The following article is a text-only reprint of "Preventative Medicine for Road Gear", an article by Sam Molineaux. It was originally printed in Electronic Musician, August, 1998. The article starts on page 94 of that issue.


Preventative Medicine for Road Gear

by Sam Molineaux

   I HATE TO BE THE BEARER of bad tidings, but if you have a keyboard or other MIDI related gear that you move regularly, it's probably only a matter of time before disaster strikes. While there is no cure for plain bad luck, you can employ some preventive measures to help you deal with equipment adversity.

   At the least, you should be familiar with your equipment, know what to do if unexpected hazards arise, keep important spares at hand, and know where to get help. But even the most conscientious road musician can't know how to deal with every eventuality. We asked three of the hardest working keyboard techs in the business to share their secrets for looking after gear on the road. Many of these tips apply to nonkeyboard electronic gear, too, so if you are a guitarist, bassist, sound person, etc., stay right here don't touch that dial!

   Preventive measures. It should be obvious that throwing unprotected gear into the back of a vehicle is a dumb idea, but all too often that's exactly what people do. Pack the equipment truck carefully, making sure things don't shift around or sit upside down or on their ends if they shouldn't. And make sure your gear is protected.

   "The number one rule is that there's nothing more valuable than good road cases," says Mike Rodriguez, the man behind Stevie Wonder's rig. "Get the best you can possibly afford and forget about soft bags."

   Once you have the gear loaded in and set up, it is time to test and troubleshoot everything. Terry Lawless recently toured as a keyboard technician with David Bowie, Phil Collins, and Boston. A keyboard player himself, Lawless has two modes of operation when preparing for a gig: technician and player. "When you are looking after your own rig, you have to divide yourself, " he explains. " First go into technician mode and run through trials of everything that ~s going to be used in the show. Make sure everything is in good working order and that it is absolutely clean. Secure any cables to the stand so that if someone trips over a cable, it will pull on the stand first and the instrument last. Keep cable runs away from the center of the stage where all the traffic is, and make sure everything is taped in place. I also put gaffer tape over any inputs or outputs that aren't being used so that nothing can be plugged into the wrong socket.

   "Run a chromatic scale on every keyboard you're going to be using, just to ensure you don't have any surprises later on," Lawless continues. "Then, after everything is checked, you can go away and come back as the musician and just think about making your music."

   Power problems. When it comes to protecting electronic devices and ensuring reliable performance, clean power is a major consideration. "One of the first things I do is take a multimeter out and meter the power on every outlet before I plug anything into it," says Lawless. "I also check the wiring on every outlet. There's a little tester plug you can use to check whether the wiring is correct; it's very handy to carry around when you're playing clubs." These testers, which are available at Radio Shack and many electronics supply stores, indicate phase and grounding problems.

   Incidentally, if you discover that the club's outlets are not properly grounded, do not use them; contact the manager or owner of the venue and request an immediate repair or access to a properly grounded outlet. Otherwise, you not only risk damage to your equipment and be aware that most power conditioners do not protect your gear when connected to an ungrounded outlet but you also might be exposed to dangerous electrical shocks.

   No matter how prepared you are or how reliable your gear, if a power blackout occurs in the middle of your show, there is little you can do to prevent your rig from being taken down with it. However, you can take measures to ensure that you are back up and running as quickly as possible after the power re turns. "I always use an Apple PowerBook to control the rig because it'll revert to it's battery backup if there's a power outage. It's one less thing to wait for to reboot," says Genesis and Metallica tech Justin Crew.

   Lawless prefers to rely on an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) to power the rig. "I try to use a UPS on anything with volatile memory, such as samplers and computers," he says. "I use one that can power an entire rig for around 45 minutes, and it also conditions the power so that, if there's a spike, it'll still output even power. It's worth putting your sampiers on one, at least."

   Back up the backup. Protecting your equipment is the easy part. Much more difficult is coping with the unexpected breakdowns, particularly if they occur minutes before (or worse, during) the show, when your nerves probably aren't in the best shape. A wise keyboard player will be prepared and bring along backups.

