Make your open mic night better

 

Chapters:

1) What is an open mic night?

2) Managing, and how to run an open mic night.

3) Marketing and promoting.

4) Equipment

5) How to set up your equipment

6) Other suggestions

7) Advice for performers.

8) Photography at open mic nights & considerations for taking photos in low-light conditions..

 


 

1) What is an open mic night?

My personal definition of an open mic night is as follows:

  • An event where members of the public can get 10 or 15 minutes to do what ever they want in front of other members of the public.

This typically takes the form of:

  • A pub where a small PA system is set up and members of the public can get 10 or 15 minutes to play a few songs, read a few poems or tell a few jokes in front of other members of the public.

If you are still unsure, try going to a few open mic nights just to watch.

I also consider ‘jam nights’ or ‘jam sessions’ to be included within the term ‘open mic night’.

If you are fortunate enough to be able to pick and choose a venue, take preference over any which have the following:

  • It already has its own website which you can use to advertise your open mic night.
  • It has an official and accurate placemark in Google Maps.
  • It welcomes performers aged under 18.
  • It has an obvious place to set up the performers where they will have plenty of room.
  • It has a good vibe and the bar staff / customers are friendly.


 

2) Managing, and how to run an open mic night

Running an open mic night isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. Here are some tips for how to make things go more smoothly.

  • Make sure the staff at your venue have your contact details to hand so that they can give them to anybody who comes into the venue asking about the open mic night. I recommend leaving some business cards in the venue. If you don’t want to give out personal contact details, set up a new email address just for your open mic night,  and make sure you check it regularly.
  • Have your equipment set up well in advance.
  • If you insist people need to arrive for a certain time in order to sign up, don’t turn up late – as I have seen many people do.
  • Greet your performers without hesitation and make them feel welcome. Remember; they are your customers.
  • Take a keen interest in your performers – ask them questions like:
    • “Have you been here before?”
    • “Have you travelled far?”
    • “What are you going to be performing for us tonight?”
  • Always try to get their email address.
    • If you are managing your own mailing list, make sure your newsletter includes instructions for how to unsubscribe. Also, make sure you only ever use BCC (Blind Carbon Copy), never use CC when messaging lots of people whom don’t know each other.
  • Always ask how people heard about your open mic night.
  • Ask your performers if they have any technical requirements.
  • If you don’t already know your performers, ask them to write their name down for you so you don’t forget it.
  • If you must set rules, STICK TO THEM. Make sure everyone knows about them before they arrive.
  • Whilst somebody is performing, get the next person ready to go on – ask them to make sure they are tuned up before taking the stage.
  • Don’t leave your post at the sound desk for long periods, it looks unprofessional.
  • Make a conscious decision about swearing at your open mic night. If you expect people under 18 to come, then don’t allow it. Alternatively, you could put potentially offensive people on last.
  • The type of people who perform at open mic nights enjoy the attention. Take photos of every performer as it makes you look attentive. TIP: Take promotional photos during the summer so that the ambient light levels are higher and you will get better photos.
  • Understand how your equipment works
  • Improve your lighting so you can take good pictures without using a flash. Something I have seen used very effectively is an angle-poise lamp to cross-light the performer (light from the side).
  • Don’t buy cheap kit, it will let you down. Buy the best you can afford. Cheap mic stands are a personal pet hate.
  • The ‘stage manager’ should have their own microphone on a long lead which they use to introduce the next act and fill in between performers. Get a microphone with an on/off switch so you can set the gain on the mixer and just leave it.
  • Have an iPod (or similar) permanently going into one of the channels of the mixing desk. Leave it running and just fade it in between performers. Ensure the music you play is appropriate. I have a dedicated playlist on my iPod for open mic nights.


