Showtime! A Day in the Life of a Guitar Tech Pt. 2 - Load In

The trailer’s open and we’re ready to roll in the backline, the lighting and all the audio equipment. This phase is called the Load In. Before we go on to explain the Load In more thoroughly, let me shed light on some aspects of the crew’s hierarchy. In the chapter before this one, we’ve already met the tour manager and myself, the guitar tech. The tour manager is the overall head of the entourage, but the technical crew’s foreman and leader is the

Production Manager

The production manager is responsible for all the technical aspects of a tour. On this tour I’m also in charge of the lighting crew. Most smaller-budget tours have no separate production manager, instead the post is given to the member of the crew, who is “best at answering his eMails”. Any responsible and level-headed member of the crew can basically do the job of a production manager alongside his usual duties.

The most important part of a production manager’s job is to get in contact with each venue in advance to make sure that all the technical requirements on the band’s rider are really met. All questions regarding technical aspects of the production are put to the production manager. The production manager then takes the issues up with the crew members responsible for each aspect of the show. The production manager then gathers together all the answers he got from the technicians and supplies the information back to the venue’s staff.

The production manager is also responsible for knowing what lighting and PA-equipment will be available from each of the venues the tour will stop at. This means a sheer never-ending stream of phone calls and eMail-messages. The post of production manager is not to be taken on lightly. Once you’re on tour you will have to carry the burden of all the responsibilities for the whole length of the tour, you won’t be able to step back!

On this tour the band and crew travel together on the same coach to save money. Everybody arrives and leaves at the same time. The crew usually take over the venue first thing in the morning, and they are also last to leave. The production manager tries to solve any and all technical problems together with his colleagues in crew, without burdening the tour manager.

On bigger budget tours the band may also travel on their own, and only turn up at the venue a few minutes before the show, and leave right after the last note is played. In those cases the tour manager is part of the band’s travelling entourage, and doesn’t meet the production manager very often. The production manager, on the other hand, travels with his crew. He’s the guy in charge at the venue, he’s the guy who leaves last. Any issues the crew wants to raise in the course of the tour are brought up with the production manager. He is their boss for the length of the tour.

 

The stage manager

On this tour our drum technician has been elected the crew’s stage manager. You shouldn’t confuse this title with the local stage manager at the venue. In an ideal world, both stage managers work together as a team.

The crew’s stage manager greets the local stagehands and holds a head count to make sure he’s been given the right amount of people to work with. During the briefing that follows, nobody should be changing clothes, smoking or talking on their phone anymore. The stage manager gives the local stagehands the heads up on the work ahead. If everyone has been paying attention things should run fairly smoothly.

Who will be moving equipment?

The crew should decide among themselves well in advance of the actual tour, who will be involved actively in the Load In (moving and carrying equipment). If everything has been discussed and planned in advance there will be much less friction, and less potential cause for misunderstandings at the venue.

The local stagehands

A problem with the Finnish mentality is that some members of a Finnish crew will want to earn “macho points” by showing everybody they can lift the heaviest of cases all by their own. I take the view that I’m not on tour to get back problems straight away, which is why I have no problems whatsoever with letting the local stagehands do most of the “dirty” work. Our own crew is there to guide the stagehands and take care of the all-important details.

The locals are divided up, so that each crew member gets his own assistant(s). The crew members should have a well thought-out plan on how to make the most of their own stagehand(s). How much lifting you have to do yourself is dependent on how well you have structured your own workflow. The old adage that “well-planned is half done” holds true on a tour, too. Naturally, no crew member should be a wimp who’s afraid of hard work – you can’t be a roadie with that kind of an attitude. It’s more of a question of making your stamina last for the whole day on each day of the tour.

Load In!

Each venue is different in regard to ease-of-access and the placement of possible loading ramps. Very often this is dependent on when a building has been erected. Today we’re dealing with an old theatre from the late 19th Century that has been converted in recent times to serve as a concert venue. This place is so old that it is highly likely many technical requirements of today’s bands won’t be fully met. Most probably we’re dealing with a listed building, something that makes large structural changes a no-no. In these cases the ownership structures may also be somewhat complicated. Sometimes even the most basic repairs haven’t be made for decades, but still shows are put on several times a week.

