Set Design for Touring Bands

Radiohead's touring stage show

Radiohead’s touring stage show

Many bands don’t think of set design unless they’re touring large venues on a regular basis. Even then, some only go as far as putting a large backdrop or banner. However, touring acts have the ability to kick things up a notch by applying some creativity, lessons from theatre, and special effects from magic shows to really enhance the performance. Good stage design can help transform mundane rock clubs into unique experiences that help the band stand out. Many of these things don’t even require a large budget to start out with – just some forethought and a little talent.

These are some of the things that you can enhance your stage with:

  • Custom lighting
  • Projections (or LED wall)
  • Art pieces/sculptures/banners
  • Pyrotechnics
  • Confetti and streamers
  • Fog/smoke
  • Bubbles/stage snow
  • Wind/air movement
  • Phosphorescent paint or materials
  • Fabric
  • Custom instruments
  • Strobe lights
  • Balloons
  • Height (ramps, risers, etc.)
  • Other theater effects

Stage elements should be thoughtfully added to enhance, not replace, your live performance. You can get ideas from high-profile touring acts, theater productions, dance groups, or other performing artists that use a lot of set design. From there, you can adapt ideas to suit your particular needs.

For many items, you can order from theater effects production companies, especially for items that require a specialized machine. Others need to be custom built- either by someone who is experience with set design or something that you might be able to take on yourself.

In fact, there are many instructional videos and websites that teach you how to make various stage effects items using common found at your local hardware store. Instructables (www.instructables.com) has multiple, detailed tutorials on building stage risers, lights, and other items. I’ve created stage lights, risers, custom lights for amps and mic stands, and backdrops just from looking up ideas and finding creative ways to approach them.

You don’t have to have a grand-scale project to make it special. It should just be unique and reflect your band.

ACTIVITY 1: Get Some Ideas and Sketch Out Your Set Design

Take out your band’s stage plot and look for areas where you can add something to the stage. It might also help to watch a video of your performance or browse through photos of your live show to see what can be added.

If you want to get an idea of what is possible, do some searching for band stage designs online. You can also get ideas by searching for theater productions, especially if there is something that is especially suited for your band’s image. For instance, if your band has imagery or a sound that is inspired by early 20th century French culture, you might turn to Phantom of the Opera for some ideas.

Take these ideas and sketch out your set design. What is essential? What elements would you like to have? Now, look up each of these items and consider the cost to build or buy, the logistics of incorporating them into your performance, the ease of setting up/tearing down, transporting them, and the effectiveness of those items. Create a budget and a plan for your set design, then work on bringing it to life (even if it i only one area at a time).

At the very least, every band should have a large, durable banner with their name/logo on it. They’re fairly inexpensive, very visible, and easy to work with (especially if you hang it with large clips or grommets and rope).

ACTIVITY 2: Update What You Already Have

If you already have some elements of stage design – be it lighting equipment or visual pieces – it might need some update or work. Heavy usage of these items often beckon maintenance, especially with items that sit directly on the stage or that get moved often. Things get dirty, scuffed, and scratched. However, a little maintenance can go a long way to prevent failure on stage.

Some items might need to be replaced entirely. For example, if you have an old stage banner that features outdated artwork or is promoting a Myspace page that you no longer keep up, it’s time to replace it. If you have any items that show a different band lineup than your current one, those things should be updated.

Take a look at what you have and see if any items need some attention to prolong their life, update their look, or need to be removed altogether.

ACTIVITY 3: Find Options When You’re on a Limited Budget

There are plenty of options for set design, even when you are on a limited budget. Here are some ideas that you can explore/consider:

 

  • Slide Projector: You can usually find a used slide projector at the local thrift store, Craigslist, ebay, and many other places for less than $50. Then, have a custom slide created of your band logo to project above the band on stage (or at the merch table). You can even load a camera with some 35mm slide film and take a picture of your logo to project. You could also have an entire set of slides, projecting them over the band for an artsy look. (Another option is using a transparency projector, though that is much larger)
  • LED lights: LED lights are fairly inexpensive and easy to work with. In fact, you can buy LED strips in bulk, then add special effects by connecting them controllers and dimmers. In fact, you could sync flashing lights, color changes, and brightness directly to your music through MIDI. LED lights also provide a simple, inexpensive way to light up your amplifiers and drums as well.
  • Getting Artists: You could get custom-created artwork by using Craigslist, asking friends, or even contacting local art schools about collaborating on a live music project. Often, aspiring artists are willing to give an incredible rate, especially if it means creating something for their working portfolio. You might even find some theater set designers willing to help as well!
  • Free or Clearance Items: Keep a watch on the “free” section on Craigslist. There are often unique items that you could repurpose for the stage. For instance, I know of a drummer who picked up an old cabinet, cut it in half, and turned it into a custom drum riser. You might also talk to local theater companies, high school theaters, or colleges who are often discarding stage set items that you could use. After Halloween, you’ll often find cheaper theatrical items such as strobe lights or fog machines on clearance for extremely discounted rates.
  • Repurposing:

 

Your set design doesn’t always have to be limited by your budget – often times, it’s only limited by your imagination. If you look around, you can often find a solution for your needs.

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