Introduction: How to Prepare for Buying Sound Equipment

About: I am an AV and IT guy... I have been involved with sound and lighting since I was 7 yrs old. I currently do Information Technology work for a living, and professional sound as a side job. Although I do both …

In this instructable, I will go over how to determine what audio equipment is best for your needs.  Although I will mostly be talking about features in most of my steps, I will post reviews of the major audio companies on step 8.  For now, I will only be covering live sound, although I may refer to recording in some places.  If there is anything that you think I missed, or would like me to add, please let me know.

Step 1: Determining What Equipment You Will Need

Before you start to think about what features you will need in equipment, you will need to determine what equipment you will have to purchase.  This can be the most unnerving steps, since there is so much information you have to think of.  Think about your needs.  How many microphones will you need?  How large is your room?  Will your speakers be powered?  What equipment do you already have (if any)?  How far will you have to run cabling?  Do you need monitors?  Will you be using an effects processor?  Will you be flying your speakers, or will you be using stands?  Is it a temporary setup (portable), or will it be permanent (installed)?  If it is permanent, then right now, you should start to look for an AV consultant to help you out.  Portable systems can't really be tuned specifically towards the room you are using them in (unless you have too much time on your hands, or have a ton of money to pay an AV consultant to do it for you every time you move your equipment), so if you are using a portable system, then an AV consultant will not help you that much.  Another option is semi-permanent.  (Something that is installed for now, but will eventually be moved.)

If you only plan on using one or two mics, then you can probably get away without a sound mixer, but if you plan on using any more than two, you will need a sound mixer.

If you are installing a system, then the larger your room, the more speakers you will need.  For a small room, you can use two speakers.  (Never less than two)  If it is a permanent or even a semi-permanent installation, you will want to fly your speakers.  (Don't do this yourself... let someone who does rigging for a living do it for you... I'm certified to teach advanced heights rescue maneuvers, and even I very rarely do my own rigging!)

If your speakers are not powered, you will need an amp.  I personally prefer using an external amp, because if something happens to the speaker, I don't have to replace both the speaker and the amp.

Determine how many monitors you will need.  Plan on having at least two.

If you are running cabling, how much do you need?  If it is a portable system, you will need at least one snake.

And don't forget the microphones.  Determine now if you want wireless or wired.  Wireless is more expensive, and harder to use, but for some applications, there is no alternative.  (You can also use both.)

Step 2: Sound Mixers

The sound mixer is the heart of your system.  This is the most important piece of equipment that you will buy.  Before I go into deciding what features you need, I want to put my opinion in here about digital mixers.  You will hear a lot about digital sound mixers, and there are a lot of advantages to them, but there are also some disadvantages to digital.

Advantages to digital:
Can program scenes
Full graphic EQ on each channel
Looks easier to learn for new recruits (Looks easier... it really isn't)
Great for recording
(A few other small or very technical advantages)

Dis-advantages to digital:
Built around programming, and you can't really program sound
Channels aren't as laid out as analog
Harder to use for live sound
Each digital board is significantly different from each other, whereas almost all analog boards are the same in operation
To the trained ear, it sounds different than analog

Bottom line:
Digital boards are great for recording, however, I do not recommend using them for live sound, especially if you don't have a professional audio technician working on staff.  If you must use a digital board, the Yamaha M7CL is somewhat intuitive, but the Allen and Heath iLive sounds great.

Once you have determined if you are getting digital or not, you have to decide how many channels you want.
Generally, the more channels you need, the more your mixer will cost.  Remember when you are deciding how many channels you will need, to think about how much you may want to expand in the future.  It will cost less in the long run if you don't end up having to buy another board just to add some more mics.  Always get at least 5-20 more channels than you think you will ever need.

Now that you know how many channels you need, you have to consider how many outputs you will need.  There are a few different forms of outputs on a mixer, such as aux sends, the matrix feeds, and the main outputs.  You will generally want at least one aux send for every monitor you have, any effects processor you may have, video feeds, etc. as well as a few extras.  Matrix feeds are generally used for zoning your speakers.  For instance, if I have speakers in the lobby, basement, washrooms, etc. I can send these through the matrix.  Also, if you have more than 2 speakers, you will generally have them positioned throughout your room, and you may want to adjust each pair's levels individually.  In this case, you can just send the main feeds to the matrix, rather than using your main outputs.  (You can always use your main outputs for recording, video, etc.)  The bottom line in deciding how many outputs is that you will want at least 3-10 more outputs than you think you will ever need.