 

3) Marketing and promoting an open mic night:

 

  • The obvious thing is to have a Facebook and Twitter page for your open mic night. My personal favourite is Twitter because you don’t have to be a member in order to read somebody’s tweets (I know you can make Facebook pages public, but you get an annoying pop-up nagging you to sign in every time you visit a page).
  • Whichever medium you decide to use as a primary source of advertising, make sure you update it regularly.
  • Ask your performers – “How did you hear about our open mic night?” This is a key question as it will tell you where your marketing is most effective.
  • After you have gotten friendly with your performers, ask them to give you their email address. Use their email address to invite them to join Find An Open Mic and become a member of your group. This way you can help everyone else out whilst still maintaining contact with your performers.
  • Start a group on Find An Open Mic and keep it up to date and post photos regularly to show you are actively developing the open mic night. Don’t include details for things that will quickly go out of date, unless you are totally committed to updating it.
  • Consider giving a free drink to the performers. Make little coupons that the performers can give to the bar staff.
  • ‘Incentivise’ performers to stay until the end. For example, run a raffle with a £10 cash prize (awarded at the end of the night). If you leave before the end, then you forfeit. You could also limit each performer to two songs each, but keep going around the room so that people who turn up early actually get two chances to perform.
  • Use Find An Open Mic to find other open mic nights near to your own. Consider cross-promoting each other’s gigs. For example, you could get some posters printed that have the details of many local open mic nights on them. Then everyone agrees to put up the posters at their own open mic night.
  • Make sure your venue has an official placemark in Google Maps
  • Get some basic business cards printed. It gives a professional image. They are so cheap these days that there is almost no excuse.
  • However you chose to promote your open mic night, make sure you publish a photo of the entrance to your venue. This way people will have a good idea what to look out for when trying to find the venue.


 

4) Equipment for an open mic night

Note: I have no affiliation with any hardware manufacturers. Any specific hardware I mention below is for guidance only, or, my personal opinion.

