Shitpile paralysis strikes - are you ready?

The feeling that grips you, when gear starts to break down, right in the middle of the most-important gig ever. The dreadful fear that grips you, when the amp has gone shtumm while the intro tape is already rolling. The dizzying feeling, when all you see is a rat’s nest of effect pedals and patch cables, which you frantically unplug and reconnect, praying that, miraculously, one of your actions will bring back the guitar signal. It is not coming back, your freeze-frame state is called shitpile paralysis. Its usual symptoms are:

  • a complete loss of sense of time and space 
  • cold sweat and nausea 
  • an urge to go and take a crap, right this moment 
  • getting the shakes, while your brain is stuck in total lockdown 

If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s a feeling you’ll never forget! (Pic: Harri Huuhtanen)

Why are there a lot of scribbles on this pedalboard?

I can still remember my puzzlement at all the hieroglyphs my technician colleagues used to scribble onto their equipment, all those years ago. I really didn’t see the need for all the ugly markings all over the artists‘ precious gear. I concentrated on coming up with a logical way of connecting all the different pieces of equipment, and then memorizing everything by heart. This is all nice and well when you’re working under ideal (i.e. controlled) conditions, but when the situation is on and your pulse is just about 140, it may prove hard to even remember your own phone number, let alone the minutiae of your client’s effects set-up.

When I was working as a full-time guitar technician, I had the very questionable pleasure of experiencing a complete equipment breakdown first-hand during a live broadcast for MTV Europe in Italy. We still remember this trip fondly as the “Massacre of Civitavecchia”. Once you’ve experienced your own fair share of shitpile paralyses, it becomes very easy for you to detect when somebody else is drawn into the grips of this condition. 

Mark all leads!

Years later I had been hired for a Larry Graham-gig at Helsinki’s Savoy Theatre, as the legend’s personal bass tech, to make sure the bass equipment worked fine all night. The band travelled with their own general technician, who had to wear several proverbial hats at the same time.

After the soundcheck we were supposed to clear the front of the stage for the evening’s support act. Mr Graham’s pedalboard was connected to two different amps. The wireless system had been tucked away behind the backline, meaning that there were three long cables running between the board and the amps. I asked the technician to carefully mark the three leads before unplugging them, but he felt this was unnecessary. When I returned with my coloured sticky tapes (see below), he had already unplugged the pedalboard. 

You can probably all guess what happened next, can’t you?

The band’s technician plugged in Larry Graham’s board right before the set, but no sound came out of the rig. The seconds were ticking away, but the star of the evening, Mr Larry Graham, had no sound! The technician went into shitpile paralysis, and started fumbling around with the pedalboard. He wiggled the patch cables and pressed all the switches. It wasn’t difficult to conclude that the three long amplifier leads must have been hooked up the wrong way around.

I simply went up, and finished what I had tried to do during soundcheck – systematically mark the long cables, one by one, and find the correct way of connecting the rig to the pedalboard. I’m rather sure that my labelling saved the technician a lot of worries during the rest of the tour.

Four different ways of labelling

The fear of losing your job and/or being humiliated in front of several thousand people is a very strong motivator for coming up with foolproof solutions. The bottom line is that you should mark and label all cables and important connections in such a way that they are easy for anybody to understand and hook up correctly.

Should a stomach bug hit you and leave you backstage, vomiting into a toilet bowl, somebody else from the crew will have to deal with the set-up of your client’s rig. 

What should I label?

Even those things that seemed crystal-clear during rehearsals, can suddenly become huge obstacles onstage in case of emergency. Losing your client’s signal mid-gig will freeze your brain in an instant, but clear labelling will get you back on top of the situation quickly. Don’t underestimate the detrimental effects of a bout of nerves in front of an audience!

You should at least mark out all cables and plugs, speaker cables and their connectors, the sends and returns of effects loops, footswitches, and so on. A good rule of thumb is, that there isn’t a connection too small or too simple to require clear labelling, when it comes down to it. You could also choose different colours for the cases of different instruments (like green = guitar,orange = bass, etc.). Using different combinations of Pro Gaff-colours will get you a long way in labelling a whole band set-up.

Abbreviations

In all the rigs that I have assembled over the last years, I have been using the same abbreviations. You will also find these abbreviations on all our Custom Boards-pedalboards and their respective cable snakes:

AMP – Cable carrying the signal to the amp, IP – Input/pedalboard input, OP – Output/pedalboard output, – Effects loop send, R – Effects loop return etc. You can come up with as many of your own abbreviations or symbols as you like. The really important thing is, that it must always be a plug marked with a certain colour and symbol that goes into a jack labelled with the exact same colour and symbol. In the picture below abbreviations stand for C - Clean and F - Fuzz.

If you have a lead marked with green tape and labelled “C2”, it should be clear to anybody that this cable is connected to a switch with a corresponding marking of "C2". Still you can double-check – green to green and “C2” to “C2” – fine, seems OK, next connection, please!

If somebody is filling in for you, they don’t need to know what the cable does, where the signal comes from and which way it goes. They only have to hook up matching colours and abbreviations, and following this simple code will make sure that everything will be connected properly.

