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Intro to live sound equipment

Choosing the right gear for your live sound system

Jim Richardson is the managing editor for home audio/video and pro audio learning content on Crutchfield.com.

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Band playing live music

The Charlie Bones Band (mostly Crutchfield employees) plays at the semi-annual company picnic. 

In a Nutshell

When people gather for an event, they want to hear it loud and clear.

Need some gear to make that happen? Don’t know where to start? You’re in the right place.

A live sound system can be super simple. A single powered speaker and a microphone work well for a solo performer addressing a small crowd. A packaged system is a great choice for a small ensemble.

The bigger the show and the bigger the audience, the more you need a component system. You’ll be looking at mixers, amps, microphones, and speakers. To connect and support them, you’ll need a variety of cables, stands, and other accessories.

Sound complicated? Relax. Our experienced pro audio advisors can help you sort it all out.

Full Story

What’s a PA system, and how does it work?

Sounds picked up by microphones travel through mic cables to a mixer, where tone and volume levels can be adjusted. The mixed sound goes to an amplifier, which sends it on to speakers. The speakers, in turn, project the sound to the audience.

diagram of signal flow from microphone to speakers

The signal in a typcial PA system flows from a microphone to a mixer, then on to an amplifier before arriving at its final destination, the speakers.

Live sound is that simple in theory. But choosing the right gear isn’t always so easy. There’s a wide selection of gear to suit different venues and applications. And there’s a lot of jargon to wade through. Here, in plain language, is the basic information you need to consider before you start shopping.

Speakers

Speakers are the voice of your system. What type and how many do you need?

Main speakers

Your “main” speakers are the ones you point at the audience. Most systems have two.

Main PA speakers

Your "main" speakers are usually positioned on either side of the stage, in front of the performers.

There are two basic types of speakers:

  1. Powered speakers, which have built-in amplification
  2. Passive models, which require an external amplifier.

With powered speakers, you don’t have to worry about which amp to choose. Nor do you have to carry separate amps around.

Passive models are great for permanent installations, especially if you’ll be hanging them from your ceiling.

Monitors

Monitors are speakers you point at the performers, so they can hear themselves play, sing, or speak. Most powered speakers can be used as mains or as monitors (as can some non-powered speakers).

Illustration of a monitor speaker aimed at musician

Monitor speakers sit on the floor and play toward the performers, so they can hear what they're doing.

Subwoofers

Subwoofers are large speakers that reinforce the deep bass sounds of kick drums, bass guitars, and synthesizers. Most models are powered.

To learn more, read our live sound speakers buying guide.

Mixers and amps

Mixer

The mixer is the device into which you plug your microphones, instruments, and other sound sources. Each mixer “channel” has volume and tone controls, allowing you to create a pleasing mix of sounds for your audience. With some mixers, you can also create a separate “monitor mix” for your performers.

Mackie analog mixer

The left side of this analog mixer includes 8 input channel "strips." The right side contains the output connections and controls.

Powered mixers have built-in amps and connect directly to passive speakers. But most mixers provide unamplified output signals that go to amps or powered speakers.

Analog or digital?

One big decision is whether to get an old-school analog mixer or a digital mixer. Digital mixers typically give you a lot more capabilities, but the learning curve can be steeper. They’re great if you want to mix from the audience. All the “knobs” are in a remote control app on your tablet or smartphone.

Tablet with Presonus Studiolive app at music venue

With a digital mixer, you can easily adjust your mix from the audience.

Analog or digital, you’ll need enough channels to accommodate all of your mics and instruments. But when you start shopping, you’ll see that there are a lot of other options to consider.

Learn more about mixers and how to choose the right one by reading our mixers buying guide. Or call a Crutchfield advisor and have a talk about what you hope to accomplish. Your advisor will recommend a mixer that meets your needs.

Many mixers feature acoustic effects like reverb and echo, which can be used to color the sound. If your mixer's onboard effects aren't enough for your needs, you can add outboard signal processors. Learn about them by reading our buying guide for signal processors.

