Setting up a powered-speaker PA system
Robert Bihlmayer was born in Chicago and lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for thirty years. He's been playing the guitar since 1970, and during the intervening 40+ years has worked in a variety of settings ranging from bandleader to solo artist where he's experienced the changes in the pro audio market over the decades. He has a degree in Library Information Technology and spent a decade in Silicon Valley as a technical editor and writer. He has a calico cat named Lulu, and believes that there's never a bad hair day when you're wearing a hat.
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Your band is finally ready for its first gig. You bought a PA system for the occasion. Now you just need to learn how to set it up and use it. This article will get you started.
Putting together your PA system
The basic audio components that make up this type of system are:
- 2 powered speakers
- 2 powered monitor speakers
You can add powered subwoofers to increase the power and effectiveness of your PA, but they’re not strictly necessary.
And there are accessories you need to hook it all up and for transporting the system:
- Microphone cables — You need a mic cable for each microphone, and it never hurts to have a spare or two on hand for emergencies or guest performers.
- Snake — If your mixer needs to be off-stage, then you might need a snake to cover the distance.
- Speaker cables — Most powered speakers accept cables with XLR connectors sold as "microphone cables" for connecting to your mixer. If your mixer doesn't have XLR outputs, we recommend purchasing 1/4" to XLR adapters. Some powered speakers also accept 1/4" balanced tip/ring/sleeve (TRS) connectors, some use regular 1/4" tip/sleeve (TS) connectors. Check the "Details" tab for your speaker to see what type of connectors will work with your speaker.
- Cable ties
- Gaffer's tape
A snake lets you run all of your connections through one cable bundle
We'll touch more on speaker cabling below when we get to mixer placement. Learn how to run your cables neatly so that people won't trip over them. Another good reason to have cables that are longer than you think you might need. See our Pro Audio Cables Buying Guide for more info on all of these types of cables.
2. Multi-outlet power protection and extension cords
Don’t assume that you’ll find enough outlets within easy reach of your mixer and powered speakers. You’ll need:
- A multi-outlet power conditioner — power conditioners help prevent changes in voltage that can harm your equipment and help keep electrical noise out of your gear.
- Sturdy extension cords — use high-quality extension cords that'll survive a life on the road.
- Microphone stands — You might need different types of stands for different applications.
- Speaker stands — Elevating your speakers helps disperse your music, making it easier for people to hear you clearly. If you're using powered subwoofers, you'll want a set of pole stands that allow main speakers to be mounted directly above the subs for better sound alignment.
- Other accessories? How about an iPad holder that connects to a mic stand?
You should have the proper cases and covers to store and protect your gear. To avoid wear and tear on your equipment, you should protect your mixer with a case and your speakers with covers. Equipment protection is useful during transport and for keeping things clean and neat when your equipment is stored. Take care of your gear and it'll be with your for the long haul.
5. Odds and ends
- Tubs to carry all of your cables and supplies — Use plastic bins, cases, or milk crates to hold cables and other components for ease of transport. Designating specific containers for particular items (e.g. mic cables, instrument cables) makes set-up and tear-down much simpler because you’ll know where to find the items you’re looking for.
- Tape and markers or grease pencils to mark your mixer settings
- Hand truck or dolly
- A flashlight or two
- First aid kit or at least a box of bandages
Where to place your gear
A pole stand like Cerwin-Vega's CVPOLE1a makes it simple to set up a speaker/subwoofer stack
The first step in setting up your system is to get there early and give yourself plenty of time to set up.
Next, evaluate your location:
- Will you mix from the stage or out in front? If you're mixing from the stage, you'll want to place the mixer in a good spot (where it's not in the way, but you can get to it easily).
- If a sound man will be mixing the performance, you'll need a good place out in the room for the board, in this case where he can hear but wandering hands can't easily get to the mixer.
- Are there obvious places for the speakers? You’ll usually want speakers on either side of the stage/performance area to evenly distribute the sound across the broadest possible listening area.
- Where will the monitors go? On the stage floor or standing at the sides of the stage? Over time, you'll get a feeling for which placement works best for you and for the room.
Turn the mixer on first and the speakers on last to avoid switching noise that can damage your speakers.
Connect a single microphone to the mixer and test to see if you get sound from the speakers. If so, then continue the setup. If not, find what’s wrong:
- Confirm that all of your components are plugged in and getting power.
- Check the volume controls on the mixer and speakers, and the mic's on/off switch (if it has one).
- Check all the connections
- Try a different microphone cable.
- Try a different mixer channel.
- Try a different microphone.
- If your powered speakers will accept a microphone, try pluggin it directly in.
Once the basic connections are established, you can set up the other components.
- Add more microphones to the mixer, checking to see that each is working properly.
- If you have keyboards or other instruments that connect directly to the mixer, plug them in as well. These may require 1/4" instrument cables to connect to the mixer.
- Connect the monitor speakers to the appropriate mixer outputs and check that they’re working.
If everything’s OK, it’s time for the soundcheck.
Soundchecking means adjusting the PA and monitors to sound as good as possible.
- For best results you should have someone off-stage who can describe the sound in the room, which can differ significantly from the sound on stage.
- Each microphone should be checked by the person who’ll be using it for the most accurate mix.
- Adjust each microphone’s volume until they’re at a consistent level as indicated by the meters on the mixer, and adjust the EQ (tone controls) so the mics sound even and well-matched. Do the same for any microphones used on instruments or amplifiers.
- Your mixer may be able to supply a separate monitor mix. Adjust the various levels and EQ until the performers and sound man can hear what’s needed.
Ringing it out
Once all your mic levels are adjusted, turn up the volume on the entire system until you hear the beginnings of feedback.
Turn it back down a little, and mark this as the maximum gain setting (this can help later if you need to make adjustments during the show).
Then use your mixer's graphic EQ to eliminate hot spots.
- If you're hearing low-pitched feedback, push up each lower frequency band on the EQ to find the problem spot, then lower the problem band down below the center notch (detent). Also, try lowering the bass control a little on your individual mic channels.
- If it's high-pitched feedback, try pushing up the individual bands on your EQ until you locate the problem area, then lower that a bit.
Next, play a song or two while the sound man adjusts the mix, or you adjust the mix from the stage.
How to use the settings on the powered speakers
To make changes to the entire mix, you can use the tone controls that are built into most powered speakers. It’s best to keep the EQ the same from speaker to speaker for consistent sound in different parts of the room.
Tweaking the sound during the show
Once you’re satisfied with the room and monitor mixes, you’re ready for the performance. However, once the room fills up with people, the acoustics can change dramatically. You might need to make last-minute, minor adjustments before you start the show.
If feedback happens during the show, quickly lower the master faders or monitor sends. Turn down unused mics.
Don’t mess with the faders until you’re sure there will be no more encores.
The best part – tearing it down
Any performer without a road crew knows the pain of packing up gear after a draining performance. You should have a procedure in place where everything packs up the same way every night – that way, you won't leave things behind. Taking the PA apart is a simple process compared to setting it up, but there are some ways to make it easier and more efficient.
- Be sure the power is off to all your equipment before tearing down to avoid switching and unplugging noises which can damage the equipment.
- Roll up the cables rather than merely throwing them into a bag or container; you’ll be glad you did when the cables aren’t tangled in a mess the next time you use them. Velcro® cable ties keep your cable bundles neat.
The most important part
Following these simple procedures makes setting up and tearing down your powered-speaker PA quicker and easier. This allows more attention to the thing that really matters: your performance. You can concentrate on rockin’ the house, knowing that your PA system is ready to rock as well. Enjoy yourself out there!