Guide to getting and playing better gigs


Basic PA Systems

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Mixer Amps:
The majority of bands start their gigging careers with some kind of mixer amp. For smallish pubs and clubs you'll probably only want vocals through the main PA, so your input needs should be easy to figure. But once you go over 100-capacity venues you'll likely want kick drum, and possibly some backline reinforcement, through the PA. This needs more power and speakers that are up to the job, so it's not as simple as just allowing a few extra inputs.

Channel features are usually straightforward, having either two-band bass n' treble or three-band bass-mid-top EQ and most have sends for internal reverb and a monitor/foldback mix, while some add a second effects send for use with an external unit such as delay.

How much power you need depends on the size of the venue and the power of the rest of your kit, but some bands get away with 150 watts for vocals although 300 watts is a much more realistic proposition and should cope well with vocals in typical pubs and clubs. It's still only 150 watts for each speaker, so chances are they could handle a fair deal more, and 300 watts will be fairly marginal if you want to put kick drum and maybe some backline through the main PA.

Power Amps:
The most important point here is about the old 4 Ohm/8 Ohm business. Power output is generally quoted into 4 Ohms, and this is fine with mono mixer-amps, where two 8 Ohm speakers end up as a 4 Ohm "load". But with a stereo amp, each channel only gets the one 8 Ohm speaker, amd power into 8 Ohms is only about 70% of that into 4 - worth bearing in mind when figuring out how much power you really need. Also, it's highly desirable to have some amp power in hand - overload distortion on peaks not only sounds nasty, but runs the risk of knackering speaker treble units.

Almost everyone likes their music to have deep, powerful bass. But bass eats up amp power far more than mid and top - this is why sub-sat systems have two or three times as much power for the bass bins. Few bass speakers can reproduce deep signals below about 40 Hz, but they will waste both amp power and speaker handling, as well as messing up the sound generally. An ultra-low-cut filter on the power amp is the best solution, so a highly rated feature.

All PA amps have some kind of gizmo to protect against the seriously expensive damage that overloads can cause. The two main types defend against short-term problems (such as when you "short" an output with a duff cable), and long-term heat build-up caused by over-driving. Most amps also add some kind of protection against the amp itself going tits-up and attempting to deliver the National Grid to your speakers. These are not things that many musos will be interested in until something goes wrong and the protection kicks in. When this happens (usually during the soundcheck or in the middle of the second set), the main thing is fast fault-finding and fixing. At this time, you'll value detailed indication of why your amp's decided to take a siesta.

Power amp inputs are generally on jacks/XLRs/both. XLRs are preferable but jacks do the job acceptably well. It's useful to have some kind of "slave" output for adding a second amp if you move up to a bi-amped sub-sat system (nice). Outputs may be on XLRs, Speakons or bare-wire terminals. Bare-wire terminals are stupidly fiddly and fragile for gigging. XLRs work fine, but it's easy to get cables mixed up, potentially sticking 600+ watts up your reverb unit - not something it's likely to thank you for. Speakons are built to handle 1000+ watts, there's minimal chance of disastrous mis-connections and they don't break when you drop the roadie on them.

PA Speakers:
Budget speakers are are generally used on the pub-club scene, playing to 100-ish audiences (less if it's a wet Wednesday), and often handling not much more than vocals. But when your gigs start to get a little bigger, you'll want to be able to put bass, drums and backline through the PA, without necessarily shelling out for both a bigger amp and new speakers at the same time.

Sound quality is a key concern, and although your musical style may effect your choice, the basic idea is that your PA speakers should be as 'neutral' as good hi-fi, only a mother of a sight louder. If vocals are your only application, you may find that, as with mikes, a speaker that's not a strong all-rounder happens to suit your voice. Power handling and matching to amp are a top priority in many buyers' minds. In an ideal world, your amp would have an 'RMS' output about the same as your speaker's peak power handling. The amp power needed starts to get seriously expensive but, providing you don't drive the system too hard that it constantly distorts, you should be okay if you aim for speakers with a music rating about the same as your amp's RMS power.

Most PA speakers have a rather bright basic balance, and it's fairly normal to need EQ, usually in the form of bass boost and mid cut. Bear in mind that boosting bass devours amp power (even a 3db lift can push your power need from, say, 200 watts to 400), so speakers that need a minimum of boost must be welcome. How much sound you get depends on your speakers' sensitivity.

See also:

PA Tips Amp Safety Cables Ohms
Bi-amping Power Valves Wiring Bias

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