So… It’s Time to Buy a Sound System

by Hilary Feldman

Several CCP members have contacted me over the last few months seeking guidance on purchasing their own sound system. So, below is a brief guide on doing just that.

First, however, I refer you to the four-part series I wrote for Quarter Note, called “Sound Bites.” Back issues of Quarter Note are available in the Members’ Area of the CCP website. The series can be found in the following issues: June 2010 (Microphones), Sept. 2010 (Power Mixers), December 2010 (Speakers), and March 2011 (PA Basics).

In order for you to intelligently navigate your way through a venue’s sound check, or for you to get the most out of your own sound system, you should get your head around the basics of sound. Good or bad sound can mean the difference between a pleasant and unpleasant experience for your audience. It can mean the difference between hearing what you need to give your best performance… or just the opposite. Knowledge will give you more control over every situation. So, start with the “Sound Bites” series. Then…

Congratulations! It’s time to by your own sound system! This means you’re gigging enough to warrant the investment, or you want to practice with the real thing so you’re ready when you start booking those gigs. Here are the questions you need to answer for yourself before your begin your search for the right system.

  • How big a system do I need? How many instruments/voices will you need to run through your system?
  • How many speakers will I need? Do I just need two house speakers to feed the audience, or do I also need a monitor so I can hear myself and the other performers?
  • How powerful a system do I need? What is the maximum audience size you expect to have to accommodate with your personal system? Maximum room size?
  • How portable do I need it to be? Do you live in a walk-up, or will you never be without an elevator? Will you ever be setting it up on your own? Taking it on public transportation?
  • What ‘extras’ are a must for me? Do I absolutely require EQ? Reverb?
  • What is your budget?

SYSTEM SIZE: This depends almost entirely upon how many singers and instrumentalists you work with. You will generally need one input/channel per microphone or instrument you have. When I gig, it’s almost always just me and a pianist. Sometimes that pianist needs a mic, too. Sometimes, the piano is miced, sometimes there’s a keyboard instead of piano. Once in a long while, I also play an instrument that requires its own input. So, my max number of inputs is five: 1) my vocal mic, 2) pianist vocal mic, 3-4) piano mics (one high, one low), 5) my ukulele. I always like to make sure there’s one more channel than I think I need, in case I ever have someone else with me or in case one of my channels goes bad. Thus, my system’s mixer needs to have six inputs/channels.

As for how many speakers you need, most of us doing gigs small enough to require our own systems can get by with just two house speakers. If you get a decent system (e.g. one that is less prone to feedback), you can generally set up the speakers so that both you and the audience hear everything equally well. [See Dec. 2010 Quarter Notes]

SYSTEM POWER: A good rule of thumb is “One Watt per person.” This is not a hard and fast rule, because the size of the room matters, too, but it’s a great place to start. Personally, I have a 300W system. This will accommodate all smaller gigs easily (50 – 200), even if the room is oversized. If I’m performing for 200 + people, I’m probably in a place that has their own house system. But, because I have 300W of power and speaker spread is good [See Dec. 2010 Quarter Notes], I know I can accommodate up to 300 if I have to.

PORATBILITY: This always matters more than we think it will, if for no other reason than because we age, and lifting gets harder the older we get. There are systems that ‘snap together’ into a central unit on wheels. There are systems with lighter casings, which makes them easier to lift but less durable. Be very honest with yourself about how portable you need your system to be, not just in the present, but also what you expect in the coming years.

EXTRAS: Certain ‘extras’ are a must for me, because they allow me more control over my sound. I require a basic Reverb and EQ (equalizer). I can’t imagine being a singer and not having a Reverb option on my system. Dry rooms are so difficult to sing in and almost never sound good. As for EQ, I like to have at least a 2-band (high and low) EQ. Some systems have a “tone control” knob, which is an extremely basic EQ. This may let you adjust the highs and lows in your sound, but not independently, and it won’t allow you to solve problems (e.g. filter out microphone pops or unexplained noise in your system). It’s all about what you can afford. The more ‘extras,’ the more the expense.

