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Jun 28, 2015 - 9:20:18 AM
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13438 posts since 12/2/2005

Given that basic questions about PAs crop up here quite a lot, I thought I'd put together a guide to helping noobs figure it all out (I was a noob not that long ago, and this information reflects what I've learned since). It's long, but it does attempt to give an understanding of what each component of a system is intended to do. Comments welcome!

Edits as of May 2018: removed specific brand/model information given evolution of equipment.

 

 

 

PA SYSTEM CONSIDERATIONS

Okay – you’re at the point with your band (or pickin’ buddies) that you’re starting to get gigs. That probably means you’ve started thinking about a PA system, and you’ve probably done enough research to decide two things: 1) this is all more complicated than you thought, and 2) this stuff can get really expensive.

You’re correct on both counts.

Hopefully, the following will help de-mystify some of the aspects of PA systems, what they do and how they do it. It’s almost completely non-technical – and intended for those who wish to gain just enough knowledge to be dangerous (but effective).

 

WHAT DOES A PA SYSTEM ACTUALLY DO?

Essentially, a PA system takes small amounts of acoustic energy – in the form of sound waves – and converts them into considerably larger amounts of acoustic energy.

It starts with microphones and ends with speakers. Mics and speakers are what are known as TRANSDUCERS; they convert one form of energy into another.

Perhaps oversimplifying a little, mics convert sound waves into an electrical signal.  This current is then boosted through amplification circuitry and sent to a much larger transducer or transducers – the speakers – in order to convert the electrical energy back into sound.

Rock bands like their PA systems to pummel the audience with sound. In a bluegrass setting, though, a system only needs to do a couple of things: 1) ensure that the band is just loud enough to be comfortably heard over background noise for a reasonable distance, and 2) ensure that all instruments and voices are properly balanced – with voices above instruments, and solo instruments above the backup.

 

THE KEY COMPONENTS OF A SYSTEM:

You’ll need the following items:

  • A microphone (or microphones – see below)
  • A mechanism to mix the signals from more than one sound source (the mixer)
  • An amplifying system
  • A speaker or speakers
  • Stands and cabling for all of the above

You may not NEED the following, but they can be very nice to have:

  • A way to control EQ (see below) and/or feedback suppression
  • Foldback monitors, so you can better hear yourselves
  • A bass pickup and a Direct Input box
  • Totes, bags or other equipment to protect the equipment during transit and load-in/load-out
  • Spares on cabling, mics and other stuff that can fail

 

ABOUT MICROPHONES

Ah, microphones. Seems like there’s a baffling array of options out there, doesn’t it?

Although there are numerous different approaches to microphone design, the most commonly-used mics for bluegrass are classified as either dynamic or condenser, which reflects the way convert sound to signal.

Dynamic mics generate an electrical current by means of a small induction coil set into a permanent magnet. The coil is attached to a diaphragm, which moves with in response to sound waves. The movement of the coil through the magnet generates the current.

Dynamic mics can be very effective in a bluegrass setting for both instruments and voices. They tend to be reasonably inexpensive, and most are very sturdy. Most have fairly narrow pickup patterns (more on that below) – and in many settings, such as a noisy bar, that can be advantageous.  So they can be great for a single instrument or voice (or maybe two voices), but they generally won’t pick up the sound of an entire ensemble – which means that the cost advantage of using dynamic mics can be outweighed by the fact that you may need more of them.

Instead of actually creating an electrical current like dynamic mics do, condenser mics modify an existing one. Condenser mics work by treating the diaphragm, which vibrates in response to sound waves, as one plate of a capacitor.  This changes the distance between the plates, which changes voltages in a way that can be used by the amplifier.

Because condenser mics modify current rather than creating it, they require a power source to operate (this is commonly called “phantom power”). Many mixers provide at least some channels with phantom power, and standalone phantom power supplies are available. There are also some condenser mics powered by batteries.

Condenser mics tend to be more slightly more accurate in their reproduction of sound than dynamic ones. They also tend to be more expensive and, especially with bigger ones, more fragile. Depending on model, they can also be extremely sensitive with very wide pickup patterns, which means one mic can potentially handle the entire group – but can also lead to issues with feedback.

Let’s talk more about those patterns now. For practical purposes, there are two main types to consider in a bluegrass setting: mics that capture sound from highly localized sources – like one instrument or voice – and mics that capture everything.  

The pickup pattern of a given mic refers to how it accepts and rejects sound. Most dynamic mics have what’s called a cardioid (heart-shaped) pattern; depending on the mic, it can be fairly wide or very narrow (hyper-cardioid).

Why is this important? It’s because we want to minimize the chances of feedback. Having mics that reject sound from the sides or the front improves our odds that we won’t have a problem with it.

Many small-diaphragm condenser mics have cardioid pickup patterns comparable to dynamics, often with slightly better sound.

Medium and large diaphragm condensers are offered with a variety of pickup patterns, depending on model (and some offer a switch to let you select between several). Common patterns are cardioid – desirable if using a “single-mic” or modified single-mic setup (see below), figure 8 (meaning the mic will accept sound equally from either side of the mic) or all-around (meaning the mic pretty much picks up everything in the room). So unless you actually WANT to put crowd noise through your PA system, it’s wise to stick with cardioid and avoid figure 8 or all-around patterns. But remember this: LDCs are more sensitive than small-diaphragm condensers and most dynamics. The goal with an LDC is sensitivity.

