Ready to put together a P.A. system, but don’t know where to begin? We’ve assembled three complete options for three performance scenarios.
The Electro-Voice ZLX- 15P has two XLR/TRS inputs, each with its own control.The On-Stage® Stands SS7761B is made of light aluminum but can support up to 120 pounds.Quik Lok A300The Radial ProDI provides TRS in and through, XLR out, ground lift, and is built like a tank.
ProCo S12NN-25 speaker cables feature ProCo’s Excellines 12-gauge cable with Neutrik connectors.Shure SM58Audio-Technica AT2010Audix OM2 ONE OF the questions we get asked frequently at Electronic Musician is, “What kind of P.A. system should I buy?” Purchasing P.A. gear can be a confusing prospect, due to the many categories involved (mixers, mains, monitors, crossovers, outboard processing, etc.) and the huge number of offerings within each category. How do you make the right decisions so that you get the most from your purchase? Have no fear, EM is here to help you navigate through the forest of electronics, transducers, and slithering copper snakes. We’ve assembled three unique P.A. systems for working musicians, each designed to facilitate gigging in specific situations.
The criteria for our suggestions include maximum performance, efficiency, reliability, and versatility for your money. We feel it’s important to be able to incorporate components from a smaller rig into a bigger one when you’re ready to work larger venues, or scale down a larger system for use in smaller rooms so that you don’t have to rent a 20-foot truck to do a cocktail hour! So, let’s take a look…
Best Acoustic Performance by a Soloist Our first system accommodates a solo performer working gigs in coffee houses, cocktail lounges, and small bars. The goal here is fast setup and ease of use. This system will fit into the smallest of cars (no need for a van) and you can move it without assistance (or an ambulance the next morning). The thing about this rig is that—even though there is no mixer—you won’t outgrow the gear when you graduate to larger rooms because you’ll be able to re-purpose the components into a larger system. [Editor’s note: all prices shown here are street prices.]
The Mackie PPM1008 combines an 8-channel mixer with two 800-watt amps.The JBL JRX225 is a two-way cab with dual 15-inch drivers and a 1-inch horn.K&M 21070Sennheiser e845Audix OM5JBL EON510Radial Engineering Pro48 active DIPlanet Waves PW-CMIC-25 Our solo performer system is built around the Electro-Voice ZLX Series of powered loudspeakers. We’ll start with a single ZLX- 15P ($499) for the house speaker and a ZLX-12P ($399) for a monitor. Both of these are two-way systems, the ZLX-15P using a 15-inch woofer and the ZLX-12P employing a 12-inch woofer. The ZLX-15P has two XLR/ TRS inputs, each with its own gain control, so you can connect a microphone and one instrument without a mixer. The ZLX-15P’s link output can be used to feed the input of the ZLX-12P, which we’ll use as a floor wedge. To accommodate larger rooms a second ZLX-15P can be linked to the system.
Either of these speakers can be set on a floor stand with a standard 1 3/8-inch pole. The On- Stage® Stands SS7761B ($49.95) is constructed of aluminum so it’s light but it can support up to 120 pounds at heights up to 6.5 feet. Add $29.95 for a travel bag that holds two stands.
There are tons of great vocal mics designed for live sound at very reasonable prices. It’s tough to beat the industry-standard Shure SM58 ($99), but if that’s not the right mic for your voice, check out the Audio-Technica AT2010 or Audix OM2 (priced similarly). A Quik Lok A300 ($39.95) serves as our mic stand, featuring a tripod base, fixed-length boom arm, and adjustable height from 38 to 62 inches.
We’ll need cables to connect everything, and ProCo microphone cables are a no-brainer. The Ameriquad Series uses four conductors with a 96-percent-coverage braided shield and Neutrik XLR connectors, and has a 20-year warranty. Price varies with length; we’ll budget for two 20-foot ($30) and two 30-foot ($35) cables. The 20-footers can be used to connect the mic and instrument to the first ZLX, and the 30-footers can be used to link the first ZLX to a second and/or third. We’ll add two ProCo EG15 Excellines instrument cables ($16.99 each), 15- foot with TS connectors at each end: one for a guitar or keyboard and a second for backup.
