Rules of the Road

Sound Checks, Safety, and More

The following article is an excerpt from Shure Notes / Musician, Issue #48 (September 1, 2011).

Some may refer to it as the fourth law of thermodynamics, but most of us know it as “Murphy’s Law,” in its simplest form: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Sure, you can blame it on the perversity of the universe, but there are steps you can take to fight back, traveling from gig to gig, and avoid at least some of the pitfalls and potholes of live performance.

Sound Check

The real purpose of a sound check is to make tone, volume, and balance adjustments to the technical set-up of your sound system. More often than not, there isn’t a lot of time available for sound checks (unless you’re a huge touring act, and in that case, you’ll have a battalion of sound engineers to help you). Here are some quick tips for making the most of the time you have.

You’ll want to:

  • Set up your sound system and make sure everything is working properly
  • Double-check all connections and inputs
  • Play short segments of a variety of tunes in your set
  • Sing into the mic and listen to the monitors
  • If at all possible, record the sound check and listen to the recording
  • Make adjustments with the understanding that an empty room will sound different when the audience is present
  • Remember that a sound check isn’t a rehearsal

Avoiding Show Stoppers

When you’re playing in a band, stuff happens. A guitar cord shorts out. A fuse blows. A pick disappears.

When it happens in the middle of a practice, it’s no big deal. But when you’re in the middle of a gig, it can bring your show to a grinding halt.

With a little advanced planning, however, you can be ready for most of the little problems that unexpectedly arise. A word to the wise: bring along an “emergency case” full of little things that can save your show in the event of an unforeseen problem.

Every band has unique needs. But there are a few universal spare parts that no band should be without:

  • Extra guitar cords (2 or 3)
  • Extra power (extension) cords (2 or 3)
  • Extra power strips
  • Extra (fresh) batteries for wireless gear
  • Duct tape
  • Extra guitar strings
  • Flashlight
  • Screw drivers (Phillips head and slot-type)
  • Extra fuses
  • Extra guitar strap
  • A small rug (to place under drums on a slippery floor)
  • Adjustable wrench
  • Extra guitar picks

The name of the game is “be prepared”. And with an emergency kit full of these basic spare parts, you can be sure that the show will go on.

Playing it Safe

You’ve heard the stories.

In 1965, Keith Richards was knocked unconscious by the force of a bad connection. Former Yardbird Keith Relf reportedly cashed it in while plugging in his electric guitar in 1976. Even George Harrison wasn’t immune. You can find YouTube videos of an electrifying encounter during the recording and filming of “Let It Be.”

Despite these incidents, microphones and electric instruments in general are not particularly dangerous — provided you take some basic precautions. For starters, never defeat the safety ground. That third prong on your PA plug may be an inconvenient nuisance, but it’s there for a reason and breaking it off is not recommended. If you use an adapter, proper installation requires removing the screw in the center of the outlet wall plate, plugging in the adapter and replacing the screw, having first passed it through the green grounding tab on the adapter. If a live wire should accidentally come into contact with the grounded amplifier chassis, the current will be conducted safely to ground through the ground wire (instead of through you). Next, check cables periodically for wear and tear and replace them as needed.

Microphone shocks are usually caused by a faulty guitar amplifier that is leaking AC current onto its chassis. Your guitar cable connects to the guitar amp chassis. Your guitar strings are connected to the guitar cable. When your hands are on the strings, you body is connected to leading AC current via the strings, the cable, and the guitar amp chassis. When your lips touch the metal mic grille (which is connected to AC ground via its own cable), you complete the circuit with the leaking AC current flowing through your wet lips to the mic grille.

Have a competent guitar amp technician check your guitar amp for AC current leaking onto the amp chassis. Take this very seriously! If the AC current leakage gets worse, you could burn your lips or suffer a dangerous electrical shock. Also, we suggest you check the maker of your guitar amplifier.

The important thing to remember is that your gear, like all electrical devices, is dangerous to use in wet conditions, when exposed wires are present, or when normal safety features are defeated (as in the case of the third prong). Take the usual precautions and you’ll be rocking to a ripe old age.

Davida Rochman

A Shure associate since 1979, Davida Rochman graduated with a degree in Speech Communications and never imagined that her first post-college job would result in a life-long career that had her marketing microphones rather than speaking into them. Today, Davida is a Communications Manager, lending her skills to a wide spectrum of activities – from public relations and social media to content development and sponsorships.

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