Winter Gigs | a guide

WINTER GIGS by M’Lynn Harwell | Freshwater Events

Whenever possible, it is probably best to just say “no” to outdoor winter gigs in cold climates.

It’s simply not a smart idea to play outdoor shows in the dead of winter, period. It’s tough on your instruments. It’s tough on audio gear. It’s tough on your hands. It’s tough on your lungs. It’s just plain tough.

Personally, I tend to refuse putting myself in cold weather situations, largely based upon my own experiences.

There isn't a good way to protect the instruments, there isn't a good way to keep you feeling good, and, all in all, you’re likely to put on a mediocre performance! And for what? Oh, I know, I l know, gigs are few and far between in the winter, and bills must be paid. It's true that every once in awhile a hard to refuse big-cash opportunity might come your way, a Holiday, New Year’s gig, a community celebration in the city square perhaps. If you find that you are inclined to say “yes” this guide is for you. We hope that these ideas will help you to prepare for your upcoming battle with the extreme elements. 

General Advice for Performers:

I remember that night the temperature was in the teens. I thought it would be a good idea to bring the guitar inside and wipe it down. When I opened the case the finish started cracking at the tail-piece and all I could do was watch in horror as the whole body cracked.

Instruments

Major temperature swings can cause finish checking/cracking, and/or make inlay pop out. If an instrument has been shipped in cold weather, always allow at least 24-48 hours before opening your instrument cases. Exposing the instrument to sudden change can and often does cause the finish to check and the body to warp. Once your instruments are out of their cases, don’t play them yet. Give them even more time to settle. That direct contact with the air and a sudden change in humidity might make them tense up again.

Finally, allow yourself enough warm-up time before the performance begins and the crowds arrive so you can play the instrument, tune it, play it, tune it, repeat as often as necessary to stabilize the tuning. (Hint: If you routinely have outdoor performances in the cold, you might even consider a carbon fiber instrument, as it will hold its tuning, and is much more impervious to extremes of cold, heat, and humidity.)

Amplifier Cabinets

While your guitar is stabilizing, let’s give some attention to your electronics. It’s important to go slow and easy with amplifier cabinets as well. Slowly warm up your amps by starting them out on standby (if you have that option). Give them plenty of time to adjust to changes in temperature and humidity. Anything electronic and/or electric likes to be cold. It is when it gets warm again that the problems start. The potential for havoc ensues the moment you drag amps out of a cold trailer/vehicle, into a significantly warmer performance space. The first thing you may notice is that every surface gets covered in condensation. Get to the gig early and let your instruments and electronics acclimate to the temperature and humidity. Radical shifts in temperature and humidity (both up and down) can damage your equipment. Always leave your instruments and amplifier cabinets in their cases/covered and let them stabilize. If the instrument is cold and you move it to a warm room and open the case and see the finish start to turn hazy, close the case immediately and let it sit longer, a lot longer.

Tube amps are especially vulnerable. Amplifiers can suffer condensation with rapid changes in temperature. Imagine bringing your glasses in from the cold. That condensation can destroy delicate electronic gear with a minor short. With tube amplifiers you add the factor of cold glass. The cold glass subjected to the quick warming process of turning it on can cause problems - the glass may expand at a different rate from the base causing a crack and tube failure. Be sure to cool down and load out in the same way!

In order to protect your most sensitive body parts, many find that wearing fingerless gloves (or drummers, wear gloves with grip) is a benefit. Of course, this is not an option for every performer, so for them, I place a small propane ceramic space heater on the stage below their fret board, and also hand out “Hot Shot” or other hand warmers that can be helpful between songs. Performers that talk between songs for as long as necessary, while warming up, generally make the best of a difficult situation.

When loading out diligently and methodically follow the same precautions in reverse. If you care about your gear, give it time to acclimate to changes in temperature and humidity. Do not pack warm gear, in a cold trailer or vehicle, if you expect to rely upon it in the future. 

Limit your performance time

Don’t get stuck entertaining for 3 hours while catching hypothermia. A winter show lasting 30-45 minutes in the cold is more than enough. If the event planner or promoter wants more music, they can hire a DJ, another band, or play music on an iPod. 

General Advice for Vocalists 

If your instrument is your voice, go easy. Warm up slowly. Give your body and voice time to acclimate. Construct your sets so each player gets some relief. Space out the songs where your vocalist is belting out those high notes. Let a different performer carry the lead on the next song. That way, when the spotlight and pressure is on someone else, you can take a minute to tune-up again, warm your hands again, rest your voice, again, and whatever else you need to do to deliver a good performance. 

General Advice for Audio System Technicians 

First things first. Always bring a proper circuit tester and test before plugging in your equipment. Always! A sound system often represents a sizable investment, and its lifetime depends to a great degree on how well you take care of it. Take reasonably good care of it and it will repay you with years of service. Amplifiers hate rapid temperature changes and condensation. Powered speakers with solid wood cabinets are especially vulnerable because you put wood, electronics, and plastic parts at risk. They can and do warp, and break, if subjected to sudden extremes.

