Summertime is the busy gigging season; now’s the time to think about the stage gear you’ll need this year. So if you’re shopping for a new live rig, start here! We’ve rounded up an assortment of equipment for your favorite poolside gigs, organized under three categories: singer/songwriter, DJ, and full band. (All prices are approximate street prices.)
Shure Beta 58A A system for use by a solo performer needs to provide ease of portability, fast setup, and simple operation. No solo artist wants to be humping a lot of heavy gear, yet it’s important that the system offer some measure of expandability for that occasional duet gig.
We’ll start with the most important part of the signal chain: the vocal microphone. We need a mic that’s reliable, sounds great, and offers high gain-before-feedback. Dynamic (moving coil) microphones tend to be the most rugged and won’t require phantom power—an important consideration because we probably won’t be using a “proper” mixer. Popular choices for stage vocal mics include the Shure Beta 58A ($159), Audix OM-5 ($159), Audio-Technica ATM-610a ($169), and Sennheiser e845 ($150). Some of these mics are available with an on/off switch—a feature you may need for muting the mic between sets.
Sennheiser e845 We’ll forgo the complexity of mixers (powered or otherwise) and go for a “portable P.A.” with multiple inputs: one for a vocal mic and another for an instrument. Take for example, JBL’s PRX712 ($699), a compact, two-way system with a 12-inch woofer and a 1.5-inch neodymium compression driver powered with two onboard Class D amplifiers. If you need a bit more bottom end, you can climb up the chain to the PRX715 ($799) with a 15-inch woofer. Two rear-panel combo jack inputs with level controls accept mic or line signals, and a pair of RCA jacks can be used to connect an iPod for music during breaks. An XLR output jack can carry either or both channels for connection to another PRX for use as an additional main speaker or monitor. As you might guess from its name, the Bose L1 Compact ($999 street) was designed for portability; it weighs in at only 29 pounds. The L1 Compact employs Bose's Spatial Dispersion technology to deliver consistent, 180-degree coverage across the stage and to the audience. Its vertical enclosure houses six small drivers for HF reproduction, and sits atop a bass module with an 8-inch woofer. An XLR mic input features low-and high-band EQ, while channel 2 offers 1/4-inch TS (switchable between line or instrument level), RCA, or 1/8-inch stereo inputs.
Speaking of monitors, we’ll also need a small wedge monitor. (In-ears are too complicated for this application.) Yamaha’s DBR12 ($499) incorporates a voicing-contour switch to modify the cabinet’s frequency response for use either as a main speaker or a floor wedge, permitting it to function as part of a larger system in the future. Electro-Voice’s EKX-12 ($499) can also be used as a main or monitor speaker and features DSP presets for music, live speech, or club applications as well as crossover settings that can seamlessly match it with an EKX Series subwoofer. Add some cables, a speaker stand, and a mic stand, and off you go to the coffee house.
VARIATIONS ON THE (P.A.) THEME
Fishman’s SA220 ($999) Solo Performance System boasts a full-featured mixer, upping the ante with two phantom-powered microphone inputs, three-band EQ, reverb, and feedback suppression. A convenient Mute switch turns off the mic inputs and XLR outputs while allowing the aux input to continue functioning for break music.
Possibly the first portable P.A. system of its kind, Korg’s Stageman 80 (about $500) integrates a drum machine, a mixer with two inputs, built-in effects and a WAV file recorder. Dual 4-inch, full-range speakers are each powered with a 40-watt amplifier, and the Stageman 80 can be battery powered for those gigs in the NYC subway.
A bit more of a financial commitment than the previously mentioned models, Mackie’s Reach ($999) provides four combo inputs plus a 1/8-inch stereo aux input for an iPod. A unique feature of the Reach is an integrated monitor speaker that faces the performer—eliminating the need for a wedge. The Reach includes onboard effects and DSP, and is controlled using Mackie’s Connect app for iPhone, iPad, or Android.
