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What Kind Of PA System Should My Band Use?

11:29 am Live Sound

There comes a time in the life of every band when someone wants them to actually play somewhere. (Somewhere that isn’t the drummer’s basement, I mean.) Up until now, the singers have been using a microphone plugged into the keyboard amp, but is that going to be enough when we play at a restaurant (or a barn, or a patio)? The truth dawns: we need a PA system of some kind for the vocals. But what kind?

There are several factors you need to consider and a number of pitfalls you must avoid. I’ll just hit the high points here, outlining the key decisions you and your band need to make to be sure you get the right system for your hard-earned cash. Since I’ve only worked extensively with a couple of systems myself, I won’t recommend specific brands or models here. But I’ll give you some points to ponder as you sort through the available systems.

1. Powered mixer or separate components?

The very first thing to decide is whether to use an all-in-one PA system or separate components. An all-in-one unit, also called a “powered mixer,” contains a mixer (usually 8 channels), a power amplifier (two channels, for the main and monitor speakers), and perhaps some basic effects like reverb and delay.

If this is your band’s initial PA system, you should probably get this kind of unit, especially if you don’t have a sound man for your band. An all-in-one unit is easy to set up, needing only AC power, microphones, and speaker connections and it’s ready to go! You can put it at the side of the stage and have easy access to its controls, including the all-important monitor levels.

A component system with separate mixer, power amplifier, and effects units takes a lot longer to set up and get going at a gig, although it does offer some additional flexibility. If you have someone to set up and operate the PA for you, a component system could work. Otherwise, I’d keep it simple and go with the all-in-one.

2. How much power?

The power level you need from your PA system will depend on the size of the venues you expect to play in as well as the kind of music you play. (An acoustic band with no drummer needs less PA power than a headbanging metal outfit.) Another consideration is whether you plan to run only vocals, or vocals plus certain instruments, through the PA. Putting bass guitar (even a little) through the PA to augment the onstage amp really eats up the power!

(Refer to my article Using Onstage Amps vs. Playing Through the PA for cheap advice on running instruments through the PA along with the vocals, along with my sad story of how a 400-watt all-in-one unit turned out to be underpowered for even an acoustic oldies band.)

The fact is, you should buy the highest-power system you can possibly afford. You are just about guaranteed to need more power than you think you will. Then throw in the further fact that the power ratings for these systems are more marketing numbers than engineering numbers and are often misleading… The bottom line: I never heard of a band looking back and saying they wish they’d bought a smaller PA system!

3. How many speakers?

I would using recommend two main speakers and two monitor speakers. Even in a small venue, you really need left and right main speakers to properly distribute balanced sound throughout the room. (When I say left and right I am not talking about a stereo setup - the signal is the same in both speakers.) With two speakers, you reduce the number of listeners who are closer to the amps than to a PA speaker, and thus can’t hear the vocals.

You might be tempted to skimp on the monitor speakers and make do with only one. This might be OK if there is only one vocalist, but instrument players also benefit from hearing themselves and other players properly. Having two monitor speakers should allow everyone to be somewhere near at least one of them!

4. What about microphones and other accessories?

Unless you have something else on hand, I would pick up a trusty Shure SM58 for each vocalist. You will probably not need to mike the drums. In fact, you should avoid using microphones for anything other than vocals if at all possible, as each microphone onstage is a show-stopping feedback howl waiting to happen!

If you are going to run instruments through the PA, use direct boxes between each instrument - guitar, bass, keyboard - and its onstage amp to send part of the signal to the PA mixer. If there is an acoustic guitar, use the signal from its pickup in lieu of miking it. If it doesn’t have a built-in pickup, you might try an add-on type, although this may not have the sound quality you need. Fortunately, most acoustics seem to have built-in pickups these days.

You will also need microphone cables, main and monitor speaker cables, and possibly a snake (a multi-core cable allowing you to run eight or more signals between the stage and the PA mixer).

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4 Responses
  1. Lenny Esposito :

    Date: August 30, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    Help!
    I just read your bio and believe you can help me with some advice.
    I’m an amateur guitarist and singer. My goal one day is to play at local clubs. My amplifier, which I had for 30 years, just died and the cost is not worth the fix. I’d like to buy a PA System instead of putting my money toward a new amp. I’m currently a NYC Police Detective and have great music stores available to me; Sam Ash, Manny’s, etc. I started looking into portable PA Sytems; Fender, Peavey, and Yamaha. One friend had good advice saying to just by a good PA System as the portables may be limited. I particularly didn’t like the Fender.
    So, of course money is a factor and the one thing I do know is it’s a lot easier to purchase something like this when one has the resources. This is the reason I want to be pragmatic as I can’t afford to make a mistake and feel a good PA System may last a long time.
    Hope you have time to answer this long winded email and perhaps you can point me in the right direction. It would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Jacque Cornish :

    Date: February 3, 2010 @ 4:30 am

    I’m considering buying a wharfedale pm500 120watt PA for acoustic performace. One guitar with its own amp and vocals through the PA. In your opinion would I have enough power with this system, to play cafes’, wineries etc?

  3. CheapAdviceGuy :

    Date: February 22, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    Hi Jacques:

    I have investigated the pm500 system, reading web pages like this one:

    http://www.soundstore.co.nz/p-1280-wharfedale-pm500-120w-portable-pa-system.aspx

    It seems to me that the 120w power of this setup is more than enough for your application. The fact that they have gone to some lengths to make the system “road-worthy” suggests that they have in mind just the kind of venues you mentioned, or even larger ones. 120w goes a long way, especially if you’re not weighing down the amp with a lot of deep bass frequencies.

    I say go for it!

  4. Larry :

    Date: September 21, 2011 @ 9:27 pm

    Technical Pro LZ-4100 Professional 4100 Watt Digital Amplifier….This is my toy ,at 8ohms it is only 385 watts but I like the head room.
    I run everything (bass,keyboard,both guitars,sax and four singers and sometimes the drums) through this system but I like your info

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