 

MICROPHONES AND STAGE PLOTTING - CONSIDERATIONS

Your first major consideration is how you want to mic the band. The early bluegrass acts used what’s called a single-mic setup, using one very sensitive large microphone to capture all instruments and voices.

SINGLE MIC SETUP:

This practice continues with many bands today, by means of a Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC) microphone.

There are advantages and disadvantages with every form of setup. Advantages of the LDC single-mic setup include:

  • Can be more cost effective; one moderately expensive mic vs. a lot of less expensive ones
  • Less gear to schlep
  • Less gear to fail (though if your LDC craps out you're really in a bind)
  • Fewer mixer channels required
  • Sound check is easy – you just need to balance the bass with the rhythm guitar/voice and you’re good to go (see below for special note on bass)
  • Less need for monitors, because musicians can hear each other pretty well due to proximity
  • The movement of performers around the mic as they “self-mix” the sound becomes an engaging part of the show.

Disadvantages include:

  • Significantly increased chances of feedback, especially if using monitors
  • Musicians need to learn how to move into and away from the mic as needed to bring their instruments forward for soloing, and to do so without colliding with each other. This requires practice – and even with practice, it can be difficult on a small stage.
  • Musicians need to learn to trust the capabilities of the mic, and recognize that if they’re working without monitors and can really hear themselves coming through the mains, they might be overpowering everyone else.
  • Mic sensitivity means the audience can hear things you might not want them to – like on-stage discussions or your guitarist’s farts.

MULTI-MIC SETUP:

Many bands like to mic each instrument and voice. Bands that do this generally use either dynamic mics all around, or small-diaphragm condensers for instruments and dynamics for vocals. Advantages include:

  • Greater control over the sound levels for each voice and instrument
  • More physical space for each musician; less likelihood of collision
  • Significantly reduced odds for feedback, if using mics with good tight patterns
  • Tight patterns also make it easier to use floor monitors
  • Ensures that the body position of one performer won’t impact the delivery of sound from another (in other words, the dobro player can’t step in front of the rhythm guitarist so no one can hear him)

Disadvantages:

  • A five-piece bluegrass band in which everyone sings will need up to ten mics. That’s a thousand bucks if you’re buying good, but not top shelf, quality - before stands and cables, which aren’t free, and they get heavy. Also, any piece of gear can fail, so you need a spare or two of everything.
  • Unless you have someone who really knows what they’re doing, mixing and sound check can be challenging; you have to get each instrument at the right sound level for a good mix. And if a band member is the primary on running the board, someone else must at least know enough so that that player's instrument can be properly added to the mix.
  • More mixer channels required – one for each mic – and the larger mixer means more $$.
  • Performers need to learn how to position themselves relative to their mics for both backup and solo playing. Some players have a tendency to stay on their mics at all times, which means that they’re either overpowering everyone else while playing backup or can’t be heard when it’s their turn to solo.

MODIFIED SINGLE MIC SETUP:

Some bands use a modified single-mic setup, using a large-diaphragm condenser to handle voices and backup instruments and spot or solo mics (either small-diaphragm condenser or dynamic) to the right and/or left of the LDC to use for instrumental soloing. All of the attributes of a single mic setup – pros and cons – apply here, with the following additional advantages:

  • Can simplify the “bluegrass ballet” of soloists stepping in to work the single mic
  • Can be advantageous if dealing with a large band on a small stage

Disadvantages include:

  • More expense, more gear
  • Greater importance of accurate setup and soundcheck than with single-mic alone
  • Performers must remember not to hang out on a solo mic when playing backup, trusting in the LDC to pick them up during backup.

A NOTE ON THE BASS:

If you’re using an upright bass, an LDC CAN be effective. That’s how Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs did it. But you have to be extremely careful not to let another player step between the bass and the mic, and that’s nearly impossible to do in some settings.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to have your bass brought into the mix separately from the mic or mics used by everyone else. Some bass players get good results by wrapping a hand towel around a dynamic mic and stuffing it under their tailpiece, then plugging the mic directly into the mixer. Others use a separate mic on a boom stand – a small diaphragm condenser with good frequency response at the low end works well for this.

Still others have pickups on their basses, and  some bluegrass bassists use either an electric bass guitar or upright electric bass. Generally speaking, a direct-input box – essentially a pre-amp – is used to connect the bass to the mixer in these cases.

Here’s what’s important to understand: the bass is absolutely essential to the bluegrass sound, both rhythmically and to provide a sonic foundation for the music. Most of what happens in bluegrass is pretty high on the frequency spectrum; without the bass to add gravitas, the music sounds thin and tinny. The bass MUST be there if the band is to sound good.

If your mains (mains are the loudspeakers providing sound to the front-of-house audience) are capable of reproducing the lowest pitches of the bass instrument, great. But many are not, particularly on inexpensive systems. Serious consideration should be given to the use of a separate bass amp if that’s the case with your system. More on this below.

 

THE MIXER

Obviously, the electrical signals from the mics need to get to the amplifier, and then to the speakers. The first step in doing that is cabling – about which I’ll talk more later. The next stage is the mixer.

The mixer, as the name suggests, allows you to mix the signals from various sound sources to optimize their balance with one another. Mixers range from small and very compact on up to the huge multi-channel mixing desks used by traveling rock bands.