   "If you load samples during the show, I recommend having a spare hard disk with the same ID number, containing all your samples, should anything go wrong," says Rodriguez. "Make sure you kee backups of all the sounds on two different media," adds Lawless. "For example, if you have a synthesizer that you can back up with a RAM card, you should do that as well as backing it up to a computer program, just in case one or the other should fail."

   Regardless of how diligent you are backing up your sounds, though, if your software crashes and your synth's dead as a dodo, it'll help to have an effective last-minute action plan. "I try keep a spare of every keyboard the being used in the show, but if that's not possible, I program vital sounds on whatever spare keyboards I do have," says Lawless. "For example, say your Roland D-70 goes down right before the show; if you've preprogrammed the D-70 sound on another instrument, such as a D-50, you can use that as a substitute."

   "If you don't need a dedicated MIDI controller as your master keyboard, I would say control your rig from a keyboard with onboard sounds," suggests Rodriguez. "You just never know when your rack's going to die, and that keyboard may be the only sound source have left."

   Environmental hazards. Without doubt, playing outdoor gigs is the ultimate test of a keyboard player's nerve. Even if you're in a climate that's not prone to rain, there are still things need to watch out for.

   "Dust is usually the biggest problem," notes Lawless. "If you're doing outdoor gigs, you should clean your gear much more than usual. Then there's heat. I've seen gear quit functioning just because of heat, and LCDs stop working if they get too hot. You should always protect gear from extreme temperatures. I always keep space blankets on all the gear, and then right before the show we pull them off."

   Here are a few words of wisdom for those who are crazy enough to go on stage in the rain: "When you play outdoors, you need to make sure you have enough plastic to cover all your keyboards and racks if you have to get off the stage," advises Rodriguez. "I did a show with Martin Page in Germany where it was pouring rain, but they decided to go on with the show. So I just made sure that everything was plugged in, and then I put gaffer tape around the MIDI plugs and the outputs on the keyboards. Anything that wasn't being used, I covered up; I taped plastic on the back of the racks to make it all as leakproof as possible."

   "A little bit of rain on the outside of a keyboard isn't a problem," says Crew. "But if it starts filling up, it'll short things out inside, and that's when you've really got to be careful. I've actually drilled holes in the underside of keyboard. so the rain runs out!" (Don't try this at home, kids.)

   Pranks and cranks. Weather isn't the only potential hazard; the law of averages dictates that if you get a group of musicians together in an enclosed area it won't be long before at least one of them does something really stupid. "I had to fix a Sequential Prophet VS on a Robert Plant tour because someone threw an orange at the keyboard player and it snapped off four of the keys," remembers Crew. "It's not easy getting keys for a Prophet VS in a hurry; I ended up having to glue them back together with epoxy resin."

   "I once had to clean up after a band who had a water fight on stage halfway through the show," says Rodriguez. "At times like that the only thing you're thinking is 'Good thing I'm making good money.' Because you just want to slap somebody! "

   Food, water, and cigarette ash are generally things you want to keep away from your keyboards, but should disaster strike, a can of compressed air, some clean cloths, and a hair dryer are useful items to have at hand. "The best thing you can do if anything gets spilled inside your keyboard is to shut it off immediately and then dry it carefully with a hair dryer and swabs, " advises Lawless. "A travel hair dryer is a good thing to carry around. I've also used a hair dryer on Hammond organs that came out of the cold and needed the oil warmed up a little bit. Compressed air is good for cleaning out dirt or dust."

   Emergency surgery. Manufacturers usually recommend that you not try to effect repairs yourself, but if you're in a crisis situation and it's something easily identifiable (such as a broken key or pitch-bend wheel), and you happen to have a spare handy, then performing emergency surgery might be your only possible solution.

   "I wouldn't suggest that people open up their synths, but if you really have to, make sure you do it in a nice, big area where you have plenty of room so that you can keep track of all your screws and parts," says Rodriguez. "Something like a key popping out is about the easiest thing you can fix yourself. I once used a paper clip and a toothpick to fix the spring on a broken key, and since then I've always kept paper clips with me. They're handy if you need a little tension or want to create a spring."

   "Replacing your pitchbend wheel is just a matter of opening the back of your keyboard and locating the wheel, which usually has a bundle of wires that sockets together. You just unplug the old wheel and flip a new one in," explains Lawless. "I also recommend keeping a selection of fuses in your tool kit; there's nothing worse than having a blown fuse and not having a spare.

