Taking a Mobile PA System on the Road

Touring with a PA system can be a daunting task: there are lots of things to remember, and one simple oversight (like forgetting one cable trunk) can stop the whole production, or turn what should be a relatively routine experience into a nightmare.

If you are on a tour lasting more than a couple of nights, resist the urge to party after every show. Rest your body and your ears, and don't confuse feeling better in the short-term with working better in the long-term (a confusion to which many users of stimulant drugs are prone). ‘I hope I die before I get old’ might sound like sensible advice to a young rock band, but the fact is you will get old a lot more slowly if you treat your mind and body well.

The following things can also improve the experience of touring.

  1. Make a list of everything you need to take with you (and - equally important - everything you need to bring back when you leave the venue). The list needs to be comprehensive: if the mixer has a separate power supply, don't just assume you will remember to take the power supply. PUT IT ON THE LIST. Use clipboards for touring lists (and if you don't have any, buy some).

    If it only fits in the van in a particular order, try to list the equipment in pack order. That way, anyone using the list can load the van in the right order without having to ask you.

    Before you set out, go through the list item by item, only ticking each item off WHEN YOU SEE IT ON THE VAN. At the end of the gig, do the same thing when you leave the venue.

    Doing this for your entire life every time you go out will probably cost less time, trouble or money than leaving one amp rack behind in the venue car-park once (especially if you don't notice until you are setting up at the next venue 200 miles away). So you thought it was insured, did you? Read the policy carefully.

  2. Pack logically. Pack for auditorium layout rather than for equipment type. If the stage and front-of-house console position are 40 metres apart and separated by an orchestra pit, having the loudspeaker cables (stage) and multicore tails (console) in the same box will be inconvenient.
  3. Put everything on wheels. 4″/100mm castors will cope with most situations. Wheeling a 100kg amp rack 50 metres is a lot easier than carrying four 25kg amplifiers the same distance. Bring trolleys or wheelboards for anything that doesn't have its own wheels. If the venue doesn't have wheeled access (or guarantee or pay for extra crew), it isn't really suitable for anything bigger than a powered mixer and a pair of 12″ speakers.
  4. Make at least two copies of a channel list (or take something to write multiple copies on and with) before you set out. A stage plan is a good idea too. If there is one list on stage and another at the console, everything can easily be plugged in and labelled up by anyone available. If you will be dealing with a band you don't know, it is worth pestering them or their agent for the details, as it will make for a much easier life on the night. It is also worth checking with them that you have the latest copy. The 2008 channel list might not show anything like the band's current line-up.
  5. Arrive in good time (meaning early). Don't forget to arrange this with venue staff before you set out. Generally, nothing is ever quite as straightforward as it looked before you started on it, and if you don't allow time for something to go wrong you can bet it will. Also, allowing more time than you think you need will usually make the whole job seem much easier. If, in the end, you have allowed more time than you actually need, you can always take a well-earned break. If - on the other hand - you don't get time for a break, you can thank your lucky stars you started when you did. Any later would have been too late.

    If the worst comes to the worst and it is all turning into a last-minute scramble, stay calm! If it wasn't for the last minute, nothing would ever get finished.

  6. Lay out equipment first. Plug it in next. Tape it down last, and not before you know it works.

    Power the system up with all the amplifiers switched off, with their volume controls set to minimum (fully counter-clockwise). Switch the amplifiers on one at a time, allowing a few seconds between each switch-on to allow power supply capacitors to charge (otherwise you risk tripping the supply circuit with the combined switch-on current). Send a musical signal from the console, and bring up one amplifier channel's volume control. Check the sound from the speaker(s) it feeds, then return the volume to minimum. Repeat this for each amplifier channel. This enables you to check each amplifier and speaker (if you bring everything up at once, you probably won't even notice if one driver has blown). Finally, bring the subs up one at a time (without returning the previous one to minimum). This acts as a simple polarity check: if bringing up another sub makes it louder, they are in the same polarity. If it gets quieter, they are probably not (in which case check your speaker cables, and if they are OK, check signal cables).

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