Samson’s Expedition XP800 ($599) takes a slightly different approach, offering a powered eight-channel (4 mic/line plus 2 stereo line) mixer that folds into the rear panel of one of the cabinets for transport. The mixer provides built-in effects, Bluetooth connectivity for wireless music streaming, and dual 400-watt, Class D amplifiers. The entire system packs up into a single portable unit that weighs around 40 pounds.
THE DJ SYSTEM
Nailing down a DJ system requires first asking the question: “what’s the source?” Old-school DJs spinning vinyl will want a pair of direct-drive turntables. Technics’ SL-1200 was discontinued in 2010 but this summer the company will introduce the limited-edition SL-1200GAE 50th Anniversary Edition ($4,000), which looks like something I installed at Studio 54 in 1978 (kidding). At a more earthly price (around $650) is Pioneer’s PLX-1000, a direct-drive turntable with a high-torque motor for stable platter speed and a high-mass, die-cast chassis made of zinc. Unlike ye olden days, the PLX-1000 has gold-plated RCA jacks so you don’t have to settle for the crappy captive cables that came with turntables when I was a kid. Pitch control can be varied over ± 8, 16, or 50 percent, with instant reset to 0.
DJs who like the ability to switch between the analog and digital worlds will appreciate Audio-Technica’s AT-LP1240-USB ($399) which features an onboard RIAA preamp and can deliver line output as well as the traditional “phono level” output via RCA jacks. Integrated A/D conversion at 44.1 or 48 kHz enables the AT-LP1240 to show up as an audio device under Windows or Mac OS. Don’t forget the phono cartridge: Shure (M44-7, $45), Stanton (505. V3, $70), Audio-Technica (AT95E, $39), and Ortofon (Scratch OM, $61) are popular choices that won’t break the bank.
If you do want to break the bank, you can plug those turntables into Pioneer’s DJM-2000NXS 4-channel digital mixer ($2,499). The DJM-2000NXS can also accommodate analog line level input or digital inputs. Additional features include Beat Slice for creating new track slices on-the-fly, and Sync Master which automatically synchronizes tempo and beat position of tracks. DJs who prefer to work in the digital domain might want to check out Rane’s SL 4 USB interface ($899) which works with Serato Scratch Live for vinyl emulation. Vinyl “control” records included with the SL 4 allows DJs to use analog turntables to alter playback of computer-based files.
No DJ rig would be complete without headphones, preferably closed-back to reduce leakage from the outside world. The Denon DN-HP500 ($89), Shure SRH550DJ ($100), and Pioneer HDJ-500 ($89) all fit that bill, and provide padded, swiveling ear cups that move at least 60 degrees.
Every DJ needs plenty of thump, both for themselves and to get booties shaking on the dance floor. PreSonus’ StudioLive 315AI powered speaker ($1,450) combines high output (2,000 watts onboard, triamped), integrated processing, and compact design using the company’s proprietary CoActual coaxial transducer. A 15-inch LF transducer handles the lows while the CoActual driver produces the mids and highs. When mounted atop the Presonus Studio-Live 18sAI subwoofer ($1,250), the 315AI is time-and phase-aligned to create a true four-way system. Remote tuning via wired or wireless network is possible using PreSonus’ free SL Room Control app for iPad, Mac, or Windows, and an optional Dante networking card enables routing audio via CAT5 cable.
To get you moving in the DJ booth we’ll grab a pair of QSC KW122s ($1,099), a two-way/12-inch active loudspeaker with 75-degree conical DMT (Directivity Matched Transition) coverage for consistent sound throughout the listening area. The KW122’s profile allows it to be used with standard 35mm pole mounts or as a floor wedge monitor, and it weighs in at a relatively lightweight 22 pounds.
BAND RIGS THAT GO BIG
Our most ambitious rig is intended for bands carrying their own P.A., gigging in small clubs. Let’s assume instrumentation of drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, and lead and background vocals. Those instruments will yield a lot of inputs, so a portable P.A. is out of the question. We’ll need a “proper” mixing console and a digital mixer is the way to go. Sixteen input channels are a must; if you can foot the bill go for 24 channels. Allen & Heath’s Qu16 ($1,999) has 16 XLR mic/TRS line inputs, three dedicated stereo line inputs (including a front-panel 1/8-inch jack for your iPod) and 12 balanced XLR outputs. The outputs facilitate routing a L/R house mix, four mono mixes, and three stereo mixes, so we could create as many as seven monitor mixes. Four onboard stereo effect processors can generate a gazillion effects including reverb, delay, chorus, doubler, phaser, and flange.
