Buy a PA
Does it feel like you're just throwing money away every time you gig? If you play places where
you have to bring in your own PA, then hiring it every time you play out seems like a bit of
waste of money.
If you've been thinking about buying your own PA read on to find:
Loudness of PAs
How to chose the best system
What to look for
Choosing a system
People tend to rate PA systems by the amount of power they'll deliver - measured in watts.
There's a real problem with this. Basically you can't tell how loud a PA will be from its power
rating, for two reasons:
The manufacturers don't all measure the same things in the same way. Some will
quote meaningless measurements which make the figures look bigger. Others will
give a measurement take under a unique and specific set of circumstances that's
nothing like the way you'd actually use an amplifier. And others give an honest figure.
It depends on your speakers. Amplifiers don't just pump out power regardless. They
will behave differently according to the electrical characteristics of the speaker they're
driving. Less important, but still potentially significant, is the fact that certain speakers
are more sensitive than others. Connected to the same amp, some will simply deliver
Choosing a system
So if you can't tell how useful a PA is going to be without actually setting up and using it, how
do you tell whether it will do what you want?
Trying before you buy is the way to go. Hire a bunch of different systems until you find one
that really suits you. Then go and buy that one. Hire shops tend to stock gear from one
manufacturer, so you'll probably need to visit a few to get a good picture of what's out there.
It helps to talk to people who actually own a system and have used it. There are loads of
music web-sites for just this purpose. People who regularly use a piece of equipment can post
their reviews for the benefit of people thinking of buying it. You can also try hitting some
message boards with specific questions.
If you're researching a particular make and model of system, remember that putting quotes
around phrases "like this" will force a search engine to match an exact phrase. That can
narrow down the hits when you're looking things up. This could help answer other
questions that you might like to consider, such as:
How robust is the gear? It worked for the gig you hired it for but will it let you down a
year down the line when it's been around the country in the back of a van a few
times? Will the screw threads on the speaker stands strip the third time you use
Where is a good place to buy this equipment from? It always pays to shop around
with sound equipment and usually that means mail-ordering. But who's a good
supplier and whose couriers can you trust to deliver on time?
What about after sales service? If your equipment fails how useful will the
manufacturer be? If you send it off to repair how quickly will they send it back? Does
it use peculiar components which cost a bomb to replace?
What to look for
As a DJ, you need relatively little from a PA. You're probably just after something like a home
stereo only bigger so that you can get the floor going at a house party. You don't need much
more than something to plug your mixer into so it's sound quality and power that are going to
be sale clinchers for you.
As a band, you'll probably need quite a bit from a PA. It's not just a matter of making things
louder. You'll need to be able to control the sound so that you can make a decent overall mix
and tame any feedback from mics or acoustic instruments.
You also should be careful not to try and overdo things. The rating of the amp doesn't just
govern how loud things will be, it will also dictate how much you can expect to put through it.
For a small PA don't try to put much more than just a vocal or two or maybe a vocal and
acoustic guitar. Much more than that and the amp will struggle and the sound quality will
Don't take it as read that a PA with inputs for half a dozen instruments is actually powerful
enough to handle them all.
It can be difficult to concentrate on sound quality in the excitement of a gig so if you're trying
with a view to buying, get a friend to listen for you.
At the end of the gig check how the PA is set. If one or more channels are cranked up full,
then you're already running the thing flat out and have nowhere to go if you need more
volume for a bigger venue later on. It probably sounded awful, too.
A mixer amp is the most basic type of multi-purpose PA. It pretty much does what it says on
the tin - it's a PA amp with a mixer built in. The mixer usually has 2-6 inputs and will cope with
mics as well as line-level things like keyboards or backing tapes.
Mixing facilities are limited - you usually get a few basic controls to tweak the sound - typically
bass, treble and a level knob.
Mixer amps are a good entry-level option for acoustic performers or people using backing
tapes, but they're usually quite low in power so they'll struggle to keep up with a live drum kit.
They're usually manufactured abroad and then branded by the company that imports them.
Consequently there are all sorts of makes knocking around, although they may be the same
actual amplifiers inside.
Where a mixer amp is an amp with a mixer built in, a powered mixer is more like a mixer with
an amp built in. Typically they'll handle up to 12 or even 16 inputs and the control over the
sound is much more detailed. The EQ controls will give a lot more flexibility for tweaking the
sound, which as we said can help deal with feedback.
Usually you'll get a basic reverb effect built in, too. That'll make things sound sweeter and
help bind the mix together.
Powered mixers are more expensive than mixer amps but for the increase in sound quality
they can be a worthwhile investment. It's pretty rare to find one powerful enough to actually
cope with 12 or 16 inputs, though.
As a band, buying a mixer amp or powered mixer can be a cheap option but it's also a slightly
limited one. There's no easy upgrade path, so if you outgrow the system, you have to sell the
lot and start again.
The alternative is to buy a power amp, which is just a thing to make stuff loud and will only
take a mono or stereo input. You'll then need a separate mixer to plug mics and instruments
into and to balance the sound. But if you outgrow one or the other, you can sell it without
having to start again from scratch.
The idea is that you buy a mixer suited to your needs - one that will take all the instruments
and mics you need plus a couple extra in case you expand your line-up in the future. Then
you buy a power amp and speakers of a suitable size for the type of venues you play. Then
you have a system you can expand if your needs chage.
As a DJ, you only need a power amp. You already have your mixer so all you need are an
amp and speakers to get busy.
