BY RICK VAN HORN | FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S MAY 2018 ISSUE
If you ask most drummers, odds are they’d say that playing in a band is a pretty enjoyable profession. There’s a certain amount of glamour involved, even at the local level, and we get to show off special talents and handle complicated and mysterious equipment. It’s fun and rewarding. Of course, this all refers to the onstage performance, and not the decidedly unglamorous side of loading in, setting up, breaking down, loading out, driving home (head ’em up, RawHIDE!).
Unless you’re on a major tour with roadies to handle your every need, setup and breakdown will always be part of the job. So, here are a few tips to make our jobs a little easier. Hopefully they’ll help you to maximize the “magic time” on the stage by minimizing the mundane time surrounding it.
1. MEMORY LOCKS
Let’s start by assuming that you’ve achieved the ultimate setup. Your kit is exactly the way you want it, with all stands at the proper height and angle. All drums are at the right spacing and all tripods and legs are arranged without tangling. Now, how do you keep that arrangement for the next gig? A good place to start is marking the positions of all the drums and stands. Fortunately, most major drum companies now incorporate some form of memory lock onto their stands. These collars interlock with the fitting below them to hold the position of the drum or cymbal at the proper height and angle. This type of hardware does 75 percent of the work for you. But if your hardware either pre-dates memory systems or doesn’t have them at every connection point, there are some ways to create your own.
2. GAFFER’S TAPE
Gaffer’s tape is a cost-effective and speedy method to mark your drums. Once the drums are set up the way you want them, place a piece of tape around each stand, just above where it fits into the next section. This marks the point at which the sections meet so they can be set up that way next time. Color-coding the tape makes it even easier to match up the sections. Tape is also cheap and easy to install or remove, making it especially good for marking experimental position changes that you might not want to keep. It’s a little more expensive, but it’s worth investing in genuine theatrical-style gaffer’s tape. This is a cloth-backed tape with a secure but still non-permanent adhesive. Common duct tape isn’t as secure, tends to dry out over time, and can leave a gummy mess if you try to remove it.
3. HOSE CLAMPS
Back in the 1960s and early ’70s many drum companies used hose clamps to establish height adjustments on stands (which were a lot smaller in those days). Hose clamps can’t be relied on as a second holding device if the main tightening clamp lets go, and they don’t lock in the exact angle by fitting into any other part of the stand. But for older stands with small diameters (or even some inexpensive contemporary stands), hose clamps work well for marking height settings. You can also install hose clamps in such a way that some particular part of the clamp (such as the short space between the two ends of the tightening screw) lines up with the tightening bolt of the section below, giving you the angle setting as well. Hose clamps are very cheap and readily available in any hardware or auto parts store.
4. SHAFT COLLARS
Shaft collars are the closest substitute for the memory locks of modern drum hardware. Shaft collars are small steel “doughnuts” with a specific inside diameter and a set screw fitted through one side. They are designed for machine work and come in a wide variety of sizes up to about an inch in interior diameter.
Mark Sanders, who toured with Tower Of Power in the ’80s, once showed me how he used 3/8″ collars on the ends of his floor tom legs to give instant height and leveling adjustment. I use several on vintage cymbal stands myself, as well as on some newer stands that don’t incorporate memory locks in their design. The shaft collars are sturdy and lock firmly in place. Because they’re machined steel parts, they tend to blend in and appear as part of the actual drum hardware. They can be used to set angle adjustment by lining up the set screw on the shaft collar with the tightening bolt of the stand section below. Shaft collars are available at most well-stocked hardware stores.
Even if your equipment already has memory locks, there are a few places where you might be able to use additional ones. The previously mentioned floor tom legs are one possibility, and I’ve even installed shaft collars on the interior ends of “disappearing” spurs on a vintage bass drum.
5. SPIKE YOUR DRUMS
After each individual stand is set up just the way it should be, you still have to re-create a combination of legs and tripods that worked perfectly the time before. The best way to do this successfully is to employ a technique known as “spiking.”
