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Troubleshooting Dead Signals in Live Rigs

Bring method to your madness ...

 

by Chris Loeffler

 

 

Raise your hand if you’ve been here…

 

After carefully dismantling and loading your gear into your car, you arrive a couple of hours early for a local gig, park as close as possible to the side entrance of the venue, and hurriedly run your gear to the side stage by the armful with the hopes of avoiding both a parking ticket and the potential of a passerby helping themselves to what’s in easy reach from your trunk.

 

After a surprisingly aggressive bout of roshambo with your bandmates over how to share the single outlet that supports a dangerously large amount of power strips on a stage that’s approximately half the size of what you’d been told, you meticulously start setting out and connecting the various devices and cables that stand between your instrument and the board. Once you’ve finished (despite the  unsolved mystery of the missing cables you’re sure you packed) you strum chords while the person at the sound board issues vague grunts that either mean “turn it way the hell up” or “I’m not even getting a signal” (always assume they mean “Turn it up!”).

 

Despite your pleas for more of you in the monitors, you’ve been given the best you’re going to get onstage and have left the fate of your audience-facing sound in the hands of the concert gods, so there’s nothing left to do but enjoy whatever food and beer the venue owner is providing and pray they don’t take it out of whatever paltry sum they’ve agreed to pay you. A gut full of bar food and maybe one pint more than you should have later, the venue is beginning to fill with people and it’s time to get up and play.

 

You walk on stage and plug in, ready to set the tone of the entire set with a triumphant first note, and you realize there's no sound coming from your instrument; nothing but the low hum of your amplifier and the sweet sound of neon-lighting infused dirty power and nervous coughs from your stagemates. 

 

Given there are about a million potential points of failure between you and the sound board, where to start? Did a cable become disconnected? Did you roll back the volume on your instrument and forget to adjust it back? Did a battery die in one of the many boxes sitting at your feet?

 

The crowd is starting to get restless now, and even the drunk woman near the front who you were sure was going to talk through your entire set seems to have quieted down and is looking expectantly at the stage.

 

Keep your cool! There’s only one way to figure out what the problem is, and that’s taking it one step at a time.

 

After making sure the problem doesn’t lie with the volume settings of your instrument and that you are indeed still plugged in, visually inspect your signal chain for any instrument or power cables that are obviously disconnected. This should only take a few seconds,and may identify a quick solution in the form of a cable tripped over and dislodged by a bandmate or a device that is clearly powered off. If this doesn’t pull up an immediate suspect, it’s time to put your amp or output device in standby mode (no need to punish your ears or gear), grab your trusty tuner, and start working your way from your instrument outward to the amp or output device.

 

Placing the tuner (always battery powered, so it can stay mobile) at the beginning of the signal chain allows you sequentially remove each piece of gear from the list of suspects, so you can identify where the point of failure is. Plug into the tuner directly from your instrument and play a note first to confirm you are indeed creating a signal, then follow each pedal or piece of sound processing gear down stream by plugging the tuner into it and confirming it’s receiving a signal.  Now’s the rare time where the macho “nothing between my instrument and my amp” sentiment starts to seem like a good idea, but don’t worry, you’ll find the breaking point!

 

This sounds basic, but in moments of panic (imagine, now, that it’s happening in the middle of a song!), a plan will keep your head cool and will get you where you want to be quickest.

 

Whether a cable that finally gave up after the thousandth kink at the adaptor, a pedal that shorted due to an unplanned beer spill while you were backstage, or you accidentally used the expression jack instead of the input on your delay pedal, you’ll find it eventually! Once you do you’re likely good to go. If turning your amp or output device on doesn’t yield you volume after this, make sure you reconnected the device you just troubleshot (trust me, this is probably where 50% of “it still doesn’t work!” comes from) and continue downstream.

 

There’s no substitute for preparation and good habits when it comes to setting up for live gigs, but having a plan will take a lot of the time (and dead air) out of play when things don’t go as planned.

 

What are your worst live performance gear fails, and how did you make it through them? -HC-

 

 

 

                                      

____________________________________________ 

 

Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 

 

 

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