Outdoor live-sound work can be immensely satisfying to do — but it also involves some serious preparation...
Now that Summer is finally here, it's time to dust off the sun hat, deckchair and cool box — or should that be waterproof jacket, hot flask and tarpaulins? Either way, it's the time of year when many live events move into the open, offering opportunities and challenges to those involved with providing live sound.
For live-sound professionals, all this will be part and parcel of their everyday operations, but in this article I'll be taking a look at outdoor sound from a smaller PA owner or operator's point of view, as getting into outdoor work can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, provided you prepare well and know your own limitations.
What, Where & When
The live sound requirement for an outdoor event can be anything from a fully detailed technical specification to a vague notion from the event organisers that "we might need something.” The first contact with the organiser is often a simple message to say that they need a PA system for their event, and this is a crucial part of the process, because it's important to establish certain key facts early on — especially for outdoor venues, as there are more variables. There are obvious things to ask, such as the date, location and nature of the event (stage concert, arena display, and so on), but many more things need to be nailed down, because there's a very big decision to make here, and that's whether or not you feel capable of taking on the job at all. It's very tempting to just say yes because you really want the gig, but it's worth adopting a business-planning approach, where you realistically assess your capability to deliver what's required, and don't take on something you can't really handle. There's no shame in saying that you're not really set up for that sort of event (whatever it is) but that you can recommend someone else, thus keeping the door ajar for possible future work. This is much better than finding out too late — perhaps even on the day — that the demands can't be met.
Assuming that it's a goer, there are a few things to be very clear about up front, such as get-in times, performance times, load-out times, the exact location, whether the performers will be on stage or grass, covered or in open air, what the vehicle access will be like, and so on. I always try and prioritise the points that will have a major impact on what I'm going to be doing, and my own list includes all the above, plus:
- Is there a site plan showing the performance area, mix position and audience coverage area?
- What's the plan for wet weather?
- Will a suitable and safety-certificated power supply be provided close to the performance area?
- Will appropriate cover be provided for all equipment positions?
- What limitations exist regarding the running of cables within the site?
- Will the organisers be putting appropriate security and safety measures in place?
If, as is often the case with smaller outdoor events, the organisers are inexperienced regarding the technical side of things, they will probably ask for advice on some of these issues (or may not have thought of them at all), which is a great opportunity to influence things for the better. It's not unusual to deal with folk who have no awareness of sound systems at all, and seem surprised when I mention the need to run cables between pieces of equipment! Practical issues such as good vehicle access are also important, as these can mean the difference between an easy one-hour setup and a three-hour marathon of ferrying kit across a boggy field using the supplied sack-barrow!
One way of getting the organiser to understand and sympathise with the sound requirements is to explain in practical terms what providing live sound for their event invloves, and I have found that a quick diagram with a few arrows showing the signal path from stage mics to desk and back to front of house speakers is a useful tool. It also clarifies the need for power supplies of the right type and in the right place (see the 'Powering Up' box), and the need to position the mixing area appropriately. I am usually content to agree an off-centre control position in return for a closed-off area to one side, which means that I can run all my cables and operate entirely within an audience-free zone. This makes things easier during setup and take-down, and also frustrates the inclination of all humans to walk along, jump on or kick any cable they come across (that's why they put power lines up in the air, if you've ever wondered). An advance site visit can be very useful for assessing how the gig can be specified and organised, and I will always try to arrange one with the organisers at an early date.
In addition to the basics, it's also important to establish exactly what is expected of the sound crew on the day. Outdoor events often feature a line-up of different acts, and sometimes the sound crew are expected to manage them on and off stage, although most performers will set up their own instruments and backline.
Let's Talk About Specs
The on-stage requirements tend to be vague at this point, especially if it's a community event with multiple performers, so I like to get in first by supplying the organiser with a brief specification of what I think is going to be needed. This is usually something like "10kW main system, 32 inputs to mixer, good-quality reverb and other effects, four separate monitor mixes to six wedges on stage, six vocal mics, six instrument mics, five drum mics, six DI inputs”. This can be sent out to the performers and will establish the right level of expectation. It's best not to be too specific about the actual gear you'll be using, as for smaller events it really isn't critical, in my view, but there are always those who insist on having a certain brand of microphone or monitor speaker, given half a chance. I prefer to let the organisers deal with this where possible, and getting in first with the tech spec is the best way.
One area where I have found I sometimes need to be a tiny bit pushy is the question of what to do if it rains. Organisers are, understandably, optimistic about everything, including the weather, and do need to be pressed about their plans for an inclement spell. When considering the elements, it's important to include wind and direct sun, too, as these can be just as challenging, in their own way, as a heavy shower. In the case of shade cover, remember that if you're there all day the sun will be coming from a different direction after a while, and as well as overheating amps and active speakers, too much direct sunlight can easily wipe out LCD displays if they're left exposed.
