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Gigs and Shows

Taking Care of Your Voice

A guide, with tips, for touring singers.

The voice is the primary means of communication for human beings. In music, the vocal performance often conveys the emotion of the song. You can replace broken instruments but a singing voice that has been damaged through overwork or abuse is difficult to repair.  As the singer or vocalist, you owe it to yourself to take optimum care of your voice—it is your career and your livelihood. At the same time, touring is a relentless work out for a vocalist. You should be able to cope with the singing every night for a 2-week tour for instance, and it is the travel, lack of sleep, less than perfect nutrition, and experimentation with too much drink and drugs, that will contribute to a ruined voice and cancelled shows.
Most of the voice-related problems I have encountered whilst working with vocalists on-the-road are caused by the vocal folds (known as the vocal cords) being neglected and then overworked. Your vocal folds are two small muscles at the base of your throat that vibrate and create sound when controlled breath is passed through them. The vocal cords are usually smooth, with no irregularities on the vibrating borders. Causing the cords to vibrate too hard by shouting, speaking, or singing too much, causes friction, and a “bruise” will develop on the vibrating edge of the cords. Over time, fibrous tissue replaces the bruise, the tissue becomes larger and appears as a soft, or hard, white nodule.
The symptoms of these nodules, or nodes, include a quivering in the voice (in the higher registers), hoarseness, an inability to sing high notes, and a breathy or husky speaking voice. resting the voice for two to three weeks can correct the nodules and undertaking training and speech therapy to correct the vocal behaviour should prevent the nodules from re-appearing.  However, surgery may be necessary for extreme circumstances.
A rough singing voice and the inability to sing high notes are not a problem—modern hard rock and heavy metal almost demand it. However, continuing to abuse your vocal cords by singing with nodules could lead to laryngeal cancer [1].
Bearing all this in mind, here are my tips to help maintain your voice (and your general health) when touring:

  • Drink plenty of water. Water is good for the whole body, not just your vocal cords. (Health experts and doctors recommend you drink 8 large cups of water (2 litres) a day.) If you do not drink enough water your body will de-hydrate and your voice will suffer damage as the cords dry out.
  • Warm up your body, including your voice, before a performance. You should have a set of warm-up exercises for your voice, and not just before a show, either. Warming up is also appropriate to sound checks in cold, empty venues.  Ten to twenty minutes of breathing exercises, humming, and la-ing, before sound check and again before the show will keep your vocal folds and your neck muscles in great condition.
  • Avoid air-conditioned environments. Avoiding a/c is difficult in summer and you can minimise your exposure (ha!) by switching off the A/C on the bus or in the van. Humidity also helps. Inhale steam in a non-humid environment. Portable steam inhalers are now available in any good department store or online. (This one by Vicks gets a lot of mentions from vocal coaches on the web.) If you cannot afford a steam inhaler , then boil a pot of water on the stove and remove it once boiled. Place your head over the steam and place a towel over your head and the pot. Breathe with the towel still over your head. 
  • Don’t smoke (anything). The middle of the lit cigarette can reach 700 deg C (or 1292 deg F)[2]; imagine what that temperature will do to your vocal cords. 
  • Avoid alcohol before singing. Although liquid in any form cannot contact your vocal cords, alcohol has a physical property that allows it to be absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin and mucosal membranes[3]. The vocal cords absorb small amounts of alcohol through the surrounding tissue. The initial effect of the alcohol is to cause dilation of blood vessels in this tissue. An initial sensation of “clarity and control” in the throat is quickly replaced by a numbing of the network of tiny nerves that control the voice and other coordinated body movements. Ever hear a drunken person sing? 
  • Rest your voice as much as possible on the day of a performance. Limit all interviews and promotional activities to a total of 20 minutes per show day.
  • Do not scream or shout during sound check.
  • Work with your monitor engineer to get the best stage monitor sound possible. You are less likely to strain your voice if you can hear yourself and the other instruments on stage.  Invest in an in-ear monitor (IEM) system as soon as you are able to afford to as this will help you get a good, clean, stage monitor sound.
  • Don’t strain. Change the key of songs if necessary.
  • Avoid all dairy products before a show, especially if you have a cold. Colds can produce an excess of mucus; experts say dairy foods produce extra mucus. The two together will have you sneezing, coughing, and spitting, in no time.
  • Do not use over-the-counter sore-throat sprays. The common sore throat spray is for a condition called pharyngitis, which is an area far above the vocal cords. The spray has a numbing effect on the surrounding tissue so the pain temporarily goes away[4]. You are still using your vocal cords – you just can’t feel the extra damage.
  • Use one of the pre-cold treatments such as First Defence. They do stop you developing a full-blown cold.  I know a scientist who works in a germ lab and she told me all her scientist colleagues use First Defence at the first sign of getting a cold – she is a scientist and would not put her trust in something unproven! (I believe you can only get in UK and Europe?)

