This is a guide to setting up and running sound at the Blacksburg Contra Dance. I expect this will be revised and refined periodically.
Hall Setup – Necessary, but Not Sufficient
The YMCA dance hall is a rather hard-surfaced place, between the wall of windows, the wall of mirrors, the wall with windows to the outside, the plain drywall fourth wall, the wooden floor, and the corrugated steel roof. We do what we can to soften this, as described below:
- Move the hanging quilts over to the mirror wall
- Expand the mobile walls/partitions across the window wall at the back of the hall
- Expand the window drapes so they cover as much of the windows as possible
We generally set up the band more or less in line or offset a bit house left of the line of pillars, up by the plain wall, farthest from the main door. The presence of the mixer and house speakers at this end of the hall is a sign.
Move the carpet section over to where the band will be sitting. This helps protect the floor from the stands and chairs that the band will use. The carpet is usually near where you’ll put it, but over in front of the door with exit sign at that end of the hall.
Set up chairs for the band. You’ll probably have to wing this, but generally speaking, one per person is good. Sometimes you’ll use fewer. The band will know how many seats they want from us.
Setting UP The Equipment – What to Find where and Where to Put It
Mixer is located at what we will think of as the top of the hall, on top of a dark brown wooden cabinet on wheels. It lives there, and thus does not get packed up at the end of the night.
House speakers are hung already. Leave them there. Make sure they haven’t slipped and are pointing downwards (this hasn’t been a problem since some string was added to help hold them in place). They’re already wired into the soundboard.
Mic standards are in a locked golf club hardcase labeled Mark Lattanzi in the back room. You will be told where to get the key. Mic stands should be returned to that case at the end of the night.
Cables and microphones are in a yellow suitcase in the back room. Microphones should be in faux leather cases, usually two to a case. Cables will be loose in the suitcase, but should be secured with velcro straps. Learn to recognize the cables that live in the suitcase so we get them all back at the end of the night and don’t accidentally abduct anyone else’s cables.
Monitor speakers should be in the back room. They may be in cardboard boxes with the tops cut off.
Mixer appears to be a Mackie 408M or 808M. I’ll have to verify. In any case, it works fine for the most part, but channel 8 is shot and the level-setting LED is stuck in the on state. House speakers are already plugged in.
Microphones are a selection of Shure mics, some SM58s in the mix. They can be used for the caller, any vocalists, and any instruments which do not have pickups. Expect four or five microphones.
Expect on the order of seven XLR-XLR cables and three 1/4-inch phone-plug – 1/4-inch phone-plug cables in the suitcase.
Try to run cables on the shortest path that’s out of the way. I typically run one batch of cables on the back wall, and another along the front of the band area, just behind the monitors. A tidy cable run is your friend and makes it easier to avoid stepping them and to troubleshoot when they’re not working.
Using the Mixer – Make it Sound Good
Before you plug anything into the mixer, make sure you reset the board to a default state. That means knocking the input gain, monitor out, and mains out knobs to 0 for each channel, and setting the monitor and mains volume knobs to 0. Set the equalization knobs (blue) on each channel to the center. There should be a slight detent you can feel at that position. Set the equalizers for the monitors and mains flat.
Make sure that Phantom Power is disabled until the band asks for it. This isn’t likely to cause a problem, but there’s the risk that a band will bring a piece of equipment that will respond to it poorly, so don’t turn it on unless they ask for it. You may need to prompt them by asking something like, “Do you need phantom power?”
Plug the monitors into the back of the mixer. You can run them separately from the mixer, but it works just as well to daisy chain one off the other.
Mains should already be connected. Pay close attention to which is which if they are not, and then you should probably plug them back in.
With respect to arranging the band on the mixer, Matt and I recommend plugging in the band members in the same order that they’re sitting, so that the left-most band member is on Channel 1. If a band member plays more than one instrument, we recommend that you set up the primary instrument as the band member’s lowest-numbered channel and the other as the next highest channel. If a band member plays two roughly equally, but puts one house left or house right of where her or she is sitting, we recommend you use the placement of the instrument as a guide. Whatever works for you is fine, but I find this system works fairly well.