You may also want a built-in effects processor, depending on your budget.  Digital boards generally have nice on-board effects, but analog boards generally have cheap built-in effects.  If you are on a tight budget and need effects, you can consider on-board effects, but expect to get an external effects processor when you have the money.

Another feature to consider with analog boards is how many bands of EQ there are, and are they sweepable frequency.  You can mix with as little as 2-3 band EQ, however, the more bands you have and the more that are sweepable, the more control you will have over your sound.

No matter what mixer you decide to purchase, you will want to make sure that it supplies phantom power.

Step 3: Speakers

Your speakers are another part of your system you should not skimp on, however, keep in mind that if you get more smaller speakers rather than a few larger speakers for a installed sound system, then you will be able to fine tune your room more.  Choosing speakers is probably the hardest topic to write about online, since your needs in this aspect will vary.

When you are choosing your speakers, keep in mind the inverse square law.  If you haven't already read my instructables on the concept of SPL and How Sound Works, then I suggest that you read them now.

Because of the inverse square law, I suggest using a pair of speakers at least every 20-50 ft. depending on the size of the speakers and acoustic properties of your room.  In this way, you are not blasting the people in your front row, when the people in the back can't hear.  Also, as I mentioned before, if this is an installed system, you will need to fly your speakers (DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DO THIS YOURSELF!!!).  One advantage is that this provides extra safety.  I was at a performance once where they had a permanent system with large speakers on a stand (the speakers were about 200 lbs. each).  The curtain caught on one of the speakers, and knocked it over, missing an elderly lady in the front row by a few inches.  If you do use stands for your speakers in a portable or semi-permanent system, try to secure them to some part of the building structure.  You could use the same safety cables that are used for lighting to do this.  The other reason to fly your speakers is that it provides a much more even dispersion pattern across the audience.

If you are using a portable system, then you can focus on getting larger speakers.  You can also use powered speakers to simplify setup, strike, and cabling.  In an installed system, you can also consider powered speakers, however, you should remember that if the speaker breaks, then you have to spend the money on a new amp as well as the speaker, whereas if you have a separate amp, you only have to replace the speaker.  (And visa-versa if you don't feel comfortable opening up the speaker and replacing the amp yourself if it breaks.)

Keep in mind that there are a lot of variables in acoustics, so there is no set rule as to what speakers you should get.  If you need help choosing your speakers, you can contact a local AV consulting company, contact me and I will help you over the internet, or you can ask the salesman for help.  Just keep in mind that most salesmen in the AV market work off of commission, so be cautious when asking them for help.  (Although this can also work to your advantage if you know how to handle them!)

Step 4: Amps

After you have chosen the speakers you will get, you can get an amp.  If you are using powered speakers, you will not need an amp (since it is built into the speaker), so just skip this step.  If you are not using powered speakers however, you will need an amp.  In choosing the amp, there are three things to look for.

1.  The number of channels.  Generally you want to devote one channel to each speaker.  You can daisy-chain them, however, you then have to do some more mathematical equations.
2.  The wattage on each channel.  The amp will tell you how many watts it supplies on each channel.  Look at your speaker to decide how many watts you will need, then decide how much wattage to get on the amp.  Lean to slightly more wattage on the amp.  If you have less wattage on the amp than on the speaker, you will over-drive the amp trying to get to full volume.  Just be careful if you have more wattage on the amp that you don't blow you speakers.  Because you could blow your speakers, plan on using no more than 50-100 watts extra on the amp, depending on how many watts your speakers are.
3.  Impedance.  Generally, most speakers in the pro-audio world are 8 ohms.  Refer to the specs on your speakers, and match it up to the specs on the amp.

