Congratulations – you’ve gotten yourself a gig! Now is the time to access what you will need in the way of a PA system so that all your fans can actually hear your performance masterpieces (Yikes)!
Assess the Performance Space
First things first. If you are fortunate enough to be familiar with the room or space in which you will be singing, that goes a long way to determining what equipment you will require. Sometimes, performers will “walk through” a space which is new to them so as to avoid any “surprises.” Regardless of how and when you familiarize yourself with the space, it’s important to take note of:
- Ceiling height – high ceilings can effectively reverberate your sound while low ceilings tend to muffle.
- Is there carpet or hard flooring in the space? Carpet will soften sound which tends to make performers want to add reverb to their sound.
- Where will patrons be seated? While you may want to sing to the back wall, it’s almost guaranteed that people seated in front of you will complain that you are too loud, so it’s best to place your speakers in the least objectionable direction of your audience (unless you are giving a concert). If this proves to be an insurmountable problem, you will have to find a suitable sound level that works for you but doesn’t overwhelm those trying to talk and enjoy the company of others near the “stage.”
- Is there a grounded (3-prong) electrical outlet within 15 feet of the stage? Surprisingly few performers think to pack a heavy duty extension cord with multiple outlets. Never expect somebody who has hired you to provide electrical cords and other “gizmos” you will invariably need to plug everything in. Related: if you have a band backing you, few if any musicians will provide much more than their instrument and amplifier, so plan accordingly.
- Break music – you may or may not be responsible to provide background music during your breaks. It’s always a good idea to have a device connected to your PA system for playback so that you don’t need to bother the bartender or venue owner. Additionally, starting the break music is a way to make it clear to everybody that you are heading for the powder room!
Bring Microphones for All Singers & Audience
Digesting everything covered above, you can start assembling what gear you will need. Everybody who will be singing will need a microphone input on your mixer. Never underestimate the need for an “audience microphone” – especially for private gigs. Everybody knows Uncle Mike is going to have one too many and will want to sing “My Way” or something similar (with or without your band backing him up), so with an eye toward good hygiene, better to let him spray spit into a mic you won’t be using again that evening!
Equalize & Add Reverb
Once you have all your microphones connected, you will likely want to add some reverb (remember the carpet on the floor and low ceilings)? Your mixer will almost certainly include this feature so familiarize yourself with its use if this is new to you. Perhaps you will want to add some bass or treble to your sound as well. This is called “equalization” which varies considerably from room to room and will need to be tailored to each and every performance space (sorry, but that’s the simple truth). Careful with equalization though – like volume, you can easily cause feedback squeal which will turn all but the most adoring audiences against you immediately!
Connect Monitors & Speakers
Now that everything is connected to your mixer, it’s time to connect to your loudspeakers. This blogger strongly prefers powered (sometimes called “active”) speakers which have amplification built in as opposed to traditional “passive” speakers that will require a separate amplifier, cables, and electrical plugs. Select the best speakers you can afford and choose a size based upon your ability to carry, set up, and transport in your car or SUV. Generally speaking, small functions will be well served using speakers with 10″ or 12″ woofers (generally referred to as ten- or twelve-inch speakers). There will also be a “tweeter” for higher frequencies which render such a loudspeaker as being “two way.” If you have never used PA speakers in a live environment, you might be surprised to learn that you will likely perform behind them (a smart choice when striving to avoid the dreaded squeal of feedback mentioned earlier) and won’t be able to hear yourself very well. This problem will be exacerbated if you have a guitar amp near you competing to be heard on stage. It is strongly suggested that you have at least one PA speaker facing your audience and one “monitor” facing you (usually on the floor) so as to best manage these competing needs. A good mixer will have a “monitor” volume control in addition to the “main” volume control so as to allow you to balance things and accommodate your needs.
Test at Home
One last thing – It is strongly recommended that you purchase, assemble, connect, and experiment with your PA gear at home before your first few gigs. This will give you a chance to familiarize yourself with the connections and ensure that you have the correct cables. You’ll thank me for doing so if you do!
There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’ve purposefully abbreviated and simplified things so as to avoid overwhelming readers. I hope this information will provide a starting point for singers to consider before shopping, assembling, and using PA gear.