How to Avoid Dead Air at Your Live Shows

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Have you ever been listening to the radio and heard a song end followed by total silence? Maybe the producer is dealing with a technical glitch. Perhaps the transmitter got struck by lightning. Or the DJ ran downstairs to the snack machine, forgetting that the single he was spinning was only three minutes long. The cause doesn’t matter to the listener – the effect is that you change the station.

When it comes to dead air, you’ll probably endure only 30 seconds or less, and that’s if you’rereally into the show. The same principle applies to live music audiences. And in that context, unfortunately, dead air is much more common. Here’s how to avoid letting silence take over.

1. Don’t start the show in a dead room
Audiences need to hear music. This includes the lead time before the show begins. When you throw a party, you want an enticing room with good ambience, and the same thing applies to live gigs. Ambience means turning down the lights and cranking up some mood music. The right choices will get the crowd excited and ready for you to perform. Dead air will make for an awkward scene, and there’s no need for it. If you have a PA system, you have the ability to plug in a CD player, an iPad, or any other device that makes music, and get that playlist going.

2. Be ready to play the minute you step onstage
The time for fiddling around with stompboxes, checking for bad cables, and tuning snare drums isbefore the audience arrives. There’s nothing worse than watching the backsides of the band you’ve been waiting patiently for as they fool around with their equipment for 15 minutes. Even worse, the house music has most likely been turned off so the band can tune their instruments and check their microphones. Nothing screams “amateur” like extended adjustment sessions at the start of a show. Nothing says “pro” like being ready to go.

Ideally, the first sound your crowd hears when you jump onstage should be the beginning of your opening song. They should see your smiling faces looking out at them (or your scary, glowering ones, if you play black metal) and not your plumber’s smile while you crouch on the floor to check your speakers.

3. Make the transition between sets as smooth as possible
Nobody wants the second act to play the moment the first one leaves the stage. People need time to hit the bathroom, refresh their drinks, and check their phones. But a long pause is so much worse. After all, if you’re in the second band, you want the fans of the first one to hear what you’ve got. They won’t hang around for an hour to wait for you.

Having a house drum set is an excellent method for shortening these breaks. If the house doesn’t have one, the drummers in each band should agree on which one to use. Unless you’re playing a huge festival and there’s room for a half a dozen mic’d drum sets onstage, there’s no need to swap sets every time a new act starts to play. The most technical thing that should be happening between bands should be adjusting a mic stand for a shorter singer, or moving a mic from one guitar amp to the other. This should be a quick transition. Talk to the sound staff and the other acts on the bill to make sure of it.

4. Know your setlist and transitions
Hey, this is live music. You’re not in your practice room anymore. That means that this isn’t the time for discussions about what song to play. You should all know it. A setlist should be setbefore the show, and you should rehearse your transitions. It’s perfectly fine to take a moment to thank the crowd and ask how everyone’s doing tonight. But for a good portion of your set, the transition from one song to the next should be instantaneous.

5. Don’t let a single glitch grind the gig to a halt
Your band’s blazing away and the place is packed. Then someone breaks a string. The guitarist breaks his last pick. The drummer ruptures a snare head. Your singer has an asthma attack. There are a million things that can send one of your players to the bench for a moment. So have a million ways to keep the show going.

Every band should have an instrumental number handy when the singer needs a moment. Every band needs to have a disaster bag with spare picks, strings and sticks, a roll of duct tape, a dented Shure SM58 microphone, and replacement guitar and microphone cables. Sooner or later, you’ll need them all. Be ready by having material that covers the absence of a musician, such as a solo or duet for one or two players, a massive drum solo, or an a cappella song. Even if the power goes out in your venue, you still have drums and voices, right? When you’re born to make music, nothing should stand in your way.


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