So your band is ready to invest in the best live performance equipment, whether it’s building your own from scratch or its own entire PA system. Perhaps you’re sick of relying on venues to provide the right type of gear to portray your sounds to the audience? Maybe some don’t even provide equipment at all? Regardless of why, we want to say congratulations! This means more independence, flexibility, and an overall greater earning potential for your group of musicians. A band (or even solo artist) that can bring and set up its own quality PA system is definitely going to be able to charge more for their performance than a band that relies on borrowing equipment from the venue. Owning your own PA system also gives your band the opportunity to have gear that best matches the instrumentation and sound of your group. In this guide, we’ll explain to you what the different components of a PA system are, how they work, and what equipment you’ll need to consider before you make your purchase.
Components of a PA system
Your band has worked hard to write and arrange your music. Your PA system should deliver that final product to your audience with clarity. Now whatever you end up buying probably isn’t going to offer the same clarity as the sound system at a big arena concert, but it’s very possible to find something that works for your band and your venues that sets your band apart from the competition all without breaking the bank.
A Public Address (PA) system is used to amplify sound electronically so that an audience can hear instruments, electronics and vocals clearly from a distance and over other ambient noises. A good PA system must have power amplification to drive speakers, mixing capability to set levels, equalizer to control frequency output, output control to send different signals at different levels to monitors or main speakers, and the ability to convert acoustic sound to electronic signal. These tasks can be handled in all-in-one units or by separate units that specialize in that task and offer more sophisticated controls. Here are the different components.
- Power Amplifier – This device uses electricity to amplify a low-power electronic audio signal to a level that is strong enough to drive (or power) loudspeakers. Power Amps come in various “wattages” that very depending on the “ohms” of a speaker. Wattage output on an amp lets you know how much amplification the power amp is capable of putting out. Ohms refer to the level of resistance to the power the speaker will have. The lower the Ohm, the greater the wattage. It is important to know what the Ohms level on your speaker is going to be before you select your amplifier.
- Loudspeakers – These refer to the component of the PA system with which we are all most familiar. The loudspeakers are the actual objects making the sound on a PA system. They are the result of the mix, the EQ (equalization), and amplification. Loudspeakers can be passive (they require a powered signal coming from an amplifier or a powered mixer) or active (they have their own plugs and require their own outlets).
- Monitors – These are typically smaller loudspeakers that are aimed at the performers and away from the audience that allow members of the band to clearly hear themselves and each other.
- Mixer – This component allows for multiple inputs or instruments to connect to a PA system. The mixer gives you the ability to control the volume of each input. Most mixers also give you the ability to control the output level on your main loudspeakers and your monitors independently of one another. While a standard mixer provides no amplification, some “powered mixers” come with a power amplifier built-in. Most mixers provide a basic EQ capability per each input and some also provide basic EQ capabilities for the entire mix.
- Equalizer – This component allows you to control at a very precise level the volume of each frequency group. While this may seem a bit unnecessary, feedback (that high screeching or low humming sound we’ve all heard come from a PA system) is typically an EQ issue and not a volume problem. Each room responds differently to different frequencies, and the ability to lower those hot frequencies may save you from an embarrassing feedback moment.
This basically covers the main components. Obviously you’ll need your inputs as well. The most common input in a PA system is a microphone, but some instruments can also be plugged directly into a PA system, such as electric guitars and stage pianos.
Before you buy your live performance gear
There are some things you’re going to want to consider before you start shopping so that you can avoid wasting your time on systems that won’t be perfect for your band.
- Are you going to be controlling your PA yourself, or will you have someone to “man the board” at your performances?
- How big is your typical venue?
- How loud is your band? How many instruments or voices are you going to be running through the mixer at each performance?
- Will this also be your rehearsal PA? Are you going to be setting it up and tearing it down very often?
- How long are your performances? How much time can you justify setting up and tearing down your system?
- How far apart does your band stands? Do you have a need for wireless mics?
- How loud is your band? Do you have trouble hearing yourselves and will you require monitors?
- How important to you is not having cables running all over the place (are you OCD like me?)
In this article, we’ll look at a variety of components that offer various solutions to some of the issues listed above, but here are some things to think about.
- If you’re going to be controlling your mixer yourself, you’re going to want to get something simple without a lot of controls. If something goes wrong, you’d like to only have a few knobs to turn to figure out what the issue is. The more complex your mixer is, the longer it will take you to troubleshoot issues.
- The bigger your typical venue, the more powerful your system needs to be.
- The larger your band, the more inputs you’ll need on your mixer.
- If you’re going to be setting up and tearing down a lot, consider prepackaged systems that are marketed for ease of use. Some of them even latch together and have wheels!
- If you’re going to be purchasing wireless components, consider avoiding prepackaged systems as you’ll wind up with some components that you don’t need.
- In this day and age, we’re fortunate enough to have wireless options for almost everything. If you hate having wires all over the place, we’ll give you some cool wireless options.
Prepackaged Live Sound PA Systems
For some, the term “best music equipment for live performances” may entail buying everything in one, easy-to-manage and convenient package. The biggest advantages to purchasing a prepackaged system are the ease of the overall use and purchase as well as the possible savings. Prepackaged gear comes so that each component matches one another. The wattage and Ohms on the amps and speakers have been taken into consideration, it will come with exactly the right amount of cables, the mixer will be able to control however many speakers the package comes with, etc. You’ll also be able to get more components for less money, but this often means lower quality components.
