Sound Advice, Part VI (The Gig)

This entry will terminate “series” on joining this band, but rest assured, I’ll have more blog entries on what new things we’re up to.

The day had arrived.  The only thing was my amp, the Flextone III was ready at the shop, and the shop was in San Mateo (about 1 hour from me, on the other side of the bay).  I didn’t have to go get it that day, but I wanted it so I did.

I took the day off from work, ran across the bay and picked it up.  Gone was the crackling and volume drops – it played like it was brand new.  Bill: $288.  These guys even have a couple of gold records on the wall.  Sometimes, you really do get what you pay for.

Back home, I printed out my checklist of what I would need.  The gig was up in Antioch, at least 45 minutes from me, and on a Friday evening, more like an hour.  If I forgot anything, I’d be hosed.

I believe in redundancy when playing out.  And yes, it means many more trips in loading and unloading.  Two guitars and a dual guitar stand to hold them.  Extra strings, picks, and batteries as well as  the tools (wrenches, screw drives, wire cutters, and flashlight) to make use of them.  Music stand plus light.  Extra guitar cord.  Extension cord and power strip.  Duct tape, plus colored electrical tape for marking my stuff (all these music stands look alike!).

I had about 10 friends going to see me that night, but no one was riding with me.  I loaded up the car and headed out.  I’d been to this bar once before, but my handy Droid Bionic gave me turn by turn directions so I wouldn’t miss an exit (I don’t know how I got by before without a navigation system).

I was the first one at the gig.  There is a small alley behind the bar that can hold 2 cars length-wise (meaning if you’re first, you’re blocked in).  I walked into the place and asked the busy waitress if I can use that service door to bring in my gear.  She gave me a quick and disinterested “Yeah” and so I began my trips to the car, holding the service door open with a chair.

About this time, the sound man Adam showed up.  He introduced himself and we continued are unloading of gear.

This is my first time in a band that used a sound man and his gear.  All my other bands owned a PA and we all carried it in, and we all carried it out, so I felt a bit of pressure to go help him once my stuff was on stage, even though it wasn’t necessary.

I found an outlet, pulled out the cords, got my guitars out and tuned (like most footboards, mine contains a tuner), during which other members of the band showed up.

I’ll tell ya, singers have it easy.  They show up with their microphone.  It’s always been this way but in just about every band, the girl singer sits in a booth chatting with friends while the men go back and forth.  (For the record, the girlfriends I’ve had have always helped me with my gear 🙂  This applies to male singers too.  All the glory and none of the grunting :).

By now, people are arriving.  My girlfriend and her daughter arrived, my friend and his wife from work, one of my previous band mates and friend along with her boyfriend, and an old friend of mine, Dave.  I’ll post more about him in a later blog.

Like a lot of jobs, this is like hurry up and wait.  I got there first, and seriously, even rusty at this, I was set up in 20 minutes.  The drummer has to make a lot of trips, and the PA guy is all over the place, mic’ing this, placing monitors around the stage, and setting up the mains.  And here I am, plugged in and tuned up and waiting.

Finally, around 8:45pm we called a sound check song.  I think it was Long Train Running, but I can’t be sure.  We played the song, while the sound man fixed the feedback and dealt with various complaints like “I can’t hear myself in the monitor” or “I can’t hear the bass”.

Off to the restroom where I changed clothes.  Unless it’s a barbeque or something casual, I prefer to dress up while playing – dockers, nice shoes, nice shirt.  After all, we’re putting on a show and people might consider your band for their wedding.  Then again, we’re a top 40 dance band, NOT a grunge/metal/blues/etc band with those respective images.

Finally, we kicked off the first set.  I had the set list on my music stand, plus what presets I should be using (remember, this is my smaller amp and I only had 4), trying desperately to remember how some of these songs started.  This band likes to go from one song to the next for about the first 6 songs.  This is a very good technique for getting people out on the dance floor and keeping them there.

