Tech Yourself

January 1, 2011
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bp0111_BattOMeter.jpgI SERIOUSLY LOVE TOURING. BUT I also have a deep, yearning, painful love for everything in my gear world to work right. A full crew of techs on a big tour makes that pretty easy, but this column is about the smaller, get-in-a-van-andgo kind of tour. There’s not only no budget for a tech, there’s not even room in the car for him. So I’m doing it myself.

Well, not all by myself. My wife (singer/songwriter/ keyboardist Kira Small) and I are in a minivan. It’s 22 shows and 8,000 miles in four weeks. Needless to say, we have precious little spare time. So it’s imperative to use the kinds of systems that professional techs use to maintain their artists’ gear, just on a scaled-down level. Here’s how I’m doing it:

BEFORE THE GIG
Bring the little things. These axe/amp maintenance tools would include, but aren’t limited to:
• A 9-volt battery tester for maintenance of active basses and battery- operated pedals. Cheap and invaluable, these are available at Radio Shack. Also bring five to ten spare batteries.
• A hex key set or very small screwdriver set so you can adjust the action on your instrument. Find the sizes you need before you leave.
• Power extension cords and power strips. I’ve never wished I had fewer with me, especially on the gig when there’s only one outlet 30 feet away.
• Spare patch cables and instrumentlength cables. Cables inevitably die or go bad. If you’re using pedals, make sure your spare patch cables have right angles if necessary. Bonus DIY points: bring a make-your-own-cable kit. You don’t need a soldering iron nowadays to make a custom-length cable in five minutes or less.
• String cutter and/or winder. They make these cool combination cutter/ winder tools for fast restringing. Get one.
• Spare strings and guitar straps. Only music stores have them, and they may not be nearby or open. Keep spares within arm’s reach during the gig.
• Duct tape. For taping down stray cable runs. Black, of course—not silver. We’re pros here.
• Spare fuses. Check your amp for proper ratings and stock up.

Once you have all the little things, organize them. Decide where they all go, and then put them in the same place every time. This is crucial for the aftergig load out. It’s easy to get lazy when friends are around (especially after your second drink) and just shove stuff into the nearest zippered pouch. You will lose stuff this way, I promise.

Organize the vehicle. Your tech would know exactly how many pieces/bags/ instruments/amps you have, and he or she would designate specific places in the gear vehicle for efficient inventory on the way in and out of every gig. You should do the same, so you know if you’re missing something before you leave the venue, not after. Two tips: 1. Practice the vehicle pack before you leave for the tour; 2. Always do a final “dummy-check” before you leave any location (venue, hotel, crash pad, whatever) to make sure you left nothing behind. Only dummies don’t dummy-check.

bp0111_ducttape.jpgDo a proper soundcheck. First, make sure you have signal and everything works— every pedal included. This is your “line check.” Then, even if you’re just a duo, and even if you’re hungry and tired, take ten minutes and soundcheck anyway. Listen closely to yourself onstage. Go out and listen to yourself in the room. You’ll probably hear something that will help you improve the overall sound. The longer your soundcheck, the better chance you’ll expose potential signal chain faults, avoiding embarrassing moments later onstage.

ON THE GIG
Just before showtime, ideally you plug in, strike a couple of muted notes to make sure signal’s present, and then play a technically flawless gig. All your advance work paid off. If you had a tech, he’d be standing sidestage, arms folded, smiling proudly. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if:

Your signal is crackling or intermittent. First, wiggle the instrument cable in the input jack of your bass. If it changes, or stops the crackle, try and wiggle it into a place where it behaves, and just survive the gig. If it still won’t behave, next try swapping the instrument cable. Same problem? Swap basses (if you have a spare). If it stops, it’s the input jack; you’ll need to get it looked at. If the problem persists and both the cable and the instrument have been swapped, it’s either a speaker cable (unlikely in my experience) or the amp itself (bummer—you’re going direct for the rest of the night). The bottom line: This fault is usually the result of a failed or malformed piece of gear somewhere, and requires patience and skill to track down.

If you have a pedalboard in front of the amp and you have crackling/intermittent signal, bypass it ASAP and go straight into the amp. Problem solved? Go pedalboardless for the rest of the gig. And hey, why didn’t you notice this in soundcheck when you could have gone pedal by pedal and found the culprit?

Bonus tech ninja points: If your active bass has one of those slide-out battery compartments on the back, hit it with your fist. If you get the offending noise, take the battery out and use a small flathead screwdriver to pry the metal contacts up from the bottom a bit. Sometimes these contacts flatten out and cause an intermittent connection with the battery, making the loud crackle. Tough to do during the gig, but worth looking at.

bp0111_hex-key-set_nr.jpgYour signal cuts out completely. First of all, check to make sure your instrument cable is still in the input jack of your bass— you never know! If you have a pedalboard in the chain on AC power, look down and stomp on something. Did the power cable get kicked out? If you have any pedals on batteries, stomp on them—do they work? Can you see if any cables are halfway hanging out of any pedals? If the evidence is inconclusive, bypass it completely. Then turn around and look at your amp. Is the power LED on? If not, the power cable probably got kicked or fell out. (If your AC plugs are loose in the sockets, and you can’t find other better sockets in the room, apply duct tape!) Maybe one of the speaker cables behind your rig wasn’t in all the way. In rarer cases, maybe your amp blew a fuse. There are only so many things that can contribute to a sudden total signal loss. The bottom line: This fault is usually the result of a loose or disconnected cable.

The good news is, unless your amp, instrument, or a pedal just suddenly died (possible, but unlikely), this is usually solvable. Intermittent or crackling signal is a much tougher nut to crack. Of course, in the event of catastrophic gear failure during the show, even the best tech can only do so much.

Most important: Don’t forget to have fun. This is the life you’ve chosen. It’s tough work, but if you’re doing it right, you’ll feel more alive than you would sitting at home. Oh, and don’t forget to wear gloves and bend your knees during heavy lifting. And try to find a hotel with a Jacuzzi every once in a while—you deserve it.

Bryan Beller is the touring bassist for the metal “band” Dethklok from the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim show Metalocalypse, and has played with Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Dweezil Zappa, Wayne Kramer, and more. His most recent solo album is Thanks in Advance [Onion Boy]. Follow him on Twitter (@bryanbeller) and find out more at www.bryanbeller.com.

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