So what should you look for? A suitable mixer will incorporate the following attributes:

  • Phantom power. Either now or in the future, you’ll probably want to be able to use at least one condenser microphone. Standalone phantom power supplies are available, but having onboard phantom power means one less thing to lug and keep track of.
  • Enough channels. If you’re running single mic (plus bass, either via mic or DI), you theoretically need only two channels. But individual channel strips can crap out. I think it’s a good practice to have at least 20% more channels available than you actually need. And by the way, with the exception of a DI, which can use either a ¼” connector or XLR connectors, the XLR inputs are really what you want to look for. These are the three-pin connectors that are of standard use with microphones. Note that signals from microphones require pre-amplification, so your mixer will need pre-amps built in to each channel stack you’ll be suing for your mics. These pre-amps are almost always found on channels with XLR inputs and not found on channels with other input jacks.

Be careful with inexpensive mixers boasting lots of channels. Some will claim things things like “12 channels” when in fact they actually give you four XLR channels, with the rest being stereo pairs. The stereo pairs can be useful for bands with keyboards but for bluegrass, they’re essentially useless, unless you’re running intermission music through the board from your phone or MP3 player – and in that case, you really only need one stereo pair. Thus, in the case of our hypothetical 5-piece band where everyone plays and sings into their own mics, you NEED 10 pre-amped XLR inputs and, for safety's sake, should probably not get a board with fewer than 12 XLR inputs.

Now, let’s look at the controls of each channel strip. Inexpensive mixers control the loudness of each sound source with a single knob or slider. Better ones have the slider and also have what’s called a “Trim” or “Gain” control – that’s a knob. Trim is the basic setting control for how much loudness you apply to optimize that mic; fine tuning is done with the slider.

Most channel stacks will have a low, midrange and high frequency EQ control, allowing you to boost or decrease the intensity of sound in the range covered by that control. Nice to have, but don’t get carried away or expect too much from it; these control a pretty broad range of frequencies.

Good mixers will also general have a "low pass" or "low frequency cutoff" button, which is good to have on vocal and instrument mikes so stage noise or other low-frequency rumbles (except the one you actually want from the bass) get eliminated from that channel.

Many mixers will also have a PAN control in each stack, which means you can send most of the banjo sound to the right side main or the fiddle to the left. In my experience, it’s best to mix bluegrass monaurally and I keep this knob in the center, neutral position.

Many mixers also have a control for effects. This is bluegrass. We don’t need no steenkin’ effects. Speaking of which, many mixers – particularly low-end ones that try to dazzle buyers with features – will have 30 or 40 onboard effects such as echo, flanging and so forth. Realistically, this is just window dressing for marketing purposes; if you really want these types of effects, you'd probably be better off  with good standalone gear to provide it.

In selecting your mixer, consider the use of monitors – now or in the future.  Ideally, your mixer should have two sets of outputs – one for the mains, or house speakers, and one for the monitors.

 

AMPLIFICATION

Okay, so we’ve captured our sound, and we’ve adjusted the levels of each sound source so that everything is in proper proportion. Now, something’s got to make it all louder – and that’s where amplification comes in. There are three major options here.

POWERED MIXERS:

The first is when the amplification circuitry is built into the mixer itself - the powered mixer. Most inexpensive systems rely on such devices. They have the advantage of being relatively affordable, and any time you can make one device do the job of two, that’s less gear to haul around.

The downside is that most powered mixers don’t have as many features available for shaping the sound of each channel (and often include more or less useless built-in effects). If you’re looking at such a mixer, make sure that you can get line-level output (i.e., unamplified signals) on at least one output pair – and preferably, two, so that you have more options with your mains and monitors.

OUTBOARD AMPLIFIERS:

The second amplification option is a standalone amplifier or series of amplifiers. These are units separate from the mixer and speakers. Pro-level systems sometimes use three different amps per side – one for the high frequencies, one for the midrange, one for the low end. This is called a TRI-AMP system. A system with freestanding power amps for low/mid and mid/high is called a BI-AMP system.

POWERED SPEAKERS:

The third amplification option uses powered or “active” loudspeakers – which, as the name implies, means that the amplification circuitry is built into the speaker cabinets themselves. Depending on the configuration of the speakers, these are usually bi-amped or tri-amped as well.

Active speakers are an area of sound-reinforcement that’s developing rapidly; powered speakers were once unreliable and expensive, but today they offer some real advantages in cost, weight and portability. And they’re not just for small bands. You know those huge speaker arrays that hang over the stage at major rock shows? At one point, those were passive speakers getting their signals from a bevy of off-stage amplifiers. Today, almost all of them are self-powered units. All of this will make more sense when we talk about speakers (below).

So regardless of which amplification option you select, how much power should you buy? I think you should buy as much as you can comfortably afford. You might need only the barest bit of that power if playing at a nursing home, but you’d need considerably more if playing at a noisy wedding or bar, and more still if playing at an outdoor flea market.

Why would you want extra power? Regardless of whether your amp(s) are built into your mixer, your speakers or standalone, you never want to run them to the max. Doing so is begging for distortion and, potentially, damage to your system. My general rule is that I’ll never run an amp much beyond 70 percent of its theoretical capacity. This provides enough “headroom” to ensure that the signal coming through the speakers isn’t clipped or distorted.

It’s almost impossible to have too much power at your disposal. You can certainly have too little, and if you do, at some point you’ll be tempted to crank things up enough to create lousy sound and possible system damage. Don’t be that guy.

