Live Sound Considerations: Mics, PAs, Mixes and More

Do you set up and run your own PA system when you perform? Are you happy with the results?

I’ve received several questions on this recently, so we’ll dive in today.

And hey, let’s use the “Comments” section below as a giant Q&A where you can post your sound tips and get answers to all your questions.

How to set up a PA and get a good live sound

Starting With The Basics

Equipment Considerations

I’m no “gear head” myself, so this won’t be a comprehensive list of options, but I want to give you some things to think about in terms of sound equipment for live gigs.

I’ll also detail the system that’s been working great for me for the past dozen or so years.

In basic terms, you’re going to want:

  • vocal microphones, cables and stands (one for each singer/speaker/vocalist) – Shure SM58 is a workhorse industry standard
  • instrument cables if you’ll be plugging in any musical instruments, or instrument mics/cables/stands if not- Shure SM57 is an industry standard mic for instruments
  • two speakers (powered or unpowered) with speaker stands and cables
  • a powered or unpowered mixer (you need power either in your speakers or your mixer, but not both)

Optional:

  • two or more monitors and cables (I don’t use them, but depending on what you do and where you do it, you might need them if you find it hard to hear yourself or others on stage)
  • cables to connect your iPad, iPhone, CD player or other external device to the sound system

If you’re a solo act, you can probably get by with a simple 4-channel mixer and a pair of speakers (+ monitors for loud bars, none necessary for “listening” audiences) along with assorted mics, cables, and stands.

My Sound Equipment

I have an 8-channel mixer because I occasionally play with groups that require six or seven inputs. Most of the time, though, I play solo and only need two of those channels (one for vocal mic, one for instrument mic).

I am a huge believer in spending as much as you can on the quality of your sound system. Being a solo performer, that’s particularly important to me – there’s nowhere to hide!

Sound systems for musiciansMy equipment:  

Mackie 406M Powered Mixer
Bose 402 Speakers (2)
Shure SM57 & SM58 mics
Assorted speaker and mic cables and stands

The bonus for me is that my entire PA system lives in the trunk of my very small car, so there’s no need to haul it in and out of the house every day.

Setting Up A PA System

Here’s a useful short video on how to set up a simple PA system using powered speakers and an unpowered mixer:

And for those with powered mixer/unpowered speakers:

Getting Your Live Sound Right

OK, so you’ve got your PA system set up and all inputs are working as they should be.

Now what?

Well, regardless of the type of show you’re doing, the goal with sound equipment is to help the audience get maximum benefit and enjoyment from your performance.

Things to keep in mind:

Volume

There’s no magic number I can give you here – you just need to be your own judge and always monitor audience reaction to make sure you’ve got it right.

Too quiet and your show will certainly be ineffective; too loud and you’ll piss people off.

Getting a good live soundSometimes I find myself in situations where an older audience is unaccustomed to seeing ANY sound equipment, and they get scared at the mere sight of it.

“Is this going to be too loud?”

“Oh dear, I don’t want to be near that…”

Do what’s right for the situation, and if you’re really not sure, ask audience members for their feedback afterwards.

Sound Quality

Lots can be said here, but to begin with, I’d suggest the following:

a) start with all tone controls (low, mid, high) set to even, zero, “U,” or the midway point. You can make subtle adjustments from there, if needed.

pa system for solo performers - dave ruch
b) bring your main or “master” volume up slowly toward the midway point. Same for the gain and volume controls on each channel

c) get to know the basics of a graphic equalizer if your mixer has one

The nine-band graphic equalizer pictured below is pretty typical of what you’ll find on smaller mixers. The sliders on the left side represent the lower frequencies (“low end” or bass), those on the right represent the higher frequencies (“high end” or treble), and those in the middle are your midrange.

Currently, this EQ is set “flat,” or to zero.

how to do live sound - dave ruchIf your mixer has an equalizer like this, its job is to shape the overall sound coming out of the speakers from ALL channels.

Start with it flat as pictured here, then gradually boost some highs and/or lows, and see how it sounds to you. Better? Worse?

Try reducing the mids and see how that sounds.

My ear tends to like EQing things slightly higher than zero on the low and high ends, and slightly lower than zero in midrange, but this will always depend on the room I’m in.

Sound too muddy or unclear? Try knocking down some of the low end on the individual channel if it’s just affecting one person, or on the overall system eq if it’s a global issue.

Too tinny or shrill? That’s probably the high end – try knocking it down some.

