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A Hire Plane

PA Hire

Article from One Two Testing, February 1985

how to do it, what to avoid

Big PAs, little PAs, who needs them? You do. Ben Duncan picks up the phone and some tips from two hire companies.

So you want to hire a PA, eh? (Big pause.) Hah! Hah! Hahotia-ho! Ha ha!

Well now we've all discharged the obligation to burst into hysterical and cynical histrionics, just how do you hire equipment? Are you green? Do you get nervy wondering what to say over the phone? Or perhaps your record company promised you a £10K cheque and told you to "get on with it" — the deal has just been struck, and a show has to be got together dead sharp. If so, then you'll need to grab a line to one of the big hire companies.

Above 10kW

Thus, I rang Mike Lowe, who manages Turbosound Rentals, one of around a dozen companies in the big league. Mike's been in the live business for many years — from 1970 to 1974 he was ELP's tour manager, and till 1982 he had his own staging company, Stage Shows Productions. He's well regarded for his total unflappability. As organising live rock'n'roll is highly charged with powerful emotion and filled with an interminable series of panic situations, this is an extremely valuable quality. So, for a major tour, professionally promoted and nationally advertised, who decides on the PA?

Mike says: "There are no rules on this front — for some bands, it's delegated to the sound engineer, or the manager decides. Sometimes the band and their manager are very remote, and the band agree amongst themselves, then go and battle it out with their manager. He may want to use a particular PA for a different set of reasons — because of a different perspective. Otherwise, it may be that everyone involved gets together and they come out with a group decision."

I know one sound engineer who redesigned the rig he hired from Turbosound, to his own requirements, the requirements of his band. He was given carte blanche, had 100% responsibility for the PA's technical content. Is this a common occurrence?

"One time out of ten it's good, it's creative. But nine times out of those ten, the sound engineer isn't up to the thinking and level of awareness of the hire company. He moves some bins around, installs different amps, or changes some mikes — and makes a retrogressive step. Sometimes it's simply a lack of knowledge or experience, or else it's for the sheer hell of it, a self-inflicted ego trap (sic). Either way, you are wasting the band's money: even if you are competent, a very skilled engineer, it's difficult if not impossible to get the best out of a PA (especially a big one) without asking for guidance and acting on the advice that's offered. So whenever a band's own sound engineer drives the PA alone, he's working against the band more often than not.

"Sadly, most managers in the UK won't countenance the opposite situation, where the PA rental company is trusted to sort out the sound and make it all happen — the money is too tight. But in the US, subbing-out the tour's sound lock, stock and barrel to the rentals company is well established. I believe this to be a good thing, not necessarily for the sake of cohesiveness in the touring team that make a show happen but, like paying musicians to play music rather than playing yourself, it guarantees you'll get the best sound out of any given PA. After all, it's in the hire company's interest to make the rig work to its best, and driving a big PA is as much an acquired skill as playing all the individual instruments by yourself."

What advice does Mike have to offer musicians who've graduated to using the big stuff? "Sound comes first. It must do — assuming the band is about music. Yet almost invariably, sound takes second place to production. Just let me give you some examples. Rigging points (for the flying speakers) are determined by the staging and lighting requirements. So the flying system ends up hung in the wrong place — and the sound suffers as a result. It is sad, but has its element of humour. Like in Wembley, a single central flying cluster of speakers has been proved the best way to cover the venue, yet invariably the set designer will want to put a 20-foot wide moon or some other staging gizmo right in that vital central position. Managers should understand that good sound is determined by the laws of physics. So if the rental company says the speakers go in so-and-so place, then you really have to listen — and ask yourself if audiences come primarily to listen to sound or do they come to swoon over 20-foot cardboard moons and lighting helicopters?"

I must admit to a fascination for inflatable plastic pigs — much more than I ever enjoyed ye live Floyd, so what's the heist? "Money, in the UK — money for tours is very tight, virtually nil. So more than ever, managers want to be very sure about what they're using. And of course, too often they're tempted to use the wrong PA, purely for the sake of a 'good' deal."

Mike's advice is as follows: "If you want a good deal — and that means good sound without excessive outlay — then skip the flavour-of-the-week FX. For example, if the band insists point blank on a Lexicon 224, and your tour's PA budget is tightened to £12K over four weeks, consider that the £400-per-week rental on a 224 comes out of the budget, and accordingly something else has to lose out.

"But if you spend that £400 a week on an ace sound engineer, then he'll get the sound you want from the hire company's own standard reverb — and more besides! As we don't have to hire it in specially, it won't cost as much — even an AMS reverb won't!

"Do some research on the hire company — ask to visit a few gigs and try to build up a trusting relationship. To sum up, you're only as good as your last show. PA companies as a whole want to get you a good sound, and this is easiest when they're given freedom to do so. Once they've got that together, then there's a lot of scope for helping out a band with special requirements."

Below 10kW

Andy Salmon is effervescent, and operates from the middle of the UK in a PA partnership, Midland Sound & Light. So, for the band that isn't (yet) jetting off to the US, or staging a show at Wembley or Hammy Odeon, here's some down-to-earth advice on hire.