The cables, mics and other accessories that come with prepackaged systems typically leave much to be desired and are often quickly replaced bringing the total investment closer to what you would have spent had you purchased components independently of one another to begin with. There are however some diamonds in the rough. If you’d like, you can read our best PA system guide, or here are some quality prepackaged systems as well that we recommend.
Yamaha A15 Phonic 1860 PA/Monitor Package
Good for medium to large venues and larger bands.
The Yamaha A15 Phonic 18060 is a pretty versatile system that comes with everything you’ll need to hit the ground running. This system comes with a powered mixer, 2 monitors, 2 mains (main loudspeakers), 2 speaker stands, 2 microphones, mic stands, and enough cables to put everything together. This mixer however is pretty large and quite complex. You’re going to want someone who knows what they’re doing to be standing near this mixer at all times.
Yamaha EMX5 with A-Series PA Package
Good for small to medium venues with medium to large bands.
For about a few hundred bucks less than the previous system, you get about half the components. The Yamaha EMX5 with A-Series however comes the same count of the gear. It’s also worth noting that you can always purchase monitors later and this powered mixer will be able to drive those as well. This mixer is also pretty easy to control so you can pop it on top of one of your amps or over by the drummer and someone should be able to keep an eye on it.
Fender Passport EVENT 375W Portable PA System
Good for small venues and easy setup and tear down.
The Fender Passport EVENT live sound system offers decent amplification for small venues. The key feature here is that the speakers snap on to the mixer unit and all three components can be carried at once with a single handle. The biggest drawback compared to other systems is that this system does not come with nearly the amount of components as the previous two examples. You can count on buying your own speaker stands, microphones, and all necessary cables in addition to this system.
Build it Yourself Live Performance Components
My philosophy is let mixers mix and let amplifiers amplify. A standalone unpowered mixer can serve a variety of purposes while a powered mixer is typically designed for a specific line of speakers. You also can’t always use a powered mixer with active speakers as some powered mixers do not have unpowered outputs. You’ll always be able to fine tune your system to your needs if you purchase your components independent of one another. You’ll end up spending a bit more money this way but you’ll be able to start to mix and match components for different setups as you add to your component inventory throughout the years.
The biggest thing to know here is what brands to look for. When it comes to mixers there are plenty of quality options to choose from but I’ve never come across a Mackie mixer that didn’t impress me. Mackie equipment is durable, well constructed with quality parts and offers a wide range of features in an easy to use interface that usually maximizes the space available on the unit.
Anything bigger than a 12 channel mixer is probably too big for anyone reading this article. You typically see larger mixers permanently housed in performing arts spaces but rarely do you see those mixers as a part of a band’s live setup.
Mackie ProFX12v2 12-Channel Professional FX Mixer with USB
The Mackie ProFX12v2 mixer comes with just about everything you’ll ever need out of a mixer. It includes a built-in basic EQ, optional phantom power for microphones that require power, one channel of monitor outputs with monitor level control on each individual channel. For the price, this is a very serviceable mixer with almost everything you’ll need for a live gig.
Mackie ProFX8v2 8-Channel Professional FX Mixer with USB
The Mackie ProFX8v2 is essentially the same mixer as the 12-channel mixer listed above with a few less channels, so if you can get away with the sacrifice you’ll be saving quite a few dollars while still attaining a very effective mixer for your live sound gear collection.
Loudspeakers & Amplifiers
The loudspeakers on a PA system usually contain various sized speakers and/or horns in one enclosure. Different sized speakers are optimal for amplifying the different frequencies in the mix. Ideally, you’d want a standalone subwoofer to put out all the lows accompanied by some main speakers for the mids and highs. You can get creative here and find a pair of main speakers that do a decent job of covering most frequencies. Speakers have a frequency response range which basically tells you what frequencies of sounds that speaker is capable of producing. Just because a frequency falls in that response range doesn’t mean that speakers is capable of producing that sound efficiently.
Here are some options that will help you meet your band’s needs. With regards to amplifiers, base your amplifier choice off your speakers’ wattage and ohms. Stay away from Behringer amplifiers.
Yamaha S215V Dual 15″ Club Series V Speaker Pair
Each speaker in the Yamaha S215V pair has two 15” speakers and a horn. With four 15” speakers and two horns, you’ll get pretty solid lows, great mids, and decent highs. These speakers are pretty pricey and very heavy. You probably won’t even want speaker stands if you end up getting these. This is ideal for a system that includes some low synth pads or an upright bass directly connected to the system.
Yamaha BR15 15″ 2-Way Cabinet Pair
The Yamaha BR15 pair of 15” speakers will get you deep lows, great mids, and bright highs. They’re also much easier to assemble and transport than the 2×15 speakers listed above. You’ll save quite a bit of money with this pair, but you’ll miss out on those higher-quality lows. However, typically you can get by with this pair just fine as the lows that you’d miss out on are being covered by your bass amp in most bands. If you’re running an upright bass through a PA system, stay away from this setup.
Yamaha A12M Monitor Pair
While the Yamaha A12M are technically designed to serve as monitors, they can also be used as smaller mains. These are great for small venues. Don’t bother trying to pump any true bass signal through 12” speakers as they’ll distort the rest of the signal you’re also amplifying.