If you’ve been thinking about buying a small portable PA system to get a better sound at jam sessions and/or coffeehouse gigs, but know little about them and find yourself a little overwhelmed by all the knobs and buttons, don’t fret. A PA system may look complicated, but it’s really a pretty simple set-up with an ingenious, repetitive layout that can provide a bit of punch to your performance, especially on gigs where going strictly acoustic won’t quite cut through audience chatter.
A PA system, which is shorthand for “public address system,” is a sound amplification system that generally includes a microphone, an amplifier, and some loudspeakers. Many PA systems also include a separate mixing console or a powered mixer, which combines the amplifier and mixing console into a single device. The ability to mix your sound is pretty much essential for performances of two or more instruments, such as voice and guitar, or cello and keyboard, that need to be combined, or “mixed,” together. Here’s a brief overview of the components that you’ll find in the average PA system.
A mixing console or audio mixer is designed to balance the overall sound of all the instruments and microphones to be amplified through the speakers and/or monitors. Each instrument and mike is separated by a channel, laid out in a vertical strip, dedicated to controlling the volume, equalization, and amount of effect being applied.
An equalizer is basically the tone control. Most mixers that accompany a portable PA system use relatively simple filters. They allow you to dial in bass, mid-range, and treble adjustments. Stand-alone graphic and parametric equalizers provide much more flexibility in tailoring the frequency content of audio signals. Equalizers adjust the amplitude of audio signals at particular frequencies, so they are, essentially, frequency-specific volume knobs that control the tone.
A fader is the sliding control usually found on the mixer. Its function is to organize each channel’s level and bus assignments. It also includes mute and solo buttons that allow you to isolate what is going on in each channel. A fader can be either analog, directly controlling the resistance or impedance to the source (such as a potentiometer), or digital, numerically controlling a digital signal processor (DSP). Digital faders are also referred to as virtual faders, since they can be viewed on the screen of a digital audio workstation.
Mixers, equalizers, and faders are just a few of the components you’ll typically find in a PA system. The good news is that once you learn how to navigate even the simplest of PAs, you can apply that knowledge to larger ones, since the layout is similar. Portable PAs range from $400, for something you can carry in small suitcase to a coffeehouse gig, to $1,000 or more, for something appropriate for a larger venue.
Peavey Messenger Portable Sound System
Only 27 inches wide when packed away, Peavey’s portable Messenger sound system has a five-channel mixer, 100-watt output, two speakers (each with a four-inch woofer and one-inch tweeter), storage space, and a five-band EQ with FLS feedback control. The PA package comes with a mic, mic cable, and speaker cables.
Behringer Europort EPA300
The Behringer Europort EPA300 is a 300-watt, six-channel, ultra-compact PA system featuring a studio-grade 24-bit stereo FX processor with 100 presets including reverb, chorus, flanger, delay, and pitch shifter. The six-channel mixer features two mono and two stereo channels.
Samson Expedition XP510i
The Samson Expedition XP510i features a pair of dual two-way speakers with 10-inch woofers, complemented by a one-inch titanium tweeter in a 60° x 90° horn. The XP510i also features an internal 500-watt Class D powered 10-channel mixer equipped with seven total mic/line and stereo inputs, phantom power, an integrated iPod dock, and 10 studio-quality, 24-bit digital effects.
Fender Passport Venue
The Fender Passport Venue is an all-in-one 600-watt PA system with a 10-channel powered mixer and full-range speakers. It has 13 inputs (four XLR mic/line, two quarter-inch stereo, two eighth-inch stereo, and one USB stereo) and a USB record/playback system that records WAV files and plays WAV/MP3 files.
HK Audio Lucas Nano 600
The HK Audio Lucas Nano 600 relies on a pair of small, but powerful (up to 123 dB), satellite speakers for high and mid-range frequencies. The satellites are powered by a dedicated subwoofer, with mixer and frequency shaping controls built right in. A MultiCell Transformer helps maximize sound pressure gain, improve directivity, and minimize high-frequency distortion.