The basics of PA selection for bands

April 26, 2009
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photo by sparktography

I see many bands, young and old, starting out without a clear idea of the sort of equipment that they need to get started with some basic gigging. I decided to write up a quick guide to the bare minimum you will need to get started. My opinions are based on shows that I have done over the past dozen or so years of my life, both as a performer and as a sound engineer.

I’d advise against renting, as the markup is extreme – the sooner you buy the stuff yourself the sooner you can start making it pay for itself through gigging. If anything, try to borrow and scrape together enough gear to get some gigs that pay enough to reinvest some money back into equipment. If the band is tight, everybody could chip in at first, but make sure that you have an agreement in place for when things go south, or a member quits (because this will happen).

What I am outlining below will get you through a standard pub/small bar/wedding gig. It won’t be thunderingly loud, but then, it shouldn’t be, really – your main priority is an even mix with the vocals on top and audible. If your singer sucks, get a new one – don’t think that you can just turn them down in the mix. The audience will notice.

Here’s what you need:

A Pair of “mains” speakers – 15″ woofers with 2″ compression driver tweeters (I have these Yamaha S115V’s, and they’re a nice speaker.) – but there are dozens of brands to choose from – try to get something with similar specs. These speakers have mounting sockets on the bottom, and you will want to get some speaker stands to get them up off the ground and closer to ear level.

A pair of or three “monitor” speakers – 12″s are fine here to start. Three gives you two up front and one for the drummer, which is nice. This is the monitor version of the above – same speaker, just in a wedge shape so it will sit on the floor. Monitors help all of the band members hear the singers and guitarists. This will greatly increase the comfort level of all members. It’s easy to get caught up with the monitor mixes, but I don’t think it’s worth spending a ton of time on at this level. When you make it big, you will have somebody whose job it is to make sure that every member has their own monitor mix. Until then, just suck it up and make it work.

A mixer with 8-16 channels (8 will do fine to start, more will give you more flexibility in the future). Nothing too fancy is required here. As long as you have XLR inputs (which anything but the cheapest dollar-store mixer will), you’ll be fine. You get what you pay for, of course – higher end mixers will have nicer EQ sections and more options for monitor mixes.

Power amps to drive all of your speakers – anything with more wattage than your speakers can handle will be fine.  (not enough watts can lead to distortion and damaged speakers). Stereo sound is not really necessary, and can sound odd in small rooms anyway. A two channel amp to start with will let you run your mains on one side and your monitors on the other. There are speaker impedance (ohms) matching considerations to be made, but it’s pretty tough to end up with something that won’t work.

A Shure SM-58 microphone and a stand and a long cable for each singer. Accept no substitutes here – the SM-58 is the one you want.

Cables to hook up each speaker. Instrument cables and speaker cables are not the same, even though they may have the same ends! The speakers I linked above use Speakon connectors along with 1/4″. I would recommend that you get cables with Speakon ends as they are a more durable, electrically superior connection. For cheap and long cables, buy some 100′ extension cords, cut the ends off and solder on some Speakons.

Cables to hook mixer to power amps. These will either be XLR or balanced 1/4″ (three conductor). Nothing special here, a cable is a cable in this case.

Power bars and extension cords. Bring more than you think you’ll need, especially if you are playing somewhere that you have never played before. Mark them all with your name or the name of your band, and be vigilant about rounding them all up at the end of the night. It is nearly impossible at times, but try to balance out your gear so that you aren’t running every piece of equipment off of the same circuit.

Eventually you may want to add more mics in order to mic the instrument amps, but that probably won’t be necessary at first, and will only make it difficult on whoever has assumed the role of sound engineer. Guitar amps are very directional, so if you are going to mic anything, make it a guitar amp. Try not to make it any louder, just fuller – the PA speakers will help to spread the sound over the room, as opposed to a single laser-beam of sound pointing at some unsuspecting audience members head.

Your main priority for these gigs is getting the vocals audible over the rest of the instruments (particularly the drums. This depends greatly on your drummers ability to moderate the volume of his playing). Try to make sure that all players are on the same page with regards to what the group should sound like. Don’t let a loud drummer or guitarist dictate the sound of the band.

Above all else – practice your sets and sound good! If you’re getting paid, you owe it to the owner and your audience to work for your money.

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