  • Mixing desks
    • In my opinion, the minimum number of channels a mixing desk should have (for an open mic night) is 4. This should comprise of 2 microphone (XLR) inputs and 2 instrument (jack) inputs. An example mixer is the BEHRINGER XENYX 802.
    • Going up the scale, I would also recommend a mixing desk that has a built-in reverb effect – such as the PHONIC AM 440 D MIXER. N.B. Reverb is not the same thing as echo, but many people use the term interchangeably – you will know better than that :)
    • Having a quick look around for what is available online, the BEHRINGER XENYX X1204 looks like a pretty good value piece of kit (but I haven’t used it).
  • Microphones
    • The industry standard microphone for live vocal performance is the SHURE SM58. Take note on the use of the word “standard”, since many people swear by them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t buy better. They aren’t cheap (about £110).
    • AKG also make some pretty good mics – e.g. the D5
    • Ensure you only buy microphones with an XLR connector (the vast majority do have XLR connectors)
    • I would personally not spend less that £50 on a microphone for an open mic night.
    • Always use a ‘dynamic’ mic for live vocals – the word ‘dynamic’ describes the way the microphone actually detects sound. They can normally withstand high levels of noise (e.g people screaming into them). They are also commonly used to mic-up electric guitar amps. Dynamic mics are the most common (the SM58 and the D5 are both dynamic mics).
    • Avoid using dynamic mics to mic-up acoustic guitars. If you can, go for a ‘condenser’ mic such as an AKG C1000 – condenser mics have a better high-frequency response, and are (in my experience) better at picking up sound from further away. Note that condenser mics almost always require a power source (internal battery, or ‘phantom power’ coming from your mixing desk).
  • Loudspeakers
    • Loudspeakers can be divided into two categories – ‘active’ and ‘passive’. For the purposes of an open mic night, I prefer active loudspeakers. Active loudspeakers have built-in amplifiers which means you connect your mixing desk straight into the back of the loudspeaker. This is great because it simplifies the system, and you don’t have to carry around more pieces of kit. However active loudspeakers are heavy and more expensive than passive loudspeakers. Passive loudspeakers require a separate amplifier (what most people are used to) which is good because it means you can leave your amp next to your mixing desk so that you have full control of your system gain (volume) at an arms reach.
    • I have used the MACKIE SRM350 loudspeakers, and I think they are excellent. Again, they are expensive, but I think they are totally worth it.
  • Cables
    • Have plenty of audio cables in your kit, including back-ups.
    • Microphone (XLR) cables should be at least 5 metres long.
    • The cables you are running out to your loudspeakers should be as long as you can afford, that way you have no restrictions about where to position the loudspeakers.
  • Other
    • I almost always use a piece of kit called a TC HELICON VOICE TONE CORRECT when I am doing live singing. It is basically a dedicated microphone pre-amp that has built-in automatic EQ. In short, your microphone will instantly sound 30% better using this bit of kit. But they’re not cheap. They also have a built-in auto-tune, and I would like the record to state that I NEVER use this function :) But seriously, I don’t.
    • It is possible to get ‘all-in-one’ kits for doing open mic nights. The only one that I have used is the PEAVEY ESCORT 3000 – it is a mixer, amplifier and two loudspeakers built into one box. I have got pretty respectable results using this bit of kit. It only comes with 1 microphone, so you will need to buy extras to get the full use out of this bit of kit. JBL also make an all-in-one kit called the EON 201 P, which I have never used, but it looks OK.
  • How I go about recording an open mic night
    • I use a ZOOM H-4N handheld stereo recorder for recording open mic nights. It is pretty good, but pretty expensive – however I highly recommend it because I cannot find any other (cheaper) portable recorder which has two XLR/instrument inputs, built in stereo microphones, AND a mini-jack stereo input. That might not sound like a big deal, but these connections will give you HUGE flexibility in how you want to do your recording, and makes it compatible with pretty much every type of output a mixing desk has on it. The key ability of any device you are going to record onto is that you can monitor the levels going into the device and ensure the sound is not distorting, or ‘clipping’. There are one or two things I definitely do not like about the ZOOM H-4N, but they are kind of hard to explain without being very technical, and basic users are unlikely to encounter them.
    • If money were no object, I would use a MACKIE ONYX mixing desk, hooked up to my laptop via the built-in firewire connection on the MACKIE. Using that setup, you would be able to record every channel on the mixing desk on independent tracks on your laptop, which means you would have total control of the final mix on the recording. Sick.


 

5) How to set up your equipment.

  • Feedback (that ‘ringing’ / ‘howling’ noise you get though a PA system)
    • Feedback is basically the microphone ‘hearing’ the loudspeakers instead of the performers.
    • It can be caused by placing the loudspeakers too close to the microphone (particularly the case when using stage monitors), or the performers not playing/singing loud enough.
    • For most open mic nights, the only option is to tell the performer to sing/play as loud as possible. This should ‘drown out’ the noise of the loudspeakers which is being picked up by the microphone.
    • If you are lucky enough to have a graphic equaliser at your disposal, you can do what’s called ‘ringing out’. Explaining this process is beyond the scope of this discussion, but in basic terms, you force the system to feedback. You then locate which frequency band the feedback is occurring in, then use your graphic equaliser to cut that band.
    • Do some research on terms like ‘ringing out’ and ‘gain before feedback’.
  • Proper equalisation.
    • Getting the vocals to sound good is THE most important part of setting up your sound system.
    • Speech is centred around 1-2kHz. Therefore I use the following ‘rules of thumb’:
    • Make sure the ‘High Pass Filter’ is being used on vocals if your mixer channels have them.
    • If your mixer channel strips include some equalisation, boost the frequencies between 1kHz and 2kHz, and cut the frequencies around 100Hz and below. If your mixer EQ is labelled: ‘low’, ‘mid’, and ‘high’, cut the ‘low’ and boost the ‘mid’ and ‘high’.
  • Reverb
    • Reverb is pretty much essential to make the system sound natural. Many mixing desks have reverb built in. Be conservative with reverb on vocals. Using too much makes performers sound stupid when they are saying a few words between each song. You can be more heavy-handed when using reverb on guitars.
  • Levels
    • The vocals should be the loudest part of the overall mix.