One of my colleagues opens the trailer and takes his position at the bus. He uses two stagehands to unload the trailer’s contents. This “team” feeds all of the gear onwards and into the venue. The production manager takes position somewhere along the way, making sure everything works smoothly. He controls the correct flow of equipment into the venue, and stops any locals from disappearing around a corner for a quick smoke. He is also there to prevent the stagehands from injuring themselves. An experienced technician can easily suss out the attitude of the local stagehands.

Then I move to the stage to take delivery of the cases. They are brought onto stage in the order that they arrive, and I make sure that each case is placed in the right spot. The correct and clear marking of all road cases is vitally important during the pre-production phase. You save a lot of time and a lot of hassle if everything is marked out clearly, so you can see at once, whether a certain case has to go on the stage or stay on the main floor.

If your cases have been left unmarked, chances are you will spend more time trying to figure out what goes where on a cramped stage, than what you needed for actually hauling all the equipment into the venue in the first place.

Mark your cases

There are several ways to mark a road case. The most basic procedure is placing bits of white gaffa onto each case. Mark out clearly what’s in the case, with one easy-to-read sticker on the side of the case and one on top. Additionally, you should add a running number onto all cases to keep track of all your gear. For a larger production additional colour coding will come in handy, allowing you to divide the cases into instrument-related groups, like green for drum cases, orange for guitar-related equipment, and so on.

Around the world it is common practice to denominate the cases by adding a letter (as an abbreviation) to the numbering scheme. Guitar equipment will be numbered G1, G2, G3, bass cases are B1, B2, B3, drum equipment might be D1, D2, D3 and the keyboard rig will be marked K1, K2, K3.

You can fine-tune these schemes to suit your requirements. The main point is that every piece of equipment is well-marked, and that every member of the crew knows how the labelling scheme on this tour works (and how many cases there are in all). Keep your labelling nice and clear, and make sure it can also be read in dark places.

Give it one more push!

The trailer’s almost empty. A couple of cases are still in there, but they won’t be taken out. These cases are labelled “stays in trailer”, and they contain back-ups or additional equipment.

Now the whole crew and all the stagehands assemble onstage. All cases are put into position and the lids are taken off. The stagehands are sent off to put the lids into storage. At this point the stagehands will only be required for a few minutes more, so you should make use of them, before they dash off for a cup of coffee or a smoke.

Cases on the floor

Right now the cases have been parked on the venue’s wooden dance floor. The road cases’ wheels make it easy for them to be moved around. The lighting guys have taken control of the stage, and have lowered the lighting trusses. They have to do their work first, before anybody else is allowed on the stage. The stage wings are quite small, so I have decided to set up shop on the floor of the venue next to the stage. This gives me more than enough space for giving the instruments a once-over, as well as for assembling the guitar equipment before taking it on stage. These types of working conditions are quite similar to being on tour with a support act or doing a festival gig.

I set up my workshop and my guitar stands on top of empty road cases, just like I would do it at a festival. I make sure that there’s a solid ramp at the venue which I can use to wheel all of my equipment onto stage. Yes, there’s a decent ramp present, so I tie down all amps with ratchet straps, making the whole backline ready for transport up the ramp, once its time has come.

I ask the stagehands to lift the last bits of heavy equipment and open a few of the larger cases, but I will only keep my assistants until I can start going to work on my own. If I see a guy who makes an especially favourable impression, I might even ask the boss of the local crew for the guy’s name, and try to get the same guy to come back in the evening. Having someone you already know with you in the evening makes the Load Out a bit easier. You’d have an assistant who is familiar with your equipment and has some idea of how everything is going to be packed up.

Empty cases and unused covers

Before the stagehands are sent on their way I ask them where they have put all the empty road cases, lids and effect rack fronts. I try to keep my own tool and equipment cases (and the guitar cases) close to hand at all times, because I will need them during the show and right after the last encore. If possible, I also arrange the cases into the right order for disassembly and Load Out. When there’s only limited space available you try to minimize the need for running around unnecessarily.

The worst-case scenario would be if the stagehands took all the empty cases to a storage room without my knowledge. There might well be different stagehands after the show, who don’t know where all the stuff has been taken. You don’t want to be looking like a big fool, while trying to locate your cases in a strange place.

