Help me be the perfect roadie!
June 16, 2008 3:31 PM   Subscribe

So I told my friend I'd be his band's light/sound guy, and I need some help figuring out the practicalities of it all...

So one of my best friends has gotten together with his med school buddies and they're putting a show together. They'd like me to be their light/sound guy, and I was more than happy to volunteer.

This is all well and good, but I don't know what the heck I'm doing.

On the lights: They bought a bunch of basic lighting effects that work just by plugging them in (strobe light, flashers, fog machine, etc.). I gained "control" over these by plugging them into surge protectors, and turning the surge protectors on and off. I feel like an idiot with six surge protectors around me, figuring out which one is which, and turning them on and off.

Is there a master switchboard thingie that these lights can plug into? We (of course) have a minimal budget, but if the only thing you know is a high-end system, show that to me as well.

Is it possible automate the lights through this switchboard? I'm a tech guy- is it possible to script such a thing? or is their an open source package or something that interfaces with said switch board?

Sound: this is fairly straight-forward, we're just using garage band, and I'm monitoring for feedback etc. - however, if I wanted to make it more complicated, with me playing sounds, different effects, etc., what would I use (I really just want to tinker around with something).

I'm especially interested in homebrew solutions, but if you know of anything amazingly awesome and fantastic, that's useful too. I just don't know anything about this area, and I'm trying to dive in head first!
posted by unexpected to Technology (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
while light rigs can get crazy, this may be a reasonable solution for you, a usb controlled power supply.
posted by tip120 at 4:00 PM on June 16, 2008

For controling lights, you can use DMX based controllers. There seems to be at least some open source apps to control DMX systems (chromakinetics for one). Not sure how scriptable those are, but most of the systems have concepts of "scenes".

I'm not sure what would work best for mixing live sound software wise, it seems to still done mostly with standard mixing boards. Things like Ableton Live could do it though, but seems like a lot of trouble.
posted by alikins at 4:11 PM on June 16, 2008

Not familiar with lights, etc. because someone else always does that :)

But with sound.. if you want beats/sounds/etc. coming out of the computer with Garage band, you will need a cord with a 3.5mm jack one on end (for the computer) and a 1/4inch on the other (to plug into the amp/preamp/etc.)

Your computer is a powerful sound making device and can act as a replacement for a MIDI controller, and with garageband or frootyloops you can have all sorts of premade tracks come out at your will.

To put effects on other instruments during live play is more difficult and I wouldn't recommend it.

What style of music is this?

In your shoes I would lean away from the computer during the performance and pull out a glockenspiel or tambourine when not doing light duty.
posted by bradly at 4:17 PM on June 16, 2008

OK. The first question you should ask isn't what they have, but what the venue they're playing at has. Usually, that will mean a couple of boards (light and sound). Find out as much as you can about those and you'll be able to ask better questions. (And I'll be able to better answer them. Like, I know Mackie boards, and used to run a Marquee board back in high school. I can give you ideas about them, but I'd be talking out my ass about other boards.)

From there, I'd try to figure out what the band wants, especially in terms of sound design. Do they have a lot of pre-recorded cues, or is this pretty much just a mixing gig?

I'd also point out that in terms of boards, they're pretty dumb technology—essentially just a bunch of fader switches. If you're even moderately technically proficient, you can build dimmer boxes, chain them together, and have a lighting "board" (we did this in high school for a traveling production when we couldn't afford a real travel board). From there, I can't imagine that a little circuit bending is too much more difficult, though I'll note that I only have experience as a user of these systems, not as a designer.

For tinkering with recording and sound, well, I'd recommend a simple 4-track recorder. It's analogue (you could match the functionality on a computer pretty easily).
posted by klangklangston at 4:23 PM on June 16, 2008

Something to look out for: lights can easily trip a circuit breaker or blow a fuse. I ran lights for a friend's band in college, and when we'd play bars that weren't really wired for live music, we were constantly tripping breakers.

They had a cheap light board that everything plugged into. I had no idea what I was doing either, but I learned "this button makes things blue, and that button makes things orange, and that button is the strobes, and that button is the fog, and that button makes everything go crazy". Because I knew every song intimately, within the first five minutes of each gig I could get close to what I thought a light show should look like.

Oh, one tip their sound guy gave me: never leave the band in the dark. Between songs, while they're tuning, etc, you want to always give them a little light. Not just so they can see what they're doing, but also so the audience will have something to look at.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 5:10 PM on June 16, 2008

Ask your friends what other bands in town are similar to them, then go see the show and buddy up with the sound/light tech. Get there early and stay late to experience set up and tear down. Explain to the guy that you're going to be doing this for your friend's band, and want to know what you're getting in to. Buy him or her a beer. Don't ask too many questions, just hover politely nearby but not over the shoulder. Nod, smile and watch like a hawk.

You will either be way more prepared for what you should be doing for your friends' band, or you will know for sure that the job is over your head. Or both.
posted by Aquaman at 5:28 PM on June 16, 2008

I feel like an idiot with six surge protectors around me, figuring out which one is which

Well first off, label them so you know which is which. I can't tell you about what equipment you need, as my experience in this realm is really out of date by now, but I can tell you there do exist really simple boxes with switches and faders to control each set of lights. One I had was very simple, they can't cost that much. You will still need to label those so you know what each control is controlling.

Also, if you haven't already, learn to coil cables the right way.
posted by sfenders at 7:16 PM on June 16, 2008

All of this stuff can be rented, btw.

We use standard parcan lights with these controllers which means that you don't have to do the switching. This controller does it for you. Its also a sound activated controller to boot.

We have two of these fog machines which have a remote (wired controller). I think two is overkill anyway so you could get away with one. Fog machines tend to be susceptible to the "If Its In The Truck, We Use It" syndrome meaning that they are overused. The best time for them is at the very start of the show or the start of a set, during a drum solo or when the guitarist is bringing the rock in a big way.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:26 PM on June 16, 2008

I know what you mean about the surge strips, try something essentially built to solve your problem such as a pc-100a, for some reason i can't find a link to american dj's site for that model. as for sound i would use a real sound board with one input for your laptop, thats totally up to you though.
posted by DJWeezy at 12:53 AM on June 17, 2008

Just a question, but are you playing a club or are you guys playing parties or something. I've never been to a club where we needed our own light and sound guy.

They make lighting boards that look just like sound boards and let you program and control all kinds of things. With the right board you can control the lights with midi which would allow you to using any midi controller to do the job.
posted by magikker at 1:24 AM on June 17, 2008

Sweet. All of this has been really helpful. Some follow up:

We're playing this in a place where all we have is power (big empty room) - stage is going to be bales of hay - hence, we won't have any lightboards or anything provided for us.

All of this has still been really helpful. I love you guys.
posted by unexpected at 7:30 AM on June 17, 2008

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