Step 5: Effects Processing

Now you need to consider what effects (if any) you will need.  If you have multiple "zones" of speakers in your auditorium, then you will need a delay processor so that you will not hear a delay between speakers.  Please note that this is not a delay effect, but a delay processor.  You will need to do some calculations to determine how much of a delay you will need.  The only reason I include delay processing in this step is that a delay processor is considered by some people to be a type of an effects processor.

If you decide that you need an effects processor for your system, I would recommend an "all around" effects processor that has all of the major effects on it such as delay, echo, reverb, pitch shift, etc.  It should also have good parameter adjustments on it so that you can tweak it.  A decent effects processor would be here.  It is pretty much the only effects processor that I will use.  It's not cheap, but it is worth every penny.  Lexicon is considered the leader in effects, so even if you can't afford the one I linked (the MX200), try to look for a Lexicon that you can afford.

Step 6: Microphones

This is not an easy task.  There are so many microphones on the market, that this can be a very daunting task.  I will not focus on the brands, since step 8 is a review of the more popular sound equipment brands.  By now you should know whether or not you are looking for wired and/or wireless.

Lets start by going over the basic types of wired microphones.  There are three different types of wired microphones: Dynamic, Condenser, and Ribbon.

Dynamic microphones are very popular since they are very sturdy, and do not require any external power (such as phantom or batteries).  Dynamic mics will work best when placed close up to the sounds source. (vocals, instruments, etc.)

Condenser microphones have a very good frequency response, and are extremely sensitive.  They require a little bit of electricity (normally supplied by phantom power from the sound board, however, some use a battery).  Condenser microphones should be used for almost everything except a bass drum.  Because they are extremely sensitive, they can be used for picking up sound from a distance.

Ribbon microphones have a fantastic sound quality, however, they are also extremely fragile (as well as expensive for most good ones), so they are for the most part used for recording studio applications.  I would not recommend using these microphones for live sound.

Pickup patterns are worth mentioning, because although you will have your standard cardioid and hypercardioid (the two most common), you will also have omi-directional; which will pickup everything evenly from all directions (great for recording studios... not so much for live sound), boundary; which will pickup everything in front of it, but reject everything behind it (great for mounting to a surface), and shotgun (AKA directional) which will pickup sound from what it is pointing at, but reject everything else (great for video work).

Wireless microphones will generally come in two different forms handheld (sometimes abbreviated HH) or Lavalier (Almost always abbreviated Lav).  Obviously we all know what a handheld is, however, there are three basic types of lav mics: Lapel clipped, around the ear (sometimes called earset), and hairline.  Most lav mics will require a wire to run down to a bodypack transmitter which can be clipped or hidden in a person's clothing.  (Just be sure the antenna does not touch the person's skin!)

Lapel lav mics are better than handheld for most applications, but not better than hairline or earset.  The reason is that it is hard to place the mic optimally.  Too high, and it will not get any sound, too low, and it will not get enough.  Not to mention the fact that as the person speaking turns his or her head, then sound will fade in and out.  It also isn't as easy to hide as a hairline mic.

Earset mics go around the person's ear and are placed near the person's mouth.  They are great because they move with the person, so that you have an even sound at all times.  They are kept close to the mouth, which makes the sound engineer's job much easier.  Although they are colored close to skin-tone, they are very hard to hide.

Hairline mics are taped just below the person's hairline with clear medical tape, so they are very easy to hide.  However, because they are not as close to the person's mouth as any of the other mics, hairline mics should only be used if the person has a lot of vocal pressure and uses it at all times.  You can also tape a hairline mic onto a person's face so that it is basically a earset mic.  Hairline mics are the most versatile available.

Step 7: Cabling

Now that you have the basic components for your sound system, you need to connect them.  The pictures show various types of common cables.

If all of your components are in the same spot (such as with a DJ setup) then you can just use short cables to connect everything, however, if you have any distance between your stage, podium, etc. then you will need a snake, or installed lines.  Keep in mind that even if you are using wireless, you will want to keep your receivers backstage, or as close to the wireless mics as possible.  Wireless is not a replacement for running cables.

If you are using powered speakers, then you can use standard cables to run your signal to your speakers, however, if you have a separate amp, then you need speakers cables.  Speaker cables are built to handle more power, since they are carrying all of the power to drive your speakers.