This technique comes from theater, where it’s used to mark placements for quick scene changes. It’s been borrowed by stagehands placing equipment onto concert stages, who use little “U” marks in either paint or gaffer’s tape where the feet of each stand touch down, with larger “U” marks around the edges of pedals. The open end of the “U” denotes the angle of the leg or pedal, and small squares can be used to mark positioning for floor tom feet and bass drum spurs.
Spiking achieves the double benefit of putting everything where the drummer wants it and re-creating an untangled stand arrangement each time. I use this technique on the surface of my gig rug, making all my marks with gaffer’s tape since it stays on pretty well but can still be removed if I want to make any changes.
6. USE A GIG RUG
If you don’t use a gig rug now, I suggest you invest in one. Several drum companies make lightweight gig rugs, or you can pick out a carpet remnant on the cheap. The benefits of having your own personal stage layout clearly marked will be enormous, and even if you play on stages that are already carpeted the additional thickness won’t make a difference to your kit’s stability. Memory settings like this allow the drums to be set up quickly. Spiking the stand and drum positions allows for quick and automatic kit arrangement, with the added advantage of identical positioning from gig to gig. This way you’ll be able to concentrate on your playing rather than making those frustrating little adjustments that can go on forever.
7. BREAK DOWN EFFICIENTLY
Of course, setting up your kit is only half the job. After the gig is over you have to break it down and pack it up again. Fortunately, the breakdown of even a large kit can be accomplished quickly and easily — if it’s done efficiently. Find the best method for each step of the process and stick with it.
8. START IMMEDIATELY
It’s best to start the breakdown process right away, as soon as the gig is over. Don’t go off and have a couple of drinks and then come back. Your energy level is going to be relatively high at the end of the gig, even if it was a rough one, because your adrenaline will have been pumping throughout the set. Taking too much time to “cool off” will lose momentum and it will be more difficult to get started.
9. WORK TOP TO BOTTOM
It’s important to have a defined system for breaking down. Generally, it’s best to start at the top and work down. That means cymbals get handled first, followed by mounted toms, snare, any stands that are free at that point, floor toms, etc. Mikes will need to be removed at the appropriate time as well. Doing this the same way every time creates the efficiency that comes with repetition.
10. DO LESS
The less you have to take apart, the less you have to put back together. This, in turn, means less time spent setting up the next time, and less worry about whether things are put together correctly. The total weight of your equipment is the same, no matter how much or how little it’s disassembled. But the amount of time spent setting up or breaking down the same kit can vary greatly depending on the extremes to which those tasks are taken.
I suggest not breaking anything down any further than you have to. Leave your stands partially set up as much as possible. This speeds up not only the breakdown on this gig, but also the set-up at the next one. This may require the use of oversized trap cases or multiple hardware bags. One point to consider is that spreading the load among a few more bags makes each bag lighter to carry, for which your back will thank you.
11. LEAVE THE CLAMPS
If you have stands that mount multiple items via accessory clamps, leave the clamps in place. Again, use hardware containers that will facilitate this. If possible, leave whatever the clamp holds in place, be it a tom arm, mini-boom, etc. If that item must be removed, be sure to have its position locked with a memory device of some kind. This becomes even more important with a drum rack fitted with multiple tom arms and cymbal booms.
12. MARK BOOM ARMS
Some drummers complain that the use of memory collars on telescoping stands defeats the convenience of the telescoping feature. I can’t argue with that. If you want to collapse your telescoping stands into themselves for pack-up, you can mark the various sections at their proper level with crayon, permanent marker, or some other means that will remain visible on the stands. These marks can be in an “L” or inverted “T” shape, so as to indicate how each section matches with the next one both horizontally and vertically. This system works well on traditional straight or boom stands with no accessory items attached.
13. GET A BIGGER BAG
On the other hand, why worry about whether to telescope your stands or take them apart? Why not just get a hardware bag long enough to accept the stands at their full playing height, with only their tripods folded up? This can be achieved with anything from a commercial hardware bag (preferably one with wheels) to a second-hand golf bag from a thrift store. A boom arm’s playing position can easily be marked with a bit of tape or a marker, and one adjustment is better than total breakdown and reassembly.