If you are operating under a contract of services, it's advisable to include a clause about what facilities the organisers are responsible for providing. They should, after all, have included wind-loading details on their event's risk assessment, and you could always ask to see it, as it affects your safety as much as anyone else's. If you don't seek these kind of assurances, it could also affect any claim you may make on your own insurance.
The event organiser will have to prepare a risk assessment covering all the proposed activities within the event, and some, especially local authorities, will ask for a specific risk assessment to cover the operation of the sound system. This is a topic for a separate discussion, but it's not something to avoid or place in the 'too difficult' category, as it's really only a matter of common sense. There is a lot of good guidance available on government web sites, and you can download templates and adapt them for your own use. The important thing is to be able to demonstrate that you have considered the risks involved in what you will be doing at the event (everything from unloading and rigging to packing away afterwards), and have identified what you will do to control them if necessary.
Plan & Prepare
Armed with the advance information about the venue and roughly what kind of performance is planned, the next step is to determine what gear will be needed, and to prepare everything for loading. As most of my summer work is outdoors, I keep a standard rig more-or-less ready to roll: the power cabling, leads trunk, mics, monitors and so on go out on every gig, as well as a set of main speakers appropriate to the event. I always try to check the gear back in after every job, so that I know it's ready to go next time, but it's worth a quick look in all the trunks just to make sure everything is in place, and this is certainly preferable to discovering missing items after arriving on site.
One can never have too many XLR leads, mics, DI boxes or adaptors of every persuasion, so they always travel with me, on the basis that I'd rather have 20 spare mics in the van than be just one short for the gig. When it comes to main system components, I can't take a backup along for everything (mainly for space reasons), but it's an interesting debate. I've experienced main speakers and mixers failing during a live show, but how far do you go with transporting spare units? If I'm using one main mid/top speaker each side, I generally do load a pair of compact, powered, full-range speakers as an emergency backup, on the premise that something is better than nothing at all. And if I take a backup system, according to the teachings of Sod, the main speakers are guaranteed not to fail, ever. For the sake of a small amount of space and an extra few minutes, you might also consider taking an extra small-format mixer along, because if your main board has a spectacular fail, you could at least get a few channels up and running.
Power & Projection
Outdoor spaces are generally much less reflective than the great indoors, and whilst this is a good thing for sound quality and clarity, it means that the perceived sound levels can be lower: a rig that really pumps out in the local hall can sound very weak when faced with a grass floor and no walls.
If your system isn't really delivering the goods beyond 20 or 30 paces, you probably need something more suitable, but there are a few things to experiment with first. Try moving the left and right speakers closer together, play around with the cabinet angles, and if you're using two or more subs, try putting them in a single cluster in the centre or to one side, instead of splitting them up. This is also a good time to try out those input-polarity switches on your subs that you've never used before, and if you can adjust your crossover frequency, you can try making the subs work a bit harder, leaving the mid-range/top boxes to concentrate on putting across the vocal range more effectively. Tuning the system, whether automatically or with EQ, is also important and needs to be carried out in the context of the venue, as open spaces are just as variable as rooms and halls.
If your system just isn't cutting it, however, it's probably time to think about hiring in something more suitable, and of course the cost of this will have to be taken into account. When hiring, you can discuss the requirement with the sound company. They will be able to recommend something suitable, and you may also pick up some valuable information from them at the same time.
The main choice with speakers is probably whether to go for a line array or the more traditional point-source box, and you can get great results with both, provided they are suitable for the task in hand. Line arrays tend to be more compact and easier to handle with fewer crew members, give nice, wide dispersion, and are scalable according to how far away the back of your audience will be. Bear in mind, though, that using a 'longer' array means you will have to mount it higher, and this may be a problem at smaller events.
Prepping for an outdoor gig isn't all about the main speakers, however: the monitor system will also need to be powerful enough to meet the demands of those on stage. Outdoor stages tend to be large, and a four-piece band may find themselves more spaced apart than they are used to, and will need more from the foldback than at an average indoor gig. For most of our multi-band outdoor programmes, we use four monitor mixes, feeding three across the front of the stage and one to the back for the drummer. This seems to work well for almost everyone, at least as a starting point, and if it's in your advance tech notes, at least they know what to expect and can contact you if they need anything more exotic.
