Open mic nights are a great way to demo your songs as a songwriter. They offer a laid back atmosphere where you can test out new songs. It's also perfect for when you're starting out, and you don't have material for a whole set.
But what if you are the engineer?
What do you need to set up an open mic night?
In 7 Entrepreneur Ideas for Audio Engineers and Musicians I touched upon the idea of being a portable sound engineer. What this means is that you have a system so compact and simple that you can take it anywhere. A system that would be ideal for open mic nights.
In the following guide I'll explain, in detail, all the things you need to have a small but effective live sound rig for open mics.
The first order of business is finding where you can host an open mic night in your area.
Coffee shops - Approach local coffee houses or small bars to see if they are available. It might not be easy to persuade the proprietor, but maybe there are slow nights that could benefit from people coming in to play. Make a monetary argument, they always work better when it comes to managers and business people.
Club Houses & Youth Centers - If you are a part of any sort of organization, club house or youth center, you could create a weekly open mic night there. If the location is readily available, use it.
Your House? - I've seen some people advertise Open Mic nights on Craigslist at their house, but I would try to steer clear of advertising your address to the general public. But if you live in a small town, or can limit the invitees to a closely knit community then go for it.
Small Festivals or Events – Music or arts events often need volunteers and ideas for their event. I hosted a workshop at the Tucson Folk Festival this year about setting up small open mic systems; I just e-mailed them and offered my services. Simple as that. See what's going on in your area, maybe an upcoming event can use your services.
Finding the location is just the beginning. Continue reading as I'll be addressing all the other things you need to keep in mind. You'll learn what kind of P.A. you need, which microphones to use, and all the other technical things you need to know. Additionally, I'll give you some ideas of how to market your open mic night so that you'll attract some musicians.
Now that you've found a location for your open mic we'll start to look into the various equipment you need.
Disclaimer: Notice that the links that lead to Amazon in this article are affiliate links. You'll help support the site by purchasing through them at no additional cost to yourself.
Think of the P.A. for an open mic in the same terms as you would think of a P.A. for a rehearsal space. It doesn't need to be all-powerful and super loud. Usually, open mics consist of singers and guitar players, with the occasional extra instrument thrown into the mix. Open mics are hosted in small locations where you don't need to crank the volume all the way. Consequently, we can focus our efforts on a smaller, and cheaper P.A.
I'm used to P.As that have two active speakers – meaning that they have amplifiers inside them- cables and a small mixer to which you can connect your instruments.
Something like this Yamaha system comes to mind.
We use this P.A. in our band and it works wonders for a small venue so it packs plenty of power for a traditional open mic.
Other convenient systems include the Fender Passport. I've seen these being used at local coffee shops to great success. They are simple to handle and easy to set up.
Remember, don't break the bank and buy the most expensive or loudest rig you can get your hands on. You don't need a super loud system, only enough for a cozy coffee shop atmosphere, or a small stage venue. Browse through some of the systems online to see if you can't find something that looks good to you.
There's no point in setting up an open mic if you don't have anything to plug the instruments into.
Mixers are the hubs that connect the musician to the audience. Assuming you already have a decent P.A. - the next step is to find the right mixer for the job.
There's a moral to this particular part. It's this:
Small live shows like open mics have the advantage of not needing thousands of dollars worth of equipment to make a good show. You are allowed to buy the cheap stuff and skimp on a few things. There's no need for high-end condensers or expensive pre-amps.
So what should you be thinking about when you're shopping mixers?
Live sound is called sound reinforcement for a reason. We use our small P.A. to enhance the presence of the musician. Small cafes aren't the places to show off your fancy equipment. It's where we want reliable and sturdy, but inexpensive equipment.
In a similar vein, don't worry about getting a big mixer. On average, an open mic performance consists of a single guitar player singing a song. Sometimes you'll have two players but your instruments usually don't exceed three. You might get some percussion from time to time, but that doesn't need to be plugged in.
Therefore, you can limit your options to small mixers that have 5 to 12 channels. The first few channels will usually include a microphone input, but the rest will have line inputs for instruments.
One of the cheapest options out there is the Behringer Xenyx 8 inputs mixer(affiliate link). It's small and portable, comes with two microphone inputs and 6 line inputs. It has everything an open mic needs, and no extra gimmicks.
Of course, if you bought something with a built-in mixer like the Yamaha system above, you don't need to worry about getting a separate mixer. However, you still need to know how to use it.
The great things about mixers is all the channels have the same knobs. Once you've learned how one channel works you've learned them all.
A few things about the main section and the main outs.
Main Out – Notice that the main out on this mixer has line outputs, or connections that require jack plugs instead of normal microphone cables. Main Outs on bigger mixers have XLR outs instead of Line outs, but if you get a small model like this you either need an adapter to convert an XLR cable to a Jack cable, or you need a microphone cable that ends in a jack plug.
MAIN MIX – This is the volume knob for the whole mixer. This volume knobs feeds your speakers.
PHONES/CTRL ROOM – This volume knob is for the control room and phones outputs you see beside the main outs. IF you needed to hear how an instrument is coming into the mixer you could listen to it through the headphones only, instead of through the speakers. For example, if you have distortion it's handy to know if it's coming from the speakers, mixer or microphone. By listening on headphones you can eliminate the speaker from the equation.
Phantom Power – If you are using condenser microphones you need phantom power in order for them to work. Make sure that switch is on when using condensers, otherwise they won't work.
CD/TAPE – If you happen to have a rapper, or somebody that bring his laptop then you can plug it in by using the CD/TAPE inputs in the MAIN SECTION. Just make sure you have an RCA to minijack cable present. Musicians never bring them themselves.
Most mixers have the same functions, so it should be easy to figure out how they work. And again, don't overspend on a mixer that has 16+ channels if you only need three.
