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Your First P.A. System – Part 1
By Ralph Shaw – Professional Full-time Ukulele Entertainer
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.
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