Unlike humans, anything electronic likes to be cold. It is when it gets warm again that the problems begin. Electronics hate it when you relocate them out of a cold trailer/vehicle into a warm room. If your sound equipment is being moved from a very cold place, such as your van or trailer in freezing temperature, it’s vital that you allow time for your gear to warm to the ambient room temperature before you power it up. That layer of condensation that forms on your components can cause all manner of electrical problems, ranging from potentially very serious electrical short-circuits at one extreme to annoying intermittent glitches at the other; faders may not operate, circuit boards may crack, soldier joints may fail, your microphone may sound funny, electronics may fizzle to an untimely death. Fortunately with patience and time, when everything is stable, warm, and dry it should operate normally.

Science Factoid: another obscure reason to warm your gear to a suitable operating temperature before operating is the fact that at extremely low temperatures the voice coil becomes a superconductor. Be mindful when you load out too. You definitely don’t want to take a hot amp outside into cold vehicle either. The shock from a sudden temperature change may well cause the amp's circuit board and components to experience destructive thermal cycling. 

Getting Specific 

  1. Speakers: Speakers need some warm up time before you start pumping audio through them. Let them come to room temperature for a few hours. After a suitable period of acclimatization, play some music through them, softly at first, gradually raising the volume to performance level, carefully monitoring them the entire time. Compression drivers have the least low temp tolerance as they are very brittle to begin with. Also plastic components used to control audio wave-forms, can be very brittle and subject to breakage. Be very careful.

  2. Mixers: Pots (the ones you turn, and the ones you slide) will freeze and tend to either make the pot tough to turn, or they may break. When it comes to motorized faders, they may protest doing their thing. Don't force them. Virtually all digital gear hates the cold, and when LCD displays freeze they go blank.

  3. Outboard Gear: As with your digital desk, outboard electronics want to be comfortably warm. Displays may appear blank. Cards may need to be re-seated internally. Expect glitches and give yourself plenty of time to deal with the unexpected.

  4. Microphones: If microphones are cold, they will not sound good. They can stick to the talents lips if they are cold enough, and remove skin. Let microphones warm to room temperature, and consider using a windscreen (remember to change it out periodically, as the moist breath will create ice in the screen and after a while it starts to dull the sound). Excessive moisture inside a microphone can also interfere with the free motion of the diaphragm, causing the voice to sound unnatural. A microphone stored in a very cold or damp place may show this symptom. A microphone with inadequate filtering may even develop this problem while in use, from the moisture in the user's breath. In either case, the problem will probably be gone when the microphone is once again dry and warm.

    Excessive moisture can eventually cause corrosion and oxidization of components inside the microphone, causing it to fail. Any microphone that is excessively cold, will exhibit a loss of bass, making it sound tinny, and there will be an increased susceptibility to feedback. When using wireless microphones, count on the battery life being half of normal, or less. Recharging batteries is difficult if not impossible in the cold. It’s best that you charge them indoors. Avoid wireless gear outside whenever possible. If you must use a wireless microphone, make sure you always have plenty of new (warm) batteries available.

  5. Cables: Frozen cables are hard to wrap, unwrap, and manage. The small wires in microphone cables are more likely to break when they are cold. It’s a good idea to avoid wrapping or unwrapping cables in freezing conditions. 

Freshwater Events | A Few of Our Best Practices 

Contracts are an important part of doing business. Contracts let everybody know what is expected of them and inform them when they need to do it. Contracts define terms of service and associated costs. Use them and avoid misunderstandings. Unfortunately common sense isn’t a flower that grows in every garden, so we put it in print. 

Terms 

Uncommon terms we endeavor to include cover such things as insurance, temperature, and electricity. Insurance: We want to make sure that we are covered in the event of liability beyond our control. We commonly ask our client to provide an inexpensive insurance rider to cover general liability and accidents. This is doubly important when equipment is being handled by people that are not employed by us.

Temperature: We also include a temperature clause in our contract. Over the years we’ve developed a relationship with over 300 musicians, and a large number of those we’ve asked would prefer to not perform in stage temperatures below 50-degrees-Fahrenheit.

Likewise, our digital gear prefers temperatures in this range, so we include a clause insisting that the venue maintain a minimum stage and gear temperature of 50-degrees, the entire time our gear and personnel occupy a venue.

In the summer, we require protection from extreme heat and exposure to the sun.

Electricity: Another huge problem in this occupation is electrical service, or lack thereof. All too often in this business, bands show up and find out too late that there isn’t enough electricity to service the needs of the band, sound system, and lighting, or grounds are missing. Instead of attempting to deal with this major concern too late, we express our power requirements up front in the contract. Yes it’s true that occasionally we still show up and experience electrical power issues, but at least if these problems can’t be resolved, we have the right to demand payment, pack up, and go home.

Our ten page contract is probably about as comprehensive as you will find in the industry, but it is fair and balanced, serving to protect the interests of event planners, venues, and performers alike, and that’s a very good thing. 

Thank you for reading 

The team at Freshwater Events, hopes that you have found this article helpful and will be a valuable planning tool when it comes to cold weather performances. Thanks for reading.