As I said above, open mics aren't the place to bring your high-end gear. You don't need $1,000 microphones to succeed in setting up an open mic show. You just need some sturdy dynamic microphones for vocals, and maybe the occasional condenser mic for everything else.
The traditional way consists of dynamic vocal microphones for the vocals while you plug your instruments into a different channel of the mixer. Everything goes into the mixing board and out of the speakers. The engineer has individual control over each instrument, giving him more options to work with.
This is the old, let's-all-get-behind-one-mic-and-play method. It consists of one condenser microphone that everybody gathers around to play. Bluegrass bands work the microphone perfectly, moving closer and farther from the microphone depending on whose turn it is to solo.
In an open mic situation, where you only have one singer with a guitar it's easy to just place it around chest height facing towards the face. This is sound reinforcement at its most basic. Since there is only one microphone used, its function is to basically amplify the sound of the musician in general.
Here are a few suggestions for relatively cheap, but quality dynamic microphones.
For more ideas, check out The Essential Microphones for Live Sound Situations.
Now, these are not expensive microphones in the grand scheme of things. They all cost around $100 so they won't break the bank. But if you need to buy a few of them you can shop around and see if you can't find cheaper models.
Another alternative is to buy a nice “lead vocal” microphone, and then buy a cheaper one for the occasional backup vocals.
Getting a good microphone is important, but it's useless if you forget to buy all the things that make it work. Make sure you grab a microphone stand and an extra cable. Imagine if you were super excited, setting up for your first small gig, and when you plug in the microphone you realize that you forgot to buy a mic stand.
What are you going to do then? Hold it up for them?
Be smart, don't forget the mic stand.
Now we're ready to set everything up.
Find a comfortable corner to set up a place to play. If your location already has a stage, or an elevation of some sort then great. Otherwise just find a corner that has enough room for 1-3 performers, far enough away from any main path of traffic. You don't want to have people playing in the way of the route to the bathroom.
Once you've found a good corner then try your best to make both speakers stand on the left and right sides of the performers. Sometimes you have to compromise by moving one speaker to the other side of the room, but do your best to make it look like a stage. Two speakers with a musician in the middle just looks better and gives the audience the sense that they are at a concert.
Make sure you position the microphone “inside” the speakers. Keeping the microphones inside the stage reduces feedback from the speakers. If you are singing you don't want see the front of the speakers. Follow this simple rule for a feedback free lifestyle.
Ok, now you're ready to connect everything. In order to keep the signal flow simple, follow this rule:
What goes in must go out.
What this means is that you can't connect an output to an output. The output of a microphone must go into the input of a mixer, and so on.
Therefore, make sure that your signal flow follows the IN-and-OUT rule.
1. Set up your speakers the way you want them. Connect them to a power source.
2. Find a good, accessible place to put your mixer.
3. Plug the mixer into a power outlet.
4. Connect cables from the Main OUT of the mixing board to the INPUT of both speakers. Put Main Out Left into the left speaker from the perspective of the audience and the same for the right speaker.
5. Set up your vocal microphone on a stand. Place it behind the face of the main speakers.
6. Use a microphone cable to connect your vocal microphone to the mixing board. Plug it into channel one. Make sure the master volume is up.
7. Make sure the gain for the vocal microphone is all the way down. Set the volume of the channel to about 12 o'clock if it's a knob, or just under 0 dB if it's a normal fader(slider.)
8. Turn the gain up until it's nice and loud, but not close to feedback. You can have someone else talk into the microphone, or you can hold it while you find the correct gain. Repeat for all the microphones you have.
9. If needed, use the simple EQ on your channel to make the vocal sound better. Cut the bass, accent the highs and cut the mids is a good starting point.
10. If you have a guitar handy, repeat the steps above but make sure you plug it into the LINE IN instead of the microphone input.
That's it. If you have more microphones or extra instruments then it's just a repetition of these steps.
Now you should have a fully functional, small open mic rig to offer any musicians that comes to your event. And how do you attract those musicians? Come back next week when I discuss the various ways of marketing your open mic in your community.
All the greatness in the world is for nothing if nobody knows about it.
Now that you've got your open mic set up and ready, it's time to reel in the musicians. These are the methods I think work because they attracted me, a musician, to their location.
I've played a few open mics and these venues were able to reach me in the following ways:
Put up a Craigslist ad every time you are setting up an open mic. If it becomes a weekly thing then you can start putting up pictures and short stories of the past shows to entice people to come out.
Craigslist has a lot of weirdos so maybe it's not the best idea if you are hosting it at a house or a center reserved for a certain demographic. But if you are hosting an open mic at a café then this is the way to go.
This only works if you can post on the venues' Facebook page. You can also post it on yours, but chances are the cafe's Facebook page will reach a broader audience. Facebook allows more interaction and community than Craigslist. You could even have people sign up on your post so that you can gauge how many people are likely to come.
Weekly magazines that are distributed freely around your city or town usually have some sort of music listing. See if you can't put your venue under the Open Mic category. I've found plenty of open mics for different nights scouring the Tucson Weekly. Use it to your advantage.
Obviously, you can't actively do much to promote word-of-mouth marketing, but if you have a few successful nights it's bound to happen. You can also ask the musicians themselves where they heard about it, and if they are willing to spread the word around. Start small, connect with upcoming musicians and let it escalate from there.
Those are just some of the free ways you can get exposure for your open mic nights, hopefully attracting an audience of listeners and musicians along the way.
This post concludes the six-part series of how to set up an open mic night. We've gone from the basics of finding your location, setting up the equipment to finally marketing it to the community.
I hope you enjoyed the series. Please let me know about any questions or comments you have in the comments below.