Grand weddings, concerts, small gigs, speeches—these live events will never live up to anyone’s expectations without a stellar live sound set-up. From microphones to speakers and mixers, having an optimal audio setup and live mixing skills dictate the success of live performances.
And if you’re in the field of audio engineering, you know that live sound setups are becoming more popular in coffee shops, places of worship and other public spaces.
This is especially true since people’s appetite for live performances soared after a series of lockdowns in the past few years. It can be a lot of pressure to put on a good show when you’re making the call in PA setups.
Where do you place your speakers so the sound reaches your audience—no matter where they are? How do you position your monitors? What can you do when you face technical issues with your live sound setup?
Let’s discuss them in detail below!
Live Sound and PA Systems Explained
Before we get to the more complicated stuff, let’s first start with the basics.
For a live sound set up to work, you need a PA (public address) system. It increases the volume of musical instruments, recorded sounds, vocals and other sound sources. For example, in live music settings, PA systems are used to allow the audience to hear the performers on stage.
They are also found in schools and offices, often used for emergency information and general announcements. Other applications include public transport, sports fields and leisure centres, among others.
While one system can be a lot different from others, they all follow the same functions:
- Taking sound waves and converting them into electronic signals using microphones or line inputs
- Using mixing consoles, electronic signals are then manipulated and combined
- Amplifying signals using a power amp
- Converting the signals back into sound waves through speakers
Depending on the PA equipment, your live sound set-up will have its own features, designs and capabilities associated with the functions mentioned above.
What Are The Parts of a Live Sound Set Up?
Several parts make up a typical live sound set or PA system, with each of them playing a significant role in producing the fullest sound possible for various kinds of crowds. Let’s take a closer look at them:
Image Source: Virtuoso Central
Main speakers are the first component that comes to mind every time live sound and PA systems are discussed. They come in two different kinds: passive and active.
Passive speakers don’t have a built-in amplifier and require a separate one before they can work. In some cases, it also requires an external crossover and other signal processing for them to produce sounds.
That’s why they are called passive: it doesn’t perform any type of action on the incoming signal.
On the other hand, active speakers have the upper hand when it comes to ease of use. Since amplification is built right into the box, all you need is a source to get the output signals to the speakers. This can either be wireless, digital or analogue.
A mixing console or a mixer is used to combine different audio sources—like musical instruments and microphones—to adjust the volume, frequency and dynamics of the sound source. They allow audio engineers to optimise input and output signals for the best live performances.
It comes in two types: digital and analogue. Analogue mixers are best for audio engineers who are looking for something simple. They are also considered the best choice for beginners, given that they have fewer buttons and customised features compared to digital mixers.
But one of their downsides is that they have a limited number of external device connections. This can be an issue if you want to connect several microphones, speakers and other devices.
Digital mixers, on the other hand, can offer more capabilities in terms of effects and customisation since they operate using digital channels. You can also get a clear digital audio transfer, thanks to their ability to avoid buzzing, tick sounds and white noise in recordings.
However, they’re not easy to use and master, especially if you’ve never used a mixer before. You might feel overwhelmed by the number of buttons, switches, inputs and outputs, so we suggest that you start with a base-level digital mixer.
Also referred to as amps, amplifiers electronically increase the initial sound source. They are typically used to boost the signal before it reaches the speakers—either be standalone or built into the mixing console.
Keep in mind that boosting the electric current is not an amplifier’s only function. That’s the easy part. It must also faithfully and clearly reproduce the quality of the input signal even when the signal is frequently changing in both frequency and volume.
Microphones are best known for capturing guitar amps, vocals, drums and other sound sources. Technically speaking, they are considered transducers, which is a somewhat fancy way of saying something converts one type of energy into another.
There are two types of microphones in a live sound set-up: dynamic and condenser. The former is the best option for capturing strong sounds like drums and loud vocals in live performances. Meanwhile, the latter is typically used to capture more delicate sounds and higher frequencies, which is why it’s the better choice in a studio setting.
