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How to Build and Run a Sound System for a School Dance
School dances can be expensive affairs, particularly when it comes to sound. There are quite a few corporations out there that overcharge for their services and get away with it by advertising their gigs on TV to make them seem awesome. Here is an article on how to build and run your own sound system for a school dance.
What often ends up happening is that school dances lose the role they once held as an excellent fundraiser and become a money sink. However, with the right knowledge you can do it yourself and turn those figures around. Here's how.
Contact your student council or student government if there is one.They usually arrange the dances, and you'll definitely need their support. Keep in mind that if you're not in council yourself, they can be difficult people to convince, as they usually like things done in a consistent way. One good tack to use is to learn of the profits/losses off the last dance and describe how they can be improved. If a teacher is in charge of student council, you might want to approach him/her first, after you spoken the teacher the change will improve that they will listen to you.
- If your school does not have a council, you'll want to contact whoever is in charge of the dances.
Plan far ahead.Make sure that you have sufficient time to get all your gear together, arrange this all with the council.
Get yourself a technical person who knows audio or who learns quickly (or both, if possible), if you aren't one yourself.If you have a lot of time, see if you can find a job in the community that needs volunteer sound/tech work done, like community theater or a music festival, this experience will prove invaluable for your dance, and for yourself.
Realize that you will need professional gear.Too many times people delude themselves into thinking that they can get away with off-the-shelf Walmart speakers. A ghetto blaster is not nearly loud enough nor high enough fidelity. The same goes for living room hi-fi gear, which tends to have overly exaggerated power ratings ("1000-watt" surround sound systems which probably only have 50 watts per channel spring to mind). To make your dance work, you can't settle for anything less than true pro-audio gear.
Decide what equipment you need.This depends on the venue, for a gym or another large space, you'll want at the bare minimum a professional power amp, a graphic equalizer, and an audio source (most likely, a computer), and speakers rated for the amp's power (rule of thumb says go twice the rating if possible to avoid clipping).
Consider extra gear beyond the bare minimum.Nice things to have on top of that are a mixer so you can cross fade between audio sources, a microphone, and a better source. While you can use a 1/8th inch TRS (from your computer) to RCA adapter with fair results, it's better to use a DI (Direct Input) box to balance the output to XLR cables, avoiding mains hum and other nasty artifacts. Even better would be a professional Firewire recording/playback interface, but these can be hard to get if you are borrowing gear. Lighting equipment is nice, but can be really difficult to get a hold of.
- Strobes are nice, as are disco balls and low-level ambient lighting. Set your standards high to start with, because it can be guaranteed you won't meet them.
Scrounge up the sound gear from your school.This can be a bit difficult depending on where you live. If your school has a music program, that's probably the best place to start. If you already have a teacher sponsor, you might have them talk to whoever is in charge of the gear in order to sway their support. This gear can be hard to get, because it tends to be expensive and easily broken, so don't expect easy handouts. Alternatively, if your school has a theater, you can look there. Theaters are especially good if you need lighting gear - typically they'll have some extra stage lights lying around.
- If you can't scrounge up any gear from your school, move on to your community. A few good targets: community theater groups, youth groups, nonprofit music schools, and community radio stations. You might not even know that the last one exists. Try pulling out an FM radio and surfing the dial. In Canada, nonprofit stations are almost always allocated below the 92 mHz band, far below the more commonly listened-to commercial stations. Shoot for the best gear, but remember, beggars can't be choosers.
- Rent gear if you absolutely can't find anyone to lend you it. You might be able to do this at a fairly steep cost if you live in the city - check your phone book. Those of you out in the country - keep scrounging.
Do a test run.Get it all set up and see how it sounds in the venue. Start low and be careful, but don't be afraid to see how loud you can push it. You'll need ear-splitting sound for the night of the show. A good test: stand with a friend in the middle of the dance floor, about four feet away from each other. If the system's cranked and you can still hear each other without shouting, than it's not loud enough.
Get a good program for your DJ software.You can run gigs with Itunes or Windows Media Player, but it's not recommended. On Windows, Winamp is a reasonable choice. On Mac and Linux, is an awesome music player with collections, fast search support, and automatic crossfade. There's also an unofficial Windows version available. If you can, It's recommended using a Mac or a realtime Linux kernel because of the better audio support. If you absolutely have to use Windows, use a fast machine. The last thing you want is a lag out in the middle of a DJ session.
- Make sure you have a huge media library available. You will be getting quite a few obscure requests, and it's icing on the cake if you can fill them. If you have CDs, rip them to mp3s (or better yet, FLAC if you have the space). External hard drives are nice for this, and relatively cheap - a 1TB drive can be purchased for 0 at the right places.
