This article is for a band about to start their first live gigs, who are thinking of buying their first PA or instrument amps for live gigs or anyone who is unhappy with their sound. Obviously there is more than one way to do things so forgive me if I have been too simplistic or have missed anything out.
It really is important to get the sound right, I've seen plenty of bands sound awful because their PA wasn't sorted; truly great musicians, household names playing out of time and out of tune. Equally I've seen pub bands give a great performance when their sound was sorted. Even on TV you can tell if the engineers have it right from how well the band are playing. To keep things simple I am going to make some assumptions about the band. You are three to six people and someone has an electric guitar. You have a drummer, a singer and possibly a keyboard. You are probably playing in small venues to audiences of less than 200. You are just starting out and you have a limited budget, you can't afford a specialist sound crew.
Why Do Some Bands Sound So Bad?
because they haven't thought through the monitoring. It doesn't matter how much practice you do or how good a musician you are; you will only be able to sing in tune if you can hear what you are singing, you can only bend notes accurately if you can hear your own guitar, drums and bass can only lock in if they can hear each other and you will only know where you are in the song if you can hear the rest of the band. Get any of these wrong and you will be out of time, out of tune and will just sound bad. If you don't have the onstage sound sorted it doesn't matter how good you are. When everything is going wrong on stage amplifying this and sending it out to the audience will only tell them how badly you are playing. Your first decision should be to sort out a decent set of monitors before you even think of buying a PA.
Ying And Yang
The next big decision surprisingly is whether to mic' up the drums. Funny because you don't associate karma with drummers but the key to a good sound is balance. The only thing on stage without a volume control is the drummer, so you must balance to them. There are only two ways of doing this: turn down your instrument amps so you match the drums and achieve natural balance or mic' up the drums and balance through the PA letting technology do the work. This is your biggest decision with lots of implications.
The first is cost; if you decide to mic' up then you will need to have a much bigger PA as it has to handle big signals with lots of dynamic range. Having this big PA means that it immediately becomes sensible to put everything through the PA and mix from front of stage. This will give you a much better chance of getting a good sound but it means you will need to buy more microphones (at least three for the drums but better with one for each drum), direct injection boxes, leads and a much bigger mixer. You will also need a sound engineer or at least a mate with a good ear, and you'll need a van to shift everything. Without miking the drums you might get away with spending 500UK (new prices) if you mic' up then expect to pay at least 1500.
I'm going to assume you make the decision to take the natural path and keep things simple. If I get a positive response then I'll do a follow up about how to set up a fully mixed PA. Even so some of this article will help you to think about the onstage sound you are aiming at.
Your amplification has three parts to it: the backline, the monitors (did I mention that these are important) and the PA. In addition you need to think about how to control them and blend the sound.
The backline are the individual instrument amps which, with the monitors create the onstage sound. I'm going to include the drummer in this and for this article I am going to assume you will not mike the drummer up except possibly the kick drum, keep it simple. If you are a new band playing to small audiences in small venues you don't need to make it any more difficult than it needs to be.
Don't try to be too loud onstage, it won't improve your sound for several reasons:
At high volume levels the muscles in your middle ear contract to protect your hearing so it won't sound any louder and you will lose the ability to hear fine details
High sound levels will be picked up by any vocal mic's and will make everything sound muddy.
You will have to turn up the monitors so the singer can hear themselves, the louder they go the more chance there will be of feedback. Sound from the backline picked up by the vocal mics will be amplified making this worse.
High sound levels will damage your hearing. There are plenty of blind virtuosos but you cannot be a deaf musician, even Beethoven had to stop playing when he went deaf.
Ultimately you can be so loud that the sound levels at the mic are louder than the human voice. Your singer may only produce 90dB of sound at the mic' your amps can easily produce ten times this. I once mixed for a guitarist who thought he was Hendrix reincarnated. He insisted that the only way he could get the right tone with his guitar was to use two 100W Marshalls each with two 4x12 cabs with everything turned up full. He then stood no further than ten feet (3m) from the stack to control feedback. There was no way you could hear him sing. He was a good guitarist with a great voice but the audience never knew.
Roughly speaking you will need about 30-50Watts for a guitar to match the drums and about 50-100Watts for bass. This depends upon your style of music and the efficiency of the speakers you are using of course but it does mean that modern combo amps are almost always good enough which means that you can go out and buy the amp that sounds best and matches your needs as a musician without worrying too much if it will be loud enough. When the time comes to play bigger venues you can think about a bigger amp or miking up your sound.Don't get involved in Volume Wars!
