavier than their contents, so you may need to consider the individual weight of each item, and perhaps even the load capacity of the vehicle you use to transport your gear.
Generally known as 'rack cases' or 'rackmount cases', these are usually made to accommodate standard 19-inch gear, which is permanently fixed into the case and is stored, transported and operated in situ. Cases of this type usually have removable front and rear doors, with a centre section that contains the rack gear itself. A few different types are available: you can obtain the traditional plywood cases with aluminium edging and heavy-duty butterfly catches, or there are lighter, moulded cases that are suitable for outboard processors as well as heavier items such as amplifiers. One issue I have with moulded cases is that they often have the rackmounting strips at the front edge of the case, which means that control knobs will protrude and will be exposed when the front cover is removed. The more traditional cases usually mount the gear a little further back inside the casing.
For especially delicate gear, 'sleeved' rack cases are available. The 19-inch rack holding the equipment fits inside an outer casing, or sleeve, and between the two parts is a layer of foam to cushion against impact and vibration (ever sat on the floor in the back of a Transit van when it's negotiating a bumpy road?). Any equipment containing moving parts, such as CD and Minidisc players, or anything containing a hard drive, would undoubtedly benefit from this type of protection.
Prices for rack cases range from around £90 for a budget 4U traditional board case, through standard board and lightweight polyethylene 4U cases at between £90 and £125, to high-protection sleeved 4U cases at around £150. Bear in mind that the larger the case gets, the cheaper it will usually be per 'U'.
Although rack cases are usually built with a sort of aluminium tongue-and-groove arrangement around the lid edges, this is primarily to locate the lid securely and not for environmental protection, unless the case is specifically designed to provide this. Most cases will prevent a small amount of moisture from getting inside, meaning that you can carry them (or, much better, get your roadie to carry them) through the rain, but if you want to keep the elements out completely, the case will have to have a proper environmental rating, such as IP44 — as applied to outdoor mains connectors, for example. Such specialised cases — designed mainly for transporting items like laboratory instruments — tend to be expensive and are not always very robust, but are worth considering for very sensitive gear. I use such cases for my recording equipment, which tends to be carried in cars rather than vans and is only handled by me!
Rack cases are available in different depths (front-to-back), and experience has taught me to use the correct depth if at all possible: too shallow and your equipment pokes out from the back (and is therefore at risk and looks naff); too deep and you'll be forever shining a torch inside and struggling to plug things into the proper holes. A good rack depth will comfortably accommodate the equipment, allow good access to the rear-panel connections and provide enough space to store or permanently install things like power cables. Having said that, if you do keep cables inside the rack (which saves time during setup), make sure that the metal plugs can't roll around inside and damage anything. A power distribution panel is a very useful thing in an effects rack, as it provides a neat and safe solution. Most of these can be mounted on the rear rack strips (if you have them), which means that you're not sacrificing an 'operational' slot in your rack.
One final thought: it's a good idea to label the outside of the case to identify the front and the top, so that it can be transported the right way up, and placed in situ the right way around. Saves time every time!
However useful road trunks are, there's a compromise to be made when deciding what goes into them and therefore what size you need. It's very convenient and very fast to have all manner of bits and pieces in one or two large trunks — just wheel 'em in and away you go — but consider the weight and size of large cases, and the difficulty of handling them. It doesn't take many cables or mic stands to make a road trunk into a heavy and unwieldy object, and you may then need a second person to help get them in and out of the vehicle or into the venue. One way around this is to use what I think of as the Russian doll approach: various bits of gear (for example, microphones, adapters, small signal cables, and so on) can be kept in small cases, and then several of these cases can be transported inside one larger trunk, depending on how much you need to take to the gig, and how many helpers you have. This gives the best of both worlds and also provides two layers of protection. A fully-loaded road trunk can be a difficult beast to control, especially if all four wheels are swivelling castors. I've lost count of the times a slight sideways gradient has given the trunk a mind of its own (the 'Shopping Trolley Effect') and then there's Postlethwaite's Theorem, which states that if one end of a laden castor-equipped trunk is lifted by a person, the opposite end will tend to describe an arc which terminates against an adjacent vehicle.
Mic stands are a real pain to carry when you've got more than two in each hand, and you can get neat little road trunks specially for them. Do watch out when emptying these long, thin cases though. Due to their tall, narrow shape and the weight of the lid acting on one side when open, some of them can be prone to tipping over as you take the last stand out. If possible, stand them up against a wall so that they can't do anyone any harm.
Trunk cases can save loads of time and leg-work when you're loading, unloading and setting up. Road trunks come in all shapes and sizes, can be used to transport and protect virtually anything, and cost as little as £150 or so new. The most obvious uses are for cables, microphone stands and the like — in fact, anything which otherwise would have to be carried in small numbers and in lots of trips between van and venue. It's great to roll the trunk right up to the stage area and simply pull out all the cables you need, in the correct order and neatly coiled; I reckon this is the biggest time-saver of all during setup. When packing up at the end of the night you can again save time by just throwing everything in, provided you remember to sort it all out before the next gig.
- Flightcase Warehouse
+44 (0)1827 60009.
- R&J Flytes
+44 (0)1536 723451.
- The Noizeworks
0870 240 3119.
