Stagecraft: Wiring a stage efficiently, neatly and safely.

Among many of the recent entrants into the sound profession, I’ve noticed a lack of knowledge when it comes to wiring a stage. Perhaps it due to a lot of sound engineering schools being essentially studio-based courses. Maybe it’s simply that it’s difficult to get a young mind to concentrate on something as mundane as running cable when there is a digital board with loads of lights and buttons sitting in the corner of the room!

Improper wiring of a stage makes for more work when it comes to wrapping up at the end of the night, makes it difficult to trace any faulty cables that may arise during soundcheck or during the gig and can cause trip hazards for artists and crew on- or back-stage. This is the way I was taught years ago and the basic method is the same on every stage right up to the top level.

Before we begin: Upstage = the part of the stage furthest from the audience. Downstage = the part of the stage closest to the audience. Stage left = the side of the stage to your left as you stand onstage and face the audience. Stage Right = the side of the stage to your right as you stand onstage and face the audience.

Mains cable
Heavy mains cable such as 3-phase feeder cable should always be kept off-stage. Excess mains cable should never be left tightly coiled but left in a neat figure of eight pattern under the stage if possible but certainly out of the way of walkways.

When running lighter gauge cable from the mains distro to amplifier racks, use the shortest length possible to avoid having large coils of excess cable in areas where monitor engineers, guitar technicians and other stage-hands are likely to be working. Leave short lengths of surplus cable under amp racks or in the dead space often found behind the amplfier racks. Try and ensure that all mains cable to amplifiers follows a similar path, to avoid tangles during load out. Makes sure it looks neat, if it doesn’t, you probably should redo it.

When running electrical cables to on-stage power drops, best practise is to have at least an upstage and a downstage feed. Try and run mains cable upstage on the drum-riser, following other cable runs for monitors and signal cables if possible. The upstage line will feed mainly guitar and bass amps (backline). The downstage power feed should be downstage of the monitors, and again should follow monitor and signal cable runs. This feed will generally be required to power guitarist’s tuners & pedal-boards and keyboards.

Again avoid using cables that are too long. Tuck any excess cable under on-stage risers or off-stage where possible. That way, if you need to move the powerdrop, extra cable is reasonably accessible. The key is to never cross the performance area (ie the space between the drum-kit and the monitor line) with cable.

Speaker Cable
Similar commonsense applies to running speaker cable. For onstage monitors, follow the same line as the other cable. Use the shortest lengths required, keep excess offstage, and never leave coils of cable onstage beside monitors. It just looks bad. If possible use speaker cable looms with breakout boxes for groups of monitor mixes close together. This speeds up both the load-in and the load out.

Signal Cable
Line systems (multi’s, “snakes” etc) should be preferably flown from stage to the front of house mix position where possible. Other solutions include rubber-mats, cable ramps or creating an audience free zone in the centre of the auditorium. Many venue’s have cable-ducts designed to quickly run line-systems and other control cable to front of house. Modern Ethernet, fiber and lightpipe solutions have greatly simplified this part of cable management.

Onstage, the keys to quick, tidy and accurate signal cable patching are sub-stage boxes and a bit of planning. If you’ve a stage plan, identify where the main cabling areas are going to be. Drum-kits will generally take at least 8 channels, with a couple of channels for the nearby bass rig and two vocals, you’re looking at a minimum of 12 lines pretty close to each other. Rather than running 12 long cables over and back to the main stagebox, drop a 12way substage box infront of the kit and run twelve short cables to the mics and DI’s required. It’s simple maths: it’s far quicker to wrap up 15m stage box and 12 3m cables, a total of 51m of cable, than wrapping up 12 10 metre cables, 120 metres.

Other areas possibly requiring stage boxes are keyboard-land and the front line of vocals with acoustic guitars and so on. Label stage boxes with the main input number and what this channel is for (centre vocal, snare, kick, whatever). Again, same rules for running cable apply: follow the other cabling routes, use shortest cable necessary and never cross the performance area or stage-access routes. Finally, leave any excess neatly coiled under mic stands. Always keep excess as close to the source – this makes it easy to move a mic later on.

Always start by running your mic cable from the main stage box or the substage box. There’s two good reasons for this: (1) it means the excess will always be by the mic and, (2) if you are working in a team, there is no chance of one of you accidentally plugging in the wrong mic into the wrong channel. Lastly, keep a few cables handy onstage as replacements if needed. Don’t close the cable box and stash it in some hard-to-access place.

Remember the old saying: the load out begins at the load in. By using some commonsense, you will have more time to make sound, tune the system and troubleshoot any problems arising by followin these groundrules. Your stages will be safer, your cables will last longer and you will make less mistakes. Finally, you will be heading home from the gig a lot earlier.

Using High-Pass Filters

For all you rookies, here’s how to take advantage of the high-pass filter to improve your mixes. Read..

Smaart 7 Preview and Amplifier Size.

A couple of interesting articles from Live Sound International last month, which I’ve clipped here for you. There’s a preview of Smaart 7 and a guide to correct amplifier size. With modern speakers capable of high program SPL, it’s more important than ever that drivers aren’t underpowered. This article gives you the tech and tells you why.

I’m expecting our copy of Smaart 7 to arrive shortly. The new version is a significant improvement on v6. Also Smaart is back in the hands of Rational Acoustics - its original creators.

Website, New Products, Audio tips

We’ve added a number of new product lines for the start of 2010. Firstly a range of ceiling and wall-mounted 100V speakers and systems from ADS Worldwide and secondly a range of induction loop systems. More details under the sales link of Alex Fernie Audio.
I’m very excited by the Induction loop kits from Signet, they are easily installed, affordable and offer a solution for businesses and organisations looking to facilitate hearing aid users.
There are an estimated 58000 people in Ireland with a hearing disability - can you afford not to be able to communicate with them?

I’ve just finished giving the website a bit of a sheen for the New Year, a few new photos here and there and some extra information on our product range also.

As a bit of a taster, there was a good article in Live Sound International in December 2009 on Gain Structure which you can download and read
here. A must read if you are starting out in the world of live sound mixing and you would be amazed at the amount of sound engineers I meet in an average year that don’t understand these basic principles, so read up!