BUDGET: I always tell people the same thing: Decide what you need, try some things out at the store, and then get the very best you can possibly afford. This is especially true when it comes to microphones, but it’s true about your overall system as well. Oh, and don’t be afraid to negotiate. There is almost always some wiggle room.

Ok, so you’ve answered all these questions. Now what? Now, you head down to your nearest music store (Sam Ash, Guitar Center, or any number of other stores that sell gear), and ask the sales person to show you systems that meet your requirements. Keep in mind, they will want to sell you systems they have in stock. Don’t be afraid to ask for other options if you aren’t seeing systems that are a good fit for you. And certainly you should visit a few different stores, unless you happen upon the exact thing you want right away. Here’s the process:

  • Ask for a decent, basic vocal microphone (a Shure 58 will do… all the clubs use them), so you can try out a few different systems using the same You can decide on your exact microphone later.
  • Speak and sing into the microphone, play with the various settings on the system (ask for help if you don’t know how), and listen to how you All speakers sound a bit different. All systems will treat your sound a bit differently. It’s important that you like what you hear.
  • Test how sensitive the system is to feedback. Feedback happens when the sound from a speaker gets picked up in your microphone then fed back through your speaker, then back through your microphone, etc., faster and faster until you get that awful, painful squeal. A good way to test for feedback sensitivity is to stand in front of a speaker and sing with your back to it (so your mic is facing the speaker). If it feeds back easily, move

Once you pick a system you like, it’s time to pick your microphone. [Again, I refer you to the June 2010 issue of Quarter Notes for in-depth information on this topic.] Briefly, and speaking incredibly basically, there are two main types of microphones: Dynamic and Condensor. Condensor mics are generally much better, but much more fragile. They are more expensive (sometimes tens of thousands of dollars) and are generally used in studio situations. Dynamic microphones are not as lovely sounding, but they are much heartier and much more affordable. Stick with dynamic microphones for gigging. You want a uni-directional (cardioid) vocal microphone. Whether you go corded or cordless will depend entirely on your needs and your budget. After that, things to consider:

  • How does the mic sound to you (do you like the way your voice sounds)?
  • How much handling noise does it have (is it noisy when you move your hand or put it in a stand)?

I’ll repeat what I said earlier, because it is soooooo important when it comes to microphones. Try several, all through the same system. Find out what you like, then get the very best microphone you can afford.

Most clubs use a Shure 58 microphone. They use this because it is a good, general purpose microphone, and be- cause you could hammer nails with it and it would still work. It costs about $90. If you like the way a Shure sounds and handles, great. But there are many other mics out there. Try them. Some systems try to give you everything, including the mic, in one package. If you happen to like the included mic, marvelous! Odds are, though, that the mic isn’t a great one. Be sure to try several microphones before you make up your mind.

Finally, there are accessories to consider. Speaker stands, a rolling storage bag, cables, etc. may or may not be included with the system you like. Get the speaker stands that go with your speakers. For mic stands, I recommend getting ‘clutch’ or ‘friction’ mic stands, as they last longer and are easier to manipulate. Cables, get good ones. It matters.

Because everyone who calls me for advice on this topic asks, my system is a Yamaha StagePas 300. It’s a 6-channel system with a 2-band EQ and Reverb. The mixer/amplifier is in the back of one of the speakers but can be removed and put anywhere I wish. The system came with 2 house speakers and 2 speaker cables (which I replaced with longer ones). I purchased speaker stands, microphones, clutch mic stands, a rolling case, and cables separately. I use a Sennheiser e835 corded vocal microphone. It has a warmer sound than the Shure 58 (better for my bright voice), costs only slightly more, and has far less handling noise. I’m generally very happy with my system, it fit my budget, and I have had it for many years with no problems. More- and less-powerful versions of this system are available.

That’s it! Good luck!

−Hilary Ann Feldman

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