If you prefer the idea of a mixer without the mixer(!), A&H’s Qu-Pac ($1,499) and Mackie’s DL32R ($1,799) are viable candidates. Both of these are rack chassis with all of the audio I/O and processing, and much less (or in the case of the DL32R—none) of the control surface. These are network-controlled via tablet or phone, and the manufacturers offer free apps to control their respective products. One of the great attractions of such a setup is that each musician can dial in his or her own monitor mix using a phone (no pun intended). It also means that an engineer can walk the room while mixing on an iPad. Club owners love the fact that they don’t give up space for a mix position.
Software control also means that some of these systems are expandable. PreSonus’ StudioLive CS18AI ($1,999) offers a mere four inputs and two outputs on its control surface, but it’s intended for AVB networking control of StudioLive RM16AI ($999) and RM32AI ($1,599) rackmount digital mixers, managing systems up to 64 inputs and 32 outputs.
Next we’ll need a complement of microphones, both instrument and vocal. Generally we can revisit the vocal microphones that are appropriate for the singer/songwriter rig, most of which are available in wireless versions.
If you don’t mind a little legwork, you can pick drum microphones á la carte: Shure Beta 52A ($189), Audix D6 ($199), or Sennheiser e 602 II ($159) for kick drum; Shure SM57 ($99), Audix i5 ($99) for snare; Electro-Voice ND44 or ND46 (price TBA; both from EV’s new ND Series), Audio-Technica ATM230 ($139), or Sennheiser e 604 (available in a three-pack for $349) for toms. Small-diaphragm condenser microphones generally fare best for cymbals but good condenser mics get pricey real fast.
Shure’s PGA181 is an excellent condenser mic at a ridiculous price tag of $100 street. (Get two before Shure raises the price.) If you have deeper pockets, you can get into the Audio-Technica Pro 37 ($169), AKG C430 ($199), Audix SCX-1 ($499), and Shure SM81 ($349). Keep in mind that gigging with expensive microphones is not always the greatest idea—gear occasionally gets left behind or walks away at the end of the night.
A drum mic package can simplify your shopping list. Samson offers the 7Kit (kick, snare, three tom, two condenser, $199) to cover a 5-piece drum kit easily; larger (8Kit) and smaller (5Kit) variations are also available. Miktek’s PMD5 ($849) includes four PM10 snare/tom mics plus a PM11 kick drum mic. Audix, Shure, AKG, and Sennheiser also offer drum mic packages, some of which include mounting hardware—meaning you’ll have fewer microphone stands to carry.
You won’t go wrong miking a guitar amp with a Shure SM57 or Audix i5; for a slightly different flavor try the Audio-Technica ATM650 ($99). If the need arises, any of these can also be used for horns.
There’s a very good chance that bass and keyboards will require direct boxes as opposed to mics on amplifiers (see sidebar on page 20). Radial’s ProDI ($99) is an excellent all-around DI that is reasonably priced (around a hundred bucks) and should be able to withstand being hit by a truck, even if you don’t. The iFace from ProCo ($160) accepts stereo input via RCA or 1/8-inch mini and delivers the signals on XLR balanced outputs.
Now that we have the front end out of the way, it’s time for the heavy guns. Our band system is already getting fairly complex and we don’t want to increase setup time by using passive speakers, power amps and crossovers. Let’s consider the Mackie HD Series for the mains: The HD1521 ($999) is a two-way active system with components designed by EAW. Onboard Class D amplification enables the HD1521 to deliver SPLs well above 120 dB, with low-frequency response down to 50 Hz. To make sure we have plenty of gas in the bottom end of the tank, we’ll augment these with a pair of HD1801 powered subwoofers ($999 each). The HD1801 employs an 18-inch transducer, extending low end down to 35 Hz. A highpass output can be used to feed the HD1521 and—since the HD1801 was optimized to interface with Mackie’s full-range boxes—the system integrates without worry of crossover points or filter slopes.