The Presonus StudioLive 16.4.2 operates at 48kHz, and has 16 input channels featuring TRS line and XLR microphone inputs with phantom power, plus a TRS insert, and built-in effects.RapcoHorizon 16x4 snakePeavey PV15PMOnboard biamplification enables the QSC K12 to achieve SPLs up to 131dB.QSC KW181ProCo Stagemaster SMA1604FBQ-50Yamaha MSR400MSR800W subwoofer Although the ZLX input will accept instrument-level input, a DI box will maximize performance with a keyboard or guitar. Since there’s no phantom power available, we’ll go with a passive DI such as the ProDI from Radial Engineering ($99). It provides TRS input and through connectors, an XLR output, and a ground lift switch, and it’s built like a tank so you’ll have it for the rest of your life.
Total system cost: approximately $1,350; add $550 for another E-V ZLX-15P and stand.
Best Acoustic/Electric Performance By a Duo or Trio The next step up the gear ladder adds more power and more inputs to accommodate two or three performers, each with an instrument. This system utilizes a powered mixer for the nucleus, negating the need for external power amps and their associated wiring. Our mixer is intended to be located at the stage and will be operated by the performers.
The Mackie PPM1008 ($899) is up to the task, combining an 8-channel (6 mono plus 2 stereo) mixer with two 800-watt power amps. Each mono channel has an insert and 3-band EQ with a sweep midrange; the first four also have built-in compressors. Two of the inputs (5/6) may be switched to high-impedance to accommodate instruments without need for a DI, while channels 7 and 8 provide both 1/4- inch and RCA jack inputs. Onboard effects may be fed from one of the aux sends.
A useful feature of the PPM1008 is that the two power amps can be configured for use in three different ways: main/main, main/ monitor send 1, or monitor send 1/monitor send 2. Front-panel outputs allow you to “tap” the main L/R out so if you need more power for the mains you can add external power amps and use the PPM1008’s amps to run two monitor mixes. On smaller gigs where you only need one main speaker, you can use one amp for the main speaker and the other amp for a monitor, and have separate house and monitor mixes.
This system uses two JBL JRX225 speakers for the mains ($449 each). The JRX225 is a two-way cab with dual 15-inch drivers and a 1-inch horn. Capable of producing SPLs as high as 133dB(!) the JRX225’s HF compression driver is mounted on JBL’s proprietary Progressive Transition™ waveguide for low distortion and smooth frequency response, and features SonicGuard™ circuitry to protect the high-frequency driver from excessive power.
Stage monitors are also from JBL: two EON510 ($399 each) compact multipurpose monitors, each with a 10-inch woofer, a 1-inch HF driver, and onboard Class D amplification. The EON510 can be used with a line or miclevel input and can be daisy-chained so we’ll run the Mackie’s monitor send to the first EON510 using Rapco Horizon 1/4-inch TRS cables ($18.99/20 feet) and then link the first EON510 to the second, providing one monitor each to two musicians, or allowing three musicians to share two monitors. The Mackie PPM1008 has two sends so we’ll either designate the FX/MON2 for a second monitor send, or use it to perform double duty as a send to the second monitor mix and the internal effects simultaneously.
Countryman Type 85 active DIThe Shure SM57 is an old standby.The Sennheiser ew300 stereo in-ear system operates in the UHF band.SKB Shallow X RackRadial ProD2Audix D6 Since the Mackie PPM1008 and the JBL JRX225s offer Speakon™ connectors, we opted for a pair of ProCo S12NN-25 speaker cables ($40 each, 25-feet long). These are available in a variety of lengths from 10 to 100 feet and feature ProCo’s Excellines 12-gauge cable terminated with Neutrik connectors. We like the idea of using Speakon connectors because they lock in place and can’t accidentally be removed by inquiring patrons(!). Planet Waves PW-CMIC-25 25-foot microphone cables ($19.95 each) feature nickel-plated brass connectors, low-capacitance wire, and a lifetime guarantee. (We’ll get five.) Due to the fact that our trio includes electric bass and a keyboard, we’ll tap RapcoHorizon for four 20-foot G4 instrument cables ($20 each) with 95-percent spiral shield and a 20-gauge inner conductor.