This was the first day on the job, in every sense of the word.  Trying to remember the beginnings of songs, the breaks (I stepped on many), and which preset to use.  I’m sure I looked about as much fun as a neurosurgeon on his first operation.  I barely cracked a smile, so intent was I to make a good impression on the band.  Then the bar owner comes over and takes a picture of me while playing – huh?  I found out later she does that with every band that plays there, and posts them on facebook.  Still, it was a distraction.

The first set is long – about an hour.  Then it was break time.  By now everybody had shown up that was here to support me, including people I hadn’t seen in a while.  Complaints started popping up like “We can’t hear you!” and “You need to tell the sound guy to turn you up!”.  I have no idea how loud I am while up on stage.  I can hear me.  If I can’t, I turn up.  So I went to the sound guy and said people can’t hear me and he told me he was trying not to turn anybody up so the vocals could be heard. Not wanting to rock the boat, first gig and all, I just decided I would turn up loader on my amp.  It would increase the volume being picked up by the mic.  Of course, he could always adjust my pa volume down, but beyond that I was pretty much out of options.

The material in the first set was what I was most familiar with.  The second set was a bit shaky.  While I played well for my solos, I played on some breaks, and didn’t play where I should have.  Of course the audience doesn’t notice much of that.  I felt like I was being evaluated the whole night by the band, which I was, and so that was extra pressure I was putting on myself.

Second set done, it was time for more socializing with my friends.  Everybody loved the music we played and thought the band was great in general.  We had a very full dance floor most of the night.

The third set lasted about 4 or 5 songs.  To this date, we’ve never played through the 3rd set.  We called it, about 10 minutes before 1:00am.  My first gig in 25 years was now in the books.  I was tired.  I wasn’t used to this and the stress and excitement of the evening wore me out.

But of course now comes tear down.  Tear down is faster than set up because there’s no tuning, no sound check, just roll the cords, put them in the crate, break down what needs to be broken down and start trekking out to the car again.

Our Keyboardist approached me with $80 in cash.  It was official – I was a working musician again.

I got nothing but positive feedback from the band.  I was expecting something of a report card after all the constant correction on my playing in practice but no, nothing but praise.

I got home about 3:00am (this is why I don’t like to gig so far from home) and unloaded my stuff (6 trips out to the car up 3 flights of stairs).  The next morning I would be teaching so I had to sleep fast.

But I couldn’t wait to use my new amp.  I’ll blog more on my current rig next time.

Until then….


Sound Advice Pt V (The Initial Gear)

By the beginning of January, I started to wonder if I had all the gear I needed.  My gig was some weeks away, and I was getting concerned that my Line 6 Spider II, even though it was 75 watts, was more of a glorified practice amp than a rugged gigging amp.  There were some practices where it struggled to keep up with volume and it was very directional having only one speaker.

I liked the Line 6 concept – using digital circuitry to mimic it’s analogue counter part – the Tube amp.  I liked the idea that I can get several amp sounds out of a single amp.  It’s a nice solution for someone like me that’s going to play all types of music from Pink to Bon Jovi.

If I was going to do a metal or hard rock band only – then yes, one tube head, one cabinet would be the way to go.  However, I have logistic issues.  I live upstairs so I’d have to trudge whatever I have 19 steps up.  I also drive a sedan – a big one, but it’s still a sedan.  So the combo amp is still the best solution for me.  (Note: combo amps are amps that have the amplifier power and cab in the same box – as opposed to “stacks” where you can buy a 100watt, 200 watt or 400 watt head and mix and match with various 4 speaker cabinets).  Combo amps are almost always mic’d into the PA system.  That’s not always ideal since you have to relinquish control over your volume to someone else and trust me, it doesn’t always turn out well and balanced.  But that’s what I was going to use.

I started googling and checking the forums for who used what, plus I started looking at ebay.