Getting a squeal or hum? The equalizer is also critical for reducing the all-but-certain hum or high-pitched feedback you’ll get at some point. Generally, by bringing one of these sliders (frequencies) down quite a bit, you can dial out the frequency that was giving you trouble.

advice for musiciansEach time you lower one of the frequencies on an equalizer, you are simultaneously diminishing the overall output or volume of the system, and the same is true in reverse when boosting a frequency or two. Keeping things close to a net zero (some above, some below if necessary) is a good way to go.

Is something distorting? The most common causes of distortion are weak batteries in a pickup or effects device (change the battery!), or too much gain on one of the gain or volume controls (stop overdriving the system!). Less common, but always possible, is a torn speaker cone or a damaged cable.

For further help with tweaking your EQ, here’s a great article from the DIY Musician blog: Make your shows shine with these simple EQ tricks.

The Mix

This too will depend quite a bit on what kind of performing you’re doing. For me, I like to have my voice mixed slightly louder than my instrument, as I do a fair amount of communicating with the audience during and between songs.

When I’m playing with a group, it’s all about balance.  I want to be able to hear everybody, and make sure each musician has a bit of “headroom” (capacity to make themselves louder) for solos and feature sections.

For more on mix, check out the article Get a great live mix – eight ways to take control of your live sound from Discmakers.

Troubleshooting Feedback

Here’s a great little primer from Sweetwater Sound on how to avoid feedback. It all rings very true from my experience.

Trusting Your Ears (and those of others)

Always, always, ALWAYS walk out in front of the speakers and listen to what’s coming out of them before you begin your show. If that’s not possible, then recruit someone to stand where the audience will be and listen.

If you’re using monitors, turn them completely down while you’re doing this – you need to know exactly what the people in the room will be hearing.

Then, adjust accordingly.

Live Sound is a Huge Subject

Obviously, we’ve just scratched the surface here. Getting good live sound is a rich and almost endless topic that can be explored in much greater detail as your time and interest allows.

I do hope that this has provided a solid grounding in the basics though, and of course, there’s no substitute for lots of trial and error.

What have I left out?

Got some great tips to share? Specific questions you’d like answered?

The “Comments” section is just below.

help with marketing for musicians


About The Blog

The Largest Online Gathering of K-5 Classrooms for Connected Educator MonthSince leaving a white-collar marketing job in 1992, Dave Ruch has been educating and entertaining full-time in schools, historical societies and museums, folk music and concert venues, libraries, and online via distance learning programs.

Along the way, he’s learned a great deal about supporting a family of four as a musician.

The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.

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29 Responses to Live Sound Considerations: Mics, PAs, Mixes and More

  1. Lorenz

    Sound, is my absolute bottom line. Today with “HD” this and “Digital” that, peoples ears are far more sophisticated than they realize. I play as a solo (keyboard/acoustic guitar/vocal) and all of my events require that I bring my own system (an hour and a half set up). No matter what the room is, I make sure (from where I sit) that the speaker(s) are turned “slightly” in my direction. Speakers are like “mirrors”, they show you exactly what’s there. If you can’t see the front of those speakers, than you have no idea what your audience is hearing (hot spots, in-ears and monitors do not count, that’s a whole other story). When your sound is “on”, your performance is unstoppable. I do have to say, I’ve turned down “many-a-gig” because the venues set up was not feasible. I’ve managed to play (and been paid) 2-3 times a week for that last 25 years with this structure. I hope it works for you.

    Musically yours,
    Lorenz

  2. richardwise

    good 101 ,Dave.i would only add ,or point out that EQ (or any dynamics processor) is a repair tool.Jerry at Polytone told me that the last thing Joe Pass ever said to him was”can you make me an amp with only one knob?”things like that happen when your’e trying for the perfect sound.playing basically bottom feeder type gigs at healthcare centers,i found it had to be super-simple.sound checks are not an option and they despise elaborate rigs.so the obvious or typical choice is the Acoustic single box amp.i was using a Roland AC90.actually,i think all those amps sound cheap.to make a long story boring,,i found that small amps sound thin and cheap from the crowd soaking up the low and low-mid.thats what uses up the wattage,too.so if you try to feed a dense crowd with 100 w or less the sound and feel head south.one fix is to use a bass amp for guitar.this is more common than you might think .Dave,thanks for all your great posts!i will likely return to not responding,as you mostly talk about marketing,about which i know nothing.

    • Dave Ruch

      Richard! Thanks for stopping by here. Joe Pass got such a great sound out of the guitar, but I suspect 90+% of that was coming from his hands and not his equipment!