If you're new to it all, how do you get a lead on what PA's are available? "You can contact the Social Secretary at your local college," says Andy, "or your poly, or university. He'll have no axe to grind and can give you numbers and addresses for one or two hire companies they've used successfully in the past. This may sound obvious, but you should also try a venue the same size as the gig you're doing. Maybe that's a pub, or you can go to any local club, or promoter, and ask them who they know. Y'see, it's a business of who y'know, not what you know."

So you've got one or two leads. How do you build up a bigger list, so you can ring around for a good quote? Andy: "Most towns have one or two Division One companies, and usually three or more in Division Two. Some of these will give the phone numbers of other companies. A good hire company will always do this. Any good company will be getting enough work to have colleagues whom they can pass work on to whenever they're booked up."

And what then? "Hearing is believing. Best idea is to try and hear the rig before you use it. Obviously that's only possible on local gigs. If you have to book a PA by phone cos you're in a hurry, get a list of equipment. There are obvious good names I look for, but don't expect to find a Midas 32-channel desk in back street pub or club in Cleethorpes or Southend. A fair smattering of well-respected names is usually a healthy sign. Beware MM! Also don't be tempted to use a disco sound system as it will never sound right, unless it's a very large and elaborate, system, built on PA principles."

The Big Qaestion is how much should I expect to pay out? "It should go without saying cheapest is not always best. If you pay about £65 to £75 for a 1K rig you should get a good system with not too many problems or hidden extras. If you manage a deal for less than £60 you might get a system that looks like the house that Jack built, sounds like porridge being stirred, and an operator wearing a stetson and carrying a pair of six guns. Make sure you know what you are getting for your money.

"In one part of the country you will find that a 2K (two-bins-per-side) rig will take your ears out and flatten you against a wall in a reasonable sized club. In other places, notably where competition among PA companies is quite high, a nominal 2K rig may only be one bin per side and half as loud as the aforementioned. The owner of the rig will protest loudly, 'There's two 1000 watt amplifiers there, what more do you expect?' Many of these cowboy operators' do not realise that their treasured 1000 watt amplifier may only deliver 500 watts into most eight-ohm speaker systems. Make sure that the 2K system you hire is actually capable of delivering 2000 watts into speakers. Check out also the quality of his microphone selection."

Good mikes you should look out for indicating an honest small company would include AKG (like the D202), Shure (SM58), and Beyer (M88). Beware of cheapo Shure or AKG lookalikes. From a large hire company, there'll also be a smattering of Electrovoice, Calrec and Sennheisers (like 421s), besides the more delicate mics like AKG's D451. But what about extras?

Andy continues: "Watch out for them, there can be lots of hidden extra charges. For example, you may find a total absence of any sort of FX unit until the magical mention of extra money. Most reputable companies have a reasonable echo or reverb unit as standard, but remember that exotic effects such as harmonisers may cost as much to hire as the rest of the system. Watch out, however, for things such as WEM copycats, Melos cassette echoes; and various Tandy effects. Some companies may charge extra for an onstage monitor mix, so it pays to check on what sort of monitor system you're getting. There's nothing wrong with not having an onstage mix, in other words controlling the monitors from the out-front desk, but a company which turns up with two wedges for a four-piece rock band is being a bit optimistic. This has happened before!"

Always remember the pose value of a dummy stack. A band which can knock up some fake plywood bins needn't feel it has to hire a 5K if a less-impressive looking 1K will produce an adeqate sound level. Andy continueth: "If you hire the PA yourself they may also try and sting you for the support band fee — usually around £15. Lastly, watch out for VAT, particularly if you want a receipt for your money — unless, of course, your band is making enough money to be registered for VAT."

Any business taking more than £20,000 a year (currently) has to be VAT-registered, and therefore charges VAT. Many of the smaller hire companies will fall outside of this legal requirement, but the more professional outfits are registered voluntarily, because if a lot of their clients are record companies then they'll expect to claim back VAT on the PA fees — and this can only happen if the hire company is VAT registered. The snag is, ordinary musicians then end up paying VAT. This needn't automatically make a rig more expensive — an extra 15% on a £75 deal (= £86.25) is cheaper than a £90 deal with a non-VAT-registered hire company. But there's always a temptation to waive VAT, by cash or some other naughty, er, deal. Trouble is, no official receipt can be given. In short, if your accounting has to be above board and you must have receipts or "sales invoices" then VAT will have to be paid unless the hire company isn't VAT-registered.

Andy's advice ends in apparent contradiction to Mike Lowe. "Check that it is OK for you to supply your own sound engineer. Many companies are very touchy about this. Usually, the less professional the company, the more touchy they are, in case your engineer is better!"

More with this topic

Previous Article in this issue

Drugs and the Musician

Next article in this issue

Feed The Tape

Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Feb 1985



Feature by Ben Duncan

Previous article in this issue:

> Drugs and the Musician

Next article in this issue:

> Feed The Tape

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