My current rig had only 4 presets on it’s footswitch and offered delay, chorus, phase shifter, and reverb, as well as a wah pedal on the footswitch.  I needed more presets than that so I bought a used FVB Shorboard for $100 that can handle up to 64 presets.  This board doesn’t have any effects on it – it’s just controlling the effects already on the amplifier.  There are about 12 models on this amp – I would be using about 4 of them, but with or without various effects.  I would have about 6 or 7 presets ready for the first gig.

So I had  a board.  Great.  I needed tools, strings, and picks and somewhere to keep them.  Tadaaa! – I went to Walmart and found the Craftsman’s organizer.  With the help of a razor, I modified the compartments to accommodate what I needed to carry.  I have a double locking tremolo system on my Ibanez Presteige – you need a hex wrench to replace strings, as well as a wire cutter to cut the ball bearing off the end of the string.  Batteries, and a flashlight.  This works great.

My search for an amp continued.  I’d heard good things about the Flextone series and the Vetta II series from Line 6 – both these amps are discontinued.  They introduced a new line of amps that seemed to be aimed more at the metal market (Spider Valve with tubes in the preamps), and then the DT series which was well over $1000 that was made to work with their Pod series of effects boards.

Finally, I found a Flextone III amp – 150 watts and 2 12″ speakers.  This had more like 16 amp models and these models were built to emulate existing amps – Fenders, Marshalls, Bogners, etc. It was old – built in 2004 – and the owner, who was local to me in Berkeley – was asking $155.  It would also work with the shortboard I had just bought. I met that bid and waited. No one bid again.  There was no bidding war – time ticked by right up to the deadline and no one swooped in to grab it.  It was mine.  I almost felt bad for the guy. Almost 🙂

I got it home and within the first 30 minutes, I found a problem.  The volume would drop out on me.  The tone would distort when it shouldn’t.  Arg!  Did I just waste $155?  Long story short, I found a great repair shop (and expensive) that would do a complete overhaul on the amp.  The only problem was I would get the amp back on Feb 3rd – the same day as my gig with no time to work with the presets.  Oh well, I was going to use my Spider II for the gig with the new shortboard.  (Although when I did get the amp back, they had cleaned and re-soldered all the connections and knobs and it has been working 100% since.  Only cost me $280, so total money spent was about $435 – still not a bad deal for the power and versatility).

Some stuff I couldn’t get used.  I used a combination of and I picked up an amp stand by On Stage – they make pretty good stuff.  When you have a combo amp, it helps to get it off the ground and tilt it up a bit so you can hear yourself better.

And since this band uses music stands, I bought a (again On Stage) sturdy music stand.  And miscellaneous stuff including pick holders, clip on reading light for the music stand, string winders, multi-tooled guitar tools, and a few other things I’ll talk about when I post about my final, complete rig.  This took some time and thought to pull together, plus I will take pictures.  I wasn’t done making purchases by the time I played my first gig, so I’ve got more to say on that, but for that time, I had what I had to get through the night.

On to the show…

Sound Advice Pt IV (Preparing)

After I got the gig with Sound Advice, it was early December.  The plan was I would work with the Keyboard player exclusively until January, then the rest of the band would have rehearsals with me.

When I showed up to the kbd players house, I was amazed at the organization.  Each tune was in mp3 or wav format and he had all his charts (keyboard parts with form notes) on computer which he printed out for me.  Talk about being spoon fed.  Some of the notes were cryptic or too keyboard centric but regardless, it made it much easier than figuring these songs out on my own.

Even though at that time there were 84 songs listed on their website, we worked from their setlist from the last job, which was about 46 songs.  I took home my “homework” and got to work.

When I teach students songs, many times I don’t teach the whole song.  I teach the memorable parts.  Take Smoke on the Water for instance – people just want to learn the intro. The rest of the chords are quite boring.  Or when I do teach all the parts of the song, say like Highway to Hell, I don’t map out the whole form (Form is how the song is arranged – like verse A twice and then chorus B and back to verse A would be a standard AABA form) along with breaks and all that.  A kid will get bored, unless he’s in a band and has to learn the whole song for their own performance.