 

SPEAKERS

As mentioned, we have essentially two categories of speakers: passive, meaning that the signal is delivered to the cabinets already amplified, and powered or “active” speakers, which take a line-level signal from the mixer and apply the amplification inside the speaker cabinet.

Speaker cabinets generally contain at least two different transducers to convert electrical energy back into sound. In PA parlance, they’re called drivers. You've probably heard of "woofers" and "tweeters;" the woofer is the low-frequency driver and the tweeter handles midrange and high frequencies. A speaker with two drivers is called a 2-way speaker. Some systems have a third driver for the midrange. As you might imagine, that’s called a 3-way speaker.

Bands that really want a lot of bottom end can also incorporate a subwoofer to handle only the very lowest frequencies.

A speaker system needs a mechanism to send the correct frequencies of the amplified signal to the correct driver. It does a subwoofer no good to receive very high-frequency signals (it probably won’t harm it to receive them, but the driver won’t be able to reproduce them and the power is wasted). On the contrary, sending very powerful low-end signals to a tweeter could, at least in theory, destroy it. So speakers and systems use circuitry called crossovers, which take the signal from the mixer and splits it so the low end frequencies go to the woofer and the higher frequencies go to the midrange (if available) and tweeter.

Many speakers have crossovers built in; high-end systems with external amplifiers use standalone outboard crossovers between the mixer and the amplifiers supplying the various drivers. And by the way, that’s essentially what happens In the case of bi- and tri-amped powered speakers: the built-in crossovers direct sound of varying frequencies to the appropriate amplifier circuit, and thus the correct driver.

The way sound waves travel is both interesting and important. Low frequency sounds reflect easily and seem to come from everywhere at once. They also require a LOT of power to produce good sound pressure (loudness) at any appreciable distance. High frequencies, on the other hand, take less power to produce, and they travel further, but they also tend to be much more directional.

Two-way speakers, which incorporate a woofer and a tweeter, are generally the preferred choice of bands with tight budgets. They can produce good sound quality. Three-way systems give better, smoother and more accurate response across the audible frequency spectrum, but because we’re adding another driver and amplification circuit, the costs go up. The ne-plus-ultra is a three-way system plus a subwoofer, essentially a 4-way system, but that adds cost, weight, schlepping and arguably isn’t necessary in bluegrass, as long as you've figured out a way to make sure your bassist is heard.

Here’s the rub with cheap systems. It doesn’t just take a lot of power to provide good bass response (and remember, bass in bluegrass is essential). It also takes drivers that can move enough air to reproduce those low frequencies accurately.

An optimal speaker for delivering bluegrass bass should be able to deliver reasonable performance down to about 40 Hz (the audible spectrum is about 20 Hz – 20,0000 Hz, low to high; 40 Hz is roughly the lowest pitch generated by an upright bass).

The simple fact is that there are NO inexpensive speakers with a woofer smaller than 15” that can do that - at least,  none that I've found, and I've looked.  Among those with a 15” woofer, I’ve only found a few so far that can do it reasonably well at a price that won’t make your eyes bleed - $500 or less per unit - and won't ruin your back due to weight. Both are powered. One is made by JBL (the Eon series - btw, I own 515 XTs and have experienced numerous failures; later generations are reportedly okay) and the other by Mackie (their Thump series).

So what if the budget doesn’t permit speakers like these? You can use speakers without the low-end capability as long as you use of a standalone bass amp, separate from the PA. Bluegrass isn’t supposed to be deafening; the primary purpose of a PA for bluegrass is to get it HEARD, and to make sure that each voice and instrument is properly balanced in the mix of everything else. Thus, you can get away with speakers that only deliver down to 75 or 80 Hz (to account for the lowest string on the guitar) as long as you have another mechanism for making sure the bass is there to do its musical magic. Without either a standalone bass amp or a PA that can deliver on the bottom (and for that, nothing beats a subwoofer, if your wallet and lower back can withstand one), your band’s music will sound thin.

 

SIGNAL PROCESSING AND EQ

Bluegrass really doesn’t need special effects, so most signal processing isn’t really necessary. If you’ve got the money and the skills to use it, adding a bit of compression or reverb might be nice, but for the semi-pro band it’s almost certainly not necessary.

You should give some thought to EQ, however. EQ means “Equalization” and its intent is to do two things: first, to optimize the sound of the system for the room you’re playing in, and, even more importantly, to reduce the likelihood of feedback.

The onboard EQs on many mixers may help sweeten sound but are of dubious value for reducing feedback. Each band simply covers too wide a range of frequencies to offer precision optimization. For that, an outboard manually controlled or electronic multi-band EQ does a much better job.

The biggest advantage to multi-band EQ is that each slider works to boost or decrease the loudness of the signal in a much narrower band of frequencies. Although a trained sound engineer can use this to “tune” the system to the room, the biggest advantage for us mere mortals is reducing feedback. Feedback happens at certain frequencies (depending on the room and other parameters). Especially if you’re using a large diaphragm condenser, it’s important to identify these frequencies and decrease the presence of that frequency band. Of course, doing this does reduce the loudness of DESIRED sounds in that frequency band, but that’s better than feedback, and if the EQ unit is capable of controlling narrow-enough bands, it’s generally not an issue.

Using a multi-band EQ unit to identify and roll back the likely frequencies for feedback, by the way, is called “ringing out a room.”

