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Live Sound Buying Guide

So you're ready to perform for an audience. You want them to hear you clearly so a PA system is what you need. Whether you need to buy a complete system or add components to an existing one, here's a guide to get you started.

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What to Consider When Buying Equipment for Live Sound

Microphones

How much money you want to spend, along with where you plan to use your microphone and what for are the biggest considerations when choosing between the two main types.

1. Dynamic

The most common microphones for live music settings, dynamics don't require a power source or batteries for operation and are extremely durable. They're also quite affordable, although very high-quality dynamics carry a price tag on par with a condenser mic. Dynamics can handle high sound pressure levels, but they don't do well with high-frequency, quiet or distant sound.

When used in recording, they are most often matched to electric guitars, drums and basses.

2. Condenser

Condenser microphones, also known as capacitors, are more commonly used for recording. Although they require a dedicated power supply, they are light and efficient in translating signals into sound. Condenser mics are more expensive than dynamics, but they also capture a wider range. Larger ones are used more for vocals because they offer a warm, flattering sound, while smaller condensers are used when high frequencies and accuracy is required.

3. Models

Before you buy, ask yourself, "Will I be using the mic for recording, singing or to amplify the sound of an instrument?" From there, check out manufacturers' and experts' recommendations for individual models created with that use in mind. Important points to compare from model to model: frequency, sensitivity and restrictions.

Headphones

There are hundreds of headphones on the market, and undoubtedly you already have a pair you use for listening to recorded music. Here's some information on what you might have and what you should consider if you want to move into professional headphones for listening or making live music.

1. Circumaural

Circumaural refers to how the headphones cover your ears — in this case, encircling and cupping them with large padded earpieces. They come in both open and closed models.

2. Supra-aural

These headphones rest on your ears and are generally lighter and more comfortable to wear. However, because they don't offer much, if any, isolation, they're generally used in a casual setting for listening to recorded music.

3. Inputs and Quality

Just as with your audio interface, ensure there are enough inputs for all the mics you'll be recording from. And again, the higher the bit depth and sample rate on your recorder, the better quality and truer sound it will record.

3. Open Back

Also called open air, the backs of the earpieces are open and non-isolating. Because they let sounds both in and out, they're not a good choice for studio recording. However, they work for DJs who want to hear surrounding sounds at the same time as the music they're mixing. Their light, airy sound keeps ear fatigue to a minimum so they can be worn for long periods.

4. Closed

Also called sealed, the earpieces are completely closed and isolate the sound coming through the headphones. Ideal for recording because sounds do not leak out, which can then be picked up by surrounding microphones; and for DJs who prefer to eliminate distracting sounds. They're known to cause ear fatigue so they're not generally worn for long periods.

PA Mixers

Mixers are an important component to a PA system. You can get your sound out there without one, but you can fine tune and control that sound so much more with one. Think about how many routing capabilities you need (the input and output of cables and equipment) and then go shopping for one of these.

1. Analog

Analog doesn't mean old-fashioned. Many people are still fans of the warm sound, immediate response and the dedicated faders these circuit-board mixers offer. Those who want simple mixing, or those with lots of synthesizers favor analogs.

2. Digital

A key benefit to digital mixers is their programming ability. You can save settings from various venues, sessions, even from one song to the next and then easily recall them. They're also small and light, making them quite portable, and the sound quality has improved over the last few years. While digital mixers give you the option to record your live performance on the fly, you can't make adjustments to the sound quite as quickly as on an analog.

3. Powered

Powered mixers are basically analogs with added amplification. They offer the same warm tone without a digital resonance, yet are more portable. Plus, they are faster and simpler to set and also more durable.

Even though you have fewer controls and get less power than with a separate amp attached to an analog, a high-quality powered mixer is a good choice for musicians playing smaller venues — you get an all-in-one combination with a mixer, effects and power to the speakers.

Power Amps

A PA system's speakers get all the glory, but they need a power amp to really strut their stuff. Choosing the right power amp should be made in conjunction with the speakers, and here are some considerations.

1. Watts

You need to ensure your power amp can deliver as many watts as the speaker requires; some experts even suggest your amp should deliver twice as many watts as your speaker's rating says it can handle. More damage is done to speakers that get too little power than too much.

2. Ohms

Most audio power amps are designed to work with 4, 8 or 16 ohms of resistance, and the ohm rating of your power amp should match that of your speakers.

3. Cable

When connecting the power amp to the speaker it's best to use a wide cable given the amount of electricity running from one to the other. There's less stress on the amp and the sound carries better through a wider cable.

4. Maintenance

When powering up your system, the power amp should be the last thing turned on and the first item turned off to prevent damage to gear connected to it.

Speakers

In the end, it all comes down to the speakers. After all, that's where everybody turns to hear the sound. Just remember you don't need to line a stage with them just yet; speakers can always be added to your system as needed.

1. Watts

Musicians booking venues holding hundreds of people might require speakers with 500 to 1,000 watts or more. But for those playing at home or small coffee-shop gigs, 300 to 500 watts in a speaker should be plenty.

2. Powered PA Speakers

Powered speakers can be a convenient option as they provide everything you need in one cabinet. They eliminate the hassle of lugging heavy amps and cables, and you don't have to worry about matching up the power amp to the speaker either. Just keep in mind they require access to extra electrical outlets.

3. Subwoofer

If you want to emphasize those ultra-low bass notes, adding a subwoofer to your speaker mix is an option. It will increase the low-frequency capability of your system substantially. Without that low-frequency load, your other speakers will perform better and with less distortion. Subwoofers come powered or unpowered as well.