Setting up a powered-speaker PA system
Tips for beginners
You’re the proud owner of a new PA system, and you’re getting ready to use it for the first time. Here are some expert tips on how to set it up.
Powered PA speakers make life easier for anyone who needs to set up a live sound system. Because the amps are built into the speakers, you have fewer things to lug around and connect.
Simpler is better for inexperienced DIY sound engineers. But buying the right gear is just a start. You'll also need a plan for how to use it. That's what this article is all about.
A few days before the first gig, make sure you have all of the microphones, stands, and cables you’ll need. Are your cables long enough? Your 25-foot speaker cables might be plenty long enough for your rehearsal room. But will they suffice on stage?
What else will you need?
- At least one multi-outlet power conditioner.
- Sturdy extension cords of various lengths.
- Tubs to carry all of your cables and supplies. 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
- Pocket knife or multitool
- Gaffer tape (not duct tape)
- A flashlight or two
- First aid kit
Connect and test your new gear at home or at your practice space. Make sure it works and that you know how to operate it before you take it out to a gig.
Watch this short video to see how Crutchfield's Rob Richmond, an experienced live sound pro, sets up a powered speaker system for a performance at a recent company picnic.
On the day of the show, give yourself plenty of time to load the gear into your vehicle, unload at the venue, set up, and check the sound. Get to the venue at least a couple of hours early. After you get your routine down pat, maybe you can cut it closer.
Where to place your gear
When you get to the venue, take a few moments to evaluate the stage and chat with the proprietor or stage manager. Better yet, scout the location beforehand. Things will go smoother if you have a plan before you show up. Here’s what you need to decide:
- Where to put the mixer. Will you mix from the stage or out in front?
- Where to put the speakers. You’ll usually want speakers on either side of the stage, to evenly distribute the sound across the listening area.
- Where will the monitors go? On the stage floor or standing at the sides of the stage?
Allow plenty of time to unload your gear, connect it, and check the sound.
Make sure you start with the volume of all equipment set to minimum level. After the speakers are connected, turn the mixer on first. Turn your powered 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, follow these steps to 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 plugging 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.
- 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 making sure everything works, and setting the levels and tones for the main speakers and monitors to sound as good as possible before a show starts.
Start with the monitor speakers. Leave the main speakers turned down until the monitors are all set.
If you’re just getting started, keep it simple. Don’t include drums and electric guitars in the monitor mix. (Instruments like acoustic guitars and keyboards that are plugged directly into the mixer will have to be in the monitor mix.)
How to use the settings on the powered speakers
Most powered speakers have EQ presets for main and monitor applications. Make sure they are in the proper position before you get started. If you decide you don’t want to use the presets, or you make any other tonal adjustments on one speaker, you should do the same with the others.
Many powered speakers have EQ presets for monitor and main speaker applications. The high-pass filter can help you avoid feedback.
First, perform a “line check,” with no performers on stage. Test one mic at a time.
- With the channel fader set at 0 dB (or U), speak loudly into the mic and adjust the input gain as high as it will go before the meters go into the red.
- Engage high-pass (aka low-cut) filters on all vocal channels.
- Use the equalizer built into your mixer (or an external equalizer) to “notch out” (turn down) the specific frequency bands most apt to feed back. Induce feedback by turning up each EQ band to hear if it “rings.” Turn it down if it does. Usually, notching out three bands is enough to allow monitors to play loud without feeding back. Do not ring out a monitor system with musicians onstage. It can be a loud and potentially ear-damaging process.
- Now it’s time to involve the performers. Have the vocalists sing a passage of a song that features them all singing together in harmony (no instruments yet). Adjust the monitor send level on each microphone channel until they’re satisfied.
- If vocalists plan to move around the stage with handheld mics, coach them to be careful about how they handle their mics and where they point them. Ask them to sing and move during the soundcheck.
- Adjust the monitor send levels for each of the instruments that are connected directly to the mixer.
- Have the band play a song at full volume, with all of the instruments playing (but still only through the monitor system). Continue to adjust the monitor send levels and the overall monitor output level until everyone in the band is happy.
Check out the video below to learn how to ring out your monitors.
- Have the band play another song. Turn up the main output level. Use the channel faders to adjust “front of house” mix. The vocals should sound clear and balanced with the instruments.
- If you’re mixing from the stage, have someone in the audience describe the sound in the room. It can differ significantly from the sound on stage.
Equalizing the fronts
Play a favorite recording through the main PA. Adjust the equalizer until it sounds right. If your PA can reproduce a recording and sound good, it will be able to do the same for your band’s music as well.
Use high-pass filters and equalizers to tame feedback and achieve a balanced, ear-pleasing sound.
Tweaking the sound during the show
Once you’re satisfied with the room and monitor mixes, you’re ready for the performance. However, if the room fills up with people, the acoustics will change dramatically. You might need to make last-minute, minor adjustments during the first song.
If feedback happens during the show, quickly lower the monitor output fader. Tip: Turn down unused mics.
At the end of the night, don’t mess with the faders until you’re sure there will be no more encores.
Tearing it down
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.
Turn off your powered speakers first. 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.
Get two plastic tubs. Use one for microphone cables, speaker cables, and instrument cables. Use the other for your power cords, power strips, and extension cords.
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.