Learning the Form of the song is also getting down the introduction, the ending, the verses, the choruses, the tags (tags are a chord progression that usually are used to lead into the next section), the bridge, where the breaks are, and if you have any particular melody to play – say like the intro for Rebel Yell.

Three quarters of the way through December, I got an email from one of our singers.  The setlist for the February 3rd gig would be different than the setlist we were working on.  That meant setting me back about 6 songs that I’d been working on and having to work on their replacements.  I didn’t consider it time wasted since I needed to know all of them anyway, but it was a definite priority shift.  I would come to find out this band does that a lot.  I was used to a fairly static set list while this band shuffles things frequently.

I took the mp3’s and ripped them to my hard drive and imported them into iTunes and into 4 playlists: Sound Advice All, Sound Advice Set 1, Sound Advice Set 2, and Sound Advice Set 3.  The way they organized their sets were different than what I was used to.  Sets 1 and 2 were long.  Set 3 was short and as it turns out, we never finish it.  There is no set 4.

The guy I worked with was a bit of a perfectionist – and really believed in if he was doing something busy on the keys, I should be doing something less busy on the guitar, and vice versa.  This sets up more of a complimentary style rather than competing for attention.  We have some very keyboard centric songs and I’m trying to add a bit here and there.  We have plenty of guitar centric songs too, where I get all the main parts.  I think it works out well.

I prefer working with a keyboard player as opposed to working with another guitarist.  I like the contrast more and I think it provides a lot more possibilities.

January rolled around and the band started to discuss where we were going to do full rehearsals.  The guitar player I was replacing had hosted band practice.  As it turns out, he offered his home to continue to be our practice space.  That was very generous of him and the band accepted his offer.  It felt a little weird being around him because he was always intent upon listening to me.

It’s a bit of a trek from Pleasanton, where I live, up to Lafayette, but it was only once a week.  I had 4 rehearsals with the band and then it would be show time.

I was still sketchy on plenty of songs.  I was getting mostly constructive feed back from people after every song. Things like “you play a part there – make a note of it  and take another listen at home” or “there was a break there – only bass and drums play there” or “You have a solo after the 2nd chorus”.  The only thing I didn’t like was when I heard “Jim played it differently”. Well, Jim is a very different guitarist than I am.  Nonetheless, I tried to please.  For now.

What was hard was they had a Prince medley and a Bon Jovi medley – and there was no mp3 that I could work with (at that time – our bassist engineered one later) so I had only the full length originals to practice with so I missed those transition spots a lot.

This band also likes to do mashes – there was a mash of “Just Dance” with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”.  I knew Don’t Stop Believing but a mash is interweaving two songs together – back and forth – which threw off my timing of certain key guitar parts I was supposed to play (and to be honest, I’m still getting cued by our singer on those!).

Sometimes, it would be the simplest of things that would throw me off.  Maroon 5’s Give a Little More has this chicken pecking kind of guitar lick in the beginning.  The drummer got on me about playing it “right”.  It occurs in two spots.  Some people got really concerned that I would screw it up.  I was thinking “it’s just a chicken pecking part – how important can this be?” but for them it set up the feel of the song from the beginning and having it correct was important to them.  It would be a few rehearsals before I got that simple little part right.

Another problem developed in these rehearsals too: dynamics.  At this point, I was using a single speaker, 75 watt amp by Line 6 – a Spider II.  It’s loud, but it’s very directional.  Some people couldn’t hear me, while others heard too much of me.  I would eventually fix this issue by replacing the amp with a 2 12 combo amp (another Line 6 – I’ll get a post up here about my gear soon) and putting the amp father away into a corner, increasing the spread of the sound, but this would happen in April – up until then I would struggle to get the mix just right and people would complain.  In fact, someone said it was “depressing” that I didn’t seem to have a concept of how loud I should be.

I was wondering if they were starting to have second thoughts about me.

However, February 3rd was looming and they weren’t going to be able to replace me so I figured they were stuck with me at least until then.