No matter what style of music you play, knowing the ins-and-outs of your live sound setup will help your performance. Live sound equipment may be a bit overwhelming at first, but once you learn how to operate a mixer and see how it partners with microphones and PA speakers, you’ll be more in control of your sound. For more information on the different types of mixers, the terminology surrounding these essential live sound pieces of hardware, and which models would work best for you, check out our Digital Mixer Buyer’s Guide! Once you know the basics of live sound equipment, you’ll be able to address your needs and troubleshoot live performance problems that may arise.
Mixers come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes with an assortment of knobs, faders, and switches. The first thing to remember is that each channel on a mixer is identical and each vertical line of knobs and faders is called a channel strip. Within that channel strip are equalizers, which are used to shape the sound of each vocal or instrument so that their frequencies fit within the mix of all the others. Audio mixers are typically sold based on their channel count, and that usually ranges from 4 channels up to 64.
Perhaps you’ve heard the term “signal flow” and wondered why so many live sound engineers heed its importance. Signal flow is the path your music travels from instrument to speaker and knowing about signal flow allows musicians to make sure you’re have the best sound possible. An important technique you’ll need to understand is a process called gain-staging. First, you’ll notice that mixers, signal processors, and amplifiers all have a volume (or input) knob. Gain-staging comes into play when you your sound is at the optimum level in each device so that one isn’t overcompensating for the previous device in the chain. This type of overcompensating will introduces unwanted noise into your signal, so make sure you take the time to make adjustments at every step in the path!
A big decision for many new to live sound is whether you should go with active powered PA speakers or passive unpowered PA speakers. This means it really comes down to buying a speaker with a built-in amplifier or going with the combination of passive unpowered speakers and a dedicated power amplifier. Each choice has its pros and cons. Today, active powered speakers are more popular because the built-in amplifier is equipped with a cross-over that is specifically tuned to work perfectly with the internal speaker. This makes powered speakers an excellent choice for beginners – plug them in, turn them on, control the volume directly from the unit – this lowers the potential risk of damaging the speaker with the wrong amount of power supplied by the separate amplifier.
Powered speakers also have a variety of inputs and outputs on their back panel, allowing you to plug microphones or instruments directly into the speaker. A singer-songwriter usually only requires two inputs, such as an acoustic guitar going into input one and a microphone into input two. However, what about when a keyboard or bass player wants to join you and up your setup to a full band? This is one of the first questions you should ask yourself: “How many channels do I need?” It all depends on the model of speaker but as a rule of thumb, if you need more than 3-4 channels, you should definitely look into running out from the speakers into a separate mixer, giving your setup room to grow.
Passive speakers and power amplifiers work incredibly well if you want to setup a powerful installation at a music venue or a build high-powered touring system meant to handle the big stages and festivals. If you’re looking to go in that direction, our Power Amp Buyer’s Guide will walk you through everything you need to know when it comes to setting up an incredible passive speaker rig!
Once you’re up and going, there is another question to consider. “Should I get a mixer with built-in effects or buy dedicated effects processors?” Most typically, standalone Live Sound Signal Processors will produce higher quality effects than the effects that come built-in with the mixer, but will require extra investment. Be sure to take this into consideration as reverb, delay and compression are popular effects that you'll want to start with. Remember to always experiment and use your effects sparingly.
The important thing to remember is that each step within your signal chain (signal flow) will affect your overall sound quality. If you have the budget, investing in higher quality live sound gear will go a long way towards achieving the best possible sound quality. 0% interest monthly payment plans from American Musical Supply will help you build your dream system, one that pay for itself in the long run with more satisfying music!
AMS is here to give you live sound help and answer any questions you may have. Give us a call and speak with one of our live sound specialists today!
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