   "The big problem is that, if you make a mistake, you will lose your warranty on the machine," he continues. "However, if you really feel qualified and confident enough to do your own repairs, go ahead and do it but take a few precautionary steps. Always make absolutely sure that the instrument is unplugged; always wear a grounding strap so that any of the integrated circuits inside can't be damaged; and make sure when you turn a keyboard face down that you have padding underneath it."

   Reseating chips that have worked their way loose, fixing a bad cord, and touching up solder points to fix an intermittent jack or eliminate a buzz are common repairs that do not require specialist knowledge, providing you take the necessary precautions. But remember, you do this work at your own risk.

   If you're unsure, sometimes a call to the manufacturer will help. "Manufacturers are extremely good about taking care of people on the road. They know that, if their product is being shown, that's the best advertising they can get," confirms Lawless. "Usually, if you call the service department and tell them that you're on tour and have an emergency repair, they'll help you out, even on older, discontinued instruments."

   "If you can get the keyboard open in front of you and you're by a phone, then you can often get someone to talk you through a simple repair," agrees Crew. "But sometimes it's better to just rent another one as quickly as possible. If you manage to get your instrument fixed before the gig, that's all well and good, but if not, at least you have the spare. Ask the sound guy or one of the locals; they'll usually know where the nearest instrument rental shop is."

   Vintage gear. The best advice regarding older equipment is to steer clear of taking it out on the road. "Wherever possible I'd try to duplicate the sound on a newer piece of gear," advises Lawless. "There are too few centers that can repair older gear and too few places to get parts, and older gear tends to be unpredictable under adverse conditions. Many newer machines do great analog duplications, such as the Yamaha CS1x, the Studio Electronics analog gear, even the JD and JV series from Roland. By the time you've got it going through the P.A., you're going to get very close."

   "You have to understand that vintage gear must be looked after very carefully," warns Crew. "If you're going to take, say, a Prophet on the road, then take two with you, and be sure to fire up the spare every day. Don't even think of going out without the manual, and if possible, get hold of the service manual with a schematic diagram."

   The show must go on. So your middle C has broken off, you're only getting sound out of one output, that delicate piano sound you spent hours perfecting has turned into bluegrass banjo, and your drummer has just spilled his Coke down the back of your sampler. Now what do you do?

   "The very first thing I do if things are behaving strangely is turn the equipment off and on again. More than once, that has been the masterstroke of genius!" quips Rodriguez, who strongly recommends remaining calm as the key to most problem-solving operations.

   In fact, staying calm is one skill that all three of our keyboard techs have developed along with the ancient art of manual-reading. "The keyboard player who has learned his or her gear is always going to have more flexibility and be able to react in crisis situations that much better," says Rodriguez. "The main piece of advice that I would give would be not to panic. The show still has to go on, and it's going to finish. You're either going to finish like a hero, or you're going to finish like a chump. But if you panic, it'll only make things worse."





ROAD MUSICIAN'S TOOL KIT

Based on interviews with Justin Crew, Terry Lawless, and Mike Rodriguez, I've assembled a plan for a basic road musician's tool kit. You can supplement this kit, of course, but make sure you have these basics.
Alligator clips

Assorted cables (all types; include extra long cables)

Assorted connectors

Assortment of fuses

Assortment of screws and nuts

Assortment of wrenches and screwdrivers

Batteries

Cable checker

Cleaning agent

Compressed air

Duct tape

Flashlight

Fuses for keyboards (according to user manual)

Grounding strap

MIDI data indicator

Multimeter

One octave of spare keys for each keyboard

Paper clips

Pitch-bend wheel for each keyboard

Soft cloth

Soldering iron and solder

Spare disk drive (for samplers and computers)

Spare external power supplies (where necessary)

Spare parts

Spare sustain and volume pedals

Swiss Army knife

Travel hair dryer

User manuals for each piece of gear




Sam Molineaux became semiproficient on violin, viola, and cello before she reached puberty, at which point she switched to the synth, which was far more rock 'n' roll. She'd like to thank Matthew Brubeck, Nate Tschetter, Terry Wilson, and Tom Zink for their invaluable help with this article.