Conclusion.

There is a worrying trend upwards of shows being cancelled because of ‘illness’ and I can only suppose these illnesses are vocal-related. Don’t piss off your fans by cancelling shows because you can’t sing –   look after your voice.

Footnotes.

  1. I know this because a gentleman named Dean Colley wrote to me after the publication of my first book.
  2. I assume this is true because I read it on the internet. Google, ‘how hot is a cigarette’ to see for yourself.
  3. See 1 above
  4. A doctor in San Diego told me this. After my vocalist had been almost drinking the stuff every night of the tour.
Categories
Gigs and Shows

Walk-in and Intro Music

You can create a conducive atmosphere in the venue and enhance your set by using walk-in and intro music.

Rehearsing your music and making a good set list are vital parts of presenting a great show. You can enhance your performance by giving some thought to walk-in music and an intro piece.

Walk-in music.

Walk-in music is the name given to music played through the PA before the start of the first live act of the evening and in the gaps between subsequent artist’s slots – it’s the background music the audience hears when they walk into the venue. Organising and choosing walk-in music is either a last-minute improvisation, with the in-house engineer plugging her phone into the audio console and pumping Spotify, or a meticulously curated collection of tracks that the headline artist would like you to hear to create a vibe for that evenings show. Walk-in music always seems to be chosen as a variation of those two scenarios; choose the latter and give some thought to creating a playlist to set the right vibe for your show.

You should definitely choose some walk-in music if you are headlining your shows. You can create your walk-in playlist on Spotify, like the in-house engineer above, and set the playlist to ‘offline’ in case the wifi in the venue is patchy. Choose 15- 20 songs; that will translate to one hour and 15 minutes of music – more than enough to fill the time after the doors open, and also for the change over periods. You will have to leave your phone at a front-of-house (FOH) mixing board if going down this Spotify route, so consider having a second device to use for this purpose.

You should also give some thought to what music you want the audience to hear when you have finished your set. Playing out music that is the complete opposite of your genre will let the audience know the show is finished and encourage them to leave the venue quickly (which pleases venue cleaners) and remember you want the audience to swing by your merch stall first.

Intro music.

The intro/play-on music is a short piece of music or sound played out as the artist appears on stage, usually coinciding with the house lights being dimmed and/or the curtain opening. Playing out a piece of music or sound at the top of the show can divert the audience’s attention from the singers or musicians walking onstage, picking up instruments, fiddling around with microphone stands, and so on. 

You should make some consideration of the technical limitations of live sound when planning to use intro music. In the example of playing walk-in music for your audience above, I suggested using a second phone or tablet, pre-loaded with a Spotify playlist. The device can be plugged into the mixing board using a cable from the device’s headphone socket (or not – I’m looking at you, iPhone 7 and up) connected to the inputs on the mixing board. Don’t rely on the venue sound-system having the cables for your device though – invest in a good quality cable you can take with you. A stereo 1/8” to two ¼” jack such as the one in figure one will enable you to play your intro music through most venue sound systems.

You can have your intro piece included as the very last song in the playlist, and make sure you do not set the Spotify client to ‘shuffle’.  The walk-in music can be played out at low volume during the change over, faded out on the mixing board when you are ready to start your performance, your intro music selected on the playlist, and the volume faded back in as your intro music plays. Now, this is tricky and you might want to practice the transition before introducing this intro music technique in a live gig setting.

Live music business - iphone cable for intro music
Figure one. The type of cable you will need to connect your (old) iPhone to a mixing console.

Using a device with Spotify for your intro music is the common approach and back in the day most venues had CD players to use for walk-in and intro music. You might see the odd CD player in FOH racks here and there so burn your chosen intro music onto CD-R, just in case. Using a CD for into music is simpler than fading out playlists on a phone.
Your intro music should be short (30 – 60 seconds); if it is a longer piece, then decide at which point they should fade it out when you are going to play. Agree with the house engineer if and/or when the intro should be started, stopped, or faded. 
I would caution against having an intro that acts as a musical cue to your performance or is part of the first song in your set; CD players and devices at the front-of-house desk will have their audio routed into the main PA speakers and not to your stage monitors onstage.  It is hard to hear any timing or pitching information in your intro if it is not being played through your monitors. Remember, the intro music is just that -an intro to your set proper. Don’t get carried away by complicating something that is supposed to enhance your performance.