 

6) Other tips, and things I have seen being successful at other open mic nights:

  • When taking publicity photos for your open mic nights, don’t use flash photography as it looks horrible. TIP: Take promotional photos during the summer so that the ambient light levels are higher and you will get better photos.
  • Wear a costume to grab people’s attention and get people asking questions about why you are wearing it. Your reply being: “Were having an open mic night tonight, wanna come?”
  • Organise ‘exchange trips’ with other local open mic nights.
  • Do an all-day-long event in the summer.
  • Start a visitors scrap book
  • Offer free food to performers. Order pizzas half way through the night.
  • When you arrive to set up the open mic, put up temporary posters saying “open mic night this way –>”, pointing towards the performance area. This is especially good if you are in a large venue. Put a chalkboard up outside on the street with a poster on it. Using the posters will help newbies find their way and reassure them they are in the right place.
  • Enforce a limit to two songs per performer at any one time, then go round in circuits. This makes people stick around for longer.
  • Dim the lights and put out candles. Dark, candle-lit rooms usually command a quiet audience.
  • Offer additional communal instruments – e.g. a cajon, djembe etc…
  • Maintain a blog with a quick list of people who performed at the last open mic night.
  • Set up a few coloured lamps around the performance area.
  • If you are struggling to keep up audience numbers at your open mic night, consider moving venue.


 

7) Advice for open mic night performers:

How to perform better at an open mic night.

  • NEVER turn up late
  • NEVER start your set with an apology – e.g. “Sorry, I haven’t practiced in ages”.
  • Always tune up properly BEFORE you are due on stage. Make sure you are ready to go as soon as the previous performer is finished.
  • Always do your best songs unless everyone in the room has already heard you perform them.
  • Never make long speeches between songs (in my personal experience, most people don’t care why you are singing that song or what it was written about). Most of the time you will just bore your audience. You’re a musician, not a story teller. You’re just wasting time you could be performing.
  • Don’t play with your phone whilst on stage.
  • Don’t sing quieter than when you talk (this is something I have actually seen).
  • Make sure your microphone is in a comfortable position. If you need to look at the fret board of the guitar whilst playing, then make sure the microphone is in a place that will allow you to sing into it, AND look at the guitar at the same time. Don’t force yourself to learn too far forward to reach the mic – which is frequently the case when performing whilst sat in a chair.
  • I often see performers who haven’t got a clue how a mic stand operates. Buy or borrow a mic stand and learn how they work (they’re all the same).
  • Don’t drone on about myspace pages during your set. Get some business cards and give them to people who show interest. Also, myspace has become a huge load of crap (in my opinion), these days any self-respecting musician should have their own website pointing to a bandcamp page (see section below regarding setting up a website)
  • Avoid using an acoustic guitar that doesn’t have its own internal microphone (pickup/DI). Although mic’d up guitars have POTENTIAL to sound much better than a DI, it takes skill on both the performer’s, and technician’s side to achieve it (and needs a quiet venue). If either the performer or the technician is not confident, use a guitar with a DI. Mic’d up guitars are very prone to feedback in a typical open mic scenario so you will save yourself some sweat if you use a DI (thanks to John Wilson for prompting me to clarify this piece of advice).
  • Don’t try to communicate with the audience whilst they are clapping.
  • Although I am not easily offended, avoid swearing as I think it is really impolite and presumptuous.
  • Learn how to use a microphone – project your voice, sing as loudly as if there was no microphone (fill the room by yourself). Maintain a constant distance between your mouth and the microphone. Do not sing directly into the microphone, sing across the top of it, as it will reduce the effect of ‘plosives’ – i.e. ‘Buh’ and ‘Puh’ sounds.
  • Sing and play as loud as possible (see section above regarding minimising feedback). Perform as if there was no PA system being used.
  • It really bugs me when performers leave soon after their own performance – if we are going to listen to you, then you should bloody well listen to us!
  • Make an effort to meet new people, you’d be surprised how many useful contacts you could make. I recommend going to open mic nights by yourself and going further afield (go outside your comfort zone – it will only make you stronger). Always use your common sense when in unfamiliar surroundings.
  • Enjoy your own performance. If you look like you are enjoying it, the audience are more likely to also enjoy it. (Thanks to Gordon Thompson for that piece of advice).