A look at what’s happening on stage tells me the lighting crew is still installing lights, which allows me the time to go and grab a bite and a cup of coffee. You never know if and when disaster might strike, so the crew eat at every occasion. If there’s a serious technical crisis you wouldn’t want your blood sugar levels to fall too low for straight thinking.

How long does it take to set-up a show?

Technicians tend to do the same routines in the same way, regardless of whether this evening’s venue is a small club or a large outdoor arena. The difference is only that a large stage gives you much more room to manoeuvre. In a club you have to make do with the conditions you find yourself in. The smaller the stage, the more time the whole setting up will take. During the planning of a tour it is important to put a figure to the time the set-up takes. You need to define how long it will take you from Load In to the first note of the soundcheck.

Four hours means easy living, three hours sounds like ample time, the crew could do it in two, but then it wouldn’t really be fun anymore. In many cases, a good crew could even assemble a show’s equipment in just an hour, if there’s an emergency. But this would mean having to cut down on many of the usual routines, and there would be absolutely no margin for errors or equipment troubles.

Naturally, one part of the scheduling comes down to finances and budget. The earlier you require the venue’s own people to turn up for work, the more man-hours the band will have to pay for. On the other hand, running a successful tour on a break-neck schedule may not do the band a favour in the long run. You have to ask yourself, is a hastily thrown together show really worth the risk of damage to the band’s stature and image? In the end, a tour should be about presenting your artist in the best possible light, so you shouldn’t cut corners when it comes to the technical aspects of a production.

The band often take a different view to the crew of when best to turn up at the venue. The band is bored stiff by all the hours spent waiting in drab dressing rooms – they would prefer to turn up only in time for the show. The crew, for their part, want to do their job right. It’s an embarrassing situation, when a band turns up for soundcheck, but the crew is not ready, yet. There will be one technical problem or another on virtually every day of a tour. You need to factor in enough time for the crew to fix any problem before the soundcheck.

A checklist can help

A guitar tech has a lot of things to do. There are leads to be plugged in and cabinets to be set up. You have to change strings, tune all the instruments, and make sure there are no problems with the wireless system. You have to remember to factor in enough time for setting up necessary spares, too. If there’s a problem mid-show, time is of the essence. Being in a rush during set-up can lead to you forgetting something important. If you have trouble remembering all the different things you have to take care of, why not try putting together a checklist?

I find myself a quiet place backstage and go over my routines in my head, and write everything down. If there is something I have missed during my mental training routine, chances are I will also forget this bit during set-up, which can potentially have very embarrassing consequences. Assembling a checklist takes you an hour at the most, but the list will save you plenty of time over the length of a tour.

Checking the equipment after transport

While opening up the road cases I give all the equipment a first, visual check. Most equipment malfunctions are caused by transportation. Screws may become loose or fall off, both on the outside as well as on the inside of pieces of equipment, due to all the vibration. A loose component may in turn cause a solder joint to fail, which will prevent the unit from functioning properly. Effect racks are a good indicator of this phenomenon: If the rack screws become undone on a regular basis, chances are the vibration has also had an impact on the internal screws of the effect units. I have seen some strange things on the road, like rack effects being held together by friction alone, with all their internal screws flying around freely inside the effect unit.

Backline placement

Regularly gigging and touring bands have a clear idea of how they want to be set up onstage. I’m talking about the exact placement of the drum set, amplifier backline, keyboard rig, microphones and monitors in relationship to each other. Many bands stick to these measurements even on large arena stages, keeping the gung-ho feel of a club gig intact, even though they’re playing a massive outdoor festival.

This evening’s stage is a problematic case. Due to its slightly odd shape, and a pillar in the righthand corner, the backline placement and set-up of the band will have to be different than usual. Knowing “your” band’s preferences proves vital in situations such as these. The band will only turn up in time for the soundcheck, so the technicians will have to take all the important decisions by themselves, right now. Each band technician knows what his charge wants and needs to feel at home on stage. Sometimes the conditions are ideal, sometimes less so. But the show must go on, so any complaining is useless.