- Try to not stress too much about the gig. And it will be stressful. See below for a couple tips.
- Once it's over, fade the music out and bring on the lights. If you have a microphone, tell them it's over (expect some jeering, get a teacher to do this if you prefer).
Strike your gear and return it to the rightful owner.Make sure you put it away real nicely to leave a good impression for next time. Coil the cables, leave the mixer settings the way you found them, etc.
- Count the profit - it was a lot of work, but it paid off.
- House, techno, rap, and hip-hop genre music is the most popular for dances. Get a healthy supply of all of them, as well as a good selection of recent chart-toppers. All are a must have.
- Keep a "reserve" - a small selection of songs that the crowd absolutely loves. Use these if you get into trouble. Also play them as your last set of songs.
- Don't cut off songs in the middle, unless people absolutely hate them. If this happens, calmly select a follow up track from your reserve and gently crossfade into it. Observe as outrage changes to cheering.
- Don't play a song more than once.
- You will likely have student council organizers during the dance making suggestions. Listen to them, but remember they don't have experience running the dance, you do. If it's a request that goes against any of these guidelines, consider politely declining.
- Thanks to media (Read: MTV) influence, dance popularity has drifted from slow ballads to rap/hip-hop based songs popular for grinding. This makes slower songs less popular. However, that doesn't mean that you should remove these songs from your repertoire altogether. Rule of thumb for slow songs: None in the first hour (people will still be arriving). Try to run them once every 40 minutes to an hour after that. Three or four total is a good number. It is traditional to end on a slow song. Gauge your crowd - see if this is appropriate.
- Realize that a lot of what they like will be shaped by your work over several dances. Indie-music fans can rejoice - you can give your niche artist a taste of some mainstream popularity. Purge the overexposed mainstream stuff from their system (but do it slowly - nobody likes quick forced change).
- Don't use a dynamic range compressor in your sound system unless you absolutely have to. It kills the dynamics on most music. As dance music is already so compressed anyway due to the loudness war, this only makes the sound worse.
- Have a request sheet. Dances run mainly off requests are great because they make the attendees feel like they're in control.
- It might be a good idea to get another person to DJ, and swap off with them over the night. The job can be stressful, and having two people share it allows you to get out on the floor and enjoy the dance.
- Yes, you can and probably will end up rickrolling them. It'll only be a matter of time until some wise-crack puts it on the request sheet. Rather than turn him down, give him the mic and tell him to announce it, then play the song all the way through. Hilarity ensues for those in on the joke. Or, use it as a weapon for somebody who keeps making a ridiculous request. Announce the request, but rickroll them instead. Rickrolling is probably the only fun thing that the DJ gets to do all night - make it count (but just once).
- Finally, don't be concerned or upset when people leave. Some people will have this predetermined notion that you're doing some great injustice by playing a song they don't like. People will always leave - you just can't please everybody. The same goes for people who come up to your console demanding that you do it in such-and-such a way. The chances are they don't have the slightest clue what they're talking about. Misinterpret their shouting as an offer to volunteer to take the board for a while while you take a bathroom break. Chances are they'll walk away immediately. If not, let them sit down and make a mess of things. Come back in a couple minutes when everyone's screaming for blood, kick them off (very publicly, of course) and resume where you left off.
- Legal Disclaimer: Know the laws of your area. If you're a small town high school, you should be okay if you (illegally) neglect to pay the licensing fees. However, if you live in downtown Toronto, right next to the CRIA headquarters - well, you probably ought to do things legally. The odds anyone will sue you are extraordinarily slim; especially in Canada (the media outrage would be extreme, this has never happened to any school that's done this to date), but you are still technically violating the law. The correct organization to contact in Canada is , who can fill you in on which organizations you will be paying licensing fees to.
- If you live in another country, contact your local government offices to find the equivalent organization in your area. Also note that this is a double edged sword - this can also draw unwanted attention to however you are getting your music library. These organizations do not look forgivingly on file-sharers.
- Be careful with pushing your gear too far, especially if your speakers aren't rated for your amp's power output. It's borrowed gear, you certainly don't want to blow it. Speaker cabinets can be expensive.
- The same goes for handling your gear - respect it, and know its limits.
- If at any time the speakers start making the characteristic "frapping" sound, immediately pull back on the volume until it stops. This means that the amp's peak power is exceeding the speaker peak power, and the membrane is being pulled past the safe limit. If you keep at that high level you could end up with a blown speaker; or worse, a destroyed voice coil.
- Fights can break out at dances. Make sure you have teachers who can break it up. If all else fails it gets too hairy with multiple brawlers, draw some attention to it by killing the sound and turning on the lights. Knowing they're the center of attention for a couple hundred people will get them to stop pretty quick. Also see they're kicked out for the night.
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