The other main system component is the mixing desk, and I generally use a digital desk and digital snake system because it's so easy to set up (especially the Cat 5 cable instead of a big heavy multicore), and all the processing is built in. There are occasions where it may be worth going deliberately low-tech, however, including situations where you're not entirely sure about the weather or the venue. I'm glad I took this decision for a recent job, where my desk was knocked to the floor by an escaping gazebo. Whatever gear you do use, make sure that it is properly cased and is packed for easy and safe transportation.
A permanent resident in my van is a sack of strong plastic tarpaulins of different sizes, together with a comprehensive collection of bungee straps, load straps and cable ties. Audio equipment and water don't mix happily, and it's important to have the means of protecting your investment. Finally, don't forget to pack a few extras: you can't assume that a table will be available for your mixer, nor a chair for you to sit on, for example. A few creature comforts are needed too, and I always take a first-aid kit, a change of clothes, and some anti-bacterial hand wipes, because you never know where you might end up working or who's been there before you. Don't forget to take along something to eat and plenty of water to drink, as once you're up and running it can be very difficult to get away for a break. Finally, make sure you have plenty of tape to repair or stick things down with, nylon cable ties for fastening anything to anything, and a selection of tools in case serious repair is required.
I always try to arrive well before I need to, in case of unexpected problems or last-minute changes of plan by the event organisers. I've been confronted upon arrival with various issues, like "Sorry, the stage hasn't happened,” or "We've got to change field,” and even "I'm still trying to get a generator sorted out...” None of which are directly to do with the sound but all of which have a profound effect. I've learnt from bitter experience not to unload the van until the stage and mix position are ready and clear of other people drilling, hammering and climbing on things, but once all this is done, the setting-up process can begin as planned, and this is probably the most straightforward part — provided the planning was done properly! With my own setup, it works out that I set up the mixer end, while two other guys do the mains/monitors and stage rig, and all three come together in under an hour, including those little open-air touches like having to level off the speakers on uneven ground using a few wooden shims, having tarpaulins strategically placed near the kit, and so on.
I like to get the main system powered up and running before anything else, as this is the one part that is truly essential, and it's always reassuring to hear it fire up, especially when there's still time to chase down any faults. I like to run the system gently for a few minutes, then put on a test track. I use one of my standard favourites first, because I know how the rig should sound, and then I use some material that is roughly similar to what the live acts will be doing. With the PA running at a moderate volume, I'll have a walk around the whole audience area to spot any obvious holes in the sound or inconsistencies in the balance. If necessary, I'll then adjust the speaker placement; some engineers like to use pink noise for this, and some prefer music, but it's important to listen around the whole site. Assuming that the speakers will be ground-stacked, try to leave the subs at ground level where possible, rather than putting them up on a stage, and try to get the top boxes high enough to be well over head height. If they can be angled down slightly, so much the better, but it's all a case of trying it out and deciding what works best in any particular place. Where the gig is being held in part of a larger area and there is no physical boundary, it's best to assume that the audience may well spread a bit wider than planned, so a listening walk around the extreme edges of the area may also be worthwhile.
Once the mics and stage lines have all been checked and all the monitor sends are up and running, it's time to tune the system, if you are so inclined, including notching out any problem frequencies either with a feedback processor or a graphic EQ. When all is prepared, it's time to get on with the soundchecks, if any, and these are pretty much the same as for an indoor session. For advice about soundchecks in general, read last month's feature on effective soundchecking at /sos/jul12/articles/soundchecking.htm.
At most small-scale outdoor events, the mix position isn't very far from the stage, so I usually get one of the crew to listen from further back and let me know how it sounds. Then, when I have a rough mix (one that I'd be happy to run with, at least), I'll nip off for a listen myself.
It's essential to rig a talkback system, and if there isn't one built into your mixer, you can set one up by plugging a spare mic into a spare channel on your desk, and routing it to the aux outputs so that you can communicate with the artists on stage. Shouting into the breeze or using a form of semaphore to communicate with the band is frustrating and wastes time.
Up & Running
This really should be the easy bit, where all the petty problems have been resolved and you can start to fully enjoy operating out of doors. That's assuming, of course, that's it's not raining or unduly windy, the gear is functioning correctly, you didn't leave anything behind, the performers are a delight to work with and no-one is hassling you. Over the last three weeks, we've done seven outdoor community-type events, and (apart from the wind-versus-gazebo thing) the only consistent annoyance has been the constant stream of singers and dancers turning up at the last minute with what they believe to be backing tracks on a CD. I make a point of specifying that we can play audio CDs that are not damaged, dirty (exhibiting traces of jam, for example) or carrying clipped material, but it's almost a dead cert that we'll get at least one data disc which their dad made on his laptop and they know it works because the laptop plays it. We still get cassettes and Minidiscs (which we can actually cope with), and various breeds of solid-state players, which, for some reason, their owners rarely seem able to operate. If I have time, I will arrange for a stereo mini-jack lead to be hanging out of the console, ready to plug an iPod into if asked.