14. TIDY UP YOUR CABLES
Several manufacturers offer compact clip-on drum mikes these days. The idea is to keep the mikes as inconspicuous and out of the drummer’s way as possible. This is terrific, but it does nothing about the problem of keeping multiple microphone cables inconspicuous and out of the way. If triggers or electronic pads are involved, they require even more cables to worry about. All those cables can create a messy-looking kit and a time-consuming headache to straighten out and pack up after the gig.
15. MAKE A HOD
One solution to this problem is to bundle the cables together into a “hod” (aka “poor man’s snake”). This not only keeps the cables neat while on the kit, it also helps with breakdown and travel. The key to doing this successfully is to employ a method that can keep the cables bundled securely, yet can be easily removed and re-installed to add or remove a given cable from the hod.
Start by setting up your kit with all the necessary mikes and electronics. Next, determine how much slack is needed for all the cable runs. Then, working from the end of the cable that’s farthest from the snake box or mixing board that you’re plugging into, start working the slack backwards toward it. Bundle the cables every few inches using a wire or cable tie. Each time a new cable is reached, give it a few feet of slack, and then add it to the bundle. If you want any cables to travel down specific stands in order to be even more inconspicuous, put a wire tie on that particular cable (or on the stand) at a point where it can be easily untied at the end of the gig.
If it’s easier to reach your snake box or mixing board from the drums by starting at the center front of the kit and going around the two sides, it might be best to create two separate cable hods. Otherwise, a single hod is usually the best idea. It certainly is easier to pack up and carry.
16. USE CABLE TIES
Don’t use tape for cable hods. Masking tape is too weak and is conspicuous due to its light color; electrical tape is messy and unreliable; and gaffer’s tape is hard to get off in a hurry in order to make changes. There are a number of commercial products designed to help you bundle cables, including elastic-band clips and hook-and-loop fasteners. While those commercial products are fine, they’re also somewhat pricey. Frankly, I’ve always used common wire ties, which work just as well and are dirt cheap. They’re the easiest and quickest method of securing cables into a hod, and are available in most hardware or garden stores (either pre-cut or on long rolls to cut as needed).
17. GET A BUDDY
Here’s a time-saving tip that I discovered the hard way, back when I was playing full-time in local clubs. In many of those venues my drums were set up on a riser that was placed against the back wall of the stage. When it came time for me to break down and pack up, I couldn’t get my cases anywhere near my kit. They had to be placed on the dance floor in front of the stage. As the drums came off the kit, I was faced with the choice of stacking them up on the stage beside me (taking up room necessary for further breakdown of stands), or walking down off the stage to where the cases were, putting the drums away, and then walking back.
This same problem existed if I tried to start with the hardware. As soon as I put my cymbals in their bag, I had a bunch of stands waiting to be put away, but no easy way to break them down and get them directly into their containers. As with the drums, if I piled them up they created a space problem. If I took them a few at a time to the hardware bags, I was doing a lot of walking.
That’s a long story to illustrate a simple principle: Get some help! Enlist the aid of someone who can help you move your equipment from where it comes off the kit to where the cases are. This can be a good buddy, a significant other, or a bandmate. In my case, the other members of my band soon learned that if they helped me get my gear offstage and packed up quickly, we all got home earlier.
18. MAKE A SYSTEM
Here’s the breakdown system I used then, and that I still use on any local gigs that I play today. I stay behind the kit, first pulling off my cymbals and bagging them, then handing the bag to my helper. Then I remove the drums and hand each one to my helper, who puts it into its case. This leaves me with bare stands. I break those down as minimally as possible and give them to my helper, who fits them into the hardware bags which I’ve labeled as to what each one contains. When all else is gone, the only things left on stage are my mikes and cable hods, which get bundled neatly and put into their containers. My helper doesn’t have to know anything about drums or hardware other than how to put them in a case or bag, and my breakdown time is cut in half. It’s a simple system, but it works wonders.
19. PAY IT FORWARD
I reciprocate this help from my bandmates by being the first one at each gig and checking out all the technical details, like stage space, power sources, lights, etc. I also have my drums set up early enough to be available to help with my bandmates’ gear when they arrive. This makes them much more amenable to the idea of helping me at the end of the night. Hey, it’s supposed to be a team effort, right?