There are also some very effective electronic feedback suppression systems on the market. Some aren’t very expensive; others are hugely so. I’m very impressed with the DBX Driverack series; for about $300 you can get a device capable of suppressing feedback (both fixed frequencies, meaning pre-identified frequencies that are problematic, and floating, meaning feedback that just shows up for whatever reason). Some Driverack models can also automatically EQ a room for you using a special reference microphone. It’s almost like having a soundman in a box!

But the most important consideration to eliminating feedback is to make sure that your speakers - your mains (and if using them, your monitors) aren't directing sound towards your microphones. Bear in mind that sound reflects off smooth, surfaces such as walls, mirrors and windows - so you want to ensure that your speakers are aimed away from those, too.

 

ABOUT MONITORS:

Because most of my band’s gigs are smaller ones and we use a single-mic setup – meaning we can generally hear ourselves pretty well – I haven’t bothered with the added expense or schlepping requirements of monitors. We have, however, played a number of events and festivals where sound reinforcement was provided, so I do have a bit of experience with them.

Although there are speakers specifically designed for use as monitors, many of today’s PA speakers are designed so that they can be used as either monitors or mains. Chiefly, this means that the cabinets themselves are designed so that they can lay on their sides on the stage and aim up at the performers. Lots of other cabinets can be adapted by placing a 2X4 under one edge.

Did you note the recommendation in the mixer section that your mixer has two discrete output pairs? That’s due to the possibility that you may wish to add monitors at some point.

Here’s a few key points to consider. First, you don’t need your monitors to be anywhere near as beefy as your mains. They don’t require as much power, nor do they need as much low-end capability (though it’s nice to have). A two-way speaker with a 12” low frequency driver is likely to be fine, because you’re likely to hear the bass reasonably well through the mains (remember, bass sound seems to come from everywhere, and assuming your bassist sets good timing the chief purpose of the monitors is to help you make sure that sound pressure of voices, backups and lead instruments is where it should be.

Monitors are subject to the same amplification processes as the mains, and again, you have three options – powered mixer, outboard amp or active speaker cabinets. Some powered mixers have two amplification circuits, which can usually be bridged, sending one signal to each of the mains, or used to send one amp’s output to the mains and the second to monitors. More commonly, you’ll see powered mixer outputs with one pair served by the on-board amplifiers, and the other generating what’s effectively a line-out signal.

If that’s your mixer, you’ve got a choice. You can either use powered speakers as your monitors, or you can use the mixer’s onboard amp to power your monitors and use powered speakers as your mains. Given that you can get a lot of “oomph” with today’s powered speakers, particularly on the low end, if I was considering adding monitors to a powered MIXER set up, I’d probably get a nice set of powered speakers for my mains and use the old, passive mains as my monitors and drive them from the mixer.

If the mixer was unpowered, I’d simply get a set of powered speakers for monitor use. There are plenty of options out there, but I’d give consideration to the Mackie Thump 12S for this purpose.

As you go up in the level of sophistication of your mixer, you start seeing controls specific to monitors; indeed, at major shows the monitors are often mixed entirely separately from the house, with a separate board and sound technician. This affords the ability to mix monitors specifically to the preferences of each musician; some like to hear their instruments far more prominent in the monitor mix than others.

The ability to do this, of course, comes with a serious price tag. And for us mere mortals, I think it’s better to have the monitor mix pretty close to the house mix, for the simple reason that I think it’s best for each player to be able to hear, as closely as possible, what the audience hears – if one instrument is too loud or dominant, or not present enough.

Regardless of how they’re powered or set, remember that adding monitors significantly increases your odds of producing feedback – especially if you’re using a sensitive large-diaphragm condenser mic. As a result, monitors must be placed and angled in such a manner as to avoid casting their output directly into the pickup pattern of the mics. And remember, sound waves reflect off smooth surfaces, so what appears to be a good angle might actually be setting up a sonic bank shot. For this reason, a good multi-band EQ setup or feedback suppression system becomes even more helpful.

I’ve talked with some professional sound guys who ruefully chuckle about the monitor demands some musicians make. Monitor output doesn’t need to be loud – it just needs to be THERE, so the musician(s) can better hear themselves. Cranking up monitors sometimes leads to an escalating chain or mixing challenges as monitor output threatens to create feedback – and even a somewhat hollow sound in the mains, as monitor output gets picked up by mics at sub-feedback levels. How loud should your monitors be? Just loud enough, and not a bit more.

So, monitors can be very nice to have. Just remember: if you use them, you’re adding complexity, and (unless you’re relegating your old mains to monitor service in light of new and better mains anyway) additional expense that you may not actually need.

 

OTHER STUFF YOU NEED:

You’ll need stands for your mics and speakers. Don’t cheap out on this stuff; there’s not a huge price difference between serviceable and junk. OnStage Stands makes decent gear – figure around $25 per stand for mics.

For best performance, your speakers shouldn’t be on the ground or floor – they should be on stands, with the center of the speaker at about eye level. Speaker stands are usually around $35-40 each. Note: your stands ideally should be well forward of your microphones, relative to the audience, in order to reduce the likelihood of feedback – so make sure you’ve got cables long enough to make that happen.

Speaking of cables: don’t cheap out on them, either. Your mic cables should all be XLR cables and, depending on your mixer and speakers, your speaker cables may be as well (they may also use ¼” or other connectors).  I wouldn’t buy anything shorter than 20’, and there should be at least one in your kit that’s longer (alternatively, you can hook two or more together). It’s always a good idea to have a couple of spares, too – these cables are the most likely component of your rig to fail. Expect to pay about $25 each for reasonable quality.