Just in case we host a guest appearance from a visiting musician, we’ll add a direct box. The Mackie PPM1008 provides phantom power on the mic inputs. We can use it to run a Radial Engineering Pro48 active DI ($99). The Pro48 was designed to handle high-output instruments such as active basses and acoustic guitars and has a 15dB pad to accommodate the hottest of outputs.
Although we expect only two or three musicians, we’ll get four microphone stands: three K&M 21070 ($59) boom stands for the vocal plus one Quik Lok A341 ($30) short boom—in case we have to place a mic on a “guest” guitar amp. We’ll add a small variety of vocal microphones, starting with the Shure Beta 58 ($159), Audix OM5 ($159), and Sennheiser e845 ($140). These dynamic mics complement a variety of voices and offer excellent feedback rejection. To these we’ll add an ol’ reliable: a Shure SM57 ($100), which can serve as a vocal mic or for that guest’s guitar amp.
This system will spill into your backseat but still fits into a midsize car.
Total system cost: approximately $3,700
Loudest Bar Band in an Electric Performance This system is intended for use with a full band in large, noisy bars, and will probably require someone to run it. It’ll fill a small van, but since we’re pulling down a couple grand per show, we don’t mind. We’re going whole-hog here, miking the entire stage and adding multiple monitor mixes for a system that rocks.
Selecting a mixer was a tough call, but in the end the PreSonus StudioLive™ 16.4.2 digital mixer ($1,499) wins the race. Operating at a sample rate of 48kHz, the StudioLive 16.4.2’s 16 input channels each feature TRS line and XLR microphone inputs with phantom power, plus a TRS insert. Every input “Fat Channel” and aux send output has a highpass filter, noise gate, compressor, EQ, and limiter— so we won’t need any outboard processing for mains or monitors. Plenty of aux sends are available on the 16.4.2, so we can easily route six discrete monitor mixes and still have two effect sends to the internal digital effects. In addition to the XLR main outs, TRS main outs enable us to feed additional speakers to areas of a bar or restaurant that would otherwise not be able to easily hear the P.A. Four subgroups are available; they’ll come in handy for subgrouping our drum channels. Mixer snapshots, Fat Channel settings, and effect settings can all be stored and recalled via library. A variety of recording facilities include a FireWire interface, S/PDIF out, and balanced analog direct outputs from each channel.
Loudspeakers will be QSC K Series powered speakers. We’ll start with the K12 two-way, full-range speaker ($849), incorporating a 12-inch low-frequency driver and a 1.75-inch high-frequency driver. Frequency response of the K12 extends down to a very respectable 50Hz but we’re going to up the ante (or rather lower it) in a moment. Onboard biamplification (500 watts each for the LF and HF drivers) enables the K12 to achieve SPLs up to 131dB, and K12 components are protected from thermal and excursion damage. QSC’s Tilt-Direct™ pole mount enables the directivity of the K12 to be adjusted by 7.5 degrees to prevent reflections from low ceilings. Each K12 features two rearpanel Combo™ jack inputs plus XLR outputs for daisy-chaining—enabling them to be used sans mixer on gigs for a solo performer.
Our K12s will live atop QSC KW181 powered subwoofers ($1,399), which utilize a single 18-inch driver with a 1,000-watt Class D amplifier for response down to 38Hz and SPL up to 135dB(!). Included with the KW181s are mounting poles for the K12; their threaded design ensures secure, wobble-free support. Integrating the KW181s and the K12s is a breeze because the K12s have a low-frequency contour switch with an External Sub position that tailors the frequency response for use with the KW181s.
There’s a good chance that this system will be run by an engineer at front-of-house, so we’re going to start our connectivity with a 16-input x 4-return snake (16 XLR x 4 TRS). The RapcoHorizon 16x4 100-foot snake runs $549 and would give us plenty of length for any gig, including a small theater, but for shorter runs we’ll consider the ProCo Stagemaster SMA1604FBQ-50 ($329). Both are rugged enough to stand up to heavy use and feature stage boxes with XLR female jacks for the inputs and TRS female jacks for the returns.