But some live sound engineers prefer using customised condenser microphones due to their top-notch sound quality. They capture more intricacies and nuances that a regular dynamic mic cannot.
And if you don’t want to turn the guitar amps all the way up, you can use a microphone to capture the guitar or keyboard amplifier’s sound in the PA system.
Image Source: Klipsch
Subwoofers are speakers that amplify the lowest frequencies—such as pipe organs, deep voices, bass guitars and sound effects—in whatever audio you’re playing. In a nutshell, it allows listeners to feel songs.
For instance, if you’ve ever watched a movie in a movie theatre and you can feel your chair vibrate when something big happens on the screen, that’s the subwoofers at work.
Image Source: AD-Systems
Stage monitors are speakers that are usually placed on the stage and pointed at the performance area so the performers hear themselves. Without these speakers, performers might only hear reverberations and indirect sound, throwing them off mid-performance.
They also provide immediate feedback on the pace and sound quality of their performance, allowing performers to make changes and keep the sound clean throughout the show.
Setting Up a Stage Sound System: How to Perfect a Live Sound Set Up
When you’re an up-and-coming sound engineer, learning how to perfect a live sound set-up can seem like a daunting task. Like a puzzle, you have to put a lot of pieces together to produce the fullest possible sound that the audience will love.
It’s stressful, but if you know what you’re doing, it can be fun and exciting. Don’t fret—we’ll walk you through the steps of setting up a stage sound system and avoiding the most common mistakes!
Step 1: Inspect The Venue
Once the venue has been booked, make sure that you inspect it before deciding where to place your speakers, mixing consoles and other equipment. Don’t forget to see where electrical outlets are placed, too.
Here’s what you need to consider during a venue inspection: its size, the number of people it can accommodate as well as the desired volume. For example, a bar that plays rock music should have a more powerful live sound system than a coffee shop that plays folk music.
Step 2: Be Mindful Of Speaker Placement
Remember that the main goal is to place the speakers where everyone in the audience—regardless of where they are—can hear while avoiding microphone feedback.
Although placing at least two front-facing speakers (one on each side of the stage) is the rule of thumb, you might want to consider several factors:
- The size of the stage
- The acoustics
- The placement of electrical outlets
- The location of each performer on the stage
- The audience’s position in relation to the stage
Once you have the complete sketch, place the speakers and subwoofers at the front of the stage. Make sure they’re away from the nearest microphone to prevent feedback.
You can try doubling the distance between microphones and speakers. Increasing the distance between microphones and speakers can reduce the amount of sound that is picked up by the microphone and sent back through the speaker, which can reduce the likelihood of feedback. This can give you more room to adjust the volume before feedback occurs.
Moreover, position the speakers high up to get good sound dispersion. Bear in mind that sound travels further when speakers are elevated!
But be careful! If speakers are way too high, it can result in a lack of impact for people who are sitting in the front row. And if they are too low, the front row will suffer from a deafeningly loud sound.
Depending on your set-up, there are a couple of ways to elevate your speakers. The most common way is by using a tripod speaker stand. You can even try scaffolding stands that can hold speakers at various heights within a rack. Speakers can also be suspended with cables with trussing.
Last but not least, position at least two stage monitors, one on each side of the stage. You may also set up a third one at the back of the stage to cover the drummers and keyboardists.
Step 3: Plug In Your Components
Plug in every powered component you’ll be using such as amplifiers, mixing consoles and active speakers. Place them near a power outlet and ensure that you bring enough extension cords in case there’s a need for power in inaccessible areas.
If you’re ready to run power to your stage sound system, start by connecting your subwoofers then use shorter cables to power your speakers. Use a roll of gaffer tape to secure cables and keep them in place. You don’t want people tripping over wires!
Also, don’t forget to keep the power off until you’re ready to connect everything to the mixer.