For live sound equipment, rack cases and road trunks will cover most of the basic requirement, but some kit will require special attention. Up-market backline will often need specially-sized cases for life on the road. For example, a guitar 4x12 could be transported in a bespoke case where most of the height consists of a very deep lift-off lid, so that the cabinet can be left on the shallow base (and the castors) during the gig, if need be. For main PA speakers, very large flight cases would be needed, so unless you're on the road all the time, touring far afield or engaged in the hire business, you can generally get away with padded bags (available for as little as £80 a pair for popular compact PA speakers such as the Mackie SRM450) and a bit of careful packing and handling. Many items of professional audio-visual display equipment are housed in lightweight transit cases, which offer convenience of mobility and enough protection and look like 'real' flight cases, but are not designed to withstand roadie rage. Beware of re-using these cases for heavy items such as amplifiers, because the side panels may not be strong enough to withstand much of an impact.
Speaking of using and re-using, there are a lot of second-hand cases available, some at very good prices. It's worth taking a close look at older ones before purchasing, because it can be very frustrating and time-consuming to repair or replace things like aluminium edging strip, distorted hinges or seized-up butterfly catches. I must admit to having two fairly large and currently unusable cases in my gear graveyard because I just haven't got the time to repair them properly, and they're a waste of space and money if they're not working for a living!
Because of the relatively simple construction of flightcases, they are quite easy to adapt; if you find one with a lift-off lid and shallow base, it can be converted into a cable trunk by turning it upside-down and putting the wheels on what was originally the lid.
You will need to turn any flip-up handles the other way round too, because they are only designed to take the load in one direction, and if you use them the wrong way around they can trap your fingers against the case. If not already fitted, wheel brakes are a good idea too, especially for heavy cases that have to remain upright in transit; having at least one locking castor should prevent too much moving around or the possibility of the case rolling off the tail lift.
On my last trip to Flightcase Warehouse in Tamworth, I took my camera along and had a chat with Jason Furneaux, FW's general manager, and the company's owner and director, Steve Austin, about how the cases are made. Jason talked and then walked me through the whole process of turning raw materials and boxes of fittings into finished flightcases. They're all made from birch plywood, either 7mm or 9mm thick, which is supplied in large sheets and has a coloured (usually black) phenolic surface layer ready-bonded on both sides (they call it 'Hexaboard', but I'm not sure if this is a trade name or a generic name).
The case edging is aluminium extrusion in 7mm and 9mm sizes, depending on the board being used, and the rest of the 'raw' stock consists mainly of fittings (ball corners, castors, handles, hinges and butterfly catches) and the foam used to line the cases, which is cut to exactly fit the equipment going into the case. One case size, for example, can — if 'foamed' to suit — accommodate several different but similar items of equipment.
Flightcase Warehouse make around 120-150 cases every month, nearly all based on specific customer orders (more than half via their web site), so the manufacturing process has had to be streamlined and automated as far as possible, to keep prices down and production up. The various pieces of machinery in the workshop areas are set up to produce whatever model of flightcase is required, and a production run can be for a single case or as many as required to meet a customer's needs. All the specifications are maintained on a specialist piece of design software, which means that the tooling-up and identification of the component parts needed to build a particular size and shape of case is quick and straightforward. An order can literally be in production within minutes of being received. Not all the cases are for the music industry: clients include motor-racing teams, specialist equipment manufacturers (for example, drinks vending machines) and promotional display companies.
Don't forget the potential advertising value of your flightcases. They're often quite big, and they'll often be the first thing anyone sees when you roll up to a new venue, so a logo or name stencilled on the outside can give a good impression from the start. Stencilling your cases also adds a degree of security, and it can save time at a gig if the cases are labelled with their contents. However, I tend to use coded language for this, because you don't necessarily want casual observers watching you putting a box labelled 'little, very expensive microphones' into your vehicle. Something like '12 vox h/held' does it for me.
When an order is received, a job sheet will be raised detailing the model and specification of the case required. The panels and aluminium extrusion are cut to the correct size and the necessary holes and recesses are routed and cut to accommodate the fittings at a later stage.
The individual panels are then riveted together to form the basic shell of the flight case. This has been made into a much more efficient process by the introduction of specialised machines, such as the one I'd seen being delivered that very day. Jason explained that it was a 'long-arm riveter', which can punch rivets straight through aluminium extrusion and side panels without the need for pre-drilling. The 'long-arm' part means that the riveter can reach across larger panels and fasten the case together without stopping to re-position the work.
Once the case has been assembled, complete with all the correct openings and recesses, the 'hybrid' sections are attached. These are the aluminium 'mating' edges that fit around any openings, such as the edges of lids and doors, and must be properly aligned to maintain the case's structural integrity. After this, various other pieces of hardware, such as the metal ball corners, hinges, catches and handles can be added. This job must be done by hand, but because the routing and cutting is done according to the case spec in advance, before assembly, all the openings are exactly the right size for the fittings being used. When the case is complete with fittings, the castors — if required — are attached, either direct to the case, or mounted on an 18mm plywood wheel-board for larger versions.
The final stage is to cut and fix the internal foam lining. Once again, the exact dimensions are taken from the design database and the foam (firm packaging foam called Jiffy foam) is cut to size with an electric knife, then fixed in place with a compressed-air spray-glue gun. This looks like brilliant fun, and you get to wear a cool mask!
The finished cases are checked over and sent to the despatch area for shrink-wrapping or bubble-wrapping, before the firm's two courier services come to collect them every afternoon.
Before leaving, I asked the owner, Steve Austin, whether the company had ever been asked to make anything out of the ordinary — and apparently they have. A gentleman once ordered a flightcase made to fit himself, to be used as his coffin, wheels and all. Now that really is rock and roll!