How to Put Together a Band PA

You’ve got the money, you’ve got a way to transport the gear and you decided it’s time to buy a PA.

But, what all do you need? Short answer; a sh** load (excuse my French).

There are so many options out there it’s confusing and daunting (fancy word alert). Knowing what to buy will take some research and review. You’ve got to read guides and if at all go listen to the different components.

Here I’ll show you what components make up a PA and I’ll show you two setups, one for a small patio type gig with good quality mains and one for a small to medium room with a little higher quality mains and subs. We’ll base this on the assumption that there are 4 people in your band; singer, guitar, bass, drums.

Here we go:

Mixer

The brain of the operation. You will need enough XLR inputs to handle mics for everyone. In this case you’ll need 4 for vocals, one for guitar, one for bass and at least 4 for drums (kick, snare, rack tom, floor tom). So, that’s a total of 10 XLR inputs.

I highly recommend buying a mixer with more inputs than you need. If you add a member or a channel starts having problems, you need to be able to expand or switch without buying or repairing gear.

These days you have two options - Digital or Analog. If you go digital, you could look at something like the Mackie DL1608 that sells for about $899 new. You’ll also need an iPad to operate this mixer. The good thing about this type of mixer is that you don’t need much, if any, external effects. It is all handled in the Mackie Master Fader program. That will save you quite a bit.

The other option is an analog mixer. The world seems to be moving away from this type of mixer, but they are still great mixers. You could go with something like the Mackie 1604 VLZ4 which will have plenty of XLR inputs.

You will want a case to carry this mixer in, or at least a padded bag. You’ve got to protect that investment.

Mics and Mic Stands

Next you’ll need mics for everyone. There are too many choices to list here, so we’ll go with the industry standard; the Shure SM57 and SM58. The SM58 is mostly used for vocals (also called “vox”) and is a workhorse. If you’ve ever been to a concert chances are they’ve used them. Since you have 4 singers, you’ll need 4 vocal mics.

The SM57 is mostly used for instruments, and like the 58, is a workhorse. You’ll need one to mic the guitar cabinet, one to mic the bass cabinet, and 3 for the drums (2 for toms, one for snare).

You’ll want something different for the kick. The kick has a lower dynamic range than about everything else so you need a mic that can capture that “punch”. The AKG D112 is another industry standard with a great sound.

Now, you’ll need mic stands to hold all those mics and cables to get the sound from the mic to the mixer. For the stands you want something of decent quality that can handle the abuse they will receive. You can expect to spend about $30 each and you’ll need 4 for vocals, two for instruments and one for the kick drum. That’s 9 so that will run you about $270.

You will need mic clips for the three SM57s on the drums, too.

Mains and Monitors

I have these listed together because they can often be interchangeable. Many cabinets will be designed to be mounted on a pole for the main or lay on it’s side for the monitor.

You also need to consider the speaker, or “driver” size. They can come in anything from an 8” to a 15”. Most likely they will have a horn as well. The horn carries the high-end or treble (it’s not all about dat bass) where the hi-hat and the “s” sound of the vocal lives. The driver is where the mid-range (pretty much everything else) and low end lives.

If you plan on using subs with your mains (more on that in a bit) you can get away with a 12” or smaller driver. This will let the mains carry just the mid-range and up and the subs will carry all the low-end stuff (kick and bass).

Like everything else, there are a lot of options. Primarily you’ll be looking at unpowered, or “passive”, meaning they will need an external power amp to run them, or powered, or “active”, which have the power amp built in.

Which you go with is a matter of personal preference. I’m starting to lean toward powered because it means having fewer things to haul and setup. In other words, the power amp is already built in to the cabinet, so you don’t have to have a rack and separate amps for your cabs.

Next, we’ll need monitors for everyone to be able to hear themselves. I prefer for each band member to have their own monitor, but it is possible to share a monitor. Monitors can come in many sizes from very small (sometimes called “hot spots”) that have a 5” driver and are usually self powered to the same size as a main with the 15 and a horn.

I currently use monitors with 12” drivers and they fit the bill just fine.