Categories
Gigs and Shows

The Set List

Best practice for this vital performance aid

The set is the songs you will perform; the set list is just that—a list of the songs in the order you have decided you should play them. ‘Set list’ refers to both the order and the physical piece of paper written out for everyone to follow.

Order, order.

Talk to any established musician, manager, or agent about live song order, and they will agree that although it is one of the hardest things to get right, a good set list can make a concert and a bad one will ruin it. Set list order also causes the most arguments backstage between band members. You not only have to decide in which order you will present your material, but which material you will perform. 

You are best off keeping your set time short (25 minutes or 6 songs maximum) in the early days of your career. (You might not have a choice as your allotted time will be minimal in most circumstances). Get your best songs in first. Any audience has a short attention span and will be waiting for you to finish – especially if you are opening for a major touring artist. The audience will go to the bar, the other room, the hot dog stand, or the restrooms, if you do not grab their attention with your strongest material.
Your set is probably made up of your own original songs so think carefully before performing cover versions.  Why waste precious public exposure time on someone else’s material? This is doubly true if you are playing to an industry house—for example, a showcase for A&R people. A performance of this type is your a chance to make an impression I am never convinced that a cover version does any ‘baby’ act any favours. 

Write or type.

You have chosen the songs to perform and decided on an order.  You now need to write out the song titles in order and make copies for all the musicians and crew involved. A few items of good practice for set lists:

  • Use white A4/legal size paper and write in black, broad pen (coloured inks will be harder to read under stage lights). 
  • Avoid shortening titles or nicknaming songs-you may mistake one title for another in the heat and confusion of the show. You will also confuse any crew or other personnel who are not familiar with your songs. 
  • Mark your intro/walk-on music as “intro” at the top of the set list. You would not believe how many times house sound engineers or lighting people have turned to me and asked, “Is this the first song?” during the band’s walk-on music.
  • Also, indicate breaks for speech or complicated instrument changes between songs. There is nothing more embarrassing on stage than a singer starting to make an impassioned speech after a tune, only to have the drummer cue in the next song and the band crashing in, drowning out the vocalist speech.(See a set list with breaks for speech below)
  • Show your bandmates the set list before making copies. Changes and amendments are easier on a single copy.
  • Everyone involved should have a copy of the set list before you hit the stage, not just the performers. I make lots of copies to put up in all dressing and changing rooms, at stage entrances and exits, and in catering areas, and the production office. I also have copies for journalists, security personnel, merchandise people, and venue managers. The set list acts as a clock during the show—anyone with a copy of the set list can look at it and figure out where the band is in the set and work out how soon the band are liable to come offstage. 
  • Do not centre the words on the set list—justify the text to the left side of the page. This spacing gives room next to the song title for musicians and crew to make notes about BPMs, guitar changes, and so on.(see a left-justified set list below).
  • You want the writing or font to appear as large a possible on the page. You can write bigger or, if printing them from a computer, adjust the font size for maximum impact. Adjust the margins of your Word or Google Docs to allow for long titles to fit on one line.
  • Fix set lists on stage by using two small loops of gaffa stuck to the back of the page. You can then press the set list onto any flat surface, and it won’t move or get blown away (I am thinking about festival stages here.) There is no need for inch-thick gaffa surround when sticking down set lists!
  • Choose a List Master. Make one person responsible for writing and distributing the lists – they are the ‘list master’. Making one person responsible means there is no confusion and the set list is not left to chance. 
Image of an example set list for live performance with left-justified text and breaks for speeches between songs.
An example set list for live performance with left-justified text and breaks for speeches between songs.
Categories
Gigs and Shows

Get Used to Tight Spaces

Opening up for a major artist may leave you no room on stage

You may end up supporting/opening up for a larger headline band. You may also find that by the time the headline band has set up its touring PA, lights, backline, and power distribution, the stage for the evening is full of black boxes. When this happens you will have to set up all your equipment and find somewhere to stand to perform, in a thin strip across the front of the stage. ‘Traditional’ four- or five-piece bands have the drummer upstage centre; this position is blocked off by the headline artist gear and you are faced with the choice of either a drummer-less show or placing the drummer on either extreme stage left or right. The new position of the drummer may cause problems with timing and cues.

Anticipate the situation by rehearsing as if you were forced onto a small strip of stage. Set up in your rehearsal space with all the musicians in a straight line as if across the front of a crowded stage. Determine who should stand next to the drummer for timing (usually the bass player or other percussionists, and who can get away with being at the other end of the stage, out of sight of the drummer. That performer will need extra drums in their monitor wedge as they are losing out on the direct sound of the drums.

