Occasionally, I get have the time to work on a music event. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, I have the pleasure of working with bands and helping them do a great show. For the past three years, now, I've been stage manager for the Candler Park Fall Fest, and it's a great experience. A lot of other festivals are not well run -- bands just show up at the specified time and try to make due with what's there. They're often lucky if there's more than one sound engineer. This can be a frustrating experience for everyone but especially for the bands, so when I work on an event I try to do everything I can to run the stage as professionally as possible, but it also takes a little cooperation from bands.
In order to make a festival run well, a lot of things need to come together, and one of the most important parts of that is getting accurate stage plots and input lists for all the bands. Most professional bands have a stage plot as part of their contract rider. Even if they do their own stage setup and have lots of time to sound-check, a stage plot helps ensure in advance that the necessary equipment will be provided. When it comes to doing festivals, though, many luxuries, such as sound-checks, and a nice long break between acts, simply aren't there, and the stage plot helps ensure that things go smoothly, because, with a stage plot, everybody knows exactly what needs to be done.
I do all my advance planning around the stage plots, making sure that the required equipment is available and that any tricky band transitions are worked out in advance. When the festival starts, I plan the whole day around my stage-plots, and I use them to coordinate with the bands, the stage crew, and both the monitor and FoH (Front of House) positions to ensure that everything is setup, miked and amplified properly and that every band is ready to go on as quickly as possible. Towards the end of each set, I go over the next act's stage plot again, so I can give instructions to the stage crew and prepare for the transitions. If there is anything tricky or unusual, I usually oversee it myself during the transition. With a good stage plot, I can give instructions and help the bands and crew setup.
Without a stage plot we have to figure it out as we go along. With a stage plot, I can accurately assess how long each transition will be, and time the sets so that each band can play as long as possible without getting off schedule. Without a stage plot, I have to assume that it's going to take a long time, so everyone gets shorter sets. (I am a real stickler for the schedule because if you go off schedule, someone ends up at the short end of the stick.)
You don't get more time in your set because it took you a long time to setup, so providing a stage plot and input list means you get a longer set. Last year's Fall Fest had bands that were prepared play for about 50 minutes, while unprepared bands were forced to cut their sets down to as short as a half hour. It makes that much difference.
How to Make a Stage Plot
One thing I've learned, is that many bands don't have a stage-plot or input list, an many don't even know what they are. That's fine if you're just playing the local pub. It's even fine if your playing big venues an have lots of prep time. It's not fine if your playing a festival.
Fortunately, making a stage plot is easy. All you need to do is draw a birds-eye view of the stage with everything important, such as musician locations, mikes and DI boxes. Mike stands should be labeled boom or straight. Mike types should be specified if they are non-standard. Monitor locations and any other on-stage requirements should be specified. Top it off with your band name, date and contact info and you're done. Don't try and get too fancy or show off your art skills, that only makes it harder to read. Remember this is not promotional material -- it's technical information.
Put your band name and contact info at the top. It's also good to date the plots so that you can ensure that everyone has the current one. Below that is the actual diagram. Most stage plots have the band facing down so the audience is at the bottom of the page. I prefer this view as it puts down-stage down and up-stage up and house left on the left and house-right on the right, but the upside-down version of this is acceptable, too. Here are some examples of good stage plots, some of which include input lists, which we'll get to in a minute:
- Johnny Knox and Hi-Test have an almost perfect stage plot. I've blacked out the contact info, but otherwise, this is their plot. Everything that's important to them is here -- locations of equipment, types of stands, even info such as reverb settings are here. Unusual things, such as no DI on the Bass, are clearly marked. There are 2 minor problems: 1. it should have a date, so everyone knows this is the current stage plot, and 2. the stage plot is upside-down from my preferred orientation. Still, this is a great stage plot, and can easily be used to get them on stage and sounding great fast and with minimal hassle.
- Papa Grows Funk have a great stage plot. It clearly shows everything a stage manager and stage crew need to know, including power and specific mike requirements. It's probably overkill for a festival, where 9 mikes probably can't be provided for the drums, but that doesn't matter because the critical info is there.
- Rhythm City's Stage plot is decent, though it could stand to have a key to assure the person looking at it that the box with a circle in it is a monitor amp. It would also be nice if the stage plot indicated clearly weather each stand was straight or boom -- as is the stage crew would probably assume straight unless it says otherwise, or they might assume a boom stand is okay, which it might not be. It would also be great to have musician's names and numbers corresponding to numbers in the key, below, so there was no confusion. Finally, a band can request as many 57s and 58s as they like, but they should not expect to get 4 beta 58s, as this band does.
If you don't have software or software skills to make a stage plot on the computer, there is nothing wrong with doing it by hand and scanning or photocopying it. Just make sure to write clearly and legibly. Remember this is not promotional material, so just stick to the facts, and keep it simple and clear.
Stage Plot File Formats
Whatever program you use to make your stage plots, from photoshop, to Microsoft Word or power point, or even boutique software such as Omnigraffle, it's important to send it in a format that can be read by the stage manager. I have Office for Mac, but it doesn't always read e-mailed PC word files correctly. In fact, you shouldn't count on your end user having Office or any other program. Instead, send it in a format specifically designed to be portable and easy to read. You can send a PDF, JPEG, GIF, PNG or anything else commonly used on the web. If all else fails, print it out and mail it.
An input list simply lists every mike, DI Box, synth rack or other sound source on your stage, whether you are providing it or the sound company is providing it. You want to say what the instrument is, and how sound is to get from the instrument to the mixers. For example, a solo guitarist/singer might provide an input list like this:
|1||Male Vocals||Mike (SM 58 or equiv.)||Very dynamic, but good mike technique. Please use just a touch of reverb. Stereo small hall preferred.|
|2-3||Guitar||DI||I have two effects pedals. Stereo out. Please add no additional effects except compression and EQ as needed. Should be bright but not overpower the vocals.|
If it's a long list, it's good to group them in the way that a mix engineer is most likely to group them. For example, you might start with drums, percussion and bass, and move up to rhythm guitar, keys, lead guitar, and then vocals. Better yet, do it in the reverse order so drums and rhythm are at the bottom and lead instruments like the voice are at the top. It's a good idea to highlight or mark the important things: the notes sections in the table above is probably overkill in this department, but it doesn't hurt.
If your band has a great lead guitarist or the vocals really are your band's "money channel", say so on the input list. That way, the mix engineer knows to pay special attention to those instruments. Most professional mix engineers do read this stuff, so if something is important, write it down!
Finally, if your really want to sound your best, there are a few other things you can provide your stage manager with:
- A Set List: I may not know the songs, but if you make notes about solos, false endings, and song dynamics, the mix engineer will be prepared and be able to make you sound that much better. I rarely receive these, but when I do, I tend to get more compliments on the sound, so I know it makes a real difference.
- Description of Monitor Mixes: We know the lead vocalist needs to hear themselves as loud as possible, so we don't need to know that, but if you need something unusual, like extra keyboards in the drum monitor, it's a good idea to have that written down somewhere.
- Photos: It's great to have pictures of all your band members so no one asks them to leave if they are found hanging out backstage. You should ask your band members to introduce themselves to the stage managers and monitor mixer as soon as they arrive. That's also a good time to discuss any last minute changes or go over your requirements.
Break a Leg!
That's it. With this information you are now armed and ready to play at my festivals and probably anybody else's. If you are not asked well in advance for this information, or your get a blank stare when you provide it, it probably means you can expect trouble when it comes time to perform, so be prepared. Now, go break a leg!