Sound Systems 101

Do you plan your company’s events? Are you part of your student activities board? If you are you need to know sound system basics. Good quality sound can make or break your event. Don’t be scared away thinking it’s complex, or there are too many buttons and knobs. Here is everything you need to know and nothing you don’t to make your events sound great.

Sound System Parts

There are 2 basic parts to a sound system, the speaker and the mixer. Sometimes the mixer is built into the speaker.  Obviously the sound comes out of the speaker. On a side note, you NEED speaker stands (I recommend these: On Stage Stands) to get the speakers above the heads of your audience.  Resting the speakers on the ground or edge of the stage will not cut it, that can make a good system sound muffled or not loud enough. All the mics (including wireless receivers for wireless mics), instruments, and mp3 players are plugged into the mixer. The mixer controls the volume, gain, lows, mids, and highs.  Lows, mids, and highs are the frequency levels of the sound.  

Adjusting the Mixer

You will be plugging all mics in to the mixer with XLR cables, they are the standard microphone cable.  

  • Adjust the master volume control the zeroed out position (this is not all the way down, it is usually 3/4 of the way turned up), then don’t touch this control again!  You will adjust the volume of the individual channels to get the volumes just right for each channel.
  • While someone is on stage talking in to the mic, adjust the volume. Volume is the basic loudness of the mic.  
  • Then you will adjust the gain, gain is the sensitivity of the mic. The higher the gain the farther away from the mic you can be and have it pick up your voice (and other sounds). Too far and you will pick up sounds you don’t want it to and get feedback (feedback is when sound goes through the mic, then through the speakers, then back through the mic, and creates an endless loop of high pitched awfulness). These are the two most important controls on a mixer.  Find the right balance of volume and gain, loud enough and sensitive enough so everyone in the room can hear clearly without the risk of feedback. Go back and forth adjusting them until it's just right.
  • Then you can adjust the lows, mids, and highs for that mic.  I like to start with each level zeroed out (adjust the nobs to the middle position).  Listen to the voice going through the mic. Does it sound too high? If so adjust the highs down just a bit until it sounds more normal. Also maybe try bringing up the lows and mids a little bit. Does your voice sound too muffled with bass? If so adjust the low level down a bit. Maybe try bringing up the highs and/or mids. The goal here is to get a well balanced sounding voice and be able to hear the words coming through the system clearly. A small adjustment goes a long way!  If you are adjusting a musical instrument, it’s the same basic idea but the artist might have a particular way they want it to sound so let them guide you on the adjustments.

Plugs & Cords

.mp3 Players

When plugging a music player into your mixer you have options.  You can use a 1/8 inch to RCA cord. A direct box, With a direct box you usually will need an 1/8 inch to 1/4inch cord and an XLR cable. Or, I use (and prefer because it’s simpler) the RapcoHorizon LTIBLOX all the time and highly recommend it.  All you need is this box, an XLR cord, and a music player with a headphone jack (1/8 inch plug) and you can plug into ANY sound system.  It is a vital piece of equipment and should be in every gear bag.

Wireless Microphones

A receiver is what you plug into the mixer with an XLR cord.  This piece of equipment receives the wireless signal from the transmitter and gives it to the sound system. The transmitter is a belt pack that connects either to a lavaliere mic or headset mic that takes the sound from the mic and transmits it to the receiver. For wireless handheld mics the transmitter is built into the handle of the mic.  I travel with my own wireless mic because I want to sound great every time and the mic makes all the difference. I use the Countryman E6 for my main mic on stage.  These are expensive and might be overkill for your needs. But you should at least have a good quality lavaliere mic (mic that clips onto the front of your shirt or jacket).  You should also have a good wireless handheld mic and mic stand.  I recommend the brand Sennheiser. They have amazing sound quality and amazing build quality.  They truly hold up to extensive travel and usage, I can attest to that.  Here are the ones I recommend:

  • I use the Sennheiser EW wireless transmitter and receiver, and it comes with a lavaliere mic. The advantage to this one is that it’s super small and compact. Be aware that both the receiver and transmitter require batteries and the range isn’t as good at the option I’ve listed next, but I’ve never had a problem with range in any room I’ve ever performed in.  
  • Also consider the Sennheiser EW rack mountable receiver.  The advantage to this one is that the receiver doesn’t require batteries but does take up more room, and has more range.  This also comes with a lavaliere mic.
  • Here is a great wireless hand held mic: Sennheiser SKM.

Also when you are shopping be aware of the different frequency bands that wireless equipment comes in.  There are three: A, B and G bands. For example, if I buy a wireless receiver and transmitter that is in the A band, I can buy a wireless mic later and it will work with my receiver if the mic is in the A band as well. Side note, every wireless mic needs it’s own receiver, you cannot operate two mics off of one receiver. Also if you have two wireless mics operating at the same time make sure each is on a different frequency. 

Portable Systems

Every activities board should have their own portable sound system.  If you are a company that has events or gatherings often I really think you should invest in a portable sound system too. With a portable sound system, a couple speaker stands, a mic, and some pipe and drape, you can make any space look like a great performance space.  Here are a couple suggestions when shopping for your sound system:

  • Make sure your system has at least 3 inputs.  If you plan on using it for musicians, you should have at least 8 inputs.
  • If you can’t decide between two different sized systems, go with the louder one.  Better to have too much power than not enough.
  • Get speaker stands.
  • Make sure your system has at least these 3 adjustments: Volume, low (bass), high (treble).  
  • Don’t skimp on lower quality brand sound system.  Sound and build quality are everything.  A cheaper one will not sound as good and won’t last you as long. 
  • You should have at least a 500 watt system.  That should be good for up to about 500 people for a talking performance or about 200 people for a music performance.  For concerts and bands this won’t cut it, you will probably just have to higher out the audio production.

Here are a couple portable systems I recommend for their quality, portability, and ease of use:

That is all!  Not too complicated right? Sound engineers go to school for years to learn the science of sound.  But you don’t need all of that. With this info you have enough knowledge to get your sound system dialed in and sounding great. You’ll also impress your guest performers and board members/co workers with your expertise!

If you have any questions don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments section or email me. Also if you have any tips, suggestions or essential gear you use I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

Happy sound checking!
-Peter

Posted on April 12, 2016 and filed under Event Planning, Student Activities.