If you are good with soldering, then you can consider making your own cables and or snakes, otherwise, look at a few different online and in store resellers for a good deal on cables.  My personal favorites are All Pro Sound, Sweetwater, Guitar Center, and Musicians Friend. (In that order.)

You should also have a few extras of each type of cable that you use laying around.  As cables are used, they get stressed no matter how hard we try to avoid stressing them.  After awhile, they can go bad, so you don't want to do a mic check 10 min. before a performance just to find you have to run to your local Guitar Center to pick up a XLR cable.  (Plus, you never know when you might need an extra one.)

Step 8: Reviews

Here is my review of the most popular brands of audio equipment.  Choosing the right brand is very important, you must find the best compromise between cost and quality for your needs.

Shure makes headphones, microphones, and personal listening systems.
Name brand company, almost everyone has heard of Shure.  Their cheaper products are good for some applications.  They have somewhat decent sound quality.  Easy to use interface.  Very good digital products.
Wireless products made very cheaply, do not hold up well to professional use.  Their analog systems are prone to wireless interference more so than some other brands.  Will not hold up for a portable system.
Bottom line:
If you are on a budget and don't need a lot of mics, get one of their cheaper products.  Their wired microphones are decent for those on a budget.  Also, their digital products are very good, so if you are going digital, Shure mics might be a good way to go.  Don't buy for portable systems.  Their headphones are also decent.

AKG makes headphones, microphones, and personal listening systems.
Good sound quality.  Name brand.  Reasonable price.  Very powerful wireless products.  Easy to use.  Holds up to wear and tear.  Good for portable systems.  Not bad for installed systems.
Most of their wireless products will overpower other brands.  Don't buy if you are mixing cheaper wireless brands.
Bottom line:
The best option for wireless or wired microphones in my mind.  Just don't use if you are using a Shure or cheaper wireless mic at the same time.

Sennheiser makes headphones, microphones, personal listening systems, as well as some products used in industries other than pro-audio.
Fantastic sound quality.  Name Brand.  Best wireless quality between AKG and Shure.  Easy to use.  Holds up to wear and tear.  Great for all systems.
Pricey.   Very Pricey.
Bottom line:
If you have the money get Sennheisers.

Lectrosonic makes high end wireless microphones.
Fantastic sound quality.  Name Brand.  Considered to have the best quality of any wireless company.  Easy to use.  Holds up to wear and tear.  Great for any system.
Pricey.  Probably the most expensive wireless mic out there.
Bottom line:
These mics are mostly used in video production and for productions with an unlimited budget.  If you can afford a Lectrosonic, then there is no doubt that it is the right wireless mic for you.

Audio Technica:
Audio Technica makes headphones, microphones, turntables, and some other misc. audio accessories.
Good mic.  Nice user interface for wireless.  Better wireless quality than Shure.  Holds up to professional use.  Decent price.  Great wired products.
Not as good sound quality as Shure.
Bottom line:
Not a bad mic for those who are on a budget.

Line 6:
Line 6 mainly makes guitar amps.  They also make digital wireless mics.
Decent digital wireless systems for the money.
Not as good as Shure for the digital.
Bottom line:
Good entry level digital wireless system.

Nady makes everything from microphones, to mixers, to lighting, to motorcycle communication systems.
OK wired products for those on an extreme budget.
Terrible sound quality.  Cheaply made products.  Terrible wireless mics.
Bottom line:
The only Nady product you should consider is their wired microphones, and even that is on an extreme budget.  I haven't used their lighting or motorcycle products, so I can't speak to those.

VocoPro makes karaoke systems, and wireless microphones.
You get lots of wireless mics in a package.
Very prone to frequency crowding, and there's nothing you can do about it since they are fixed frequency.  Terrible sound quality.
Bottom line:
OK if you don't expect to use all the mics at once and are on an extreme budget.

Berhringer makes mixers, mics, speakers, effects processors, headphones, guitar accessories, amps, lighting,
Cheaply made.  Questionable company ethics.  Breaks easily.  Terrible sound.
Bottom line:
Although their products will get the job done, you get what you pay for.  Don't use Berhringer if there is any possibility whatsoever that you can afford a better product.  Whatever you do, don't get their digital mixers.  If you have the money to go digital, then you have the money to get a better product.

