In my last post about making music in the UK, I recommended using portable gears. Lots of musicians I’ve seen, especially in London, rely on public transport or Uber-like services to go around. Having equipment that is both reliable and easy transportable is a big save of money and energy.
I haven’t found a proper guide on portable equipment – not that I’ve searched too much – but I’ve spent the last year and a half (re)building my guitar and bass rigs, paying special attention to size and portability for every device I’ve tried and then bought. This is my experience so far but feel free to add suggestions or ping me on Twitter.
⚠️ Please note: I’m not endorsed by any of the brands I’m reviewing, I’ve bought all this stuff with my own pocket money.
State of the Union
In London alone, many different venues host live music of all genres. I’m not talking about big spaces like the O2 or the Islington Assembly Hall. I’m talking about bars and pubs and other non-conventional spaces that every week host a variety of musical events.
The size of the venue itself and that of the stage can vary tremendously. I’ve seen four-piece bands performing on stages slightly bigger than my double bed (yes, with a drummer!). Some venues provide a full PA with a sound technician, some others also provide a drum kit and 4x12 speaker cabinets for guitars and bass. Some just provide the empty stage and the organiser must bring in all the equipment.
As an example, I’ve been to a very well known rock venue that doesn’t have space for proper amps on stage and the guitarists and bassist had to connect their pedalboards directly to the PA. If you’re not prepared for this – not necessarily with a Kemper – your sound will be a bit awkward.
More often than not, you will have to share the already small stage with other four or five (or more) acts. The assumption is that more acts equal (hopefully) more people, which equals more booze sold, hence more money made by the venue. Like it or not, at the end of the day this is business.
Furthermore, to practice your craft and have access to good gigs, you have to play at lots of Open Mic nights, where 80% of the times you won’t have the luxury of a proper soundcheck but it’s just “plug and pray”.
So what can we do to have a great sound, or at least not to suck, in most situations?
Stage 1: Preamp Pedal and Cab Simulator
This was my first setup. First I gave myself a limit and bought a small pedalboard, a Pedaltrain Metro 16 with a soft bag (£47). Then I watched lots of gear demos on YouTube, paying special attention to small or nano-sized pedals. My favourite channels for this topic are Premier Guitar’s rig rundown series, Anderton’s, Pete Thorn, or That Pedal Show but there are tons around.
I wanted to be able to go to work with my guitar and pedalboard and then go to the gig and take literally one minute to have my system up and running without relying on a guitar amplifier. The key elements of this setup are:
- The Mooer 005 Micro Preamp (£99), literally an EVH 5050 in a box, with a nice crispy clean and a sick rock distortion.
- The Mooer Radar Speaker Cab Simulator (£114): a tiny object that simulates a good bunch of guitar and bass power amps and speaker combinations, with a DI-ready output that can go directly to the PA system.
In front of the preamp, in this order, there are:
- TC Electronic Polytune tuner (£75)
- Dunlop Cry Baby Mini Wha (£100 but I paid it half price because I traded my old Cry Baby Slash)
- Mooer Yellow Comp compressor (£49)
- Mooer Green Mile Overdrive, a sort of Tube Screamer for less extreme distorted sounds (£41)
Between the preamp and the Radar power amp/cab (a.k.a. the effects loop) I have:
- Mooer Reecho Delay pedal (£55)
- TC Electronic Hall Of Fame Mini reverb (£75)
- TC Electronic Ditto Looper pedal (£79)
All powered by a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power Digital unit (£149), for a total cost of £883
- Up and running in 1 minute: one cable to the PA, one cable to the power plug
- No amp required, all your sound is in there
- Can be used with both guitar and bass by enabling only the compressor and the Radar
- Not the lightest pedalboard ever
- Needs a power socket
- The Mooer Radar needs 12V 300mA to work properly, not easy to find a suitable power bank
Stage 2: MacBook Air, Audio Interface and BIAS FX
I tried this setup a couple of times with my instrumental guitar sets using backing tracks. I already had my (pretty old) MacBook Air which I used to record my stuff with a Line6 Sonic Port VX audio interface (£70).
- Meloaudio MIDI Commander: a USB/MIDI pedalboard controller (£149)
- Zoom FP-02 expression pedal, to control the Wha (£30)
- Apple Mainstage (£29): not the best app in the world, but it works. It allows me to create “live sets” documents that contain all you need to perform your songs live, starting from your backing tracks and any of the audio plugins installed in the system (i.e. BIAS FX). You can use the MIDI pedalboard to change songs, start and stop the playback and control the effects like the wha.
Total £430 (MacBook excluded).
- Same rig for studio and live performances: you just need a couple of inputs from the PA and you have total control over your tones and all your set, including backtrack playback and balance
- With some preparation in advance, it takes 1-3 minutes to set up and tear down
- For most sets, you can rely on your MacBook’s battery and don’t need a power socket
- Not well suited for Open Mics, you won’t always have space to safely place your computer and audio interface
Stage 3: Battery-powered Tech21 FlyRig
This is my current rig, and it’s doing great so far. The main component is the Tech 21 RK5 FlyRigv2 (£299). It is a very versatile piece of equipment, it has a very good analogue amp simulator (the patented SansAmp circuit), a kickass distortion, a boost switch, a delay with tap pedal, reverb and an integrated tuner, along with some other handy features. It also has an XLR balanced output to be connected to a PA.
I’ve refactored the pedalboard with the FlyRig, the Cry Baby Mini Wha and the Ditto Looper. All the rig is powered by a Rockboard Power LT XL power bank (£34), specifically designed to power 9V guitar pedals. The last time I’ve tested a full charge I could play a whole 3 hours at full power.
When I need backing tracks I use an app named SoundCue (£15) installed on my iPhone or iPad. It is designed for live performances in mind so you have big buttons linked to each of your tracks.
Total cost £574 (including the pedalboard)
- It takes literally 30 seconds to set up and tear down
- Super lightweight
- No power socket needed
- If needed it can be plugged into an amp by disabling the SansAmp or using it to adjust your tone
- If I don’t need the wha or the looper, the FlyRig can fit nicely into my guitar’s gig bag
- When playing with backing tracks I have no control over the balance between the guitar and the tracks, but befriending the sound engineer always solves the problem 😉
I’m pretty happy with my current setup but I’m keeping my eyes and ears open to what the market has to offer. Tech21 for example has Fly Rigs for bass and acoustic guitar and they seem to sound really good. Then there are nice objects like the Atomic’s Ampli Firebox, which is used by some of my friends with awesome results. And the Torpedo CABM, which I’d like to put my hands on and give a try.