You can also go with in-ear monitoring systems. These are very nice to have and can be a little easier on your ears. They are a little more complicated (and more expensive), so for this article we’re going to stick with wedges.

When I was first starting out our soundman, John McBride, designed his own monitors. They consisted of two 15” JBL drivers with a horn between them. He lovingly call them the “KYFO” monitors, or, the Knock Your Face Off monitors. They were badass.

Subs

Some mains will be sufficient in carrying the majority of the audio spectrum, meaning, they will have plenty of highs and lows. If you go with a main with a 15” driver you could be covered for small gigs.

If you want to really carry that low end, the kick and bass part of the sound, a sub will bring them out much better.

Subs typically come with a single 15” or 18” driver, but you can also get them with two 18” per cabinet. I prefer and usually use a single 18” cabinets per side and this sounds really good. Sometimes I like two 18”s per side, or four total to really get that kick drum driving the beat. Basically, the more low-end you need, the more subs you need.

Effects

There are several types of effects that can really enhance your sound. If you’re going with a digital board you likely won’t need to purchase much, if any, external effects units. This is because they come “built in”.

With an analog board you’ll need some external effects to round out your sound. One of the first and most important is the EQ. The EQ comes in a few varieties but the most common are 7 band, 15 band and 31 band. You will typically want at least a single 15 (31 is better) band for the whole PA, but it’s good to have EQ for each monitor as well.

Next is the Compressor/Limiter/Gate. I won’t go into too much detail, but these units are used to keep your audio levels consistent and preventing unwanted sound from bleeding in, muddying up your mix.

They will usually be used on vocals and drums, but sometimes they can be used as a whole PA unit, meaning they compress the entire sound of the PA.

I like a little reverb to “dampen” up the mix. Reverbs will have a lot of “presets” like “room”, “hall”, “big hall” and so on. I typically use just a little bit as I think a bunch will make the sound too hollow.

You may also need to get a crossover for your mains and subs. A crossover simply splits the signal between the highs and lows. Why do you need to do this? Well, a sub typically can’t handle the high frequencies like a cymbal, so there’s no need to send that frequency to the sub.

And a main may not be able to handle the “pulse” or “thump” of a kick, so you don’t need to send that low frequency to the main.

The crossover just basically says “don’t send anything below 40hz to the mains and don’t send anything above 40hz to the subs.

There are more effects you can add like delay and vocoder, but the above are the basics to get you started.

Cables - Mic & Speaker

You’ve got to be able to hook all this stuff together. Mic cables will be needed for each mic, cables to hook the mixer to the external gear (EQ, effects, crossover) and you’ll need speaker cables to get the signal to the mains and subs.

If you can, buy a backup for each mic cable you need, but at least 4 more mic cables than you need. I’ve been in a few situations where a mic cable wasn’t long enough so I had to couple some together. I’ve also had cable failure where I need a cable “NOW”.

Length will vary, but 25’ cables are a good place to start.

You’ll need speaker cables for each speaker connected to your crossover. I buy at least 50ft. cables, but if you can afford, buy longer. Also buy at least one backup speaker cable.

*Side note - You shouldn’t use instrument cables in place of speaker cables. The shielding is different and you could have problems with overheating amps, blowing speakers, unwanted noise, etc.

Racks - Effects & Mixer

Now, you’re going to need the put all that stuff into something. You don’t want to carry all of this stuff separate and have to hook it all up each gig. Not only would that take too much extra time, it looks bad, too. Racks come in many, many variations.

What you need will depend on what system and external effects you have.

For example, if you’re going with a digital mixer and only need an EQ and a crossover, you could go with a rack case that holds the mixer on top and the effects below it.

You’ll also need tubs to carry all the cables and extras and a mic case to carry all your mics in.

Two Rigs

Closing

There are a lot of components that go into a PA. A digital mixer with powered speaker cabs can be a much smaller setup with fewer components to haul and store. Some people prefer the sound of an all analog system, but you will have more to carry and deal with at each show.

Go to as many shows as you can, preferably the same size and venues that you want to play and see and hear what other bands are using. Talk to the band and see what they like about it. Talk to the soundman, too.

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