Mackie makes mixers, speakers, and amps.
Good sound, Good product for the money.
Some of their older mixers had some problems with channels going bad after a few years (they claim to have fixed it now).
Bottom line:
Not a bad product for the money, but there are better products available.

I will not even attempt to mention everything that Yamaha makes, but in the pro-audio world, they make mixers, effects processors, speakers, and amps.
Easy to use digital mixers, Better sound quality than some other brands, Holds up well to wear and tear, Good product for the money.
Some people will tell you that Yamaha products have a certain almost "tinny" sound, however, most people will not notice it, and for some applications it is actually a desired sound.
Bottom line:
I see no reason not to buy Yamaha products if they fit into your budget, and they are a good quality for the money.

Allen and Heath:
Allen and Heath mostly makes audio mixers.
Fantastic sound quality, good digital products.
The iLive mixers are not as user friendly as Yamaha boards in my opinion, but they are still easily learned.

Peavey makes instruments and instrument accessories, mixers, amps, speakers, and effects processors.
Cheap, Better than Berhinger.
Doesn't sound that great, somewhat fragile.
Bottom line:
Peavey makes a good entry level product, they are about the cheapest I would consider buying.  Their speakers also make decent monitors if you are on a budget.

Lexicon makes effects processors.
Great quality, best effect processors for your money.
None that I can find.
Bottom line:
Lexicon effects are the only effects processors that I will buy.

Bose makes speakers and headphones.
Fantastic sound, Small footprint.
Pricey, Some audio technicians don't like the sound they produce.
Bottom line:
I personally like Bose, but they are too expensive for me.  It's not a bad speaker if you have the money, especially if you want something small.

Crown makes amps.
Great quality, Very sturdy.
I can't think of any off the top of my head.
Bottom line:
Crown makes fantastic amps, for a good price.  Not a bad option.

JBL makes speakers, headphones, car and marine audio products, and consumer audio products.
Great sound quality, Good bang for your buck.
Bottom line:
One of the better speaker brands.

EV makes microphones, amplifiers, and speakers, but they are best known for their speakers.
Good for installation speakers, good sound quality.
They are not the best for portable sound, can break easier than some other brands.
Bottom line:
Great for a permanent installation, not so good for portable systems.

Dynacord makes speakers, amplifiers, and mixers.
Good quality products.
None that I know of.
Bottom line:
Dynacord is not a brand I have used a lot, so there may be things about them I am not aware of.

DBX makes signal processors.  They are actually made by the same company that makes Lexicon effects.
Fantastic sound quality, easy to use.
A little on the pricey side.
Bottom line:
Great products, if you have the money, use DBX.

Soundcraft makes high end mixers.
Fantastic sound quality, considered to be one of the top brands of mixers.
Digital products are hard to use, pricey.
Bottom line:
Analog products are a good option if you have the money.

Yorkville makes speakers, mixers, instrument amps, and lighting products, but they are best known for their speakers.
Great sound quality, Good bang for your buck, On par with JBL in most products, surpass them with their higher end products.
Not as well known in some areas as JBL
Bottom line:
I have not used Yorkville as much as JBL, but from the little I have used them they seem like great speakers, I have not used their mixers.

*Note* Special thanks to Dog Digger for this review, I have never used RCF myself, so I cannot accurately review them.
RCF have the best sounding plastic boxes out there but they are a tad pricey but they are strong. Mackie and yorkville speakers (some) use RCF drivers

There are other brands out there, but these are the ones you will see most often.  I'm sure I forgot some brands, so if you have a question about a specific brand, please feel free to ask/remind me.

Step 9: Conclusion

I hope that you know have a good idea of the process that is involved in deciding what sound equipment to buy.  One good thing to mention is that you should always get cases for your equipment.  I am a big fan of making your own cases (since most of the cases made specifically for pro-audio are so expensive), but even if you have to buy a case made specifically for your product, it will save you money if you accidentally drop it (even once!).

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