It is the stuff of nightmares, arriving at a live performance you have planned for weeks or months, only to experience a gear problem that severely limits or causes you to cancel your show. As a promoter of live electronic acts with Electronic Music Calgary, I have witnessed several failed performances due to technical issues or forgotten pieces of gear over the years. This is heartbreaking for the artist and promoter but can often be avoided.
As a live electronic musician, I almost had the same thing happen to me. In this article I want to share three preventive action steps that I take to avoid technical failures. My strategies may sound like overkill for some people; however, I don’t think any of us want to have to abandon a gig because of an equipment malfunction or from forgetting to pack an essential piece of gear.
Step #1 Know your gear and pay it some respect
Dust is the enemy of all electronics. Keep your studio and gear clean. I can’t stress this enough. Vacuum your studio regularly and dust work surfaces around your gear. Use contact spray on any movable encoders and then “exercise” them at least once every six months. Consider the age and recent performance of any gear that you are using- especially laptops. How old is your laptop? Has it been overheating lately or having technical issues? Does the hard drive sound like it is laboring? If so, do you really trust it for your next gig?
The Macbook pro I have used faithfully in my live set up is now seven years old and has been prone to overheating recently with the fan running at really high speeds. Even though it has been painful to rebuild all my audio VSTs on a newer Macbook Pro, I feel it is well worth it. The new laptop has a more reliable SSD hard drive. Also, applications load in less than half the time of the old Macbook.
Make sure you also have surge protection on power bars used inside or outside your studio for your gear to protect it from electrical spikes.
Step #2 Have a plan “B” in place when playing live
Having a solid plan “B” relies on redundancies. Ask yourself “if one piece of my equipment fails, how will I carry on with the performance?” This all depends of course on what exactly fails and what you bring with you to perform. I highly recommend having a few pieces of gear you can manipulate live. This will make your sound canvas as well as your performance more interesting and will allow for redundancies which I will explain when I discuss my gear setup.
If you use a laptop live make sure you have an external drive that is capable of playing your set and or sound sources. Make sure that you back everything up so that everything on the external drive is current. Test this to make sure it works. Having a second laptop ready in case of the other laptop failure would be ideal if possible. Laptop failure, drive failure and file corruption are the largest culprits that I have seen for prematurely ending performances.
My live rig consists of a laptop used to play VSTs live controlled by an Eigenharp along with Elektron samplers,synths and drum machines. My plan “B” consists of not having all of my sounds on one dedicated Elektron machine. For example, I have both synth lines and some percussion tracks on an Octatrack, the same on the Analog 4, and mostly percussion tracks on the Elektron Analog Rytm but a few of the Rytm’s 12 pads have synth or vocal samples on them.
This strategy saved me during a gig last year. I made the mistake of assuming that all the Elektron power adapters are the same. They look the same as you can see from the picture below, but it turns out that they have different voltages.
When I did my sound check, everything sounded normal since I have percussive elements on all the devices. The lights on the Analog Rytm flashed in sequence and all appeared normal. It turned out however that no audio was coming from the Rytm! I was able to carry on with my set but had limited percussion for my set to utilize.
I had no idea what was happening at the time and felt sick to my stomach thinking that I broke the Rytm somehow during transport. When I got home to my studio, I plugged everything back in again just to make sure the Rytm had not somehow ceased to exist-but all was fine. What the hell?? After doing a bit of research, I found out about the adapter voltages being different. They are now labelled so this does not happen again!
Consider what steps you will take to create your own redundancies if you have a piece of equipment fail. Test your plan to make sure it works!
Step #3 Packing for your performance
When I pack for a gig I always bring extras of a few critical items. I bring extra audio cables, usb cables, a power bar and an extension cord. I also bring my own stands for my equipment. Don’t assume the venue has a stand or tables you can use unless you verify this in advance. Pack your gear carefully with proper cases and protective foam or gear specific plastic protective lids.
Before I pack everything up,I lay all the gear and required cords and adapters out on the floor. I conduct a visual walkthrough of the gear thinking of the audio path to the mixer. I then do another visual walkthrough of everything thinking of the electrical requirements from the plug in on the wall of the venue right back to each piece of gear. I also ensure that all the adapters fit into the powerbar. During performances, I also plug in my laptop into the powerbar (in case the laptop battery goes dead) and make sure I have wifi turned off. It would not hurt to also have a checklist that you could refer to in order to make sure everything is ready to go for your gig. I hope you find these tips helpful and best of luck on your future performances!