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Playing Outdoor Gigs: What’s the Difference?

7:04 am Live Sound

Summer is almost upon us, and so is the season for bands of all kinds to be invited to play outdoors - at a restaurant, at an outdoor party, at a national park. Wherever it is, all you have to do is set up your stuff and play, just like it was another night at the Itchy Kitty, right? Well, not exactly.

By the sheerest coincidence I just this very day (well, yesterday) ran sound for a band doing a 90-minute outdoor gig at an Arts Festival. Of course, the band was Rusty Strings, because that’s the only band I ever run sound for! Everything went fine, almost, and while it’s fresh in my mind I thought I would run through some of the things I have found to be different at an outdoor gig like this one as compared with playing indoors.

1. The room is much bigger.

Without those four walls surrounding you there is a lot less reflected sound, sometimes virtually none, to augment your volume. We were lucky enough to be up against a wall (so to speak) at this gig, which helped project most of the sound forward, at least. The upshot of this is that you will need considerably more power to deliver anything like the sound levels you are used to. If you use your usual gear, be prepared for it to sound somewhat feeble. Also, ditch the delicate arrangements and quiet interludes - they’ll never get heard. Your set list should be forceful and full-banded.

If there are any walls to reflect the band’s sound they are probably pretty far away. This can result in a distracting echo effect, especially for people fairly far from the band. At this recent gig I was very aware of an echo with about a quarter-second delay from a building located across a parking lot, facing the band. And I was up front! You could try to fix this by setting up remote speakers well back in the audience, but this can introduce timing problems that a “weekend band” just won’t want to fool with.

2. The wind can blow away the sound.

It’s logical. Sound is pressure variations conducted through the air. Wind is the mass movement of the air that your sound is conducting through. If that mass movement is away from the audience, or to the side, the sound level they hear is diminished. A partial solution can be (again) more power. The problem is that if the wind is coming and going, the volume level in the audience will vary somewhat, and there’s not much you can do about it.

3. The wind can blow away other things, too.

The Rusties’ keyboard player refers to music and notes while playing, and she had a terrible time at this windy gig keeping her music sheets from blowing all over the place. (This despite an elaborate system of rubber bands and clothespins designed to hold the sheets to a music stand.) Fairly often, strong gusts of wind forced the lead singer to help hold down her music while singing, something you want to avoid. Learn from this. If you use music sheets, set lists, or even lightweight percussion, be sure you bring some rocks or tape or something to hold everything down!

4. It might rain.

Another weather-related problem! Well, you are playing outside. And you know how outside is! It would be wise to take the possibility of rain (or snow, or volcanoes, or whatever they have where you live) into account when planning your gig. You should remember to ask the event organizers (or host) what rain plans they may have made, but you also need to have “band” rain plans, specifically including covers or some kind of protection for the PA equipment, amps, etc. Some bands pack a tarp! And remember, once it does start to rain, quit playing and cover up - water and electricity don’t mix!

5. AC power sources can be spotty and distant.

Be sure to bring a long three-wire extension cord as well as the usual power strips (this is a good idea even at an indoor gig). Occasionally, the nearest power source may be “around back of that building over there” (true story) or some such, so be prepared to make a long run with it!

6. It’s hard to read LCD displays in bright sunlight.

If the display on your tuner or any of your stompboxes is an LCD type, be prepared to develop eyestrain (or fail completely) when you try to read it in direct sunlight. (My cell phone is like this too. I hate it!) Tuners and other gear that light up red and green or use LED displays are much easier to see when you’re sitting in the sun.

7. The guitars go out of tune.

You had better plan on using that tuner more than usual outdoors, especially if it’s hot and/or humid or if you will be in the sun while playing. Make sure re-tuning is convenient (and silent!). The slight warping of the neck that causes the de-tuning can also cause fret buzz and other action-related problems don’t occur indoors. Wonderful!

8. You might get sunburned.

More weather! But think about it. Standing in the sun for two or three hours can be hazardous to your unprotected skin, especially early in the season. So don’t forget the sunscreen. And if you’re male, and past a certain age (ahem), wear a cap. You’ll be sorry if you don’t, I’m telling you. Lip balm may be in order as well.

9. You might get cold.

Then there is the opposite problem, where the gig is in the evening. Once the sun goes down, it can turn cold on you. Bring something warm to throw on in case this happens. In extreme cases, gloves may be necessary (fingerless for guitarists). You might also want to speak with whoever is setting up your gigs!

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One Response
  1. Papa Dubya :

    Date: July 19, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    Great advice - I use a plexiglass 8 1/2 x 11 inch clear sheet to hold down my one-page chord sheets in the wind. I forgot this last week and had to use clothespins in wind that almost knocked over my speakers! It is now in the back of my music binder. CARRY EVERYTHING YOU HAVE EVER NEEDED TO EVERY GIG is great advice.

    PAPA DUBYA and Escape Key

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