 

8) Photography at open mic nights & considerations for taking photos in low-light conditions.

This section is not really about photography technique, rather, what sort of camera is needed to take good photos at an open mic night (in low-light conditions).

Recommended cameras:

  • Olympus XZ-1
  • Canon s100
  • Sony RX100
  • Sony NEX 6  & 50mm f/1.8 lens
  • Olympus EP-3 & 45mm f/1.8 lens
  • Olympus OM-D E-M5 & 75mm f/1.8 lens

This is a pretty huge topic so I will try my best to spell it out as clearly as possible. As always, please email me if the advice is confusing.

The main issue with open mic nights is that they are generally held in dimly-lit rooms. You should avoid using a camera flash as it can distract performers. Also, on-camera-flash gives a horrible ‘hard’ feel to a photo. So we need to ensure we are using a camera that can take good photos in low-light, without using a flash.

There are two main influences on camera performance in low-light conditions:

  • Sensor size
    • A larger sensor allows for larger pixels. Larger pixels absorb more light than smaller pixels. Therefore larger sensors take better photos in low-light conditions (this is why camera-phones generally suck in low-light conditions – they have small sensors).
    • Unfortunately, large sensors are expensive. The largest sensor most people will ever encounter is commonly referred to as “full frame” (although this is a misnomer as you can get much larger). A full frame sensor can sometimes be called “35mm” (which is a reference to how the sensor is the same size as an old-skool 35mm film cell). Full frame sensors are only available in cameras that cost £1500 and above (the Canon 6D and Nikon D600). The next step down is referred to as “APS-C”. This is a very common sensor size but is still pretty expensive. All non-professional Nikon and Canon SLRs have an APS-C sensor. Until recently, APS-C sensors were only found in SLR cameras. Thanks to cameras systems such as the Sony NEX , you can now get APS-C sensors in relatively compact/cheap cameras.
    • Avoid buying a camera with a very high-power optical zoom (e.g. 30x). The reason these large-yet-compact zooms are possible is because they have very small sensors (see section below regarding sensor crop factor), which means they have poor performance in low-light conditions.
  • Lens aperture (also sometimes called “speed” or “f-number”)
    • A camera’s lens has a property called “aperture”. This property refers to how large the “iris” is at the front of the lens – the larger the iris, the more light enters the lens, and therefore you can take better photos in low-light. Aperture is written as a number – e.g. “f/3.5″ which can also be written as “1:3.5″. Smaller numbers mean a larger aperture. The largest aperture that most people will ever encounter is f/1.4. The most common lens aperture is about f/4. An f/4 aperture is 8 times smaller than an f/1.4, and you would need a shutter speed 8 times longer to achieve the same image “brightness”. So it is clear that a typical f/4 lens is totally unsuitable for low-light photography. Most lenses have their aperture printed on the side – an f/3.5 lens will usually say “1:3.5″. If it is a zoom lens, it may also say something like “1:3.5-5.6″. This means that the maximum aperture changes as you zoom – the largest aperture is f/3.5 at the wide end, and f/5.6 at the zoom end. So to get the best low-light performance, you should NOT zoom-in on the lens as you will only get f/5.6.
Here are some other non-essential things which are useful to understand.
  • The “full frame” argument
    • There is a lot of snobbery surrounding full frame sensors. Many people talk about it like there is nothing better, and anything less is a waste of time. This is simply not true.
  • Lens “focal length”
    • This can be simplified to “magnification factor”. A lens with a focal length of 200mm will create an image that appears twice as close as a 100mm lens. If a lens has “50-200mm” written on the side of it, this means it is a zoom lens; 50mm is the “widest” image (least magnification).
  • Prime vs. zoom lenses
