Power cables, generators, sound systems, electrical circuits. For most of us, these are pretty obscure things. When you're throwing a party with electrified entertainment, these esoteric things really matter if you want the band to play uninterrupted. I turned to my friend and longtime sound engineer, David Jennings, to walk through some of these items for folks out there who want to make sure that their party stays rockin' from start to finish.
For those of you who don't know the role of a sound engineer, they're pretty essential. They're the first to arrive to an event with several tons of equipment and a mile or two of electric cables. Their job is to help make the band sound incredible and to mute the mic when your drunk uncle gets up to make an unplanned toast. They're also the last to pack everything up and leave. Pretty essential role, and we're fortunate to work with Dave and his crew of pros.
Nash: In your career, how many shows have you run sound for?
Dave: Let’s just say 2.5 shows a week, times 52 weeks, times 30 years…that’s 3,900 shows!
Nash: How many of those do you think are weddings?
Dave: Close to 800 weddings. That’s a number I’ve never really thought about until now.
Nash: So what are the power basics that a venue needs in order for an electrified band to perform?
Dave: The power needs depend on what size system is coming in. Most bands are going to need a minimum of at least 2, separate 20 amp circuits. Fortunately, a lot of the newer speakers and LED lights coming out these days are so much more energy efficient than they used to be.
Nash: For a layperson, how does one determine that a circuit is on different breakers to avoid overloading its capacity?
Dave: A lot of the newer venues and ballrooms will often times have the plugs labeled, which is fantastic. Other than that, the venue contact would hopefully know the most about the inner workings of the venue’s power. But even then sometimes, it’s been up to me to come in and test the power just to know that I’ve got 2 separate circuits. I actually find that in most venues, the local contacts really aren’t aware of their power specs and have had to depend on whoever is coming in to figure it out.
Nash: So that’s a great tidbit…If you’re going to have electrified entertainment perform in a venue that’s not a traditional music venue, it’s essential to figure out power specs on the front end so the show doesn’t get interrupted, or worse…
Nash: Does electric current weaken over the length of extension cords? Because that’s something a lot of people don’t think of, especially if they’re planning an event in an outdoor or remote location.
Dave: Here’s an example of a real world experience. I was running sound for a car show at a bar in Garner. They had the band about 300 feet away from the building. A band had played there previously and they had hooked directly into the municipal power pole. But I’m not an electrician, so that wasn’t an option for me. So I ended up running about 250 feet of of extension cords from the building to the stage. By the time the power got out to my sound board, when the band would start playing and I would increase the sound system’s volume, the voltage dropped so low that the sound board shut off. And that’s a problem.
At your source, you really want your power to be at least 120 volts. You definitely don’t want it to be lower than 115. You need to have good extension cords too. They’re measured by gauge. The lower the number the thicker the copper inside the cord. If you’re playing with a 16 gauge cable and trying to draw a lot of power down it, you will lose a lot of voltage on a 100 foot cable. If you have a 12 or 14 gauge cable you won't lose as much voltage and you can pull more on the cable. It’s important to know that if you’re going a long distance, you will lose voltage. Power can become dangerously low to the point where electronics will shut down or even break down. Using thin cables makes it even worse.
Nash: So obviously closer is better, but at what point should you be concerned with pushing that limit?
Dave: Once you start going over 100 feet, I always want to check the voltage to make sure it’s still at an acceptable level. In older buildings especially because of the way they’re wired, you often find that the wiring going to the outlet must have been done with thin copper because it isn’t as strong over a distance. There’s just so many variables to making sure your power is right.
Nash: Let’s say I want to have an outside event and I want to get a generator. What’s an optimal size to run the show off of? We’ve played a few shows from a generator because we had to.
Dave: The worst thing is when you have one of those really loud, noisy generators because sometimes they’re louder than the band. Especially if it’s close. What I find is that some generators are mainly used for construction, which are called “square wave generators.” What a band wants is called a “sine wave generator.” A square wave generator can be harmful to sensitive electronics, like a band or DJ would use. I ran into this problem at a party on top of a mountain one time. They only had a square wave generator and it ended up blowing up one of my EQs!
You need a generator that has at least 2, 20 amp circuits and regular Edison, 110 plugs. They often times have a twist lock plug. Larger bands may need more than 2 circuits, thus needing a larger generator.
It’s always a good thing to have knowledge of what the venue is like beforehand. You also want to make sure the outlets are grounded. I used to run into this in old fraternities all the time. Ungrounded outlets put terrible buzzing noises in the sound system, which affect the overall performance.
Nash: Thinking of outside events, what do you need from a cover perspective to do your job correctly? What kind of cover from the elements do you need for your equipment?
Dave: A while ago I did a wedding outside in the mountains. Rain came up right about dinnertime. Everybody ran for this barn behind near where the dinner was set up and tried to re-set it up inside. Nobody had bothered to get a tent for outside and so the show was over. This past weekend I ran into the exact same thing. I was behind an American Legion Hall. I was hired by the band and they told me there was going to be a tent. When I showed up there was no tent. It looked like it was going to rain the whole day. If it had rained, unfortunately it would have been one of those, “Well, that’s it,” moments. Show’s over. It’s a chance those involved with the event have to take. Do they want to pay for the expense of a tent and guarantee the show? If it rains, that’s it.. we have to pack up the show.
There should never be an expectation that you should have to pick up your equipment and move it to another location. I hate to be hard-assed about that because I know it sounds mean, but no one want to do the job of setting up equipment twice without being paid twice.
Dave: So to recap, it’s really important for an event planner to confirm several things with the venue. How many different circuits are there which are close to the stage? You have to have a minimum of 2, separate 20 amp circuits. For bigger acts it may be more. Everything has to be grounded. If there’s a generator it has to be grounded. The generator has to put out 120 volts. Someone may tell you that a power source puts out 10,000 watts. It’s important not to confuse watts with volts. If a power source only gives me 90 volts, I can’t run a show!
David Jennings can be reached through South Wing Sounds' Facebook Page.