Posts Tagged ‘pa system’


Your Microphones and You (P.A. Systems Part 2)

Monday, November 18th, 2013

By Ralph Shaw – Professional Full-time Ukulele Entertainer

Last time, I gave you some basic tips when getting and using your first P.A. Today we’re looking at important choices to be made when purchasing microphones to plug into your P.A.

Before we discuss microphones I feel it is important to first say a few words about:

The Microphone Stand

Tall, thin, silent and elegant; the presence of a microphone on a stand adds focus and gravitas to a performance. Think of the singer who walks out and stands at the microphone. The seemingly inanimate mic. stand, as it is usually called, is a pedestal for an object that makes humans sound like gods. Somehow it draws the audience focus as much as a bright spotlight. For sheer charismatic appeal, a friend of mine, singer/guitarist Josh Minsky, equates the presence of a microphone stand to having a second performer onstage with you. The microphone and its accompanying stand are seldom pondered but they’re as vital to the performers’ stage presence as the costume and the smile. I urge you to consider this phenomenon if you are considering getting a headset microphone. Such a microphone may be suitable for dancers, clowns, evangelists and anyone else who needs to jump around and wave their arms about. But unless you absolutely need to be fully mobile I’d suggest staying with the traditional setup.

The stand can have a weighted base or tripod style with folding legs. I prefer the latter as it’s lighter and easier to store. In order to make room for your ukulele plus strumming arm you’ll want to stand back a little from the stand, so you’ll need a microphone boom (pictured above). This is a rod that attaches to the top of your stand and holds your microphone exactly where you need it. If you’re also using an instrument microphone then you don’t need to buy another stand. You can get a clamp which attaches to your existing stand. The clamp supports a second boom which holds your instrument microphone.

The Vocal Microphone

The industry standard for vocal microphones is the Shure SM58 microphone. It’s the cardioid, dynamic (ice cream cone shaped) microphone you always see performers using. There are better sounding mics in the world but this is a reliable and robust microphone that rarely lets you down. For optimal sound quality you need to sing close to the microphone; say about three or four inches. In other words your mouth needs to maintain a distance from the microphone equivalent to the breadth of a hand. Your body can gyrate all it wants but your head needs to stay still if you don’t want the sound to get louder and quieter.

The Condenser MicrophoneA different way to go is to use a condenser microphone, such as the Shure SM87A. With this microphone the performer, or performers, can stand up to several feet behind the microphone. If you use a condenser microphone to pick up the total sound from both your voice and the ukulele then positioning is very important. The microphone needs to be placed in such a way that the voice and ukulele volumes are in balance. This microphone is more forgiving with movement than the dynamic microphone and the sound quality can be excellent. Sometimes whole bands will stand around a single microphone to play. But it doesn’t work in all situations. Condenser microphones pick up more external sound than you expect, so watch your mouth when you turn away to say things that you think the audience can’t hear. Feedback can also be a problem with these mics. especially in group situations. They also usually require a power supply such as a battery or 48V phantom power (usually supplied by the mixer). Before buying a condenser microphone make sure it’s what you need and that your mixer/amp can supply the phantom power if necessary.

The Instrument MicrophoneIf you want to plug your instrument directly into an amp then your uke needs to have a pickup either built into it or stuck onto it. I will be making another blog post about ukulele pickups soon so keep an eye out here, or better still you can read about all things ukulele and ukulele performance in my book, which you can buy here.Truly though, you’ll usually get a better sound by using an external microphone. Once again the Shure company can claim the most widely used instrument microphone of all. The Shure SM57 invented by Shure engineer Ernie Seeler, is a microphone you can use onstage or in the studio. It shouldn’t let you down, in fact, it’s been used to amplify speeches by every president since its introduction in 1965. Mr Seeler, expected his microphone to be used for classical orchestras. He despised rock music which, ironically, is where his microphone has been most used for the last four decades. There is no word on what he thought of ukuleles.

When buying sound equipment: Remember that being louder does not equate to sounding better. Seek equipment that retains as much of your natural acoustic sound as possible.

ABOUT Ralph Shaw

Your First P.A. System – Part 1

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

By Ralph Shaw – Professional Full-time Ukulele Entertainer

controls for an AER amplifier

If you’ve been playing for a while you may be getting to the point where you need to supply your own Public Address system, or P.A. This can be a daunting prospect if knobs, buttons and blinking lights generate a cold sweat. Today some help from one non-techie (that’s me) to another (that would be you.) on using a basic P.A.