    • Non-zoom lenses are called “prime” lenses. A prime lens has a higher image quality than its equivalent zoom lens because it has a simpler construction and contains fewer lens elements (which means there is less glass for the light to pass though so the image degrades less). In general, a professional photographer will prefer to use prime lenses instead of zoom lenses.
    • The other big advantage of prime lenses is that they tend to have larger apertures, and therefore are much more suitable for low-light photography.
  • Sensor “crop factor” (also called “crop multiplier”)
    • If a sensor is half the size of a “full frame” sensor, then we say that is has a “two-times crop factor”.
    • Just for the record, I don’t understand why everything gets compared to a full frame sensor (probably because before digital, 99.9% of cameras were essentially full frame / 35mm).
    • Micro Four Thirds sensors have a 2x crop. APS-C sensors have a 1.5x crop.
    • What this means in practice is that if a lens for a Micro Four Thirds cameras has “50mm” written on the side of it, then it is actually equivalent to a 100mm lens on a full frame sensor. So if you had two cameras, one full frame camera with a 100mm lens, and the other Micro Four Thirds camera with a 50mm lens, when you looked through both viewfinders, you would see exactly the same field. If you had a 100mm lens on the full frame and a 100mm lens on the Micro Four Thirds, the image in the viewfinder on the Micro Four Thirds camera would look twice as close as the full frame camera (the same as a 200mm lens on the full frame camera).
    • This is why some cameras can boast enormous optical zooms (e.g. 30x zoom). These cameras have very small sensors, and therefore their crop factor is very high, which makes high magnification lenses easy and compact. Don’t buy these kinds of cameras if you want to take good photos in low-light conditions.
  • Background de-focus / shallow depth-of-field.
    • You have probably seen many photos where the subject is in sharp focus, and the background is completely out of focus. This is a really popular effect as it makes the subject “pop” out of the image. In order to achieve this effect (without Instagram) you need a lens with a large aperture and a long focal length, and a large camera sensor. For example, a 100mm f/2 lens on a full frame camera will give you a really shallow depth of field, and portrait photography will look amazing with this setup.
    • Take note that the size of the image sensor plays an important role. In the section above, I explained how a lens attached to a sensor with a 2x crop factor will have an equivalent focal length which is double that which it claims to be. Well its equivalent aperture will be HALF as large. An f/2 aperture lens on a 2x crop factor sensor will give the same depth of field as an f/4 aperture on a full frame sensor, however both lenses will have the same “brightness”.
  • Optimal aperture
    • The image quality produced by a lens changes (very slightly) with aperture. Generally, lenses produce their sharpest image between f/3 to f/8. This change in quality is so tiny that for most people it isn’t really worth worrying about. When you are shooting in low-light, there is no excuse not to go for the largest aperture you have.
  • The “megapixel race”
    • Many camera manufacturers are in an unofficial race to cram more pixels into their cameras. This is because the general public understands what a megapixel is. A megapixel is also a very “quantitative” measure – it can be precisely measured and written on the side of the box or talked about in an advert. Low-light performance is extremely difficult to measure and only a relative few people understand what the numbers mean. So when it comes to marketing, it is best to increase the number of megapixels rather than improve the low-light performance (even though this would be more beneficial to the average consumer). There was a time when professionals believed there was no need for consumer gear to go above 3 megapixels. Now we have camera-phones with 8 megapixels. To put this in context – a 1080p TV screen is only 6 megapixels! If you think images look good at 40″ across on a 1080p screen, remember; you are only looking at 6 megapixels.