Some power amps have volume controls on the front and some don't. These can be useful if
you want to protect your speakers a little - you can back off the volume on the amp so that,
however loud the signal from the desk gets, the amp is never working flat out.
Some stereo power amps also come with a bridging option. This allows you to gang together
the two channels into one, more powerful mono amp. So you can start out with just the one
amp and add more power when you've got more money. Alternatively, you can use a single
amp for smaller venues and unleash a more powerful system in bigger ones.
What It'll Cost
It's easy to forget that the speakers are the other half of the PA set-up.
As we said at the start, the best amp in the world can be hamstrung in terms of power or
sound quality by the wrong speakers.
It goes without saying that you should make sure your speakers are capable of handling the
amount of power that the amp can throw at them. The first time you use them at a party,
someone *will* crank the volume up to maximum and vaporize your setup!
This is less of a problem with mixer amps & powered mixers. They normally come as a
complete package with speakers and all. But some power amp systems are modular so you
order the bits you need. That's where you research will help a lot.
The speakers you'll find on a basic modern PA will be full-range, much like hi-fi speakers.
Modern speakers are pretty compact so you can usually get the whole PA,amps and all, in
the boot of a decent-sized car.
Many larger PAs also use a sub-woofer. This is an extra bass speaker which handles really
low frequency sounds. Due to some quirk in the way people hear things, adding a sub-woofer
will often make a PA system sound a lot louder - probably more so than adding more full-
range speakers, in fact.
Consequently if you're buying a basic PA with a view to upgrading it later, the ability to add a
sub-woofer may be a consideration. See if the manufacturer makes one to go with the system
What It'll Cost
New, you can pick up a basic mixer amp, with speakers for as little at £300. You'll need to
allow a little more for mikes (£50-£100 for a decent one), stands (£10-£15) and cables. But if
it's just you and your acoustic guitar you should be able to have change for a bag of chips out
of £500 - or even £400 if you shop around.
Add a couple of hundred more and you can either bag a more powerful mixer amp or you're
into the low end of the powered mixer range. Once you get into the power amp and separate
mixer game, it's a matter of really shopping around. There are tons of budget mixers around
so check out some at some brochures and internet reviews and looking for some ideas on
which will suit you. You can pick up something that'll do the job for a little as £100 but you'll
need to allow at least double that to make sure you get something decent.
For the amp, it's easier to go for a package which will include suitably matched speakers. You
can get something like that for around the £400 mark if you don't need to cane it too hard.
The really serious systems start at around a grand, but they're going to able to cope with most
situations and deliver a quality sound. Again, you'll need to budget for mics, stands and other
As with all things in life, you can buy stuff a lot cheaper if it's had one careful owner. Typically
equipment that's 'as new' - a couple of years old and still looking mint - will sell for about 2/3
of the original retail price. This will drop to half if the owner is after a quick sale, or the
equipment is a bit beaten up. If it's had two or three careful owners (or one careless one) then
the price goes even lower.
You can pick up second-hand systems for as little as a couple of hundred quid. But
realistically, you need to be looking upwards of £400 for something a bit more businesslike.
After that, the sky's the limit. Go up to £800 or a grand and you'll be in the market for a really
serious system and you'll probably get a few mikes and other goodies thrown in for that.
Loot's website is a good bet for this kind of thing. Check the Studio and Band Equipment
section. Ebay is another obvious place to look. You can also monitor your local papers and
see what's advertised and check the small ads in specialist musician's magazines, too.
Lots of systems
Buying second-hand generally means doing everything backwards. It's a matter of seeing
what's on offer and then finding out whether it's any good or not, rather than researching a
model before buying. So once you see an ad that looks promising, a thorough poke about on
the Internet is definitely in order.
The problem you're up against is that PA equipment tends to sell in pretty low volumes but is
updated often as technology develops. Consequently, there are a bewildering number of
different models knocking about on the second-hand market.
There are lots of ads selling odd bits of PA - a speaker here, an amp there. Really, unless you
know what you're doing it's best to leave well alone. Go for a complete system that someone
else has done all the hard work assembling.
Also people tend to hang on to PA systems once they have onb that suits them, so a lot of the
stuff on the market can be pretty old. Often for the price a new system will do the same job
for about the same price.
Checking it over
On the up side, PA gear tends to be pretty straightforward. Generally speaking, if it works
when you buy it, it will work later on. Always insist on being able to set the system yourself
when you go to view it. That way there's no chance of something broken sneaking past your
attention. In particular, look out for wear and tear on all the mechanical bits that get the most
abuse - the fixings on the speaker stands, for example. Check all knobs for crackles and
make sure all the plugs and sockets connect reliably.
Check that all the drivers work by running the system (quietly!) and putting your ear near each
one. Other problems may only come to light when you turn the level up. That may not be
possible if you're at the current owner's house so make some kind of arrangement where you
get to try it out at a gig before you agree to the sale.
As with any second-hand purchase, remember that you can (and should) walk away if you're
not happy with the terms the seller is asking for. If you're nervous about using EBay or
sending cheques to strangers, then many music shops have bits of second-hand PA. This
will be more expensive than a private sale as they have to make a profit and will also have to
add VAT, but you have more legal protection if it turns out to be a turkey.
More... from How to...
Get DJ kit and technology
Get ready for a gig
Make the best of a gig
More... from the web
Live sound tips and techniques
Music Gear review
Online equipment reviews
Secondhand ads - go to the band equipment section
Bid for secondhand gear Bid for secondhand gear
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