Putting up my “guitar world”

I try to set up my sanctuary and workshop – my own “guitar world” – in the wings of the stage. I need to have a good view of the stage, but I don’t want the audience to notice me. This will be my own little corner of the world, and nobody will be allowed in here but me. Each technician has the right (and responsibility) to keep his stuff together, and to keep his corner free from distracting intruders. If somebody stands in my way, staring in amazement at my strangely illuminated chromatic tuner, I will tell them to please buzz off. I will be friendly, but firm!

The emergency exit

Sometimes it may seem that my work station is always in wrong place in any club we play in. Most often the club owner (or his staff) will point to the emergency exit that I am potentially blocking. Today’s stage is small and offers no real room in the wings, which is why I find myself set up beneath a green emergency exit sign (once again).

You should always talk to the venue’s personnel about local regulations, when you’re thinking of positioning yourself next to, or in front of, an emergency exit. Try to find a working compromise, even if it means a smaller working area or cutting down on the amount of tools you use.

Very often the venue’s representatives are not open to discussion, and the reasons are quite clear. In a case of emergency everybody has to be able to leave the building quickly and safely. If local authorities find out that a club isn’t following regulations there will be very steep fines. In some cases a venue might even be shut down completely, because of security issues!

This means you should be prepared for working in very cramped conditions. In most European countries the minimum distance to an emergency exit is 1.2 metres. If you’re lucky you will fit in the space that is left. In these cases you will also be able to use the emergency exit to get your stuff off the stage quickly after the show.

Routines and how to stick to them

The construction phase leading up to the soundcheck could be compared to a freight train setting in motion. During a tour the crew develops certain routines, and everything seems to happen by itself. Each step along the road should be completed before taking a short break, otherwise the set-up will feel like a train that has made a short stop somewhere – hard to get up to speed again.

Routines can be a good thing. It really pays off to learn how to perform all the necessary tasks in a sequence that stays unchanged. A routine will help you remember each step along the way without having to think too much. You should also weave your short breaks into your routine, otherwise there will be a temptation to get as much done as possible in one go. Sometimes when the train’s a-rolling you might not want to go and get your water bottle from the backstage area.

The pros and cons of routines

Repetition and muscle memory are cornerstones of human learning. You don’t need to do a job for very long before it starts becoming “automated”. My checklist helps me to pace my job correctly, by allowing me to chop up my workload into smaller entities. I have divided the whole set-up procedure into several stages, with short breaks for taking a leak, getting myself a cup of coffee, or having a chat with a colleague inserted in-between. If nothing special is going on, I simply take a little drink of water. The most important thing is getting each work phase finished without distraction, before moving on to the next stage:

  • Unpack all guitars, assemble the amp stacks, open all the racks, and get all the large pieces in place. Drink some water.
  • Plug everything into mains. Get my own workspace in working order. Drink some water.
  • Change all strings, check intonations and actions, double-check, and switch the amps, wireless systems and effects on to warm up. Drink some water.
  • Make sure that the signal’s coming through (at extremely low amp levels to keep the noise down). Retune all instruments, check once again for intonation. Put plecks in place. Tape down the cable snake. We’re done.

You try to stick to your routines on every day of the tour and in all situations. But don’t be afraid, there’s always plenty of things going wrong on a tour, which will keep you from ever getting bored!

Thanks to your routines everything runs like clockwork and the backline rises as if by itself.  This is useful as the tour drags on and venues change. Your routine helps you to get the job done successfully, even when you’re tired or struck by a cold. You’re stuck in your own version of Groundhog Day, and the music will play every evening.

My own equipment and tools

I’ve made a habit of gathering together all the equipment and tools I need on a tour, and keep them in my own cases. Instead of having to walk over to the monitor mixer and ask him for a certain cable, or something, every day, I keep the cable at my workplace. Now I know where everything is kept and I can proceed at my own pace. Every now and again there might be a “bad” day. If I’m feeling a little bit tired I can take things a little easier, without impeding anybody else’s work.

If, for example, I would have to get a certain cable from the monitor guy each and every day, and he decided to change his things around, I’d have to stop him in his tracks and ask him where I could find the all-important cable. Additionally, we would also have to agree on when and where I would come to return that cable after the show. If you’re on the road for three months this unnecessary to- and fro-ing would be repeated dozens of times. You make it much easier for yourself if you keep as many of the pieces of the puzzle in your own hand as possible.