Categories
Gigs and Shows Live Audio Engineering

How To Create an Input List For Your Live Show.

Present your input list in a standard format that any audio engineer, promoter, or rep, will understand.

Your input list is an important document that makes up your technical rider. “Input” in this case refers to the sound sources you use on stage that need “inputting” into the venue sound system. The input list for a four-piece guitar band may look like this:

1) Kick
2) Snare
3) Hi hat
4) Rack tom
5) Floor tom
6) Cymbals
7) Bass guitar amp
8) Sam’s guitar amp
9) Holly’s guitar amp
10) Holly’s vocal microphone

I mentioned that the input list should be ALL the sound sources you have on stage. You may just be a four-piece guitar band, but did you list the laptop computer that runs the drum loops you must have for the show? Or that the vocalist runs her microphone into an effects pedal and that she needs to hear both the original (dry) signal and the FX onstage?
Providing an accurate input list will ensure that any sound team will know how many instruments you have on the stage, how many inputs you need to go to the sound system, how many DI boxes you may need, and how many monitor wedges and mixes you require. (You can read a great explanation here about why you should use a DI box

The problem

Not having an input list can cause problems. Imagine you are a singer/songwriter who plays an electro-acoustic guitar; the guitar has a built-in jack output. Your input list will therefore be:

  1. Electro-acoustic guitar—jack out, needs a DI box
  2. Vocal

But wait a minute. Say a radio station book you to for a live session. You turn up, explain that you sing and have your electro-acoustic guitar. The studio audio engineer will set you up with a vocal mic and a DI box for the guitar and get you to play some songs to set the right levels. But halfway through your recording session, you pull out your other “proper” acoustic guitar (the one with no jack output) and play your instrumental number. To amplify the guitar, you pull the vocal microphone down to point at the guitar. At this point the radio station engineer freaks out and runs into the studio, shouting something like “what the hell are you doing?”. “I always do this when I play this tune in clubs—is it a problem?” you reply.

Yes, it is a problem. Audio engineers strive for audio purity. Modern recording techniques allow for each instrument to be recorded (or amplified) separately, adjusting EQ and levels to suit the overall mix. This applies to live sound reinforcement. In our example, the radio station engineer will have used an expensive, high-quality condenser microphone on your vocal. The engineer will have EQed, compressed, and added reverb to your voice, adjusting these to get the best sound into the recording device. With all that done, you yank down the vocal microphone and shove it into the sound hole of an acoustic guitar! Aside from offending the engineer’s hearing and possibly damaging the microphone’s diaphragm, the sudden increase in sound level will make the acoustic guitar sound bad—the compressor will cut in, and the warm tones of your guitar will be squashed into a reverb-y mess. Imagine if you did this in a gig and cacophony that would result from the volume that a modern PA can produce. So, you should note any variation or change in instrumentation in your input list.

Keeping with this example of you as a singer/songwriter, you have three separate sound sources: your vocal, the guitar with the jack output, and the acoustic guitar that needs a microphone. You would specify an input list like this:

  1. Electro/acoustic guitar—jack out, needs a DI box
  2. Acoustic guitar—microphone
  3. Vocal—microphone

Any audio engineer will set the best microphones, EQ, reverbs, and compression for each of the separate sound sources after receiving such a list. Providing this detail will give you control over your sound and conveys a more professional impression.

The solution

To create an accurate and relevant input list you should walk around your rehearsal room or home studio, and make notes on how many sound sources need inputting to the live sound system.
When you have collected this information, your input list should show:

  • A channel number. Having a channel number makes troubleshooting a sound- related problem easier. For example, you can say, “There is a buzz on channel 13,” rather than, “There is a buzz on the bass booms.” You may know what your bass booms are, but the house or festival engineers will not.
  • The name of the instrument or source.
  • Does the sound source require a mic or a DI box? Specify this next to each source.

You should also provide a stage plan. A stage plan should show where the sound sources are located on the stage. Showing the input list numbers helps the audio crew to connect the right mics and DIs. You can also indicate the positions of the monitor wedges if you feel like it. You do not need pictures of guitars, crosses showing where people stand, or 3D projections of the stage, for your stage plan. Stage plans and input lists work best when they are simple and convey relevant information only. You can see an example of an input list below and you can watch my video on making input lists and stage plans on YouTube.

An example of an input list and a stage plan laid out in a standard format.
An example of an input list and a stage plan laid out in a standard format.