Step 4: Set Up The Mixing Console
The next thing you should do is find a good spot to set up your mixing console. You don’t have to place it on the stage, but if you set it up far enough away, you’d need longer cable runs.
Mixers are commonly set up behind the seating area of the audience so the sound technician can have the same perspective.
There are also wireless digital mixers in the market that can be controlled using an iPad. You can place it on stage to connect all instruments and equipment, then use the iPad to control the audio from anywhere in the venue.
To start connecting all the audio sources like guitars, keyboards and microphones, run all required cabling to the mixer. For guitars and basses, you can connect them directly from the amplifier using the line output found in most guitar amps. However, to get a fuller, more authentic sound, most sound technicians will mic up the amps.
Above all else, make sure that you keep your setup organised to look more professional. This means that you keep the cabling away from the band’s playing area as much as possible by keeping it to the sides or off stage.
You can also use a stage box or a multi-channel snake to minimise clutter. This will help you connect all microphones and sound sources using shorter cables, reducing the number of wires running across the stage.
Step 5: Connect The Mixer To The Speakers And Monitors
If you’ve connected all the mics and input sources, the next step is to set up audio connections from the mixer to the speakers and monitors.
To get started, connect a line from the mixer’s left output to the left speaker and repeat the same for the right speaker.
In cases where you need to use passive speakers, you should connect them to an amplifier before connecting them to the mixer using an XLR or a ¼-inch cable.
For live sound setups that use subwoofers, they likely feature a ‘Pass Thru’ connection. You can use this to connect the main speakers that sit on top of the subwoofer.
Once done, you may start connecting the stage monitors to your mixing console. Make sure that you collaborate with performers when setting up the monitors so they are satisfied with how they sound.
Step 6: Perform a Sound Check
Set the main volume of the mixer all the way down after every component is connected. Start by turning on the mixer, followed by the monitors, and finally the main speakers.
Set the volume of the powered speakers to midway, and do the same for the monitors. You can readjust the volumes later if needed.
Setting the volume of the powered speakers and monitors to midway can help avoid voltage spikes that may occur when turning on the mixer or other equipment in the system. Voltage spikes can potentially damage the speakers or other components in the system, so it’s important to be cautious.
Starting with the volumes at midway also gives you a good baseline to work from, allowing you to adjust the levels up or down as needed based on the sound you’re hearing and the needs of the performance or event.
To begin checking the sound, play a track on one of the channels and slowly crank up the volume until you hear it on the speakers. Ensure the sound is loud enough for the whole venue to hear.
Step 7: Perform a Basic EQ
Always remember that the key to achieving a good sound mix is performing a basic EQ on all instruments. You should ask every band member to play one at a time, adjust the EQ settings and have them play together to make sure they blend well.
If you experience feedback down the line, try to reposition your speakers and monitors. Having a feedback destroyer can also help eliminate feedback from your setup.
When everything sounds good and clear, the show can finally start!
Running a live sound set-up doesn’t always have to be stressful. You don’t have to be on the edge of your seat every time you’re behind the mixer; you don’t even need to spend a huge chunk of money for fancy gear to sound good.
It all boils down to how good you are at live mixing, communicating with musicians and performers and doing the best you can at each event. And as long as you know the basics like the back of your hand, it’s much easier to work your way through more complicated live setup situations.
So, whether you’re interested in music production, studio mixing and live sound in general, learning the ins and outs of a live sound set-up can be an essential first step of your career! Orita Sinclair, a well-known school of design and music in Singapore, is here to help you get started. Our team of seasoned sound engineers will guide you in reaching your full potential in audio engineering. Submit your online application today!
What do I need for a live music setup?
A live music setup needs the following equipment:
– Main speakers
– Mixing consoles (analogue and digital)
– Power amplifiers
– Stage monitors
How do I set up a good sound system?
To set up a good sound system, you need to start with the basic steps. This includes inspecting the venue, strategically placing your speakers, running power drops, connecting the mixing console to speakers and monitors, performing a sound test and many more.