HOW TO: Set the Stage On-premise

Putting a band or DJ up on stage in your venue is like putting the biggest and best flat screen TV in the world in the corner of your bar; people are simply drawn to it, and held captive by the entertainment on display. And while entranced by the energy on stage, you’re feeding them drinks and food and shots and beers, and the cash register is ringing.

This notion is nothing new. Bars have had live music on-premise since the Irish started hosting traditional sessuins for local musicians in the backs of pubs on the Emerald Isle. But today, the drinking public is just as accustomed to seeing Skid Row reunite for a tour of large bars and music clubs, and if you want in on that market, you have to have the right sound in your venue.

If there is one organization in the U.S. that knows exactly how to design, build-out, and promote a music-centric room, it’s the folks at Knitting Factory, a name that is synonymous with cutting-edge live music across its seven locations (and counting) nationwide. We spoke with Knitting Factory COO Greg Marchant, a devoted audiophile and the man who is hands-on in the creation of each of the company’s venues, stages, and sound systems, to find out what these experts take into consideration when building the ideal live music soundscape for on-premise entertainment.    

“Generally, what you do for your live sound has to fit the needs of the majority of entertainers who are going to hit the stage, in terms of their contractual requirements,” says Marchant. “At the Knitting Factory, we have multi-purpose facilities, so we need to use equipment that would satisfy a wide range of acts, from Tec N9ne to The Jonas Brothers, or from mixed martial arts to the Spokane Symphony. We offer a wide variety of entertainment, so we need to have very good, general-purpose sound systems.”

BBM: When creating a venue for live music, what should owners know about their own space going into the project?

Marchant: The stage space itself is very important. A common mistake a lot of operators make is leaving the stage to be designed last. They design a nightclub or a bar or a live space first, and when it comes time to decide where they want to put the stage, it ends up in a corner somewhere. Then it becomes really hard to put a functional stage together, let alone create a good acoustic experience without spending a lot of unnecessary money. Always factor the stage into your design before anything else.

BBM: What kind of technology and equipment should today’s owners be looking at for the best sound on-premise?

Marchant: What we do in our venues involves incorporating Yamaha digital audio consoles, which allow the entertainers to grab a ThumbDrive of their configuration, whether it’s for their monitors or for their best mix. They can leave one of our clubs and drive to the next city, plug in the ThumbDrive, and their configuration immediately comes up. Then it’s just a matter of fine-tuning for that room.

As far the actual specific audio systems, you want to tailor something to fit the acoustic space that you have to work with. In many spaces, such as our Spokane location, we use the QSC WideLine Array System, because we have a wide area to cover in there, and we found the QSC the most efficient tool to cover the space without having a huge number of speakers hanging in the air or stacked on the ground. In our Reno location we use a long throw cabinet by EAW, which gives us a lot of coverage at the back of the room so that there aren’t a whole lot of decibels dropping off as you move from the front of the room to the back of the room.

BBM: Once you have your stage built and equipment installed, what kind of staff is best for managing and maintaining it all?

Marchant: Many of us working at Knitting Factory are former musicians and technicians that have been on the road and have experienced, firsthand, venues that are designed without the artist in mind. We try to design our stage experience to be conducive to the best experience for the artist, so subsequently you get the best show out of the artist; that means plenty of stage volume and flexibility regarding monitors; it means side fills, and large drum monitors with subwoofers so the drummer can actually feel the kick drum; and of course you need a wide variety of quality mics, mic stands, and processors.

BBM: Is there a difference between setting the stage for a live band versus a live DJ? And how can that be addressed on-premise?

Marchant: With a band set-up, you have an audio system that is designed for live music that shoots sound from one end of the room—the stage—throughout the space. Whereas with a club system, you want the music to be everywhere and be loud enough to be fun and powerful, but not so intense that you can’t muster a conversation or order a drink. So some systems have distribution boxes that allow you to be able to switch from a time-aligned system for performance audio to a global system that supplies sound all over the room.

BBM: What are some of the most common mistakes operators make with their on-premise sound systems?

Marchant: You only need to have seen a handful of artists’ contract riders to know that many of them want certain brand names in equipment, and that certain other brand names are simply unacceptable to them. So if club owners want to save a few bucks by using a lower quality brand on pieces of equipment that a majority of artists often call-out as being unacceptable, you’re starting off on the wrong foot with these folks already. Then they have to rent equipment every time they come to town, and eventually will just avoid your venue all together.

Another mistake is to put speakers in a room that are not designed for that acoustical space, like long throw cabinets in a short throw room, or having a wide room without covering the sides well, or not putting in front fills for the crowd right up against the stage. With no front fill, you’ve got patrons standing right in front of the artist, with the best seats in the house, and they’re not hearing any of the high-end because they’re outside of the throw of the high-end drivers, which are way off to the sides.

BBM: The changeover from analog to digital sound has been a major swing in the industry. Are there any other sweeping advancements on the horizon for
on-premise sound?

Marchant: As far as something as dramatic as changing from analog to digital, I don’t see a major advancement coming anytime soon. But we are starting to see, nearly every year or two, and engineer come out with a new cabinet that is absolutely stunning in comparison to a cabinet that was just a few years old. It’s just better engineering, better box design, and better components. Analog to digital was sweeping and dramatic, but every year there are subtle changes with boxes that are more efficient and transparent and more powerful than just a few years earlier. Don’t get me wrong—there are some great old analog rigs that would make most entertainers very happy. But we’re seeing so much more efficiency in these digital designs, and flexibility as well—which is vital today.