When you first start performing you’ll quickly learn that sound plays an important part in how well your performance is received. If you want your voice or instrument to be heard clearly then more often than not you’ll need or be asked to bring a PA SYSTEM to your gig.
The PA bit is short for PUBLIC ADDRESS, but what is a PA system exactly? A PA can be anything from a megaphone or loud-hailer to a speaker or speakers contained with a unit connected to a microphone by a wired or wireless connection. They can range wildly in price from around 100 to many thousands of dollars/pounds depending on sound quality or how loud they can amplify sound. PA Systems may also need a wired power connection or be battery powered with the option to recharge the battery.
RAISE YOUR GAME: Why do you need a PA System?
There’s the sound that you make and the sound that the audience makes and not all of it is laughter or applause. In a family show for example you’d imagine that children are your worst problem however more often than not it’s the parents or those passing by that can create a lot of background noise that can have a negative impact on your show. The problem is that as the children/audience get louder the parents/bystanders start raising their voice and you, in turn have to speak/sing louder and louder to be heard and understood (When you get to the more extreme end of volume then this can really test your PA and the quality of sound can be less than optimal).
Obviously performing in larger venues will always require decent amplification but in any situation, even in smaller venues, when it’s your second or third gig of the day or your 6th of the weekend your voice is going to need a little bit of help.
HOW TO CHOOSE A PA LIKE A PRO
SOUND – We’ve established why you need to invest in a PA system, but which one? When you come to choose a system you don’t have to spend a lot of money but you will need some kind of amplification sooner or later. Obviously sound quality is going to be a key factor but perhaps you can make some comprise here if you’re a talking type act instead of a singing/musical one where absolute clarity is a must. Ultimately you’ll need to test a PA’s output yourself but if you research and read enough reviews of a product you should get a fair idea of the capabilities and sound quality of a system. Like most things you get what you pay for and at least for a comedy talking performer I wouldn’t spend less than the 100 mark and if you are staying at this end of the market I’d do my research well as it may turn out to be a false economy.
VOLUME – Related to sound quality is amplification. A decent PA will fill a venue with sound but also still sound good at higher volumes with minimal distortion. It’s generally a good idea to avoid a situation where you have to have the system cranked up to 10 (some can even get them up to 11!) instead you’re better off with another PA connected to your system, so If this is a regular occurrence get another PA before you burn out the one you have. If this is not feasible for you then make enquiries beforehand about using the venues own PA system that has been set-up for their particular requirements. Be weary though as many venues can have awful sound systems or the space itself has terrible acoustics (sometimes it’s wise to turn your sound down if there’s a lot of echo in a room).
Further volume can be achieved through using a sturdy PA Stand, in fact this should be a necessity. It helps the speaker to throw sound out right above the audience giving it a chance to reach the back of the venue before it’s soaked up by a packed room.
Make sure that the system you use has a recess underneath to accommodate the speaker stand. These holes are generally of a standard size but not all PA’s have one. Once the speakers on the stand you need to set it off to your side and slightly in front of where you’ll be performing. Failing to do this will result in feedback, that’s that blood curdling noise you hear when the mic gets too close to the speaker. If you’re still getting feedback try turning down the Gain adjustment on your microphone transmitter or on the PA.
WEIGHT – These things can be heavy, very heavy and lifting from a car or van a couple of feet into a venue is cool but in my experience the actual performance space can be quite a distance from where my gear is (A quick tip here, It’s often the last thing on your mind when you’re taking a booking but always ask about parking provision. Unless you’re the first person at an event chances are the remaining parking spaces are the farthest from where the action is). It’s with this in mind you need to consider the weight of the PA unit. In my own experience I’ve tried a number of PA’s and found shortcomings with most of them. I started out with a second-hand Marshall Amp but the sound was not suited to voice but it was light enough. Down the line I used a top of the range AER system, the sound and amplification was excellent but it weighed a ton and quickly began to loose it’s looks, especially during the summer months as I hauled it across fields at outdoor festivals (The converse can also be true, I once badly damaged a door frame lugging this thing through, but it’s probably best to say no more about this). Anyway, get your hands on your chosen speaker or on something of a similar size and shape and try to get a feel for it. Another consideration is handles, some have a number of carry handles and some even have wheels built in.
ON THE MOVE: WIRED or PORTABLE?
If you’re always performing indoors then a wired PA System will be grand but frequently a booking will draw you into some pretty unusual locations. To find yourself in a marquee, BBQ area or even a caravan is more common than you’d think. In these situations a batterry operated Personal Address System is essential. You may not get the same volume of a larger wired PA but used with a stand and paired with another and you can get the job done. When shopping for this kind of unit check the the battery capacity, if you’ve 3 shows on the same day and you play music inbetween gigs then you’ll want something with a few hours worth of juice. Oh, and always remember to charge between gigs (especially if it’s not being used in a while, batteries can become damaged if left to sit uncharged for too long).
WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?: MICROPHONES
This is the last piece of the PA puzzle, unless you’re just using it to play music through an Ipod you’re going to need a microphone. Personally, for the kind of work I do I need a lightweight, durable head-mic. Their are a number of other options but that’s another story which I’ll address in another post.
I hope this has answered any basic questions you’ve had but if you’re a real audiophile there’s a lot more to learn and you can really drill down into a lot more detail. If you’re just getting into the performance game however I hope this has been useful in helping you choose a basic PA without blowing a fortune on your first purchase only to find it’s not right for the job.
Perhaps you can add something to this guide or maybe I’ve overlooked something? Please add your thoughts below and make this guide even better.