  3. Aspen

    Good basic information for all. I agree that sound is all-important, and can easily make or break a show. I have run my own sound at gigs for just over 25 years. My best advice to others is to know your equipment/effects settings well. Don’t try anything new at a gig that you haven’t tested extensively and recorded your sound from the audience’s angle first. Be flexible. Expect the room to pose challenges. Know the sound you want and work quickly toward getting as close as you can to it. Equally, know when to give up the quest for perfection and settle for “good enough” in order to start the show on time. Always have fresh batteries and back-up equipment in case something fails.

    My current setup for solo gigs is a Bose L1 Compact, 6 channel Yamaha Mixer, either a Shure wireless head mic or an AT condenser mic (depending on the focus of the gig), EQ/effects boxes, and wireless instrument systems (or cables, depending on the gig). I also use a small powered speaker as a bass amp, when needed.

    • Dave Ruch

      Thanks Aspen! That’s really practical advice – every room IS different, so it’s imperative to know your own equipment really well and have a few “Plan B’s.”

  4. Matt

    Regarding quality of equipment and mics however, Dave is right- buying the best you can afford is not snooty it is a good idea because often listeners ears may ear differently than even your own and engineers don’t develop these products just for kicks, if there are good reviews and such it is most likely for good reason. That said, if you are under budget, don’t sweat it, you can always upgrade. Just be constantly aware of audience reaction to your sound. Once again, if you need to, as Dave says- ask an audience person!

  5. Matt

    I play keyboards solo and in bands, arranged with small groups and more often, by myself. Using MIDI programmed synths in combination with live performance by me or other horn and guitar players requires a lot of care to individual volumes and EQs. Hard to do with a self run PA. Every venue is different regarding absorption of varying audio frequencies, etc. For solo situations I use a 16 channel rack EQ inline between my mixer and PA speakers. Then, I try to get an opportunity for pre show sound check and play a few songs with varying instrumentation. A low cost iPhone app provides some frequency analysis I can do myself and adjust the EQ. Of course, once the bodies come into the room and absorb sound…. Like Dave says, it is a lot of “your ear” and “trial and error” and just flat out asking people “how did it sound?”

    Another factor to my particular show is having MIDI volumes programmed in a manner that, during sound check, you can set levels particular to that venue, then hope for the best, understanding that next show you’ll have to do same thing all over again.

    It is difficult to EQ a PA channel for an entire show, if each song has a slightly different synth timbre each song. You just have to do a sound check that is representative of your overall, and hope for the best.

    • Dave Ruch

      Solid advice Matt. What’s the iPhone app you use? I didn’t know such a thing existed, and I’m thinking it would really be handy for certain situations I play in.

      • Matt

        It is “RTA” by Studio Six Digital. It has a lot of professional and useful features, one being that you can take snapshots of the graph and they are saved to your camera roll. If you are playing during sound check a bystander, even if they don’t understand anything about what you’re doing, can take snapshots for you. Then you can stop playing and take a look and maybe adjust your system’s EQ. Or you could use the app yourself while doing the pink noise thing.

  6. Jug Band Dan

    Instrument mics are nice and allow for some natural volume control for proximity. In my bands, I like to be able to move around while playing and that was tough to do with instrument mics.

    As a result, I got pickups installed on the instruments I play out the most. It was helpful to have a preamp with EQ control for the pickups that I got.

    I also invested in a Fishman Artist amp. It does a nice job amplifying acoustic instruments. It can be the only thing that I bring to small solo gigs. It has 2 inputs (either 1/4″ or XLR) that each have their own EQ and anti-feedback controls. I can do instruments and vocal into it. It even has an auxiliary input in the back for playing an iPod or something. Very versatile. I’ve also found that when I do gigs with a band, I can use the Fishman amp at a low volume for hearing myself if the whole band is sharing one monitor feed — or I can use it if I need a monitor and the setup doesn’t have monitors.

  7. Tracy

    I play occasional outdoor, small venue solo gigs. – guitar & vocals. I recently purchased a small Powerks brand PA – PW150TFXBT is the model – going for about $279 on Reverb. I use a speaker stand to raise it about 3′ off the ground (Rockville Stands, < $40 on Amazon.) No need for monitor if I set it up just over my left or right shoulder, 4' to 6' behind me. Inexpensive and easy to carry & set-up!

