I’ve been asked by a few people over the years what they can do to improve their PA system.  I’m not talking about 10 kilowatt installed rigs, but the sorts of things that small churches, function bands and charities would have.  Assuming your kit isn’t actually broken, what should you do to improve the sound? For the purposes of this article, I’m assuming that you have something like:

  • a pair of budget active speakers (amplifiers built in) or passive speakers with separate amplifier
  • an 8 to 16 channel mixing desk with at least 3 band (bass, mid, high) EQ on each channel
  • a few decent quality microphones, maybe Shure PG58 or SM58 or equivalent models from e.g. AKG, Sennheiser or EV, plus DI boxes for acoustic guitar and keyboards

If you’re running something more basic that the above (maybe a mixer-amp) then wait for a later article where I’ll cover setting up a new system from scratch.  I’m also planning a series on tuning and improving bigger installed rigs.

Speakers

No amount of mixing skill will overcome poor quality speakers
No amount of mixing skill will overcome poor quality speakers

Almost all small PA systems fall down on the speakers.  They’re usually cheap cabinets with an under-powered amplifier that produces a harsh sound that lacks clarity at lower volumes and sounds choked or even distorted at louder volumes.  Often the sound engineer will push the volume levels up because you can’t really hear any detail, then you get feedback or distortion – in reality the muddy sound can’t be fixed by any amount of skill on the mixing desk.  You may have heard the mantra ‘garbage in, garbage out’, but these days entry-level microphones are actually pretty good, and even low end guitars have pretty decent pickups built in.  I’ve seen a lot of people adding graphic equalisers and buying new microphones when the final link in the chain is often the biggest problem.

Go active

I would recommend getting a pair of decent active speakers – that means that the amplifier and all associated electronics are built into the speaker cabinet, which then gets a signal straight from the mixing desk (no other amplifier involved) and also plugs into the mains to power itself.  Modern professional active speakers are a far cry from the boomy plastic offerings of a decade ago and include advanced digital signal processing.  At a basic level, this will automatically limit the volume levels so that you can’t overdrive and damage the speaker no matter how much you push the levels.  But, more than that, it will intelligently massage the signal so that you get a full rich sound throughout the whole volume range – like the ‘loudness’ button on old stereos, on steroids.  Your sound guy or gal will be freed from fighting a muddy sound, to focus on a pleasing and well balanced mix – you might even get a decent monitor mix on stage!

Yamaha DXR10
The Yamaha DXR10 – speaker bargain of the decade

My personal favourite is the Yamaha DXR series.  The 10-inch speaker (sizes are based on the size of the speaker cone) will set you back £475 – that’s per speaker, so you’re talking just under £1000 for a pair.  If you’re a cash-strapped church or charity, that will feel like a lot of money, but I promise that it’s a sound investment (pun intended).  These speakers come with a 7 year warranty.  Let me say that again – a SEVEN YEAR warranty.  So unless you physically abuse them, you’re paying less than £150 per year whilst still under warranty.  They also have a 3 channel mixer on the back, so for small events you can forget the mixing desk and just plug a mic and maybe an acoustic guitar or keyboard straight into the back.  The 10-inch model is good for crowds of 100-150 in a pair, more with a subwoofer (I’ll come to that in a later article) and the larger models will handle bigger crowds with the 15-inchers easily handling venues that take 300 plus.

The entire range uses the same amplifiers and other circuitry internally, but the bigger speaker sizes will produce more power as they’re more efficient, and will give a deeper bass sound.  They are also designed to be used as stage monitors, and the cabinets (except the 8-inch model) are angled so they will lie on the floor and point upwards, so you could buy the 10-inch pair, and then when budget permits buy a 12- or 15-inch pair as your main speakers and reuse the 10-inchers as monitors.  If you’ve never played or performed with a really nice wedge monitor you’re in for a treat.

Budgeting

I would avoid cheaper models of speaker – if you’re paying less than about £500 for a 10- or 12-inch active then you might get a good deal, but the chances are that corners have been cut either in the amp design or the cabinet build quality.  If you want to save money, I have bought ‘b stock’ from whybuynew and Thomann and had good experiences.  I’ve also previously convinced leaders to let me spend money by promising to get back up to £200 by selling the old kit on eBay, and being willing to sign up for an interest-free credit agreement personally so that the organisation can pay it off over a few months – Andertons Music are really good for this, and they have a great store in Guildford where you can go and see the kit before you buy.

Alternatives

Other models with a good reputation are the QSC K Series and offerings from Turbosound and HK Audio, but I don’t have any experience with the last two.  I certainly do with the Yamahas and, in the words of Tony the Tiger, they’re grrrrreat.