Handle your cables carefully to ensure long life. Don’t coil them around your arm or stuff them into a bag. I keep mine on an extension cord reel; they always roll back onto the reel gently, decreasing the likelihood that sloppy handling will break strands of the cable (which is what causes them to fail).

It’s also a good idea to get a good, beefy extension cord at least 50 feet long, no lighter than 14 guage, for your main power supply. Bands don’t always control where the house wants them to set up relative to the nearest power outlet. And don’t forget that you’ll need additional extension cords if you’re using powered speakers – each speaker needs power supplied in addition to the signal from the mixer.

 

NOT ESSENTIAL, BUT NICE TO HAVE:

  • A power conditioner. Think of this as a surge protector on steroids. Furman makes a good one for around $100. These are especially useful if using powered speakers; one power conditioner can easily manage power supply to your mixer, your speakers and any peripheral gear you have.
  • An extra dynamic mic, in case one craps out
  • Rollup reels for all cordage – XLR and power
  • Large plastic tote(s) to lug smaller gear – cordage, banners, tools, etc.
  • Some form of stand for your mixer (I modified a keyboard stand for this purpose)
  • A rack case if you’ve got several components (mine holds my mixer, my power conditioner and my DBX Driverack, with space for two more components if I decide I need any (and I don’t).
  • Carrying bags or cases for your speakers (protects them in transit, makes them easier to carry)
  • A portable hand truck. Some of this stuff gets heavy.

 

My extremely subjective list of brands to consider, speakers: JBL, Mackie, Yamaha, ElectroVoice, QSC, Bose, Peavey

Brands I’d personally avoid: Behringer, Fender, Samson

 

Brands I’d consider, Mixers: Mackie (I personally think these offer the best mix of feature and sturdiness for the money – and not by a little), Yamaha, Peavey

Brands I’d personally avoid: Behringer, Alesis, Fender, Samson

 

Brands to consider, mics: Audio Technica (AT 2020 probably best value for single-mic setup), Shure, AKG, Audix (especially for dynamic mics), Blue

 

FINAL THOUGHTS:

COMPACT/SELF-CONTAINED SYSTEMS:

Some manufacturers and retailers sell self-contained systems; the Fender Passport system comes to mind. These typically offer a lot of features for a low price, and they can be handy from the standpoint of making it easy to manage gear.

But remember: the simple fact is that with sound gear, you get what you pay for. Many of these systems don’t offer much in the way of output power, meaning that they’re really only suitable for small rooms. More importantly, none of these systems - at least none I've seen - provide adequate frequency response to handle the bass (the drivers in the speakers simply aren’t big enough to do the job). If your budget limits you to a system such as these, a separate bass amp is almost a necessity.

 

BUYING USED:

You can get a lot of bang for your buck if you buy used. I'd be leery of buying a powered speaker used; you won't have access to the speaker's warranty and powered speakers CAN be a little persnickety. But almost everything else can sometimes be found on Craigslist and, sometimes, in stores.

I got a great deal on my Mackie mixer and rack case on Craigslist - and here's the key: you need to be patient and jump on desired components as they become available at a price you're willing to pay. It pays to plan ahead; I had my new mixer for six months before I got the JBLs, and used the old system in the interim.

 

FURTHER READING:

Having a good PA is one thing. Learning to use it is another - and while you'll certainly learn a lot as you go, it helps to have some idea of what you're doing going in. There are some decent books and DVDs available on Amazon; here's a link to get you started.

Happy picking!

Edited by - eagleisland on 05/11/2018 04:55:33

Jun 28, 2015 - 9:35:32 AM

RedStar Players Union Member

USA

833 posts since 1/23/2013

Great info, Skip.

Mark

Jun 28, 2015 - 11:44:50 AM

beegee

USA

20685 posts since 7/6/2005

One other consideration: portability. You don't buy a truckload of PA equipment if you drive a VW bug to gigs.

Jun 28, 2015 - 12:16:22 PM

rudy Players Union Member

USA

12321 posts since 3/27/2004

Skip,  A hugely great job! Thanks so much for taking the time and effort to gather and organize the information; it's going to be hugely valuable to a lot of those folks who are new to the sound reinforcement game.

Edited by - rudy on 06/28/2015 12:16:50

Jun 28, 2015 - 12:17:14 PM

2069 posts since 8/8/2006

quote:
Originally posted by beegee
 

One other consideration: portability. You don't buy a truckload of PA equipment if you drive a VW bug to gigs.


No, you would certainly want at least a VW buswink... and make sure you're AAA is paid up!!!!

(For those outside the US- I'm referring to the American Automobile Association- four tows are included with a $56 yearly membership)

Jun 28, 2015 - 12:37:57 PM

597 posts since 11/7/2003

Great tutorial Skip!

Jun 28, 2015 - 2:51:53 PM

137 posts since 12/13/2013


yes

Jun 29, 2015 - 4:25:12 AM

605 posts since 8/26/2009

Great article and a lot of useful information and well thought out.
I probably should not offer my limited experience with sound equipment but I have to say something from a small garage band experience.
Last month I played at three nursing homes, a veterans home and a fund raiser for restoring a theater.