  8. Jim Cullinane

    Great post Dave. There’s a multitude of different systems out there, but as I perform in schools (in New Zealand) I don’t need huge walls of sound. I’ve recently been using an Alto Trouper (the poor man’s Bose L1) and I find it’s perfect for my needs (listening audiences as you call them). 100 watts RMS with built in 3 channel mixer for vocals, git/uke & iPad. It’s also got bluetooth, weighs only 10 kg (or 20 pounds in your language) so super lightweight and fast to set up. As mentioned above, putting it on a stand helps dispersion immensely, and if I’m playing to bigger audiences & spaces I simply hook up a powered speaker to it.

  9. Priscilla Howe

    Great post, as always. It’s good to consider one’s own voice–I often need to boost the low and diminish the high, to create a warmer sound (depending, of course, on the space). I think this might be the case for many women’s voices.

  10. Jim Caroompas

    Hi Dave,
    Great post, as always!
    For my solo and vocal trio gigs, I use a Bose L1 system. When I’m doing a solo, I don’t even need a mixer – the built-in mixer has a guitar and vocal input, though with no eq or effects like reverb. When I need more inputs, I use my 8-channel Mackie mixer. The L1 is 35 pounds total, and sets up in just a couple of minutes. It sounds great, and disperses the sound so that people in the back hear the same thing as folks in the front. And because of the way the speakers are configured in the thin tower, you can put it behind you without worrying about feedback, so you don’t need a monitor. I strongly recommend this system for acoustic solo, duo and trio performers. It’s not cheap ($1,000), but the portability and sound quality justify the cost, at least for me.

  11. Tashi

    We perform as a duo and use a simple fender passport (largest size) for gigs of 200-400 people and smaller. We bring a separate equalizer to get the sound we want as the passport only has hi and low EQ knobs. We do not use monitors, so we position the speakers so that we can hear ourselves ( but in a place where they will not feedback into our microphones). This is a fine balance, but worth working it out. As mentioned, having the speakers up higher helps.

    We also have a mackie pa head (8 channel) for playing with our bands. The mackie always sounds “harsh” to me. I cannot seem to EQ a “warm” sound . I am not sure why. Sometimes I think the older equipment has better metal in the wiring.

    one tip –regarding feedback. Always make sure the master volume is higher than the individual volume controls. Raising a volume higher than the master is set might cause feedback.

    • Dave Ruch

      Thanks for jumping in here Tashi. I do the exact same thing in terms of speaker positioning, placing them where I can hear them well enough to serve as monitors but far enough away so as not to create feedback. It’s hassle free.

      Great point regarding the gain from the individual channels vs. the master volume.

  12. Shirley

    Hi, Dave. You mention that you leave your sound equipment in your car overnight. Does that mean that it is subjected to high and low temperatures and humidity changes or is it in a protected garage? I would love to leave my equipment in the car, but haven’t because it’s outdoors at night. What are your thoughts? Thanks! I just skimmed the article for now, but see that there’s a lot to go back to!

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Shirley – it certainly wouldn’t go in the “best practices” category, but yes, I leave the PA equipment in the trunk of my car (concealed) in my driveway, with no garage, through all four seasons. In all my years of doing this, there has never been an issue with weather-related damage to the equipment. I’ve probably just been lucky.

    • Joel Glaser

      Hi Shirley,

      I’ve been in the SR business for more than 25 years and regularly leave equipment in a trailer. No problems yet. The thing to remember is moisture condensation is probably sound equipment’s worst enemy. That being said, I don’t leave the trailer unopened for extended periods of time. If it’s going to be more than a week or so until the next show, or the weather is changing drastically, I’ll unload the trailer and store things inside. Even opening the trailer door and letting it air out will help with condensation.

      HTH

      Joel
      Glaser Audio Productions

      • Shirley

        Thank you so much,, Joel, for your help. I appreciate your alert about condensation. I’ll be careful about that. I feel more confident, however, about leaving equipment in my car if the conditions are right.

        By the way, I checked out your Facebook page and was pleased to read the post about “El Paso.” By coincidence, an audience member had recently asked me to learn the song for a future performance.. I was excited to read about its origin. I used to have the Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs album.

        Thanks again, Joel!

  13. Coach Dave

    Hi Dave!

    The other Dave, Coach Dave here. Great tips as usual. Getting the speakers high or at least tilted high if they are on the floor is very important. Especially if you are on a carpeted floor, the carpeting will absorb a lot of the sound. But more importantly, back in my wedding gig days, first of all, there generally was very little space for the band to set up and of course the table set directly in front of the band was for, you guessed it, grandma and grandpa well into their eight decade at least. So get those speakers up!

    Thanks.

    “Coach Dave”

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