I’m often asked the best ways of powering your equipment when out busking or gigging at outdoor events where power is an issue.
This is a good question to answer and depends greatly on a few main factors.
1. The size and type of gig you are looking to provide sound for.
Are you looking to provide an acoustic set for a beach party of 20 – 30 people, a full metal or rock gig in the middle of nowhere for 200, power for you and a couple of band mates in the middle of town or just for a small busking set up for yourself. It all depends on the equipment you need to provide power for and how electronically sensitive it is.
How much money do you have to spend on the set up. If you have the cash then there are plenty of options available to you. A tighter budget lessens your options, but you can still build yourself a really effective power system without spending too much.
3. Usage and future requirements.
How long do you need to play for and how often are you going to use it ? If the gig is a one off, you can get away with a less robust system or think about hiring a generator, but if your daily income relies on it, it has to function effectively and efficiently for years to come.
4. Your technical capabilities and logistics.
Do you have the ability to safely install and carry your power equipment to and from your intended locations ? Installing generators, earth rods and lugging batteries around can be heavy work and technically demanding. If you get it wrong, you could end up frying half your band.
Small Systems and Lightweight Outdoor Power Applications
If all you’ve got to cope with is a guitar, a couple of battery powered fx units and a mic, then all you need is a decent battery powered busking amp with a couple of inputs. Get yourself a charger and you can easily power your equipment with ordinary shop bought Ni-Mh rechargeable batteries and you should get a good 4 to 8 hours playing time or more depending on the volumes you play at, the rating of the batteries (A/h) and the age of the rechargeables.
Busker Hadar Manor – 2008’s Queen of the London Underground with her portable busking set up.
The two types of consumer rechargeable batteries generally available are Ni-Cd (Nickel Cadmium) and Ni-Mh (Nickel metal hydride)
Take a look at my guide on which batteries to choose and why.
I go for the Ni-Mh.
Heavier Duty Power Supplies
If your equipment doesn’t have the facility to run off normal batteries or you want a heavier duty rig that is going to provide a much greater output and be capable of powering bigger speaker systems, P.A s and band set ups – then you could be looking at purchasing or renting a portable or stand alone generator or if your power consumption is not too substantial then you could also consider a set up along the lines of 12v Deep Cycle or Marine batteries, combined with a power inverter and a multi stage charger to run your equipment.
Generators and battery systems each have their advantages and disadvantages. Once you have worked out how much power you need for your system, and how much cash you have to spend, you should be able to choose one of the options below to suit your needs.
Generator technology has come a long way over the last few years, and nowadays there are many companies out there making top notch noiseless and fumeless generators designed specifically for the entertainment and leisure market.
Years ago, having a generator powering your set up was a noisy and brutal affair. Having a generator chugging away in the back ground, spitting out gas and fumes everywhere meant you had to be staging your own mini Glastonbury just to be able to hear your own tunes over the noise.
Nowadays you can spark up a noiseless portable generator, stand next to it and barely hear the thing running from more than a couple of feet away.
Honda have always been the market leaders in portable generator technology and have made a name for themselves creating some of the quietest and most reliable equipment in the market.
You will often see professional buskers and musicians with grand set ups in the street blaring their music over the whole town or at outdoor events and you will almost always see the trademark red casing of a Honda generator slaving away in the background.
Honda EU2000i Noiseless Generator
The problem with portable generators is that they can be seriously expensive ranging from a few hundred pounds to anything up to a couple of thousand. Their output also ranges from a few hundred watts to many kilowatts depending on the price you pay.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to pick your self up a bargain second hand generator for anything between £150 and £300 (a quick Ebay search revealed a few weeks ago), but then you never really know what you are getting for your money or how long it’s going to last.
In my opinion, a second hand generator is a gamble, so if you have a lot riding on your set up and want guaranteed results, it is always better to rent or buy new.
If you can’t afford to buy one yourself, get your band mates to chip in. A few gigs or busking sessions and it will soon pay for itself.
Using Leisure/Marine – Deep Cycle Batteries And Inverters
If you can’t afford a generator, another reliable and cost effective method would be to determine the power output you are going to require and put together a heavy duty battery and inverter set up.
See my post on batteries for more information.
Deep cycle batteries provide a large power output and an almost endless supply of replenishable energy. When used in conjunction with a sine wave inverter, a clean supply can be achieved to power almost any electrical or electronic system with confidence.
When connected in parallel, deep cycle batteries can be stacked up to almost unlimited potential and if looked after in the correct manner they can last for years.
Deep Cycle Battery
See my post on battery connections for more information.
Depending on your requirements, you will more than likely need some form of sine wave inverter (either a pure SWI or a modified SWI to convert the dc output from the battery terminals into ac for use with your equipment.
See my post on sine wave inverters for more information.
A decent multi stage battery charger is also a must if you are considering this type of set up. As I’ve explained in my batteries page, battery life and capacity can be seriously compromised if they are not charged, discharged and stored in the correct manner. To get the best out of your batteries you will need to take care of them, or you’ll end up wasting your money.