In reality you have probably 30 minutes to set up a usable sound system and you don't want to be all hot and bothered from running around trying to get everything to work. You have to park a long distance from the entrance and carry it all throughout the building. One person usually has all the money in it and is expected to get everything going. In my limited experience a bunch of mismatched heavy equipment that takes several trips is not working for me. And then after about an hour, you wind up having to break it down and carry out to the car with very little help.

I gave up and bought the compact Fender PA system (I think it's called Conference). Covers a reasonably large area, and let the bass worry about his sound.
I know this is one of the systems not recommended above, and have only had it maybe six months, but time will tell.
One trip for the compact mixer and speaker pkg., mikes and cables in a bag in the other hand, and one trip for the mike and speaker stands, and one more trip for my banjo. Get the truck to a parking space.

Not a lot of dials to balance every channel, just leave the settings from the last time, plug in the mikes, and asked somebody in the back of the room if they can hear. Do a few minor adjustments if needed. I did buy a two mike wireless and let the vocalist use one and carry one out in the audience if somebody wants to sing along. Simple and quick, but for how long, I don't know yet.

Phil

Jun 29, 2015 - 11:11:37 AM

1697 posts since 8/4/2011

Great info!  I recently put together my first PA.  The one thing I wish I'd done differently is to get 2 15" speakers instead of 2 12" speakers.  But we're just a banjo/guitar duo w/out a bass, so we manage.  

Another thing I've done when the situation called for it is to use my acoustic amp as a powered monitor. 

One thing I know I need to learn more about is wiring up the speakers.  Parallel vs serial, power limits, etc.  I'm still pretty confused about all of that.  And I'm still completely baffled by stereo vs mono stuff, but I just try to not worry about it.  

Jun 29, 2015 - 11:52:05 AM

DeanT

USA

36012 posts since 7/28/2005

Great Skip!

How about a section on monitors. That was the biggest unknown, and puzzle for us, when putting together a low end small gig PA set-up. Powered vs passive and finding a mixer that facilitates them. 

Also a HUGE HUGE HUGE issue when piecing together PA's, is speaker ohm ratings vs mixer ohm rating. We've blown two mixers, because we didn't pay attention to this!

Jun 29, 2015 - 5:48:36 PM

13438 posts since 12/2/2005

Great point on the portability aspect, Brian - I sort of assumed that people wouldn't try to get stuff they didn't have room to store/travel with... then again, there's a reason that bottles of cheap champagne have a warning label that says "Caution - Do Not Open Towards Face." big

 

Dean, you raise a terrific point. I'll try to do an edit in the next day or two reflecting the impedence issue and a brief discussion of monitors

Joe the Banjo Guy: great query. Like I said at the top, I know enough to be dangerous (but effective) and you're getting into areas that other people are probably better able to discuss. At this point, I'd love it if Rudy - who has probably had the luxury to forget more about this stuff than I'll ever have time to learn - would weigh in on the parallel/series issue. I do know this: in live sound settings trying to run a true stereo mix requires a sound guy who really knows how to set a system to precisely manage a room, and not all rooms permit this. But IMO you'll never go wrong if you mix monaural - with all pan controls straight up in their middle positions so that the same sound pressure is coming out of the mains on both sides; leave the panning tricks to rock producers trying to impress stoned hippies wearing headphones.

 

Phil - Mo: Sounds like you've got it figured out with your Passport; as long as you're running small rooms and have a mechanism to get the bass sound in the mix, like with an amp, the Passport should be adequate. They ARE very affordable and very portable - both on the plus side. They just can't handle the bass (and in a small enough room, the bass may be enough acoustically as long as the mains are set low enough). The larger point isn't to diss systems like yours; it's to reveal inherent needs and provide reasonable advice on how to adapt to what time, budget and space permits. Everything is a tradeoff; personally, I know I could get even better bass for my band by adding a subwoofer. But I'm not excited about the idea of spending six or seven hundred bucks to do so, and at my age I'm not exactly jumping up and down about storing,  transporting and loading in and out a box which typically takes up around 16 cubic feet of space and weighs 80 pounds - about normal for a good powered sub.

The rest of you: thanks for the kind words!

Jul 1, 2015 - 6:06:09 AM

13438 posts since 12/2/2005

Okay, I've added a section on monitors to the original post. Comments welcome.

Jul 1, 2015 - 9:49:32 AM

1697 posts since 8/4/2011

One of the bands I'm in uses the Bose tower, which is designed to be behind the band and uses some magic technology to prevent feedback.  It (in theory) eliminates the need for monitors.  

I have generally been pretty happy with this, and it's fairly compact, but it's not cheap.  

Jul 1, 2015 - 10:02:50 AM

13438 posts since 12/2/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Joe the banjo guy
 

One of the bands I'm in uses the Bose tower, which is designed to be behind the band and uses some magic technology to prevent feedback.  It (in theory) eliminates the need for monitors.  

I have generally been pretty happy with this, and it's fairly compact, but it's not cheap.  


Which is the main reason I didn't mention it, Joe - most people looking for their first systems are looking for the most possible bang for the buck.

Jul 1, 2015 - 10:05:58 AM

1697 posts since 8/4/2011

Yeah.  Makes sense.  It just occurred to me that it's another option for people looking for convenience.   

Jul 1, 2015 - 11:12:16 AM

13438 posts since 12/2/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Joe the banjo guy
 

Yeah.  Makes sense.  It just occurred to me that it's another option for people looking for convenience.   