Amplifiers

Pro audio amps are built with reliability in mind. The last thing you want is to have an amp fail in the middle of a show. But you do need to understand what sort of speaker “load” your amp can stand and how much power your speakers require.

Each amp should have at least as much output power as the total wattage ratings of the speakers it’s driving. Having extra wattage available (headroom) ensures clean, distortion-free sound, especially during sudden musical peaks. 

See our pro audio amplifiers buying guide for more details and advice.

Microphones

Rugged dynamic microphones are the most popular option for live sound. Read the product descriptions to see which ones are best for your intended uses. Some, such as Shure’s popular SM58, are primarily designed for vocals, while others are better for capturing instrument sounds. There are also specialized models for capturing the loud sounds of drums and guitar amps.

Singer on stage with a dynamic microphone

Most dynamic microphones are designed to perform well on loud stages.

Wireless mics are great for performers who like to move around on stage. Clip-on lavalier models are perfect for public speakers who need to keep their hands free.

Person attaching a clip-on mic to a shirt

A wireless, clip-on lavalier microphone is perfect for a public speaker or stage actor who needs to move around and use his hands while performing.

Learn more about microphones in our microphones buying guide.

Accessories

There are some essential accessories to get, in order for your PA system to function.

Cables

You’ll find a variety of different cable connections on pro audio gear. That’s one reason most gear doesn’t come with cables.

It’s up to you to determine what type of cable you’ll need to connect one piece of gear to the next and how long that cable should be. For help, check out our pro audio cable guide or ask your Crutchfield advisor.

If you are planning to buy an analog mixer, ask yourself where it will be stationed. If it’s not going to be on or very close to the stage, you’ll need a cable snake. A snake is basically a multi-stranded extension cord for your microphone and speaker connections. It can add a lot to the cost of a system, so factor that in when you’re deciding whether to get an analog mixer or a digital model.

Mic and speaker stands

Mic stands come in many different configurations and shapes.

Most PA speakers have a socket for a speaker stand. Just make sure the stand you pick is rated to hold at least as much as the speaker weighs.

AC power conditioning

If possible, all of your PA equipment should be plugged into the same power outlet. This helps to prevents shock and eliminates noisy "ground loops."

You’ll need a multi-outlet power conditioner. Get a good one. You don’t want your show to depend on the cheap household power strip with the frayed cord. 

Tools of the trade that you shouldn't forget

Finally, here are a handful of items that belong in every sound guy’s gear bag:

  • Heavy-duty extension cords — make sure you accommodate every piece of gear that needs to be plugged in.
  • Duct or gaffer's tape.
  • Flashlight.
  • Spare batteries and fuses.
  • Pocket knife or multi-tool.
  • Spare mic clips (holds the mic to the stand)
  • Direct box, or DI (direct input) box — a device used for sending an instrument signal to a mixer's mic or line-level input.

What type of system is best for you?

Portable

Building a system for a band that travels to a lot of different venues? Then you’ll probably want to look at gear that’s relatively compact and lightweight. Digital mixers are typically lighter than comparable analog mixers. And they save time by letting you save settings that work well in frequently played venues.

Guitar player adjusting portable PA mixer

bundled system with a compact powered mixer is perfect for a solo performer or small band that performs in cozy venues.

Powered speakers are popular with traveling acts because you don’t have to carry separate amps. If you’re playing in nightclubs or portable churches, powered speakers will supply plenty of volume.

Not so portable

Need a system for a large auditorium, a big church, or an outdoor stage? A compact portable rig probably isn’t the best solution. You’ll need help from a system designer to choose the right mixer, amps and speakers.

We're here to help

Want friendly, one-on-one help choosing the best gear for your PA system? Our expert Advisors can help. Call or chat with us today for free, personalized advice. Free lifetime tech support is included with every Crutchfield purchase.

As a lifelong musician, sound is a big part of my life. I love sharing my passion!

Shane, Crutchfield Advisor

Last updated 4/28/2017
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