There are many wonderful locations to play out and have your music heard besides the clubs — for example, park festivals, boardwalks, house parties, college shindigs and even weddings. However, to perform at such events, more often than not, you will need to bring your own sound system: a P.A. setup that will adequately amplify your performance. Without a good P.A. in your arsenal, you may have no choice but to pay for a P.A. rental each time you play out or, worse yet, be forced to use whatever is on hand, relinquishing control of your sound quality. In other words, there's a good chance your band will sound like a muffled speaker-phone. Fortunately, a number of P.A. systems, in a variety of configurations, are on the market, so finding one that fits both your budget (starting at less than $1,000) and your amplification needs is easy.
ANATOMY OF A P.A.
Three main components make up a P.A. system: speakers (at least two for stereo), amplifiers to power the speakers and a mixer to mix together all of the mic and line inputs. If these components are present and connected and the speakers face the audience, it's a P.A. (If the speakers face the stage, it's a monitor setup.) A P.A. system can be as large as a car or fit comfortably in a backpack (such as the PA5X140 Powered Hotspot by Galaxy Audio).
The first truly portable P.A. systems were based on a powered mixer, or a mixing board with a built-in power amplifier. The components were built in directly to a roadcase for easy transportation. However, the cases for many of these systems were unwieldy because of the size and weight of the electronics (especially the amp). Today's powered mixers (such as Yamaha's EMX88S) are lighter and more compact than earlier models, offering more features, effects and power per pound. Because the mixer is powered, there's no need for an amplifier between the mixer and the speakers; simply connect the main outputs of the mixer directly to the speakers. The trick is to find speakers that are compatible (in terms of power handling, wattage and impedance) and that sound good with the mixer's amp.
An alternative to having the amplifier in the mixer is using self-powered, or active, speakers. Compared with passive (without internal amplification) studio monitors, active studio monitors are more consistent in their sound. There are equally impressive-sounding active P.A. speakers available. The best of these speakers contain a built-in crossover that splits the incoming signal across two amplifiers, one for the high-frequency driver and another for the low-frequency transducer (the tweeter and the woofer, respectively). Active P.A. speakers have their own volume control, and some have basic EQ (high and low, cut or boost). Their inputs are usually balanced XLR (¼-inch may also be available), so connecting them to your mixer's main stereo outputs is a snap. As you might imagine, a speaker enclosure housing a 12-inch speaker and built-in amplifiers can be awfully heavy. Fortunately, some manufacturers have designed manageable enclosures, such as Mackie's SRM450, which weighs in at a reasonable 51 pounds and sports well-designed handles for easy carrying.
An advantage of many powered mixers is that they have built-in effects, like channel sends to a reverb and graphic EQ on the master output. A mixer that isn't powered (such as Mackie's 1402-VLZ Pro) usually requires the connection of external hardware effects if you want to process your mix. For a setup that employs powered speakers and a mixer that isn't powered, you're potentially looking at more gear to lug around. Fortunately, most effects processors are light, single-space rack units that can be easily mounted in a lightweight rack case (like those made by SKB).
You might not need to add reverb to your mix in a club, as the environment is probably pretty reverberant already, but if you're playing someplace that isn't reverberant (like a boardwalk), adding reverb to your mix can greatly improve your sound. To properly integrate an external reverb unit into your setup, your mixer must have an effects send and return feature. A graphic EQ (parametric can work, too) is crucial for fine-tuning your mix to sound the best in any environment. If your mixer doesn't have an onboard graphic EQ on its master output, you will need to insert an external graphic EQ between the mixer and the speakers. A compressor/limiter (such as the dbx 1066) on the master out is also a good idea for controlling your mix's overall dynamics.
When connecting the mixer's main output to the speakers or any other processing gear, always make sure to use balanced XLR connectors. If your mixer doesn't have balanced XLR outputs or your powered speakers don't have balanced XLR inputs, you may want to consider trading up to better gear. If you're using EQ and compression between the mixer and the speakers, don't connect the gear with adapters or unbalanced cables; doing so will degrade your sound quality. Make sure that any processors used after the mixer's main output also sport XLR connectors. In addition, XLR connectors are good for live setups because they are more difficult to yank out (should somebody trip over the cables) than ¼-inch connectors.
Line-level signals (such as a guitar effects unit or a synthesizer output) can plug in directly to the mixer using ¼-inch jacks. However, microphones will most likely be of the XLR type, so make sure there are enough XLR mic inputs on your mixer.
Hauling all of this extra gear to a gig is never fun. But with careful planning, you should be able to pack everything into three or four 50-pound loads — make life easy on yourself and pick up a good hand truck. Although the gear is heavy, the flexibility of being able to play a variety of venues is well worth the extra weight.