Non-verbal communication

I can count my routines and my checklist as well-functioning if I manage to get my part of the set-up over with successfully, without having to talk to anybody. Naturally, this doesn’t include normal greetings. Nobody likes a guy who is moody and tight-lipped, and even the stagehands won’t perform to the best of their abilities if you’re rude. No, I’m talking about that blessed state of non-verbal communication you can reach when working in a well-run team.

Also, your colleagues in the crew will appreciate you letting them concentrate on their job. A blabbermouth tends to distract everybody from the task at hand, making it hard to focus. Being a roadie is no different to working in the office in this respect – people like to be able to concentrate on their work.

Beware of the rat’s nest!

If “my” guitarist uses a pedalboard I keep it right next to the amp until all vocal mics and monitors have been hooked up. Only then will I take the ‘board to its place at the front of the stage. In this way, nobody will stumble over the effects or bury my cable snake beneath a rat’s nest of other audio cables.

The key to being quick on your feet is always keeping your own cables on top of everything else. If I have to link up two guitar or bass stacks, and I leave the leads lying on the floor, they tend to be buried underneath other cables fairly quickly. This is why I always disconnect the link after I have finished testing the amp set-up, coil up the cable, and place it on top of the amp, safe and secure from any of the local crew who might not mind their step.

Smoke gets in your eyes

You should find out the locations of any smoke/fog machines onstage. These machines tend to condensate liquid onto the stage, turning any cable that runs in their direct vicinity into a slimy and oily mess. Sometimes the only solution is placing a cloth or towel on top of your cables to prevent the worst leakage.

I always wipe off my leads anyway, before packing them up after the show, to prevent any liquid or other dirt of seeping onto other cables, or into other pieces of equipment. And it’s not only fog machine fluid – the same goes for spilled drinks, water, sweat, and other (less appetizing) things the cables might get in contact with.

Sometimes my “guitar world” gets caught in the crossfire of a smoke machine or two. The problem is that the artificial fog is always noticeably cooler than the air in the venue and on stage. Guitars don’t take all that well to such micro-climatic changes – it messes up their tuning. Try to ask the lighting guy nicely to change the direction or placement of the smoke machine. If he doesn’t react in due time do it yourself! The artificial smoke is meant to enhance the lighting onstage. If you turn the fog machine more into the direction of the stage you will have done the lighting guy a favour.

When your stuff takes a walk

I try to keep all my tools and equipment together, by my side, on my table, in my pocket or in my cases. If I lend somebody a screwdriver, I will try my best to get it back as soon as possible, and to return it to its right place immediately. Funnily, gaffa and coloured tapes tend to “disappear” very easily on tour. I keep my sticky tapes in one specific place during the day. If, by accident, I leave my gaffa tape lying around somewhere, you can be sure it will be “rescued” by somebody else in less than a minute – and I can guarantee you, I won’t ever get it back again! It’s a very good idea to label all of your stuff (and all of the band’s stuff) clearly. An unmarked roll of gaffa tape can most easily go MIA, because somebody from the house crew “thought” it belonged to them. If a roll of tape carries your name written on the cardboard spool it won’t be taken for a walk so easily.

The Linecheck is on the horizon

If everything goes according to plan the crew works like a well-oiled machine and at a steady pace. If one crew member falls behind he is bound to hold up his colleagues sooner or later. Nobody wants that to happen…

Conditions are shifting daily with each venue. Sometimes the house-PA is in a shambles, and has to be fixed and reassembled. In such cases you can’t do anything but wait. Today, things seem to run smoothly, though. It doesn’t take long for the PA to spring to life. The front-of-house (FOH) mixer’s customary test song in a sure sign for the rest of the crew. Today it tells us all that we are running a little bit behind schedule. I give myself another push, and soon find myself taping the last cable onto the stage floor. Now I’m all set for the next item on the agenda – the Linecheck!

The Story continues next week with Part 3 - Linecheck

29.10.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (Translated by: Martin Berka, Pics: Harri Huuhtanen)
The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast.