The foundations for a successful gig are laid with the very first steps you take. More mistakes are made at this stage than in all others combined, and no amount of compensating later will equal doing it right in the first place. Conversely, if you set up right you can do a lot else wrong and it will still be okay! The moral of this section is to show up early enough to do a careful setup.

Mixing location
Locate the mixer:
  • near electric outlets
  • to minimize mic and speaker cable runs
  • accessible from the floor if possible, not too close to the piano
Mics and Stands
If you don't have enough mics, let someone do without rather than try to share them - it simply doesn't work. If someone must do without, sacrifice the loudest instruments with the most pervasive sound. Bass and drums (if any) would be first to go, piano if you're really desperate, although you might choose piano over a second fiddle, for example. Another approach is to get players to 'time-share' the mics, which encourages community feeling in a pick-up band.

Conversely, when you have too many mics in use, you will have greater feedback problems, much more background noise, and you will have to set each mic gain lower. It's also much easier to mix fewer mics.

If you're using fold-up mic stands, double-check that the center support is raised off the floor. If it touches, it adds lots of noise from foot-stompers, etc.

Cable Routing and Labeling
Good cable management is worth the small amount of setup time it takes. Among other things, it:
  • makes life easier and safer for those on stage
  • makes mixing easy and reliable
  • makes teardown much faster

Mark both ends of the mic cables with the same color or number of stripes of tape. Don't fall for marking the mics or stands - these can and will get switched around in many cases. If you use color, your group can also color mark the channels on the mixer to correspond to the cable colors, as an added assurance that things get plugged in right. Similarly with numbers, plug cable number 1 in channel 1 on the mixer, etc., to remove one more interpretation obstacle.

In addition to this cable/channel labeling, most experienced sound people label the mixer with the instrument (fiddle, piano, etc.) just above or below the channel slider for that instrument. Get white write-on tape and a pen, or use flexible magnetic material you can write on with erasable pen. You can get it either in sheets or in 1-inch strips from most business supply stores.

Some people also try to arrange the mics/channels in corresponding order from left to right on the stage and mixer. That's fine, just don't let it substitute for good labeling, or when the mics get randomized, you'll be unhappy!

When you run the cables from the mixer to the mics and speakers, don't just throw them where they land - think about where to run them so as to minimize clutter, especially under the caller's feet (and band feet if they stand). Don't stretch mic cables unsupported across open floor area - someone will trip on them. Hint: need a longer mic cable? Plug two together end-to-end!

Speaker Placement
Speakers must be on stands to be effective. If you have a choice, place the speaker vertically on the stand, not horizontally, and make sure the 'tweeter' (small speaker used in most speaker cabinets for highs) is at the top if your speakers have them. This is because the high frequencies from the speaker disperse less than the low frequencies.

The most common speaker error is placing the speakers too far back within the stage. Ensure that the front of the speaker is at least even with the front of any curtain or wall on the stage, and not crowded right against them. Speaker placement is one of the most crucial elements of successful sound - maybe even the most important. Don't just throw them on the stands willy-nilly!

The height and angle of the speaker on the stand should be adjusted so that a ray drawn out from the center of the speaker will hit about halfway down the hall. There is no need to jack a speaker on a stage all the way up on its stand - a common mistake. Just make sure the bottom of the speaker is at least 3 feet above the heads of those in the front. However, it's also important that the speaker be tilted slightly down into the crowd if it's elevated - otherwise the sound will bounce off the back wall or ceiling and be very muddy. You can buy tilt adjusters for most stands.

Many speakers have a dial on the back that affects the tonal balance of the speaker. It is easy to change this while moving the speakers. Unless you have strong evidence to the contrary, always leave it in the normal, or 'flat' position.

Many speakers also have two plugs on the back, labeled 'in' and 'out'. They're the same, actually; you can use either one. You can also 'daisy-chain' the speakers, if it helps extend the reach of your cables, by plugging into the 'in', and then running another cable from the 'out' to the next speaker.

Pointing the speakers slightly inward improves the balance throughout the hall. And run the cable down the tripod, through the 'hole' formed by the legs; this makes it much less likely to tip over if someone trips on the cable.

Put the monitor speakers for the band on chairs, or better yet, short mic stands. They don't work well at all when just dumped on the floor.

Extra-credit Speaker Setup
This is only useful in a fairly long hall, or outdoors; make sure you need to do it before you undertake it. It is not hard to use more than two speakers; it's also easy to do this wrong. This is not a way to make things louder! In fact, it is a technique to reduce the level while still making it audible throughout the room.

You will run into many people who tell you that you need a time-delay to do this. If you must put the speakers halfway down the hall, that will work, and you can do it with a delay costing about $150. Just set it to delay the 2nd speakers a number of milliseconds equal to the separation in feet between the two sets (since sound travels 1100 feet/second; roughly 1 foot per millisecond).

But a good solution is one that many people insist can't possibly work, due to phase cancellation. I don't have space here to cover the reasons why this works, but you can put the second set of speakers at the back of the hall aiming forward. Keep the volume down in the back set. You shouldn't hear the rear speakers halfway up the hall. They're just there to add presence to the sound in the back. If you have powered monitors, use half your stereo amp for the front, half for the back; otherwise you may need a second amp to control this.

Double-check before Powering Up
At least half of all problems during the first set of dances can be eliminated by carefully double-checking all mic, speaker and monitor connections, power, and putting all mixer controls in nominal positions. Do this before powering up the system, when the urge to twist dials to solve problems instead of using your head becomes overwhelming.

If any band members are using pickups or mini-mics, make sure to have them plug into the mixer before you power up the system (ideal) or at least keep the gain and level controls down until they do. Otherwise, they can make ear- and speaker-splitting pops when plugged in and turned on. If your board has phantom power turn it off if you don't need it.

Shock - grounding
Bring all your power cables to one outlet box, or you're taking unnecessary chances of shocking somebody onstage. If any band members have their own electric gear, make sure it gets plugged to the same place - you could save somebody's life. A more sophisticated approach is to get a ground tester, and check the outlets in the places you set up, to make sure outlets are grounded, hot and neutral wires aren't switched, etc. You can get good cheap testers at Radio Shack. Outdoors, you should always use a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI), which you can find at most hardware stores. And, of course, don't ever cheat on ground pins - if you use a 3-prong adapter, connect the ground!

Some sound equipment is heavy, with sharp parts that can cut you badly. Watch out for strains caused by sudden movements, stands releasing speakers that are heavier than the people handling them, etc. If you have inexperienced help, they can hurt themselves or you!

If you use the Entertainer system watch out for the metal heat sink on the back, especially when people are nekkid during the summer months. It's very sharp, and if handled carelessly, can cause a lot of damage to people. You might even want to file the edges lightly to preclude this (but don't cover it!).