Stagecoaching (Part 2)
A word on the wire
We stretch them, walk on them, tie them in knots, trip over them, treat them with contempt and ignore them altogether. What are they? The cables down which we ply our trade...
Anyone who has been gigging for any length of time will probably know exactly how they want their equipment set up on stage - where the keyboards go, the distance between them and the rack, which cables connect the system together, and so on. Getting to this point, however, involves a little forward planning and, inevitably, a certain amount of trial and error. All you have to do is make sure this takes place before a gig and not during it...
To this end, it's a good idea to mark up all of your leads so that each is used in the same situation every time you set up. There's nothing worse than connecting up your system to find that the last cable is too short to do the job but that the first one you connected, now nicely entangled and buried beneath equipment, was far too long. The golden rule here is to keep all cable lengths to a minimum, whilst leaving enough slack so that plugs do not become disconnected if a cable is accidentally pulled at some point.
The money spent on a set of custom-made leads of the right length to connect together the sound modules and effects units to the mixer (for example) will pay dividends in the long run. In fact, if you are using racking cases, you'll probably find that most of the connections can be left in place at the rear. But remember to keep a small torch handy - the back end of a rack can be a very dark place on a dimly lit stage, and an output jack inserted into the wrong input could prove very nasty with an amp and speaker system running at high volume.
Connection to the mains must be the bane of every gigging musician's life. Whether it's badly positioned outlets, insufficient sockets or noisy supplies - there's usually a problem of one kind or another to overcome when you arrive at a gig. Where possible, try to find out just what mains facilities there are at a gig before you get there and take along the necessary hardware. Failing that, make sure you're equipped with a suitable armoury of extension reels, plug boards (including a couple of filtered ones) and adaptors.
Wherever possible, keep mains cables for sound and lighting equipment totally separate and plan out your set-up so that mains cables do not follow the same paths as audio and MIDI leads (see box on MIDI Cables). Never place plug boards anywhere they might be kicked - a tiny glitch in the mains supply doesn't have much effect on the valves in a Vox AC30, but with a hi-tech, computer-controlled system it could amount to a complete loss of data, and, reload taking many minutes.
And while we're talking about mains cables, don't place too much faith in the efficacy of cable grips in 13 amp plugs; these are seldom as robust as they ought to be, and even the newer 'V'-shaped, push-in types can allow wires to be dragged out with potentially disastrous results. The solution is, of course, to treat leads with respect: never remove plugs by pulling on the cables, make sure they're never left where they can be tripped over, and don't coil them up too tightly. But inevitably, cables and cable grips are going to be subjected to a certain amount of wear and tear - just make sure you inspect them regularly by unscrewing the plugs and checking that the individual wires are not under any strain and that the cable grips are still doing their jobs.
More and more these days, manufacturers are resorting to the use of separate supplies/adaptors to power their equipment. This is done primarily to cut down on costs and ensure compatibility in a world which still cannot agree on standardised voltages. In some cases, it's also done to keep noise levels to a minimum in sensitive equipment. But whatever the reasoning behind it, the use of separate power supplies brings with it it's own set of problems for the gigging musician.
The main problems are associated with those adaptors which are built into a casing which incorporates a moulded mains plug. Plug them into a wall socket and their sheer weight causes them to pull out from the earth pin at the top and in severe cases break the connection of the live and neutral pins. Plug them horizontally into a plug board and they often take up so much room they prevent you from inserting a plug into an adjacent socket. Wherever possible, avoid plugging this sort of adaptor into wall sockets and ensure you have a plug board with suitably spaced sockets.
Of even greater importance is the clear marking of each adaptor you use with the name of the equipment it is intended to feed. There are, at present, adaptors being used to supply power anywhere between six and sixteen volts at widely differing current ratings and in both AC and DC form. Additionally, a wide variety of low-voltage plug sizes are used which can vary by as little as a millimetre in diameter and cause real problems if they are mated with the wrong-size sockets. However similar these plugs may look, they are not all the same and cannot be interchanged.
Another popular misconception is that all pieces of equipment that use mains adaptors have built-in protection to guard against supplies with plugs that are wired with reverse polarities. Some do, but by no means all. Use a wrongly wired mains adaptor - even one delivering the correct power requirements - and you could end up with a dead piece of equipment and an invalidated guarantee. Mark each adaptor and use only the one that was supplied with the equipment.
Whilst getting to work with the gaffa tape to ensure cables are held down, you might also try applying a little to your keyboard's sustain and expression pedals if you use them. It's all too easy to find yourself in a semi-horizontal position trying to reach these under your keyboard stand with an outstretched leg. The same, of course, applies to all foot pedals/switches - though if you rely on these a lot, say for patch changes or controlling a drum machine or sequencer, it might be worth getting all your foot hardware mounted onto a more substantial pedal board.
Perhaps the best advice one can give to the working musician is to arrive early enough at the gig so that there's time to deal with the problems which will inevitably arise. Bring with you as many spares as you can carry/afford and keep them to hand - along with a well-equipped tool box. Just assume that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong at some stage or other - but don't increase the likelihood of this by taking chances with your cables and equipment. Alternatively, stay at home, write a sure-fire hit single, secure a large record contract - and pay someone else to do the worrying for you!