An overview of management strategies leading to better events, inventory control, and bottom lines.
In October of 1991, I left my job as a maintenance technician in a large recording studio complex for a position as senior manager of a large sound, lighting and staging company.
It wasn’t a total leap as I’d worked for the same company in the early 1980s both as a sound tech and manager of the manufacturing department.
It didn’t take long to figure out that there were some significant challenges in the operation.
One thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that the shop folks couldn’t pack a show to save their lives. It was something that I had to quickly get out in front of, and in so doing, I developed a number of strategies for ensuring that the shows and rentals got out the door efficiently and with everything required.
Read on to see for a random sampling of some of those strategies.
The company had a color code system for microphone cable lengths, a good thing. But there were no standard cable lengths so the color code was being used to identify cables of any length.
For example, a cable that was 15 feet long might have three bands of the 5-foot tape color, or one band of the 10-foot and one of the 5-foot color, and this was for cables marked in 5-foot increments, ranging from 5 feet up to about 130 feet. (I remember we had one 45-foot mic cable.)
Now imagine packing 50 mic cables for a show if they can be any of the lengths mentioned above, how much time it would take to list them all, etc. So I decided that we were going to have four lengths of mic cable: 10, 25, 50 and 100 feet. This provided some “busy work” for a few weeks as staff cut existing cables down to these lengths.
Nothing was wasted, cables were cut to the nearest length, or whatever combination was the most efficient, such as a 60-foot cable becoming a 50-foot and a 10-foot cable. Anything less than 10 feet became a “patch cable.” This one move sped up the packing and checking in of shows amazingly.
While the above was being sorted out, I would regularly ask any returning crew how their shows went. Frequently the response was, “Pretty good, but we almost ran out of mic cables.” When I responded with, “Really? I gave you 50 on the pull sheet, did you get 50?”
The response was, “Yes, but by the time we got the two consoles patched, the stage patched and the intercom run…”
I had two immediate responses. First, I started specifying an “output whip” with every console as a line item. This was one or more 6-12 pair (depending on the size of the desk) XLR snakes with tails on each end to connect the console to drive racks, talkback feeds, media feeds, and so on.
Second, I specified the intercom cable as a separate list. Looking back, these seem like some pretty basic “duh” changes, but at the time, there were virtually no procedures in place to deal with any of these types of issues.
After a year or so had passed, I found that we were often allocating 50 mic cables and three 12-pair stage snakes for our concert shows. I thought, “Why not have a few standard mic cable kits that would stay together all of the time?”
Out of this came three 2-foot cube cases that had 10 x 10-foot, 35 x 25-foot, and 5 x 50-foot mic cables as well as 1 x 100-foot, 1 x 75-foot, and 1 x 50-foot 12-pair stage snakes.
The cases were checked and sorted on return and then left intact between shows, ready to go at a moment’s notice. If a show required more cables, we’d start with a standard case and then add to it, with the extras being removed upon return.
What about a really big show, say, a festival? Send two or even three cases. The last I heard, these cases were still intact and in regular use some 20-plus years after they were put in service.
A couple of years later, I had a similar idea about effects racks. Up until that time, it was standard procedure to custom build every FX rack for every show. This, of course, is the norm for tours, but for a company that did mostly one-offs it was a time-wasting recipe for disaster.
Remember that this was in the analog days, when every show needed at least one outboard rack. My concept was for two standard FX rack configurations.
The smaller 10-U rack consisted of a power panel/light (e.g., Furman PL-8), a quad noise gate, a quad compressor, a blank panel (c/w patch for a 2-channel device), a digital reverb, a DDL, and CD/cassette combo unit (3-U).
My vision for this package was that it could do, for example, a corporate event during the day with a dance band in the evening, a side stage at a music festival, or any other 24- to 32-channel gig with a mixture of talking heads and live performance.