Keyboards are tricky, they need a clean sound and full range speakers. I prefer to use a backline amp for keyboards but it can be sensible to put them through the PA. Buy a specialised combo with at least 100Watts to keep a clean sound. The disadvantage with putting keyboards through the PA is that without some thought about mixing and possibly a more expensive mixer the vocalist will be distracted by the keyboard coming over their monitors.
Using this sort of setup keeps things very simple. Each musician has their own amp which they set up themselves and clear away when the evening is over. By moving around the stage towards their own amps they can hear more of their own sound or they know where to go if they need to hear more of another band member. It is also just about the cheapest way of being heard.
So far everyone can be heard except the singer. The onstage sound is also getting quite loud with a drummer bashing away and everyone else competing. You need some stage monitors so the singer can hear themselves and the rest of the band can hear the singer. A monitor is usually at least one speaker often quite small which can be pointed at the singer without obscuring them from the audiences view. You might also add more monitor speakers so the rest of the band can hear the singer. You will also need an amplifier to drive the speakers which may be built in to the monitors. If you have extra acoustic instruments like sax then you will need to put these through the monitors too.
The needs of an onstage monitor are quite interesting. If you want your vocalist to nuance and phrase the song as well as sing in tune then the sound from the monitors needs to be really clear. You need to be loud enough to hear over the rest of the instrument amps. Because the monitor is closest to the mic it is the one which is most likely to start feeding back. It needs to have a flat response with no resonances to avoid this. If it is just to be used for vocals it does not need to have a deep bass response or extended treble. There needs to be a way of tilting it so it points to the singer.
If you are buying a monitor then I reckon on at least 100W and either buy two speakers or something that can be extended later. You can go for an active monitor which has the amp built in or a monitor amp with separate speakers. The active version can be adjusted by the singer and is neater with fewer leads but can be less flexible. You may also want to include a mixer with the monitor and several of them have these built in, along with an echo effect which will fill out the singer's voice. Nearly all experienced bands and record producers use echo and/or multitracking to fill out the vocals so this is a good thing to look for. Any serious vocalist will probably want their own monitors and want to learn how to use them effectively as well as buying a microphone which will suit their voice. For what it is worth our singer bought a Yamaha Stagepas300. Which is a kind of mini-PA to use for monitoring and very good it is too.
The PA System
At this stage you should be dealing with a situation where everyone can hear themselves and each other and if you set up in a small space then most of the audience would hear a reasonable sound. In fact I have heard a number of semi acoustic bands who stop here. They put the monitors on the side of the performance area and twist them sideways to spill the vocals out into the audience and by keeping things simple and sound levels reasonable they sound fantastic. This is also the sort of set up you will use in rehearsals so you should be fairly used to getting the sound you want in this way.
But of course you want to be louder. It's the rock'n'roll way. It is also true that the monitors are pointing at the band so the audience can't really hear the singer properly, even spilling the monitors out into the audience only works in some venues. You need a PA. What you need at this point depends on what sort of band you are and which decisions you have made so far. You will not need to spend a fortune. If you only have vocals going through the PA then you will only need 100W per channel and a couple of full range speakers and some stands. The speakers will probably have a ten, twelve or fifteen inch bass unit in them and some sort of horn to handle the high notes. You need to raise them above the heads of the audience or the people at the front will absorb all of the treble leaving only a muffled sound at the back of the venue. Ideally they should be angled down towards the audience. You will also need a mixer to send the sound from the microphone to the PA and to control the sound levels of the vocals and anything else you want through the PA. If you have a mixer with your monitors then you don't need a second one you just need to be able to turn the monitors and PA up and down separately.
This basic set up will be enough for the majority of bands at the majority of gigs. There are plenty of variations and upgrades you can consider later but if you buy the best quality equipment you can afford and learn to use it properly this should give you the best sound you can achieve within a budget. My advice is very strongly not to cut corners with monitoring.
Well if you've got this far I hope it was useful. I hope you are thinking much more about the onstage sound than the PA and that you will avoid the volume wars that spoil the sound of so many bands. I'm aware that so much is missing from this. I could write whole articles on microphones, feedback, monitors, setting up, soundchecking etc. etc. If I get good feedback I will build this up into a complete guide. I'd welcome any comments even if you disagree with some of the things I've said.