Plug in the caller mic. We recommend setting the caller on Channel 7 and letting the band use the first six. This is conveniently consistent with putting the caller house-right of the band.
Once everyone is plugged in and ready to play, you’ll need to get levels from the band. They will probably expect to hear themselves immediately, even though I’d prefer to bring up the monitors later. As such, you’ll need to guess at the right levels for the monitor in both the individual channel settings and the overall monitor volume. Err on the conservative side and adjust upwards as needed.
You should first adjust the input levels until they are only occasionally tripping the input level light. You may need to encourage them to play as hard as they expect to play during the dance. Expect that even with urging, the band will likely not be playing quite as loud as they will once they get into the dance and account for this in your settings. It is generally safe to move quickly up to around the halfway mark on the knob and adjust from there. The majority of players need the gain set past the halfway. Keep this in mind as you’re trying to get monitors up quickly to make the band happy.
Once the band is reasonably happy and you’re seeing the occasional level light flicker as they play, move onto the house. You can get a start on this by just listening to the house audio as you’re standing at the board. When you have something that seems like and ok start, go out onto the floor and listen. You should be going out onto the floor to listen and then returning to the board to make adjustments a number of times. Keep in mind that an empty hall will sound louder and seem echoey by comparison to a hall full of dancers. Also keep in mind that the sound will be different at different places in the hall. Listen to the band house audio from where the lines will be.
Once the band is set, you’ll want to set up the caller’s mic. It is not uncommon to do this just before the dance starts, so be prepared to make a quick guess to get the caller talking to the crowd, then adjust as needed. You’ll want to be sure the caller can be heard clearly everywhere in the hall, but is not too loud.
Balance and EQ
About now is when you need to start thinking about balance and equalization in the house. I operate on the rule I learned in concert band that you should be generally be able to hear every single instrument, which means no one instrument should dominate the others. You’ll want to make sure the band and the caller are balanced so that dancers can hear the caller clearly and that the caller does not overwhelm the band. For equalization, you want to make sure every instrument and the caller all sound ‘good.’ That’s a very subjective thing, but the answer is to go out and listen to the band in the space. I’ve found that most fiddles need to have the highs knocked down to keep them from being too piercing, I often tinker with the caller, as I’ve found a number sound a bit muddy through the system, and that knocking out some of their lower range can improve clarity in the hall.
As you’re adjusting, make sure you wander the hall to listen to the sound in a variety of places. As you walk, you’ll find areas of constructive interference, where the sound is especially loud, and you might even find a few places where the sound is especially soft. Be sure to listen to sound near the lines of dancers, and pay special attention to the sound at the end of the hall, where it tends to be softest. You don’t want to blast anyone’s ears, but you want to make sure the band and caller are clear at the bottom of the set.
The adjustment process takes a while. I find that, for a relatively simple band, the sound settles within about two dances, but that a more complex band where players play several instruments takes longer, often three or four dances to get them to play all their instruments and make sure they sound good.
After you get it to the point where it sounds good, you could keep tinkering all night, but you should at that point consider leaving well enough alone and getting out to dance. It is rare that the sound needs to be babysat after the fourth dance. Just keep an ear out for feedback and be ready to race over to the board to kill it at the first sign.
Troubleshooting – When You Have problems
Feedback is the result of some mic getting too close to some speaker. Generally, this will happen when the caller stands in just the right spot while walking around or when a band member moves too close to the monitors whilst playing. Generally speaking, the best option is to reduce their input gain, though you may consider reducing the volume of that player in the monitors or main, as appropriate.
If you aren’t getting any levels from an instrument, ask the band member using it if the device requires phantom power. It’s not uncommon for them to forget you asked that earlier. Have the band member check that the device is switched on, and that it has functional batteries, if it requires them.