1) Fluorescent Marker

You can spend your entire fortune on effect pedals and amps, but you will still sound strange, if the control settings aren’t correct. Many players are shying away from labelling their stompboxes (or their amps, for that matter) clearly, because they’re afraid of spoiling the pedal’s looks for good. 

Stagetrix’ Terry Bardoul has developed a special marker pen for onstage use. Its ink glows in the dark, and it can be wiped off by simply rubbing it with your finger. It’s as simple as it is brilliant! As before, somebody else will be able to tweek your gear to the correct settings.

Once your onstage sound is settled during final PA-rehearsals, make sure to note all your critically important settings. If your front-of-house guy is satisfied with your sound, you should stick to those settings at the gig. Changing an effect’s signal level (or your amp’s EQ-settings, etc.) has an crucial effect on your final sound. If, say, your Middle-knob has accidentally been knocked to full up, your sound will become all boxy and muddy. Before the gig, it is easy to check all your settings by looking at your markings, so you can be sure that your rig is at its best and all geared to go.

2) Fluorescent Gaffa

The easiest way to mark out leads and their corresponding jacks is by usingglow-in-the-dark fluor tape. Pro Gaff (from the USA) is the leading brand and used is all over the world. By employing the four different colours offered (green, yellow, orange and pink) it’s fairly easy to label all important connections in a logical manner. Pro Gaff is sturdy, but doesn’t leave any glue marks. You can write on it and it glows in the dark. Just what the doctor ordered!

In my view, 12 millimetres is the most practical width for marking cables. You can get it in handy rolls and it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg. A large roll of wider tape would cost you much more.

3) Label printer

If a piece of equipment is very small, or if there is a lot of text to be written, getting a handheld label printer would be a good idea. We use a Dymo-printer loaded with plastic coated tape on our Custom Boards. The tapes hold up well to the rigours of regular touring, and their coloured and shiny background makes them relatively easy to read in the dark. 

The most important candidate for labelling in this way would be the power supply. A professional power supply unit can power a dozen different effects, or more. When push comes to shove you will need be able to determine quickly what went wrong. This will prove nigh on impossible, if the power supply’s not labelled. 

We also include labels to mark the placement of any pedal in a board’s signal chain. These small labels won’t distract the guitarist, but a quick look at the stompbox’ side will tell you how the pedalboard is hooked up. 

Dymo-labels are a true godsend in really tricky and complicated set-ups. You can note different MIDI-commands or preset slots, if you’re using rack effects, for example. It’s true that Dymo-label cartridges are relatively expensive, even though the printer is not, but in professional applications the Dymo-printer is a very useful tool and certainly worth every cent.

Do note, however, that Dymo-labels can only be used on flat surfaces. If you stick it onto a cable or a plug, it will peel off with time, unless you protect the label with a layer of transparent tape or heat-shrink foil.

4) Insulation tape

Insulation (or electrical) tape is an insulating plastic tape with a glossy surface, which you can buy in many different colours. You can label cables with a colour code used by electricians since the 1920s. Depending on the specific tape’s surface, some even let you write on them.

Each digit from zero to nine is given its own specific colour, enabling you to express numbers as combinations of different stripes of tape. If you know the code, it’s easy to read it. This method is most often used for the labelling of XLR-cables for patchbays. The same colour code is also used to indicate the resistance value of resistors in electronic devices.

Nowadays, I tend to use this system less and less, when building our Custom Boards. Colour coding is a slow process, and it tends to look confusing on a pedalboard already filled with differently coloured stompboxes. Dymo-labelling is much easier to decipher in the heat of the moment, and you don’t have to memorize the colour code. Also, the artist might have something better to do than learn mnemonics for color codes. If you’re technically-oriented, you might want to learn the code, nonetheless. So here it is as a reference: 

You can also try to memorize the order of the different colours by using this old, completely tasteless and non-PC saying (I apologize for the crudity):

Black Boys Rape Our Young Girl But Violet Gives Willingly 

I challenge you to invent your own, better mnemonic sentence. Just add it to the Finqus-comment section below!

Feeling is what counts! 

In the end you can mark your gear with tapes just as you see fit. Find your own way and get inspired! As long as you and your bandmate can figure out what they stand for, you are on the safe side.

The whole band benefits

You should go through your band’s equipment together with your bandmates, after your next soundcheck or rehearsal. Check your equipment systematically, and agree on a common method of labelling all your gear. You will quickly notice that well-labelled equipment is much easier and faster to set up and tear down. 

A well-labelled backline and pedalboard will also enable you to troubleshoot much more effectively, should the proverbial shit hit the fan mid-gig.

Preventing shitpile paralysis TOP 3

  1. Try not to panic, and keep following the labels and markings. If you manage to stay calm and focussed while looking for the cause of the problem, you will get a lot done in a short time. 
  2. Keep an open mind about all possible scenarios. Don’t assume anything, or discard any possible option, until you’re absolutely sure. If you’re looking for the fault in the wrong place, because you settle on a specific assumption early on, you will never find it. 
  3. Get as much sleep as you can. A rested brain is a much more efficient problem-solving device.

21.5.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (translated by Martin Berka)
The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast.