Do you set up and run your own PA system when you perform?
Are you happy with the results?
We’ll dive in today, and hey, let’s use the “Comments” section below as a giant water cooler where you can post your sound tips and get answers to questions from other readers.
Starting With The Basics
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 16 years or so.
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)
- 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 tablet, iPhone, laptop 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!
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.
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…
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.
Sometimes 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 during and afterwards.
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.
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.
If your mixer has an equalizer like this, its job is to shape the overall sound coming out of the speakers and to help eliminate feedback.
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.
Each 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.
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.
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.
About The Blog
Since 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.