Have you been tasked with setting up a sound system for a small band that wishes to reach an audience of 300 to 500 people? There are various elements, both strategic and technological, to consider. Audio technicians have never had such a broad range of sound reinforcement equipment and techniques at their disposal. The choices of technology and products available can be overwhelming, so let’s talk about some of the options.
One’s choice of speakers should be based on coverage requirements and venue size. Some other thing to consider is the shape of the room and how the speakers will interact with boundaries (such as the walls, the ceiling, and the floor) and the audience.
You definitely need to get the best speakers your budget will allow. Start by figuring out what you can afford and then determine what sounds best to you within that price range. Always listen to the speakers before buying, as not all of them are made equal. When choosing a speaker, you’ll want to consult the specification sheet, which should be readily available from most reputable manufacturers. The most important specs to know are the frequency response, SPL output, and dispersion. If you are using passive speakers, then you’ll need to know the wattage and impedance (ohms resistance). These terms will be explained in subsequent posts.
Regardless of whether you are using active speakers or passive speakers with an amplifier, you should invest in a speaker processor. In my opinion, it is the most important piece of gear and will save you time, money, and headaches. A speaker processor combines a number of processors into a rackmount signal processor. You will find gain, EQ, delay, crossovers, and limiting for both input and output. A typical processor might have a stereo input and six outputs. The inputs will feature a 6- to 8-band parametric EQ and/or a graphic EQ, as well as a system delay. Each output on your processor will offer gain, a 4-band parametric EQ, a delay for time-aligning speaker components in a bi-amp or tri-amp application, or a full-range speaker and a subwoofer.
Note: A speaker processor delay is not a digital delay effect, as it is intended to literally delay a signal by a set amount and does not offer a “wet/dry” setting. If a manufacturer offers time delay settings for your speakers, you can use those to time align the tops and subs. If a sub has a 3 ms delay, adjusting the tops to match the inherent delay of the subs will provide a coherent and phase-accurate wave front. If you don’t have the specs, you can invest in a measurement system like SMAART. If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can purchase the AudioTools app by Studio Six Digital, which can help you measure and calibrate your sound system.
Mixing Consoles (Digital vs Analog)
Analog mixers are the mainstay of any audio system, and range in price and features. There are some diehard analog enthusiasts who will not move to a digital mixing board, as they believe the analog components sound superior to digital. If you are mixing a live band, you will want some additional signal processors to shape the sound of each instrument. Most analog mixing consoles will offer a built-in four band parametric EQ, which helps balance the tonal sound and carves out space for each instrument in the mix. It is rare to find analog consoles with built-in dynamics available on every channel. Therefore, an all-analog setup will require several racks of gear to accommodate the additional signal processing, such as compression and gates for each channel.
Digital mixers have made some considerable advances in recent years regarding the quality of the sound, and pricing that is comparable to many moderately priced analog consoles. Digital mixers offer the best solution for any touring band, with a large channel count and each channel packing four-band EQ, compression, and gating. Additionally, each output features graphic EQ for ringing out monitors. Many mixers feature internal effects with up to eight insert slots for use with internal sends. You can still use your favorite outboard gear, but the digital platform reduces the amount of gear substantially. Another benefit of the digital mixer is the wireless control options. Many mixers offer iOS and Android control apps
If the FOH position is in a less than desirable place, the engineer can move about the room to make informed adjustments based on the audience’s perspective. This also allows the engineer to tweak monitors from the stage, while standing next to the musicians. Many mixer platforms will allow multiple device setups in which band members may adjust their own mix in real time, allowing the FOH engineer to focus on the main mix. Other features now incorporated in the digital platform include spectral analysis and a real-time analyzer (RTA) for making adjustments to monitors or to the entire mix. However, I still recommend a dedicated speaker processor for tuning the sound system.
Audio Power Amplifier
An audio power amplifier (or power amp) is an electronic amplifier that amplifies low-power electronic audio signals such as the signal from radio receiver or electric guitar pickup to a level that is high enough for driving loudspeakers or headphones. Audio power amplifiers are found in all manner of sound systems including sound reinforcement, public address and home audio systems and musical instrument amplifiers like guitar amplifiers. It is the final electronic stage in a typical audio playback chain before the signal is sent to the loudspeakers.
While the input signal to an audio power amplifier, such as the signal from an electric guitar, may measure only a few hundred microwatts, its output may be a few watts for small consumer electronics devices, such as clock radios, tens or hundreds of watts for a home stereo system, several thousand watts for a nightclub’s sound system or tens of thousands of watts for a large rock concert sound reinforcement system.
Stage Snakes and Stage Boxes
A stage box or multi-channel snake is highly beneficial for reducing clutter on the stage. Some larger stage setups use a splitter that splits the signal from all the sound sources on stage between FOH and monitors. Most mid-level bands typically don’t have a dedicated monitor engineer, so the FOH engineer will perform both main mixing and monitor duties. With an analog setup, you’d be working with a 16- to 24-channel audio snake with a cable run of 100+ feet. A drum kit may have 8 to 12 microphones set up to capture the sound, so a dedicated sub-snake allows for shorter mic-cable runs and a much cleaner stage setup.
Utilizing stage sub-snakes before going to the main stage snake will keep the cable clutter on stage to a minimum. Many digital mixers offer digital stage boxes that function like an analog stage snake, only instead of a 16- to 24-pair multi-channel cable, the digital snake will use a single CAT5/CAT6 cable to connect to the mixer in the FOH position. This cuts down considerably on the weight and setup time of the entire system.
For musicians to be heard, microphones are used to capture vocals, guitar amplifiers, and drums. The mainstay of live music is the use of dynamic microphones. There are many microphone manufacturers, but the favorite of most clubs is still the Shure SM58 for vocals and SM57 for instruments. They have proven their value over time by sounding good and being incredibly rugged. They can literally take a beating and still function. If there is the budget and desire for wireless microphones, The Shure GLXD or QLXD series digital microphones comes highly recommended. The GLXD is an affordable option with a clean, clear sound without any artifacts, a simple setup, and a built-in charger in the receiver.
The Sennheiser has a high-end boost as well as better mid-range when compared to the Shure, and it sounds better without any EQ applied to it.
The Sennheiser handles noise really well and allows for great feedback rejection. It’s construction is incredibly rugged which means that it should last you a long time. This microphone is also designed with an advanced internal shockmount to stabilize and protect the capsule from handling noise that can be a problem at high volumes, and it’s got a uniform frequency pick-up pattern that maintains the signal quality when moving on and off axis during performance. Sennheiser EM2050 comes highly recommended.
Many bands prefer to forgo the use of stage monitors and opt for in-ear-monitors (IEM). I’ve used the entry-level PSM300 Shure Personal Monitoring System for years and have had excellent results. With a digital mixer, the setup and operation is even simpler, resulting in very happy musicians who are able to set their own monitor mix-and without excessive stage volume.
As you can see, there are many directions one can choose when setting up a sound system for your band or event: analog mixers vs digital mixers; passive speakers and subs versus active designs. Each has its pros and cons. The most important thing is to use your ears when making decisions. Always listen to speakers before purchasing and, if possible, demo speakers and subs together, especially if you are using different brands. I can’t recommend enough the importance of having a dedicated speaker processor for any system, regardless of size or budget.