Being at the mercy of other people’s bad sound systems can be funny but is rarely fun. A friend of mine Paul Latta runs a Las Vegas style Polynesian dance company. His tales of bad PAs that his clients have supplied (usually to avoid renting professional sound gear) are quite hilarious. My favourite is the time he arrived at a gig and the client handed him a childs’ my first Sony CD player. In order to avoid such situations it can be beneficial to get your own gear.

 

What Is a PA Exactly?

PA, Sound System and Amp are fairly interchangeable terms meaning: equipment that makes you louder.

 

PA’s/Sound Systems can have multiple components including: microphones, a mixer, an amplifier, monitor speakers and main speakers which all connect by cables. You don’t really need all that stuff. An Amp (shorthand for amplifier, but it also includes a speaker and inputs for a couple of microphones) is a single device that does the job.

 

What Do I Need?

Think about your requirements. The average ukulele entertainer needs a P.A. that is:

–       Loud enough to be heard at most of the gigs you expect to be doing.

–       As natural sounding as possible. What comes out of the speaker should be like your acoustic sound only louder.

–       Reasonably portable. Think about how you travel to gigs. Will it fit in your vehicle? Can it be carried by bike, bus or on the plane?

–       Reasonably priced. Generally, the more you pay the better you sound.

–       Simple to use. Forget any piece of equipment that is so complex you feel you need a Masters degree in acoustic sciences to work it.

 

What’s Available?

The good news is that many PA companies now sell portable amps tailor-made for independent small-scale performers. Just plug in your microphones, adjust the sound controls and sing. They require little expertise, are reasonably priced and sometimes have a built-in battery for outdoor gigs where no electricity is available.

 

How Much Should I Spend?

An “okay” sounding amp can cost two or three hundred dollars. That was my budget twelve years ago when I went shopping for an amp at my local music shop. Rob, the owner, insisted on showing me an amp that had just come in (German-made by AER) it could be lifted with one hand. The sound was clean and powerful and without distortion at loud volume. It was also five times over my budget but I knew right away I had to get it. To pay for it I sold all my multi-component gear-a purchase I never regretted-the new amp was an improvement over the old PA in every way. I’m not necessarily saying that and AER amp is what you should get. Look around, these days there are more choices and prices have come down. Try some out and see what works for you.

 

What Do All Those Knobs and Buttons Do?

To illustrate this I’ve grabbed a picture of the control panel of a guitar amp (cross out the word guitar and put in ukulele if it makes you feel better.) You can see it has two main sections called Channel 1 and Channel 2:

 

Channel 1 – If your instrument has an electric pickup plug the ¼ inch cord from your instrument into the Channel 1 “input”. If your uke doesn’t have a pickup you’ll need to play it into a microphone.  

Note: Most microphone cables have an XLR connector – that’s a chunky connector with 3 pins inside. You can buy an adapter to take your XLR so you can plug into the ¼ inch socket.

 

Channel 2 – This is for your vocal microphone. You can see that this input takes the XLR 3-pin connector from a standard microphone cable.

 

Gain – Each channel has a Gain control meaning that your instrument and voice each have their own volume knobs. When turning on the amp always start with each Gain and Master volume set at zero. Increase the levels slowly so you don’t blow your speaker. Turn up the Master a little and then adjust each Gain so voice and ukulele are in good balance. Then turn up the total volume to the required level using the Master.

 

Clip – If a red Clip light is coming on then your Gain is set too high. So turn down the Gain and increase the master volume. If your master is turned up full, your Clip lights are on and you’re still not loud enough – it’s time for a bigger amp.

 

EQ Controls (equalization) – Bass, middle and treble are used to adjust the frequencies of your sound. Set them to center position. Listen to your sound. Is it too tinny? Then turn down the treble a little (or turn up the middle). Too boomy, then turn down the bass. Different rooms and different crowds require different EQ settings. If possible get someone with experience to stand in the audience and inform you what adjustments should be made. If you’re not sure, keep them centered.

 

Effects – Some amps have effects built into them. The most common two are reverb and echo. I never use echo but reverb is useful. It fills out your sound (like singing in the shower) and that’s good, up to a point. The Return knob gives you more and more reverb. But keep it subtle. If it’s turned up to where people notice you’ve added reverb then it’s too high. The eff. (effects) pan allows you to put more effect either onto your voice or your instrument.

 

Not all amps are exactly as described. You’ll find every PA has its own idiosyncrasies to figure out, so don’t be afraid to learn on the job.

 

Having your own gear will add to your performing confidence. Many facilities, such as community and old folks centers, for example, will boast that they have a PA for you to use. But be wary – it may be a my first Sony!!

 

Next time: Some microphone basics for you.

ABOUT Ralph Shaw