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March 1997

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Designing a Performance Area for Small Clubs
By Elisabeth MacMillan

Once a club owner has decided to feature live music in his bar, his profits will be directly connected to the quality of bands he is able to present. Therefore, a well-designed performance area and professional sound system will make his club attractive to better bands. In addition, shows will run more smoothly and be more enjoyable for patrons. All this will add up to more popularity for the club.

Just building a riser at one end of your bar won't make you the next Fillmore East. To be most effective, a stage area should be constructed around the sound, lighting and band gear and load-in access. You must also consider sight lines for the maximum number of patrons, noise levels, and a location for the sound/lighting booth. It can be a real jigsaw puzzle to try to put all this together, especially if you're not planning a major remodeling job. Here are some considerations and strategies.

Load-in access to your club is the very first thing you will have to consider, since it may require the most extensive modifications to your building. Ideally, you will have a backstage entrance directly from your parking lot. Even if you don't have a parking lot, it's vitally important to have a stage door. Using the front door of your club for loading gear is just plain tacky and frustrating for patrons and musicians, alike. It's just as suburban to expect bands to drag gear in across a greasy kitchen floor, so if you don't have a stage door, I have just one suggestion. Make one.

Have the stage door open directly into a backstage area, where the band's equipment cases will be stored. This area is important for several reasons. First, it acts as a visual screen to conceal equipment and technical preparations from the audience. This not only allows your club to appear tidier, but gives performances more of a professional impact. Second, it provides some privacy for the performers and technicians so they can better concentrate on doing their jobs. Third, the backstage area provides an 'airlock' that prevents expensive heat and excessive noise from escaping from your room while bands are loading in and out. Fourth, it provides an isolated area to locate installed sound and lighting equipment, such as power amps and dimmer packs.

In a perfect world, your backstage area should be about as large as the stage. More importantly, however, you will want it completely enclosed and equipped with ample lighting and storage space. Blow off any existing steps in this area and install ramps. Professional bands commonly travel with numerous trunks of gear weighing 200 pounds and up and they DON'T wanna spend an extra hour on load-in dead-lifting them up three steps. If you are planning to store cases under the back of the stage, plan for a ramp up to the stage floor.

The stage itself should be constructed sturdily from at least 2 x 6 lumber. Depending on your entertainment plans, you may need to set aside space for

A monitor mixer off the side of the stage, out of the way of traffic.

A locking access door into the lighted, ventilated space under the stage for installing power amplifiers and accessing stage wiring.

A drum riser, which must be at least 6' x 6'. Constructing a multilevel stage of any size is a waste; just build a portable or Murphy bed-style riser.

The installation of bass cabinets for your sound system under the stage. Get a consultation from a sound system installer about what bass cabinets are recommended for your room before you decide what height the stage will be. If you can't pick out the bass cabs before you must construct the stage, at least leave access for installing them into the front of the stage later.

Electrical outlets everywhere. You can't have too many outlets. Guitarists and keyboardists need outlets near the front of the stage as well as at the back wall. Put an outlet box about every six feet or so. You will need several separate circuits in the area where you will install the sound and lighting systems, as well.

Before you lay the flooring of your stage (plywood no less than 3/4" thick) over the joists, stuff any unused space under the stage with sound-deadening material. You can staple strips of fiberglass insulation so they hang vertically from each of the floor joists down to the floor beneath. This creates multiple sound barriers under the stage. If you want to get fancy, you can fill the floor with sand like they do in recording studios. No matter what you use, deaden the space as much as possible so your stage won't make boomy noises and feedback. Hollow stages are ubiquitously noisy and everyone will hate you. If I were you, I'd consider the sound insulation a required part of stage construction.

Go ahead and carpet the stage floor even though you know it will be a smeary mass of old duct tape a year from now. Drummers NEVER remember to bring their own rugs. It's better to replace the stage carpet annually than to have every absent-minded drummer running off with your club's expensive door mats. Also, the carpet is an important part of controlling acoustics on the stage. And speaking of acoustics, it's imperative to have some sort of sound-deadening material on the walls. You can hang theatre curtains, build insulation-stuffed fabric panels over the walls or just carpet them, but it's just as important as insulating the floor.

Overhead, remember to install some regular 'work' lighting in addition to your stage lights. Stage lighting alone is often inadequate during set-up and tear-down, and the high-wattage theatrical fixtures are expensive to operate for those extra hours. Also plan to install a clock overhead, facing the band, to help keep shows running on time. And resist the temptation to decorate the stage area with neon lighting, unless you connect it to a separate circuit from any other stage outlets. The transformers in neon fixtures are notorious for creating a hum in audio systems.

To get more specific advice, stay in touch with an experienced pro-sound technician/installer even before you are ready to actually purchase (or lease or upgrade or install) your sound/lighting system. Don't expect your brother-in-law to be much help just because he played in a band in high school. And if you let your fingers do the walking you will find a lot of ads for firms who install DJ systems and ceiling speakers in office buildings. (This is probably not what you want.) Take a floor plan of your club to a reliable music store to get more details about positioning the sound booth, hanging speakers and cable, etc. Also, attend some shows at other clubs to get phone numbers of their sound system installers.

One qualified, experienced band will attract more people to your club than 10 lousy ones, so the investment you make in a nice stage will pay off. Professional bands will appreciate your efforts and won't trash your dressing room trying to prove they are rock stars, either. It could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

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