You'll always get a dance group who rush up at the very last minute, thrusting something at you saying, "Right, it's the first bit of track seven, then play track four but stop after the 'Da da da' bit, then track 17 on the other CD, then I'm not sure... Oh, and as loud as you can,” which tells you all you need to know, I suppose.
At outdoor gigs where the audience is crowding the stage, the volume level isn't likely to be a problem, but for more laid-back events people will tend to bring their picnic rug, find a nice spot behind a big tree about 100 yards from the stage, then complain that the music isn't loud enough. Luckily, some of them will also be live-sound experts and will tell you that this or that instrument needs to go up or down by a dB or so, which I always find particularly helpful when I'm trying to track down what's ringing slightly in the mix and my friend the dance teacher has returned to let me know what comes after track 17 on the other CD. The message about it not being loud enough is invariably delivered by shouting above the (perfectly loud enough) sound level where most of the audience are, but the suggestion that they may find it more to their liking if they moved slightly closer doesn't really hit the spot...
When the last performers have left the stage, the work of taking the rig down and packing everything away can begin. I make sure all the small, removable items, like mics, DI boxes and jack cables, are put away first, and I also try to ensure that there's someone keeping a general eye on things near the stage and near the mixer. With luck, the pack-up will be done in the dry, but if you're unlucky enough to cop a wet one, where the gear will be in the van overnight, try to dry everything off as it goes into the van, and maybe leave the speaker covers off so that air can circulate around them. It's very tempting to just throw everything into the nearest trunk and resolve to sort it out back at base, but it doesn't take much longer to check and pack everything properly, and it means there's less chance of missing something if it all goes into its usual container in the usual way.
The sound system is often the last thing on site, and unless you've come to an arrangement with the organisers (or you've supplied them yourself), it's likely that the lights will be dismantled long before you've finished. I sometimes carry a couple of small floodlights for use when packing up, but if the power has been cut off as well, we often end up using the van headlights as a last resort. Carrying a couple of good, powerful torches can also make life much easier!
So, when all is loaded, and after a quick final word with your client the organiser, it's time to head off and get ready for the next gig. One final thought: if you make a note of all the things you wish you'd done differently, or that you wish someone else had done differently, and use this to improve your next outdoor adventure, there's just a chance you may even start to enjoy yourself!
At almost any outdoor event, there's the matter of electrical power to be agreed and sorted out, and assuming that you don't have your own generator, this is always, always something I insist that the organisers provide themselves. What I require is a suitable, safe power supply, preferably single-phase and not supplying anyone else on the site.
You can work out the total connected load of your whole rig exactly, but a rough estimate would be double your rig output power, plus the rated power consumption of all your peripheral gear. Ask the organisers to make sure the supply is robust enough to handle it. A permanently wired electrical installation is preferable, as it will have all the necessary protection built in, but there's no problem running from a generator, provided that it's fit for purpose and is of the 'super silent' type. This should be supplied by a reputable hire company, and the temporary installation must have protection devices installed at the correct points and be inspected and approved by a qualified electrician before you use it.
The actual positioning of generators can sometimes be left to the sound crew, so a compromise may be on the cards: electrically speaking, it needs to be as close to the equipment as possible to minimise cable length and make a compact system, but then you need to minimise the noise nuisance and keep the exhaust fumes away, so behind a hedge, wall or vehicle, and downwind of the stage, is the way to go. Depending on the size of the generator and what load is connected, it may require an earth (ground) spike to be driven into the ground (an RCD is required however the earth is bonded). The only safe way to deal with the power supply, however, is to have it checked by a qualified professional, and I always ask the organiser to arrange this.
The type of supply dictates what power cables you need to take with you, and it's worth building up a selection of properly made adaptors and getting a weather-rated distribution unit of your own. Most show generators will have a selection of 32A and 16A outlets, but it's better to be sure, as these kind of connectors aren't the sort of thing you can pop out and buy from the local supermarket. Outdoor power cables need to be fitted with IEC60309 standard connectors (the 'domestic' type should really only be for backline and individual pieces of gear within the system), and should be either armoured or suitably rated for outdoor use.
Don't forget to include some form of protection for your cables too, preferably in the form of rubber cable covers, but even a few rubber-backed doormats can be useful for temporary protection or to stop cables rolling out of position or looking untidy.