The larger 16-U rack doubled up on the gates and comps, added a digital reverb and had patch for four extra inserts. Eventually we added a third reverb and a dual 31-band EQ to match the spec of a regular client. These racks were designed for concerts and that’s what they mainly did.
Interestingly, one objection to this idea that I heard frequently was “every sound tech wants his rack laid out differently; this one wants the gates at the top and FX at the bottom, that one wants FX at the top” and so on.
Well, in the years that followed until I departed the company, I never heard one complaint, and further, they were used by dozens of “name” touring acts that came through Toronto in the mid-to-late 90s. The fact is that on a one-off, what every sound tech really wants is a rack in which every piece of gear works, is patched and labeled in a logical order, and doesn’t buzz and hum.
By the way, I checked with my successor and these racks were in regular use until around 2010, when the digital console effectively killed the outboard rack. So they were together as complete packages for around 17 years. Think about the shop labor required to strip, shelve, re-populate, patch and quality-control even one of the smaller 10-U racks. Let’s say it takes four to five hours, which conservatively translates to $50.
Now, if that rack goes out even 40 times in a year, that’s $2,000 in labor cost savings. It doesn’t take long for those savings alone to pay for every piece of gear in that rack, never mind the fact that the equipment has so much less wear-and-tear when it’s not constantly being racked and un-racked.
Making It Work
Eventually, I applied this same standardized pack concept to AC cable cases, work trunks (with standardized adapter kit, mic and DI kit, tools, first-aid kit, etc.), loudspeaker cable cases, small powered mixer systems, and anything else fitting the criteria for a standard pack.
So what are those criteria?
This is a repetitive business – shows get built, trucks get loaded, shows get done, trucks get un-loaded, gear gets checked and put away. With all of that repetition it can be easy to fall into a pattern of just accepting this as the way it is.
The trick is to keep an eye open for things that are always, or nearly always, the same. If the same bunch of things get put in the same case every time they leave the shop, maybe they can stay in that case.
In that instance, the labor component shifts from putting all of those items into that case to checking that all of the items are in that case when it goes out and when it comes back in.
This also has a positive impact on storage space. Instead of having to store the empty case and the items separately, they now can be stored in the case alone.
There must be enough inventory to allow you to leave the standard packages intact, always, while meeting daily needs. If the company has 67 mic cables, there’s no point in committing 50 of them to a standard case if that case is going to be raided every other day.
It’s vital to commit to the idea of keeping the package intact, and this can mean looking for ways to utilize the package where perhaps it wouldn’t have been used in the past. Sometimes this may also mean sending more gear than what was requested.
For example, one busy summer day I got a call from a competitor who needed to cross-rent several pieces of gear for an FX rack. The list came to about two-thirds of the gear in one of our concert FX racks.
The rack was available, and I could have told someone to pull those items, but instead I said, “Look, I have that stuff in a rack with some other gear. What I’m going to do is rent you the pieces that you’re asking for at the usual rate, but give you the whole rack (including I/O patch) on the understanding that you send it out intact.” Which is what happened.
In that case, the rental cost us maybe 15 minutes of prep time to check over the rack, instead of however much time it would have taken for a staffer to pull the gear, put it in another rack, and reverse the process when it came back – well worth the “free” gear that went out with the package.
As an aside, that rental was for an act that one of our regular freelance techs mixed for. When it came back the following Monday, there was a piece of board tape on the rack with a note from the tech, who had scrawled: “Ike, thanks for making my life that much closer to perfect!” I pulled that strip of tape off and stuck it on the lip of my desk, where it stayed until the day I left the company.
4) And finally: Consistency
With the same gear in the same cases on a regular basis, your regular freelance crew and even house crews at local venues will soon pick up on it. Load-ins in particular will become faster and more efficient if the same cases have the same items in them week after week.
It also means those same items are more likely to go back into those same cases on the out, which makes them easier and less labor intensive to check in. It’s kind of like bringing a touring mentality to one-off gigs.