Guide to getting and playing better gigs


Lighting Tips

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Lighting crews aren't necessarily the best people to tell you, the musician, everything you need to know about lighting. After all, they've got their own vested interests to defend. Obviously, if you routinely play in stadiums or even large theatres, you'll need to trust a good lighting designer and let them get on with it. But for most gigging musicians, there can be times when it's worth taking an active interest. How often have you watched gigs at pub and club level where the lighting was more of a distraction than an enhancement? The fact that someone can hump a few PAR cans into the back of a Transit doesn't automatically turn them into a talented and imaginative lighting designer.

Lighting vitally affects the way your performance will be perceived and every musician should take at least a passing interest in how, and indeed whether, they are lit. There's no point working hard on visuals and delivery if every two seconds you're going to vanish in a lurid nightmare of flashing green and orange. PAR cans are available in several different widths of beam, but with cheaper rigs it's a bit of a lottery which type you'll get on any given night.

First off, and it may sound blindingly obvious, but check where the lamps are pointing. Get somebody to stand in at each band member's stage position, and make sure at least some of the light from each side is catching them. Most PAR cans are actually directional, with a wide horizontal beam whose angle can be rotated by a porcelain mounting strip at the back of the bulb. So you can usually climb up behind each lamp with a heavy duty glove and adjust the beam angle for maximum effect while aiming the lamp itself in the desired direction. Backlighting is the mainstay of conventional rock illumination, and on large stages in big venues this will indeed create mood-enhancing beams of light. Try it in your local pub though, and you'll blind the audience while turning the band into silhouettes. Up to a point, there's nothing wrong with getting dazzled yourself on stage, it means you're definitely lit, and onlookers will never know you can't see them. But dazzling an audience is pointless.

Similarly, it may seem equally obvious, but check what colours are in your eight available lamps. Do you really want to be yellow or mauve all evening? If the colours supplied with the rig are crap, it's much better to take them out altogether and use white, which at least gives you good clean illumination. You can then vary intensities on your dimmer board to achieve changes in mood. If you really get the bug, buy your own filters and take them around with you. Finally, keep the lighting plot appropriate to the size of the rig. At Wembley or Birmingham NEC you'll see lights flashing on and off every nano-second, so it's a racing certainty that anyone with itchy fingers standing at your own dimmer board will flash those four faders up and down all through your set - it's what they're for, innit? Watch while some other band gets this treatment. If it looks good to you, copy it... if it looks terrible, avoid it. Remember the primary function of lighting is to illuminate, a fundamental truth that low-budget lighting 'engineers' all too often forget.

All this is easy enough to ensure if you're paying for the lights yourself, since any crew supplied with the rig will be working on your behalf. Often though, some form of lighting will be supplied by the venue. This has the advantage of being free, but the drawback that it may be very basic and in poor condition (especially the gels) and that some local pisshead will have responsibility for it. That person will want an easy life with a minimum of work and hassle each evening. All too often you run into the "we always do it this way" attitude, and you'll need all your tact and diplomacy to get this pitiful illumination adjusted to your own purposes and needs.

Two final thoughts. Make sure the PA speakers don't obscure the audience's view of the stage more than they absolutely have to. Sound crews seldom give much consideration to visuals. Contrary to what they would have you believe, PA stacks can often be moved back to give a much wider, clearer view of the stage (and your wonderful lighting) without much affecting the sound. If they say this will cause feedback, experiment first by moving your microphone forward to see if they're right. The other thought is to consider carrying your own black drapes (cheap offcuts of cloth from your local department store) around with you. The smaller the venue, the bigger difference this will make, because of the amount of stray light that gets thrown around. With matt drapes over any gaffa-covered wallpaper and unsightly flightcases, extra light will be absorbed by the black material instead of distracting from your performance.

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