We’ll be using two of the snake returns for our monitor mixes in this rig. The drummer gets a Yamaha MSR400 ($499) two-way, biamped cabinet with a 300-watt amp for the 12-inch woofer and a 100-watt amp for the high-frequency horn driver. To satisfy her never-ending appetite for low end in the monitors, we’ll augment the MSR400 with Yamaha’s MSR800W subwoofer ($799). The MSR800W’s bass-reflex cabinet houses a 15- inch driver, producing low-frequency response extending down to 40Hz. The XLR input and adjustable highpass output make it perfect for linking to the MSR400. The rest of the band needs monitors, too, so we’ll add three Peavey PV15PM powered wedge monitors ($419 each), a low-profile, biamped design with a 15-inch woofer, and a 1.4-inch titanium diaphragm compression driver. A Combo™ jack input accepts mic or line level signals and a 1/4-inch TRS is provided for linking—so we can chain a second monitor later if necessary.
Notice that we have not given the lead singer any monitors. She’s getting Sennheiser ew300 IEM G3 in-ears ($999) with ER•4™MicroPro earpieces from Etymotic Research ($299). Operating in the UHF band, the ew300 is a stereo system. Two of the aux sends from the PreSonus mixer will be linked to create a stereo ear mix, and two more aux sends will run through the returns of the snake to the stage for two wedge mixes. This still leaves us two aux sends on the PreSonus StudioLive for the future when other band members add wireless in-ears.
Continuing with the wireless theme, we’ll give our vocalist a handheld wireless mic from Audio-Technica. The ATW-3171 ($599) boasts true-diversity operation and a choice of 200 frequencies. The receiver has remote battery monitor so whoever is running the P.A. will know when it’s time for a new battery before there’s a mishap. An SKB Shallow X Rack ($99, two spaces) will secure our wireless gear during transport.
Microphones abound in this rig, starting with the drum kit. We’ll use an Audix D6 or AKG D112 ($199 each) for the kick drum, and a Shure SM57 ($100) for snare. A threepack of Sennheiser e604s ($349 for the pack) covers our toms and the clip-on design means we can leave three mic stands home. A pair of Shure KSM137 mics ($299 each) serve as overheads; these have three-position pads and low-frequency rolloff switches. Another Shure SM57 or Audix i5 ($100 each) covers the guitar amp. Vocal mics for the band will all be Shure Beta 58 ($159); keeping the mics consistent across the front can help reduce feedback issues in the wedge monitors.
Three DIs handle our keyboards and bass: a Countryman Type 85 active DI for the bass ($160), and a Radial ProD2 ($149) passive stereo DI for keys.
An assortment of mic stands will be needed for this system, starting with five Ultimate Support Tour T-T stands ($129 each) to handle three vocals and the drum overheads. Three Quik A-341 stands ($30 each) handle the snare, kick, and guitaramp microphones. Our lead singer prefers a straight stand, so we’ll go with an On-Stage MS9700B+ Platinum Series stand ($39.95), which features a solid-steel upper shaft, scratch-resistant finish and steel leg housing.
Wherever possible, we’ll use XLR cables due to their robust construction and ability to lock in place. Twenty 20-foot ProCo Ameriquad cables ($30 each) will be used to connect mics and DIs to the stage box, and four BPBQXM-30 Excellines 30-foot XLR male-to-TRS ($35 each) will connect the stage box to our QSC mains and to the Peavey monitors. We’ll use two ProCo EXM5 XLR cables (5-foot, $18 each) to patch the QSC subs to the QSC K12 tops and two BPBQXM-10 XLR-to-TRS cables ($19 each) to link the Peavey monitors.
Approximate system cost: just under $15,000, including dinner for the band and crew. Hey, we gotta eat!
Steve La Cerra is an independent audio engineer based in New York. In addition to being an Electronic Musician contributor, he mixes front-of-house for Blue Öyster Cult and teaches audio at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry campus.