The most commonly asked question I get about my gear is, "What exactly are you doing to manage the sound of all your different instruments on stage?" So here it is, kids: the low-down on my set up. It's been the same for a number of years, but we're always tinkering with it to make it smaller, lighter, quicker to set up, etc. I'll cover the basic set-up here and then click on to "Wireless Units," "Mixer," "Effects," "DI," and "Pedals" to get the info on the individual units.
The first and most important steps are getting the instruments sounding exactly the way you want them to sound. Because this about Sound, not Gear. Stage sound, at its best, is about "reinforcement," not "amplification." So get your instruments sounding great, get pickups that let the instruments sound the way they naturally sound and...only then...start adding gear to make the person in the last row hear what you want them to.
1) I have been wireless for many years. I'm too clumsy to avoid stepping on guitar cables, etc. Plus, it allows me more movement on stage. I use a wireless unit with a beltpack, with the plugs fitted with a 90-degree angle so that I can use it with autoharps and fiddles and not have the plugs interfere with my playing.
NOTE: I also use a wireless, hand-held vocal mic. Because I have 3 distinct playing areas (hammer dulcimer, piano, and center position for guitar, etc.) I've found a vocal mic I like and move it to each of the performance areas. It means the sound person doesn't have to have 3 identical mics (and separate channels for each), plus it simplifies the sound check.
2) From the wireless instrument receiver I run into my stage mixer. This allows some pre-amplification, overall EQ control, and metering...so I can see if the mixer is receiving signal and how hot it is.
NOTE: My hammer dulcimer is not wireless. It is plugged into a 2nd channel of the mixer. This makes it part of everything that is to follow...
3) The mixer has inserts that allow me to send the signal to a multi-effects unit in order to create a customized tone control and effects (i.e. reverb, octaving, digital delay, etc.) for each instrument. Sometimes multiple ones for each instrument (I use this in "Pastures of Plenty" and "Leviathan" on the hammer dulcimer, for instance). The insert then sends the effected signal back into the same channel of the mixer.
4) I can switch to the desired pre-set for each instrument via a MIDI cable which runs from the back of the effects unit to a pedal on the floor at center stage (see photo under "Pedals" in the Gear section here).
5) From the "Out" of the mixer a cable runs to a volume pedal on the floor at center stage. This allows me to mute the signal when I'm plugging in, unplugging, and tuning.
6) I also have a tuner plugged into the volume pedal which allows me to tune on stage, even when the volume is off.
7) From the volume pedal a cable runs to a direct box (DI). The direct box is where the sound person connects all my sound to the house system.
All of the above is designed so that, when I do a soundcheck, we can generally tell the sound person to run my instrument channel "flat," and, 9 times out of 10, the guitar sounds great. Everything in my effects unit is EQ'ed relative to the guitar. So once we get the guitar sounding great the soundcheck on my instruments is, essentially, done. At festivals this is especially important, as there are usually no soundcheck times allotted.
The result of all this? I have control over how I sound, the audience gets to hear what I hope they hear, the sound person looks and sounds like a genius, and everybody's happy.
Hope this is helpful.
The first question I get asked by newbies and old dogs alike is "how much time do have to spend tuning before a show?" Not an unreasonable query when there's a hammer dulcimer, a piano, an autoharp, a fiddle, a banjo, and at least one guitar on stage. My response is always, "As little as possible, but as much as needed."
A good instrument will hold tune better than a poor one. But moving around will always send one in need of at least a touch up. And everyone, audience and performer alike, enjoys an evening of in-tune instruments.
There are tons of cheap tuners out there. The new clip-ons are convenient, small, and dead-on accurate. Problem is...and it's a problem that folks argued about in Bach's day...they can only tune to an even-tempered scale. Every guitar player that has had to re-tune her B-string knows what I'm talking about. Musical notes, especially stringed instruments, are not even-tempered.
What Peterson has done is create tuners that offer a standard strobe tuner in a smaller, lighter package than ever before (they even have a clip-on!). And anyone who's ever taken the time to learn how to use a strobe tuner finally discovers what being *really* in tune feels and sounds like. But they've also added "sweetened" tunings that compensate for everything from alternate tunings to unusual instruments to the strangeness that capoing a string can produce. The attention to detail is really nothing short of stunning.