No, it was a great comment!  Some people have dough, and many of the people who have used the Bose poles really like 'em.

Jul 30, 2015 - 8:20:11 AM

3302 posts since 10/13/2005

Maybe this should be a permanent link? Banjered

Jul 31, 2015 - 5:08:46 AM

13438 posts since 12/2/2005

Well whaddya know. Stickied again!

Sep 9, 2015 - 4:20:30 PM

1194 posts since 4/5/2006
Online Now

Keep in mind too that most of this stuff will be obsolete by the time you learn to use it. BTDT!!! Yamaha (I think) put out a book on sound systems for small bands. Check your local library and read up on this stuff before you start buying equipment. I would also advise finding someone whose business is sound reinforcement, both selling and contracting. They can help you design a system and more importantly, set up a demo session. One last note to banjo players, don't get sucked into running the sound system! BTDT as well. It aint fun.

Oct 2, 2015 - 3:04:35 PM

mrbook

USA

1907 posts since 2/22/2006

For the most part, I find that our band uses the same equipment I bought 20 years ago when I was flying by the seat of my pants. 6-input mixer/amp, 2 speakers, and single or sometimes separate mics. Not fancy but good equipment that has lasted with care. We learned to use it well, and it works fine for up 400+ people, bigger than most of our shows. When we play festivals and major concerts they always have a PA and sound man to run it.

Oct 18, 2015 - 5:28:10 PM

837 posts since 9/6/2013

Skip, thanks for putting so much time into this very informative topic. I've been twisting in the wind for months now over what to do/get/use or whatever. I've been looking for a system that is easy as pie to transport, set up, and remove, and that sounds at least very good. I keep coming back to the Bose L1 Compact. Yes, it is pricey, but one person can do it all in a few minutes, and I'm old and retired, and I can't spend money in the grave. My main problem has been deciding on a microphone. I want to use a single mic to cover both vocals and banjo/guitar. As mentioned by others, the Bose pole system is usually set up behind the musician, or to the immediate side. Everyone tells me I can't use a condenser mic, and I guess I understand the problem. A few folks have suggested a large diaphragm dynamic mic, like the Heil 30. It supposedly has a pattern that is large enough to pick up the sound of vocal and instrument, assuming the player is playing from a sitting position. What are you thoughts on this? I really would be interested to know if you think a single mic would work for a solo player using a Bose pole system. Thanks. Bill. 

Oct 18, 2015 - 6:59:52 PM

2069 posts since 8/8/2006

I have used a Heil PR30 the way you describe, but with a JBL EON 510.

With the Heil, I can kind of cheat and not have to use a monitor.

I have the JBL on a pole to my side, slightly back from me.

Since the sound comes out of a speaker in kind of a cone shape, I think I've got the Heil in front of me but slightly outside of that cone. I don't need the monitor, because enough sound is leaking outside of the main "cone" of sound that I can hear enough.  But if I can hear it, the Heil SHOULD "hear" it, but it doesn't seem to.  I'm pretty sure most other dynamics would feed back there though.

Be advised, if you go beyond risky to stupid, and put the Heil INSIDE that cone, and not pointed away, it WILL feed back.  Ask me how...

But I'm not trying to do this at high volume.  Still, the sound is super!  And when it does feed back, it's not that unbearable squeal, it's more of a moo.

Still, I've not tried it with the Bose, so I can't guarantee the same results on that.

Edited by - banjopogo on 10/18/2015 19:14:37

Oct 19, 2015 - 12:47:26 PM

837 posts since 9/6/2013

Michael, thanks for passing along your experience. I've got to find some time to go to a place where I can actually try this stuff out before buying, but I'll have to drive about 100 miles or more to get to such a place, and even then I'll need to  call ahead to make sure they have what I want to try out. By the way, I went to a place Saturday night and listened to two guys I know playing guitars and singing. They are youngsters, but I jam with them sometimes. They used a single speaker on a pole-type stand. One guitar was plugged into their mixer, while the other guy played and sang into a single mic. The other guy sang into the same mic. During a break, I asked about the mic, and it was an AT condenser (can't recall the number). What interested me most was the fact that the mic was located about 3 feet to the left of the somewhat raised speaker, and it also looked to be a couple of inches beyond the front of the speaker. They sounded great. I'm still wondering how they were able to do it.

Jan 25, 2016 - 12:40:09 PM

1194 posts since 4/5/2006
Online Now

When I put together my own sound system my main concern was being heard, cleanly. A lot of small bands at the time were playing on old out dated equipment and thier sound was what might best be described as muddy. Fast forward ten years. When all is said & done, consider the venue. Doing a small concert is one thing, a bar, or worse yet a pizza joint, is quite another. In the latter, the priorities are, comradery, cheap booze, & tolerable music. In that order.

May 3, 2016 - 2:43:55 PM

Tom Hanway Players Union Member

Ireland

6426 posts since 8/31/2004

I'm always looking for a good dynamic banjo mic to have as back-up, that I can throw in my case. I have a Shure Beta-57 that I bring to shows in case I get stuck with an old mic that needs its windscreen cleaned, or just a crappy mic. What else is out there, I wonder: is the AT 2020 any good on a banjo?

Thank you in advance.

Best ~ Tom

May 3, 2016 - 5:40:13 PM

n1wr

USA

707 posts since 12/27/2010

Mike: That's great stuff.

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