If you've ever thought to yourself, "What do I need to put together a PA system?", you've come to the right place! While there is a lot to know about sound reinforcement, this article is meant to give you some basics regarding the various components of a live sound system - just enough to get you pointed in the right direction. There is a TON of additional information in the Live Sound Buying Guides, a LOAD of live sound equipment to choose from online right at Sweetwater, and we welcome your phone call at 1-800-222-4700 where you can speak with someone who understands the ins and outs of live sound and can further answer your questions.
Just about every live sound system (or"PA" system) is comprised of the following basic components. Just follow this step-by-step guide and you'll find that building your own system is completely within reach.
Choose Your Mixer There have been two conventional categories of live sound mixers for quite awhile: powered and unpowered analog mixers. Now there is also a new generation of digital consoles designed for studio and live sound applications that bring the added benefits of total recall mixing and onboard effects. In order to help you choose which is best for you, powered, unpowered or digital, it is important to accurately assess the size of your ensemble and the places you intend to play.
For singles, duos, acoustic trios, or any group that plays in smaller clubs and coffeehouses, you'll probably want a PA that is compact, easy to carry, and can fit easily in your car with your other instruments. For you, a powered mixer is probably the best choice. Most of what you need - power amps, mixer, and often EQ and effects - are usually combined in one box. Plug in a mic and speakers and you're good to go!
Let 's assume that you have the typical rock band setup, one or two guitars, keyboard, bass, drums, a lead singer, and a few members singing backup, also playing smaller clubs. In this scenario, a traditional unpowered analog mixer would not only provide ease of set-up, but will also allow you to grow into a larger system by adding larger speakers, etc. without having to start from scratch. Many analog mixers now include digital effects processors so you don't have to carry additional outboard gear to the gig.
A digital mixer like Digidesign's VENUE, or even small-format studio mixers such as the Yamaha 01V96, include features such as dynamics/effects processors and instant settings recall while forming the basis of a system that can be added to as you grow and still provide a highly effective system at any level of performance.
Pick Out Mics That Fit Your Situation Many microphones are used to reinforce stage vocals but there is also a wide range of great mics that are used for instrument miking (some mics can be used in either situation). Dynamic mics tend to be more rugged than their more delicate counterparts, the condenser mic, which is more commonly used for high quality studio recording. However, as more people insist on studio quality sound for their live shows, road-worthy condenser mics have begun to surface. Finally, a good wireless system is worth considering when you need to be more mobile, or in spoken word situations.
Choose Appropriate PA Speakers PA speakers can be active (powered) or passive (unpowered). "Active" means that the speakers have amplifiers built in, which provides the advantage of not having to buy, carry, and match speaker to a power amp. Conversely, passive speakers do not have built-in amplification, but they come in a wide variety of configurations, generally have a much higher power capacity, and can be convenient if you already own power amps. Beyond choosing powered or unpowered, there are a number of other factors to consider, such as bi-amped, tri-amped, and whether or not to add a subwoofer to your system.
Pick Out the Right Monitor System Your vocalist will be more likely to sing in key, your bass and drummer will be more likely to play in the pocket, and your lead guitar player will know when to stop playing licks IF they can all hear what's going on. There are more options today for stage monitoring than ever before. You can go with traditional unpowered stage wedges, in-ear monitoring systems (wired or wireless), smaller stage fills, and/or powered solutions.
Get the Right Power Amplification If you're going with a powered mixer or powered speaker system, then you might not need outboard amps at all. However, if you need to match a power amp to a PA speaker, a general rule of thumb is to pick an amplifier that can deliver power equal to twice the speaker's continuous IEC power rating. This will allow for extra headroom offering clean, undistorted power.
Add Signal Processing Signal processing (effects) for live sound usually involves reverb and delay, EQ (graphic or parametric), and compression and limiting. It is important to choose an effects processor that is optimized for live performance. Like powered mixers, effects processing is another area where all-in-one products like the DriveRack PA by dbx are simplifying and greatly improving the quality of live sound.
Cable up Your Rig Often overlooked (until you actually try to get sound out of your live sound rig that is), good cables and proper cable management will mean the difference between your audience getting to hear your music or not. Because cables tend to be abused in live performance situations, we strongly suggest solid cables that will last. To begin with, you'll need enough microphone cables to handle your mic setup, plus line or speaker cables to run from your mixer to the speakers.
Rack Up and Pack Up Your Equipment Whether you're planning to gig out live by yourself at your favorite coffee house, or on a national tour with a ten-piece band, keeping your gear and other sound "stuff" organized in properly constructed racks and cases will allow you to set up and take down quickly and let's face it, your investments will last a lot longer than if you lugged it all around in your father's old suitcases. If you plan on going out on the road, a wood-constructed hard case rack is what your rack mount gear will need, but for those of us playing out around town, the molded plastic style portable racks suffice nicely. Be sure to plan for the future. Try to purchase a rack that allows for room to grow.