OK, you know you need a portable PA? That’s the easy part. Now, with hundreds of variations of speakers, amps, microphones and mixers on the market, how do you go about choosing the right gear? Do you choose powered or passive speakers? How many channels do you need on your mixer? How much power do you need to fill your space? It can be a daunting task to try to decipher which products are actually right for different applications, but we’re here to help. We’ll answer those questions and more below, read on….

Small Venue (Coffee Shop, Small Bar)

The goal when using a portable PA in a small venue like a coffee shop, is to keep levels low and clear. In most cases, playing acoustic is perfectly acceptable. But when you need a little extra push to showcase your music, a small and simple portable PA system can get you there. Here are some things to consider when building a small PA:

  • Portability—small venues don’t offer a lot of space for setup and storage. It’s best to bring as little gear as possible. When it comes to portability there are several self-containied PA systems in the market that are essentially plug and play ready. With a footprint of only 1 square foot, and an easy-to-carry weight of just 35 lbs, the JBL EON One Pro is a great option to bring to these smaller venues.
  • Powered Speakers—another great way to cut back on the amount of gear you bring to smaller venues is to opt for powered speakers. This eliminates the need for an extra amp rack taking up space. Other self-contained PA speakers in our EON Line should also be considered.
  • Quality—just because the system is smaller, doesn’t mean you need to skimp on the quality. In small intimate settings, poor quality can be very obvious. Look for powered speakers with features like onboard DSP and EQ to help smooth out and control your tones.

Medium Venue (Bigger Bars, Clubs or Restaurants)

If you’re planning gigs for medium sized venues like most bars, clubs or restaurants, additional PA options come into play. You still need to be conscious of volume levels as to not disturb patrons (mostly in restaurant settings), but you have more considerations when it comes to each individual component that makes up your PA system.

  • Speakers—for this type of application, you can either go powered or passive. A passive system, will have non-powered speakers that require the use of an amplifier. Powered speakers are still probably the easier way to go. Typically, two pole-mounted loudspeakers, two or three wedge monitors and one or two subs (optional) will be plenty to get the job done.
  • Amps—if you do happen to go with passive speakers, you’ll need to power them with amplifiers. The size, output and number of speakers will determine what amp and how many to use.
  • Mixer—this type of system also requires a mixer. You will want to get a console or surfaceless mixer (e.g. Soundcraft Ui24R) with enough channels to ensure that you have adequate mic and instrument inputs to play through.
  • Microphonesdynamic microphones are great for vocals as well as micing guitar amps. A big consideration when purchasing a dynamic mic for live use is durability.
  • Accessories—other things you might consider are direct input boxes so that instruments such as acoustic guitars can be plugged directly into the console without having to mic the guitar or a separate amplifier. Also, if your mixer doesn’t have built-in effects, you may want to consider some type of signal processing effects unit to add reverb to vocals and acoustic guitars.

Large Event Venues (Festivals, Block Party, Full Stage Venues, etc.)

The difference between medium sized venues and large venue events doesn’t have to be very extreme. Although, as far as portable PAs are concerned, this would be your full bells and whistles system. This is the PA that you bring out to really pack a punch and show everyone what you’re made of. Let’s take a look at some of the elements that make this system:

  • Speakers—you still have the option of using passive or powered speakers. The sound quality of powered speakers has made huge leaps in recent years making them an ideal choice for portable PA rigs. For these larger event systems, you’ll want speakers that give you the most control, power and clarity.
  • Amplifiers—if you do happen to go with passive speakers, you’ll need to power them with amplifiers. The size and output of the speakers will determine what amp and how many to use.
  • Mixer—your mixer choice depends on how big your group is. A DJ is going to use a dedicated mixer designed for turntables (Pioneer is a popular choice) while a band will need a mixer with enough channels to accommodate all vocal mics, instrument mics, and instruments that are plugged direct such as acoustic guitars.
  • Microphonesdynamic microphones are great for vocal use as well as micing guitar amplifiers. The main feature you’ll want to look for when purchasing a dynamic mic is durability.
  • Processing and Control—for big events and larger systems, control is key. Dbx offers an array of Loudspeaker Management systems in their DriveRack Series that have great features like auto EQ and feedback elimination.

Many of the systems described above can be easily changed and adapted for use in a number of different applications as well. There are hundreds of great features available when it comes to every piece of gear in a system. It is important to know exactly what you want a system to do for you and what you don’t want it to do. Having a basic understanding of how to build a system is important for anyone who would need to utilize sound on a daily basis. It is still a good idea to discuss your needs with your local pro audio dealer who can help you build and customize a system specifically suited for your application.

What are some other considerations that you have found important when designing different audio systems? Share your insights in the comments section.

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