BUILDING A PA

I often get asked questions about what is the best gear to buy when setting up small band PA systems. So I thought I would impart my own knowledge and experience here for all to read and take away from it whatever helps them.

The question of what is the best gear is an extremely open ended question that has no definitive answer. It really comes down to your personal situation and budget. These days there is equipment to suit almost every budget and need.

The first thing you need to do is make a list of what you need to be able to achieve your goal? Are you just a soloist, Duo or Band? Lets look at the basics.

  • Microphones/DI’s
  • Cables
  • Mixer
  • Speakers

Thats the very basic minimum of a PA system. The inputs and the outputs. Let’s ellaborate on that some more.

Microphones are generally your source. Make a list of what you need. How many singers in your group? Does your bass player have a direct line out on his amp? Does your guitarist have an amp with a direct out or does it need a mic? Do you have a keyboard player that needs a DI? Does your drummer have electric drums or will he need to be mic’d up too?

These are all very important things to know before you start buying equipment. There is no point spending money on things you do not need. You also need to decide if other members will be providing their own mics which will save you some upfront costs.

Its worth noting that good quality microphones will go a long way to giving you a good overall sound. This is not an area where you should try and scrimp. I suggest the best place to start would be Shure SM58’s for vocals and Shure SM57’s for instruments and drums. Kick drum is the only exception to these. I suggest either the Sennheiser e902 or the Shure Beta 52. These are large diaphragm mics designed to get the best sound from a kick drum.

Once you have your mics sorted, the next thing in the audio chain will be the cables. I strongly urge you to avoid cheap cables. These can have a tendency to be noisy and even pickup interference from external sources. Bad cables will ruin your sound. If you are handy with a soldering iron, the cheapest way to get good cables is to make them yourself. Buy a 100m roll of good quality sheilded mic cable and as many XLR connectors as you need.

So whats next? Well, you need somewhere for all these cables to go. Thats where a mixing desk comes into play.
If you are just a solist, you can easily get buy with a very small portable analogue mixer with built in reverb effects and thats it. Even a duo can get by with a small console with at least 4 XLR inputs. If you are a band however, you are going to need something with a few more inputs.

Another thing to think about is, how many foldback sends you want? The smaller budget consoles will usually only have 2. For most bands, they would like at least 3, but 4 would be better. There are plenty of budget no name consoles on the market and maybe they work ok and then again, maybe they don’t. I highly recommend buying something that is at least very well field tested. Something that you can find plenty of reviews on and plenty of youtube videos on so there is endless amount of help for you once its purchased.

The other thing to consider that can save you money is buying an iPad operated mixer. There are a number of very popular models on the market to choose from, and the final decision will come down to price and your needs.
The benefit of using an iPad to control the mix is that you can go out the front to listen during sound check or allow someone else to monitor your mix from out the front. Another benefit is the ability for each member to adjust their own foldback send from an app on their phone if you purchase the right mixer.

Digital mixers are full of everything you need without having to purchase more additional outboard equipment. EQ’s, Compressors and gates and a multitude of effects all built into the device.

Once you have the mixer sorted, it’s time to look at the final piece of the puzzle. Speakers. At the very least you will need a pair of 2 way speakers that you can mount on speaker stands. It is very possible to get started with just that depending on the kind of music and size of venues you play.

More ideal would be a pair of 2 way top speakers, a pair of Sub speaker and however many foldback speakers you require. Of course you may also be limited to how you are going to transport the equipment.

So that covers the very basic needs of setting up a band PA. Now lets look at ther actual componants and my personal recommendations.

As stated above, I recommend Shure SM58’s and Shure SM57’s for vocal and instrument mic’s except the kick drum mic which should be a Shure Beta 52 or a Sennheiser e902. Now, these are not the best mics in my opinion, but they are very good quality, time tested and will give you a great sound right at the source.

My personal preferences are, Shure Beta 58 for vocals, Sennheiser e609 for guitars, Sennheiser e604 for tom mics, Shure Beta 52 for external kick mic and a Shure Beta 91a internal Kick mic and a pair of Rode NT5 overhead mics.

If you need a DI, I highly recommend you buy a Radial Pro D2 stereo DI. Even if you only need a single DI, buying a stereo unit gives you options. A keyboard will use both left and right, but it can be used with just one channel or even 2 different instuments at the same time. Maybe bass and acoustic guitar.

Mic cables are also important. Cheap ones can work fine for a time. However, they tend to break easily and can also be noisy if they are badly shielded. Getting good quality cable will mean no noise issues and likely no bad cables. All the cables I have made myself over the years have never failed. Only the cheap premade cables that I somehow acquired have ever had problems.

Lets also not scrimp on the XLR connectors. There are definately good and band connectors. Cheap ones will not fit snuggly into sockets and will break and fall apart at the most inopportune times. Where possible, try and use Neutrik XLR connectors.

Now for the Mixer. Well, budget is definitely a key factor here, and you can save some dollars by getting only what you need. My minimum recommendation would currently be the Behringer XR18. Controlled with an iPad, it has 16 XLR inputs and 6 Aux outputs as well as Main L/R. A great little unit for those on a budget who still want the ability to expand a little. My personal preference in these small iPad controlled mixers is the Midas MR18. Almost identical to the Behringer but it has better quality pre amps as well as locking XLRs that the Behringer does not have.
Soundcraft also do a model with 12 XLR inputs and 4 Aux outputs which might be ample for most small bands.

I won’t go into higher end larger footprint consoles because they are just over priced and too big for the average cover band to even consider. And if you have the money and desire for something larger, then you have probably done your homework and already have significant live sound knowledge.

Last but not least, speakers and the final destination for your sound. Again there are many options on the market and it will likely come down to price. Some budget models that seem to work reasonably well are Behringer, Alto and AVE. Moving up the market a little you will come to JBL, EV, Yamaha, QSC to mention some common ones. It is worth noting that when buying speakers, the advertised wattage of the speaker is not a good indication of how loud the speaker will be or how good it will sound. Try and look at the SPL level and at what distance it is measured. This will give you a better indication of the volume output of the speaker.

My preference for a small 4 piece coverband would be a pair of JBL PRX812’s for top bins and a pair of PRX815XLF for subs. Foldback on a budget can be tricky but from personal experience I believe the Turbosound M12’s are sufficient and for the drummer a Turbosound M15.

One last thing to think about and test on speakers when possible is how good it sounds when it is at high volumes. Just because a speaker is designed for high SPL does not mean it actually sounds good when pushed hard. Do your research, watch and read as many reviews as possible and then make your decision. Its very easy to get caught up in the advertised numbers and believe you are getting a good deal when you could end up being very disappointed.

That’s it for now. Good luck 😉