I didn't believe that it would make a substantial difference. But a Hawaiian musician who plays slack-key 12-string in a variety of open tunings with wild capoing permutations dared me to try...even betting that he'd pick up the tab (the stage stomp box model is $200!) if I didn't fall immediately in love with it.
I lost the bet.
In fact I not only have the stage tuner, but a clip-on that I use exclusively for the hammer dulcimer during the show, the software on my computer (offering even more flexibility), and, believe it or not, the iPhone app.
It has changed my shows for me. I'm always in great tune. And I haven't spent hours getting there. My instruments and I work better that way. And my audiences get to hear what I have spent a lifetime preparing to present to them. And, like any good investment, that's in perfect tune with my intentions.
I've been traveling around playing folk music for nearly 40 years now. And the road is not a kind mistress. The only thing she treats more poorly than one's body is the gear we have to haul. And in the past four decades I've tried, almost literally, every imaginable flight case manufactured in North America. It was a constant search.
That search ended when, on a whim, I bought a used Calton case in a music store in Raleigh, NC. The previous owner hated it because it was red. I loved it because it was. In less than a year I had a Caltons for my banjo and my 12-string, as well. Every guitar I've bought since then I've ordered with a Calton case.
They are, quite simply, the finest case made in North America. They are finely-crafted, custom-built, sturdy, and come in marvelous colors and designs...far more offensive than my red. If you go to a Valdy concert, ask to see his cases. Tell him I sent you.
They ain't cheap and they ain't the lightest beast on the block. But, friends, if you buy a good instrument and you invest time, money, and love in it...you damn well better protect it. You're asking for trouble if you don't. The airlines never ask me to sign those stupid waivers on my Caltons.
Special note: not only do they offer great products, their service is fabulous. As you can imagine, my cases, after 40-50 round-trip flights a year, get pretty beat-up. Calton will ship me out parts to fix broken latches and glides. They've refurbished each of my cases until it couldn't be done any longer and kept me and my gear on the road and safe for nearly 30 years.
I'm a client and I'm a fan. Don't waste your tin on bargain cases. If you love your ax, get a Calton.
3 pieces here:
1) Boss VF50-L volume pedal. Light and sturdy.
2) MIDI Mouse. This is what I use to control the effects unit, switching between instruments. It's a simple up/down MIDI control pedal.
3) Peterson Strobe tuner. They are described elsewhere in the Gear section.
Actually, one more thing...
4) a clock, attached to the tuner. Every performer ought to know how long he/she's been playing. At a festival this is essential.
We love the Brooke-Siren AR-116. Of course, it's no longer made. The newer Brooke-Siren DI's are great. They're just bigger. It's got 20db and 40db pads, ground lifts, phase switching, and great sound. It's an active DI, so it needs phantom power.
Our multi-effects unit is a Boss VF-1. It's no longer available but there are other 1/2 rack multi-effects units that can do the job. We set our guitar EQ & effects and then set everything else relative to that. Each setting is saved in a discrete place. It has a MIDI in/out that we use to remotely switch from one setting to another. This is a great little unit that gives us tons of control in a small, elegant, easy-to-use box.
Our stage mixer is a small Soundcraft (the current model would be one of their Notebook series) that we've had for a while. It provides 2 XLR channels, muting, panning, 3-band EQ on each channel, inserts, metering, and all the bells and whistles we need for our set-up. It's light, inexpensive, and full-featured.
For my instrumental unit I use what today would be the AKG WMS 450 Guitar Set. It's a UHF dual-diversity (meaning it has 2 receivers in it and is constantly looking for the best signal from each of the receivers). I can also choose channels, thus avoiding interference in different locales. As I mentioned, I've altered the beltpack by having 90-degree plugs installed so I can use it with autoharps and fiddles and not have the plugs interfere with my playing.
For my vocal unit I use a Shure UC unit with a Beta87 mic. I love this mic.
I've experimented with guitar pickup systems for years. The trick, of course, is to make it sound as true to the sound of the instrument as possible. The starting point is a great sounding instrument. The second element is a great pickup system. Once I found the LR Baggs DualSource, I was hooked. It's an under-bridge pickup augmented by an internal microphone. An internal blending system sums everything to a single, mono out. This relieves me of the need for external mixing boxes, stereo mic cables, etc. If I'm at a gig and someone says, "John, come on up and play with me on this next one..." I just have to plug in a regular guitar cable and I'm set to go. The sound is great, the reliability is a dream, and the customer service is a what everyone hopes for. Can't recommend it highly enough.