We also need stage monitors: at least two up front and one for the drummer. Again, we’ll stick with powered boxes. QSC’s K10 ($699) is a compact powered wedge that can kick your ass with SPLs up to 129 dB. Its lightweight ABS enclosure houses a 10-inch woofer, a 1.75-inch compression driver, and dual 500-watt Class D amplifiers. An XLR line out jack permits easy daisy-chaining, and each of the K10’s two inputs has its own “direct” output, should the need arise.
If your taste leans toward a little more bottom end (and a louder stage), check out the ELX115P ($699) from Electro-Voice. The ELX115P mates a 15-inch woofer with a 1.5-inch titanium compression driver housed in an enclosure that can be placed as a floor wedge, or on a pole for sidefill use. Get two so you can give your drummer a pair of Texas headphones.
In an ideal world we’d put the entire band on in-ear monitors. See the sidebar below to help decide whether this is a good or bad idea for your situation. High-quality systems are available from Sennheiser (ew300 IEMg3, $999) Shure (PSM300, $799), Westone (AM Pro 10, $189; AM Pro 20, $339; and AM Pro 30, $439) and Audio-Technica (M2, $599, and M3, $799) if you can handle the commitment to IEMs.
So there you have it. We’ve suggested some great gear for any live sound situation you might face this summer. Now go make some noise!!
Steve La Cerra is an independent audio engineer based in New York. He mixes front-of-house for Blue Öyster Cult and teaches audio at Mercy College Dobbs Ferry campus.
Sound to DI For
Most 1/4-inch inputs on mixers or portable P.A.s are not designed to accept “instrument” signals. Acoustic guitar pickups, electric basses, and many keyboards need to be patched into high-impedance inputs to properly produce their audio signal.
A direct box (“DI”) is the correct way to make the connection, performing three important functions: One, the DI brings the output of the instrument down to microphone level so that the signal can be connected to a mic input. Two, the DI balances the (typically) unbalanced signal generated by the instrument, and three, the DI presents the instrument with the high-impedance input that it is designed to drive, restoring the instrument’s output level and tone.
DI prices range from 25 to 500 bucks, with plenty of models in-between. Expect to pay $100 to $150 for a good-quality direct box. Noteworthy is the PZ-DI from Radial Engineering ($229 street), a direct box specifically developed to properly match input impedance to instruments with magnetic pickups, piezo pickups, or the active preamps found in some acoustic guitars.
Should You Use In-Ear Monitors?
Switching from stage wedge monitors to IEMs can be a life-changing experience. Musicians find it easier to hear what they need in their ears, monitor feedback disappears, the stage sound is greatly cleaned up, and the front-of-house mix improves due to reduced spill from monitors into the house. Used properly, IEMs can help conserve your hearing by reducing stage volume. But the switch to IEMs isn’t all roses and champagne. Don’t expect to “throw and go” with IEMs like you can with wedges. You’ll need time for a sound check, plus a mixer with a sufficient number of aux sends to feed the transmitters. It’s possible to use a single transmitter to feed the same monitor mix to multiple receiver packs (for several musicians), but that misses one of the points of using IEMs in the first place.
IEMs also require someone to pay attention to the cue mixes, especially since stage sound should decrease when IEMs are used correctly—meaning that you may have trouble or not be able to hear your instrument at all until the ear mix is running. Assuming that your budget does not allow for a monitor engineer, it’d be smart to choose a mixing console that allows control via an iPhone or iPad app for monitor mixing. This will enable each musician to mind his or her own monitor mix and won’t be possible with an analog mixer.
A set of quality IEMs costs around $500 with generic earpieces; systems with enhanced features will cost closer to a grand per set. Ear buds are not acceptable for use with IEM systems because they will not seal your ear from ambient sound. Custom-molded earpieces add at least $300 per person. All of this information is not designed to discourage you from moving to in-ears, just to let you know what it takes to do it with some measure of success.