Take a look at my guide on batteries to get an idea and see my guide on battery calculations to work out what you might need.
Using Standard Car Batteries to Power Your Busk
Powering your set up with an average car starter battery may work well for a while, but is not really advised as they are not designed to be constantly charged and discharged without being permanently topped up by a charging alternator.
Standard car batteries generally loose their ability to hold charge effectively after a few deep discharges but may suffice if all you need to power is a little busking amp and it’s kept in a good state of charge when not in use. It is generally the way you care for your battery that effects it’s longevity and effectiveness, so even if you are using a crap battery, it will last much longer if you look after it.
I have met quite a few buskers and market traders who do use bog standard car batteries to power small busking and stereo set ups, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a long term solution. The efficiency of the set up will most likely become an issue in the long run.
Running Car Amplifiers From A Battery
Although car amplifiers are not designed to mimic the specific traits of traditional guitar amps and high powered P.A systems, many audiophiles do use them in outdoor situations in conjunction with deep cycle batteries to produce very effective and efficient sound systems capable of producing reasonably loud outputs with low power consumption.
An advantage of using a car amplifier is that it is designed to run straight off a 12v car battery, so you don’t incur losses from the inefficient conversion of dc to ac through an inverter, then back to dc through an amps power supply unit.
Conventional stereo amps and speakers designed for music respond differently than guitar amps due to the nature of frequency filtering that goes on inside each unit. If you play your guitar through a stereo amp, it might not sound great, but if you can eq it to sound good for your application such as an acoustic or busking gig in the street, you may achieve good results.
Using the car amp and speaker set up as sound reinforcement in conjunction with your other guitar amps and equipment could be a cheap alternative to buying an expensive high rated inverter and running everything off that. Purchasing a lower rated pure sine wave inverter to run the sensitive stuff and a running a car amp separately might save you some cash.
Bigger Events – Hiring Your Equipment
If you are looking to power a larger set up needing anything from five thousand to hundreds of thousands of watts you’d be better off renting a commercial generator from a hire company.
Commercial stand alone generators range from wheel barrow size to a huge great things brought in on the back of trucks. Any noise or fume pollution is kept to a minimum as they are normally set up a good distance away from the entertainment areas.
One thing you have to be sure of when dealing with larger power demands is that your generating equipment and mains boards are properly earthed. If you are out in the middle of no where this can mean driving an earth rod or number of rods deep into the ground to ensure good earthing is achieved. It may even be necessary to water the ground in the vicinity of the earth rods to ensure better conductivity and less ground resistance if the area is dry.
The safety and speed of your trip switches and circuit breakers rely on good earthing practices and infinitely low ground resistance values which can be tested via specialised equipment. If you are not comfortable with the situation, get a qualified electrician to ensure all safety precautions are adhered to.
If you are hiring from a respectable company they should have qualified people able to train you how to install and rig up the generator safely. You should also be able to get them to deliver it, set it up and take it away, all as part of a hire package. It’s not worth the worry and risk of frying a few of your mates, just to save a few quid and do it your self.
When the demand on your generator drops from high load to practically zero between song breaks and silent periods in your gig, it will have difficulty supplying the tiny amount of power needed to keep the electronic gear on stage functioning correctly, and may start to ‘hunt’ for power i.e ‘revving high and low’.
To keep the generator producing a constant supply of power and avoid fluctuations, a constant load of 200 or 300 w should be placed on the generator at all times. This keeps the sensitive electronics supplied with a constant current source and can be achieved by simply a plugging in couple of lights as a permanent load through out the duration of the event.
Public Events – Contacting The Council
If you are thinking of setting up a gig in town or in a public location, you may find contacting the local council and organising a mini event could solve your problems. There are always certain places in town where power can be made available to merchants and traders for markets and street events etc. Give the local authority a call and they might be able to supply you with power for a few hours.
These power outlets are often hidden from public view at height, above shops, on ledges or in armoured boxes at street level. You wouldn’t notice them unless you were looking for them, but they are there. As an ex-electrician, we were always being contracted to connect up power supplies for street events like Christmas lights and carnivals etc. using these hidden sources.
If you choose to do a gig on the beach or in a park or bandstand, there will always be power available somewhere in the vicinity, just contact the area’s caretaker.
The only thing you might have to watch out for is if you do end up organising or sorting out any type of event involving the local council, even if it is just a one off street gig, you will probably have to secure some sort of public liability insurance covering you for around 5 million pounds. Councils are always pretty hot on health and safety issues.
At the end of the day, if it’s all too much hassle, just consider going acoustic. If you’re intent on performing in town, most people don’t want to be blown away by a bloody great rock gig anyway, and you’ll probably make just as much money busking with an acoustic set up as you would any other way. It’ll also save you a lot of effort and lugging your equipment around.
For time and legal reasons I don’t answer reader’s questions on calculations or individual set up’s, but if you need to know anything about creating your own power set up or need advice on calculations, make sure you fully read through my battery guide and posts on inverters, battery calculations and battery connections.
There you should find all you need to know to help you get started.
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