A quality PA system should be a crucial part of every band or artist’s gear arsenal. If the vocals can’t be heard distinctly by the audience - and if the singers can’t hear themselves onstage and at rehearsals - it can negatively affect the performance. Often, musicians try to get by with sub-par, thrown-together sound systems. And while that may save money in the short term, it hurts their potential in the long term.
In the first post of the Building Your Own PA blog series, you'll see specific reasons why you should get the best PA you can, and in upcoming posts, tips to help you choose the gear you need to build a fantastic personal PA system.
As you know, a PA system consists of several different categories of gear: microphones, a mixer, power amps and speakers, not to mention the stands, cables and other accessories. We’ll go more into detail in later posts in this series about what to look for in the various components, but here we’ll take a brief look at each category, and talk about general needs.
In a small system you’ll probably only need vocal mics, but in a larger setup, you may be miking drums and other instruments as well. Almost all vocal mics made for stage use are of the dynamic (moving-coil) variety. Dynamic mics are less fragile than the other most common variety, condenser mics, and thus better suited for the greater level of physical abuse they’re likely to be subjected to onstage. Condenser mics tend to be more fragile, and require external power (aka “phantom”) power, which dynamic mics don’t.
The AKG D5 and P5i are a couple of good dynamic mic options for live performances. The P5i is part of the HARMAN Connected PA ecosystem, which allows supported components to be controlled and configured from an app on a tablet. Other compatible products include the JBL PRX800W line of powered speakers, the Soundcraft Ui24R Mixer, and the dbx Di1 Direct Injection (DI) Box.
Your mixer is the hub of your PA system. It’s where all the input signals are combined, processed and sent on to the amplifiers and speakers. Getting a quality mixer is important both for maintaining good sound and for providing you with the flexibility you need for connecting a range of gear: Mics, instrument- and line-level sources and DIs on the input side, and powered speakers or amplifiers for the mains and monitors on the output side.
Unless you’re starting a sound company or buying gear for a system that will be permanently installed, you’re probably better off with powered speakers or powered mixers, which have amplifiers built in than with buying a separate amp (or amps) to run passive speakers.
If you do go with a dedicated power amp, it’s critical to get one that’s compatible with your speakers in terms of ohms and power ratings. Your dealer can help you out with getting that sussed out.
Unless you’re a quiet solo act, or you’re just using the PA for rehearsals, you’ll also need monitor speakers, and they must be loud enough and clear enough to cut through the sounds of the instruments onstage.
Practice Makes Perfect
A good-sounding PA system is not only important for gigs, but it’s also crucial for rehearsing. The better you can hear each other singing, the easier it will be to work out vocal arrangements, learn and refine your harmony parts, and practice your vocal blends.
You’ve probably had the experience of playing at a club with a nice system, or practicing at a rehearsal studio with one, and thinking, “Wow, we sound amazing!” You want to replicate that feeling as much as possible in your own rehearsal setup, because it will inspire you musically. Conversely, if you have a cheap little system that’s not loud enough or sounds distorted, rehearsing won’t be as enjoyable and it’s harder to get in the creative zone.
Another advantage to a good system is that it will more closely replicate the sound conditions at a venue. Of course, the acoustics of your rehearsal space will differ from those at a club, but if you’ve got a crisp and full monitor sound, the experience will be more similar than if you’re using a subpar system.
A Lot of Benefits
Your budget will dictate your PA-buying decision to a large degree, but if you can swing it, getting a quality system will be a worthy investment for your act. While most clubs these days have sound systems, you’ll benefit with a good system for rehearsals, and it’s been my experience that there are many gigs, such as private parties and outdoor events in which you’re asked to bring a sound system.
To wrap this up, let’s recap the benefits of a quality PA:
- You’ll sound better to the audience at gigs
- You’ll hear yourself better at gigs
- You’ll hear yourselves better at rehearsal, thus spurring productivity and creativity
- Rehearsals will sound more like gigs, so you’re more prepared when you play out.
Stay tuned for part two of this series to learn how to choose the centrepiece of your personal PA – a mixer!
First published in the HARMAN Insights Blog by Mike Levine, former editor of Electronic Musician. Mike has written numerous articles on music technology and recording.