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Communicating about contra dance sound

March 16th, 2018
contra, music  [html]

If you're new to playing for contra dancing, communication with the people running sound can be tricky. What are you expected to bring? What can you expect them to have? What is reasonable to ask for? Different dances vary, but here are some guidelines.

At least a week before the dance, get in touch with the organizers about sound. You really don't want to show up and be missing something important. A good place to start is listing your musicians, what instruments they play, and what you need for amplifying each instrument. For example, with the Free Raisins I'd list:

Stage right to left:

Audrey Knuth
 * Fiddle: xlr with phantom power

Jeff Kaufman
 * Mandolin: mic on a stand
 * Trumpet: xlr with phantom power
 * Feet: 1/4" (needs DI)

Amy Englesberg
 * Keyboard: xlr
 * Accordion: xlr with phantom power
Or for Whirlwind I'd list:
Stage right to left:

Stephen Thomforde:
 * Flute / Pipes / Sax: mic on a stand

Jeff Kaufman
 * Mandolin: mic on a stand
 * Feet: 1/4" (needs DI)

Alex Cumming:
 * Accordion:
    * Left Hand: XLR with phantom power
    * Right Hand: mic on a stand
 * Keyboard: 1/4" (needs DI; Jeff will play this too)

The default thing is a mic on a stand: anyone who's running sound for you should be able to provide you with one. An XLR cable is also a very normal thing to ask for, but if you need phantom power you should include that. A few mics take XLR but are hurt by phantom power; if that's you get something to block phantom or someone's going to make a mistake and fry your mic.

If you have a 1/4" output, things are trickier. If you have a passive pickup (no electronics involved) then you should be bringing your own DI because the particulars of the DI will have a large effect on how you sound. Your DI will take an XLR from the board, so list that as what you need (this is what the left hand on the accordion above is doing). On the other hand, if you have an electronic instrument like a keyboard you're just using a DI to convert from 1/4" to balanced XLR and any old DI will do the job well. I like to specify "needs DI" any time I ask for a 1/4", as a reminder, though it's kind of redundant.

Then you want to think about monitors. At this point, it's expected that a hall will give you one or two monitors, but they might be both on the same mix. If you have instruments where some are much louder than others, you probably need more than one mix. The two main options here are asking for more mixes, which they may or may not be able to do, or bringing a supplemental personal monitor/amp. For any instrument where you're completely silent without amplification, like a keyboard or an electric bass, bringing your own monitor/amp is a very good plan.

Keyboards / pianos are a bit unusual, since they're so big. At one point every venue would have a piano, but that's not something you can rely on now. Even if they do have one, it might be pretty unpleasant to play. Bringing a keyboard is usually a good plan, and the default for most gigs is that you're bringing your own. If you can't bring yours for some reason, maybe because you're flying to the gig, talk to them ahead of time to make sure they have something suitable (88 keys, velocity sensitive, weighted keys, etc).

In other genres it's common to make a stage plot, but in contra that's overkill when you're starting out. Just listing the inputs you'll need so that the person running sound can confirm that they have what you need is usually good enough, because you'll be there to answer questions when they're actually setting up the stage. Still, as bands play more they do often put together a stage plot. These are useful to look at even if you're not thinking of making one yourself because they show the sort of information bands typically give sound people. Examples:

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