Make Yourself Heard: Tips On Buying Your First PA

There comes a time for many musicians when playing or singing at home just isn’t enough and you want to make yourself heard in the world! That’s when many musicians take to the stage to show the public just what they can do, and on your way to singing to thousands of eager fans at Wembley Stadium you’ll more than likely be playing some slightly smaller gigs or concerts on the way. With pubs and other small music venues struggling to get by these days, it’s not always wise to rely on them having a house PA because they simply want to save money wherever they can. That’s why any local band or musical act worth their salt will be fully equipped with their own PA. You might not always need one, but with one you can bring your music to anywhere you like! In this guide we’re going to look at some of the basics of what a PA is and what essential bits you will need.

What is a PA?

A PA or Public Address System is essentially an amplification system used to project sound from a performer to an audience. Electric Guitarists, Bassists, Keyboardists, Digital Drummers and other electrical instrument players will already be familiar with plugging into an amplifier in order to her themselves play, and in essence a PA is the same in basic principle. Normally the vocalists microphones are sent to the PA in order for their singing to be heard by all audience members in the room, and in the case of  larger venues, other instruments may also be plugged in. PA’s are also used for public speakers (hence their name), for none singing musical acts such as DJ’s as well as for exercise classes such as dance or aerobics.

Whilst PA systems can come in all manner of shapes and sizes, their are some basic elements which make up each of them. Some of the main things to consider are the size of the venues you will be playing, and how portable you need the system to be.  It’s no use having hundreds of speakers if you’re only playing a small pub and you are all travelling there in one small car!  We’ll take a look at each of the basic components PA System within the framework of a young band or small musical group.

Microphones

At the very beginning of the sound’s journey through a PA, it first needs to be picked up by a microphone which transfers the sound vibrations into an electrical signal. Microphones are an essential for any vocalist or singer, but some suit live music better than others. As careful as you may be with your microphone, it’s always better to have a more robust microphone. As a general rule, a dynamic microphone such as the industry standard Shure SM58 is your best bet and a quality investment as not only will they seemingly last forever thanks to their rugged construction, they are also relatively cheap as well as sounding good. Although you can hold the mic with one hand, if you’re playing another instrument at the same time you’ll need to have a mic stand as well.  Even if you’re not playing another instrument whilst singing, it’s also nice to give your arms a rest! If you’re a public speaker or hosting an exercise class, a lavalier microphone or headset microphone ALA Britney Spears would be better suited as they free up your hands but allow you to move around whilst speaking. These condenser microphones are either worn in a lightweight headset or clipped to the clothing of the speaker and so don’t require the use of a mic stand.

Speakers

At the other end of your voices journey are the speakers, which turn the electrical signal back into sound. PA speakers come in a variety of different sizes and quantities to suit playing in different sized venues.  As a general rule, most small bands will only need a two regular PA Speakers as part of their system, as these will be more than enough to fill a cosy pub with music. These are placed on specially designed and particularly sturdy stands in order to project the sound above the bodies of the audience. For larger venues and particularly if you’re micing up other instruments, you may need to use some additional larger speakers, commonly referred to as “Bass Bins”.  As the name may suggest, the primary purpose of these is to project the bass end frequencies, which is particularly useful if you’re micing up a bass guitar or the kick drum as well as the vocals. These aren’t as essential as regular PA speakers when playing small venues, but can be a useful addition when playing out doors or in larger venues because bass frequencies are the first to be lost over a longer distance or in a packed room, which is why larger speakers would be needed.

Cables

Unlike a 1/4 inch TRS cable or jack lead like that used for electric guitars, both microphones and speakers will often require different types of leads. Microphones use leads or cables with what is known as an XLR connection, which is easily distinguishable by it’s 3 pins at one end and holes for them at the other. At one time these would also have been used to connect the speakers to the amplifier/mixer, but more common place now are Speakon cables which can be identified by their larger and bulkier connectors. These are more sturdy connections as they lock into place, and are often better suited for carrying the extra watts of power in an amplified signal. If you’re buying the parts of your PA separately, it’s always wise to check which connections your speakers and power amplifiers have.

Power Amplifiers & Mixers

Not to be confused with a guitar amp, a power amplifier is the essential middle man between a microphone and a PA’s speakers, and are the difference between sounding enjoyable and deafening your audience with noise!  In a small PA set up, these are commonly combined with the mixers into one portable unit. In any case their job is converting the sound signal received from the microphone and sending a louder version or amplified signal to the speakers.  The purpose of the mixer part is to fine tune the different sound frequencies so that audience can hear the vocals or other mic’d up instruments clearly whilst also sounding pleasing. If more than one singer is singing at the same time, the person controlling the mixing desk will often boost the person singing lead or turn the volume down for the other singer. This can be useful to make the vocals of one singer more prominent than the other whilst also blending one or both to a similar level as the rest of the instruments.

Feedback

Once everything is plugged in the temptation may be there to turn everything up as load as it will go, but if you do you will experience something called feedback. This occurs when the microphones pick up the sound being generated by the speakers, and in turn send them back to the speakers in what is known as a feedback loop. This a high pitched and unpleasant sound that is always best avoided as neither your or your audience will appreciate it! In order to combat this, a best practice is to lower the volume to a level just before feedback loop begins using the mixer. Another tried and tested method is position the speakers at the very edge of your stage or performance area, in order to avoid accidentally pointing the microphone at  the speakers.

PA Packages

It can be quite daunting to remember all the components of a PA System, so many companies now offer packages which contain everything in one place. Another advantage of these is that they are often designed to be very compact, making transportation between venue and storage much easier. One thing to bear in mind however is that these often have smaller and less powerful speakers, which whilst working well for vocals and electro acoustic guitar, they are normally not suitable for other instruments.

Tape

Whatever size of PA you end up purchasing, one additional extra that is always useful is a good roll of tape. With lots of wires being plugged in here there and everywhere, a stage can soon turn into a trip hazard. This is why that once you are set up, it’s best practice to tape down any leads on the stage area to avoid any mishaps. This allows you to move around the stage as much as you want whilst enjoying performing with one less thing to worry about!

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