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How to Run Sound or a PA

June 3, 2009

This post is for untrained people who might find themselves in the position of running sound or running a PA for a high school “Battle of the Bands” or a college variety show.

(This obviously has nothing to do with religion, discourse, domination, pop culture, or anything. I’m hoping that this will get noticed by some search engines, that people will read it, and that the amateur shows I go to will be more bearable.)

Here’s some things to think about:

  1. Many singers have a great voice but don’t sing very loudly. This is fine if you’re doing karaoke. But if they sing softly and try to keep up with a live band with drums and guitar amps, then no matter how high you turn up the mic you won’t be able to hear them. Turning up a mic cannot compensate for a soft singer competing with a live band. The singers have to sing loud. It’s their responsibility, not yours—don’t be afraid to tell them this.
  2. There’s nothing more annoying for an audience than a lot time between songs. Tell the acts in advance that they need to rehearse moving from song to song quickly. If they have to change the setup in the middle of their set (for instance, move a mic or change guitars), they need to rehearse doing this quickly too.
  3. If you put the PA speakers behind the microphones you will get feedback. Put the speakers in front of the mics, closer to the audience.
  4. Monitors are there so that singers can hear themselves. For this reason, it kind of makes sense to put the monitor in front of the singers. Having it off to the side will do them no good.
  5. Tell singers not to tap on the mic to see if it is on. That is bad for the mic, bad for the speakers, and annoying for the audience. Tell them to say “testing, one, two, three …” or “hello, hello, hello …”
  6. If you have a mic with an on and off switch, tape it into the “on” position. If you don’t it will make annoying sounds as people click it on and off, and one or two singers won’t be able to figure out how to turn it on and it will ruin their songs. If you need the mic to be “off” then just turn it down on the control board.
  7. There is a difference between unidirectional mics—which will only pick up sound directly in front of the mic (chances are most of your mics are unidirectional)—and omnidirectional mics—which will pick up sound from multiple directions. If you have singer with an acoustic guitar, a unidirectional mic cannot pick up both the singer’s voice and the guitar. You’ll need one mic pointed at the singer’s head and one pointed at the guitar. If you try to put a unidirectional mic in the middle you probably won’t be able to hear either well.
  8. mic standmic stand 2There is a difference between mic stands that stand straight up (see above-left) and ones that bend in the middle (see above-right). The ones that bend in the middle are designed for instruments or for people holding instruments. For instance, the ones that bend in the middle could be leaned over to pick up the sound coming from an acoustic guitar, or could be used for vocalists holding instruments out in front of them (see above-right).
  9. It is really annoying for the audience when singers wrestle with mic stands. They should be really easy to adjust. Usually there’s just a knob to turn to loosen or tighten; loosen the knob, move the stand to where you want it, and then tighten the knob. Take 60 seconds to show the singers how to do it before the show and save 5 minutes of noisy creaking and twisting during the show. (Yanking around a stand without loosening the knob will probably break it anyway.)
  10. Rehearsal for running the PA should not be optional. If you don’t have a rehearsal to go over how you’ll change the setup between acts it will be slow, annoying, and frustrating for the audience. Have a rehearsal and find out where the kinks are in advance. Make sure you assign mics to particular locations and show singers or musicians which mics they are supposed to use. Write down the assignments so you have something to refer to during the show.
  11. You can mark the mic assignments on the sound board itself if you use masking tape and a black marker—run the tape along below each slider and write in who the mic is assigned to, or where it is at on the stage (for instance, something like G1=guitar 1, G2=guitar 2, Lmc=left mic, Rmc=right mic, etc.).
  12. Consider using differently colored masking tapes on the mics themselves to make it easier for both you and the singers. It will be easier for them to find their mic if it has a distinct color band. This is especially useful in cases where the mics have been moved around during a previous act—the red mic is still the red mic, whereas the left mic might not be on the left any longer.

I’ll probably add to this list if anything comes to mind; don’t hesitate to make suggestions (or corrections)!

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