I’ve found that the biggest barriers to becoming a successful local performer are usually connected to the PA systems I play into or mix on.
Did an open mic host EQ me badly and not know how to fix it? PA system. Did I not have the right mix of equipment to successfully amplify my show? PA system. Did I spend a night hosting our open mic at Intermezzo wrestling with persistent feedback problems? PA system.
Honestly, there’s no “too much” that you can know about the workings of a PA system – it’s what brings your sound to an audience! And, the more you know means the less you have to rely on others to craft your sound for you – even if you don’t lay hands on a mixer you’ll know just what to ask for.
If all of that already sounds daunting to you I would suggest that you read the Musician’s Friend PA System Buying Guide as a primer.
Their guide breaks down each element of a PA – from microphones to mixers to speakers, explaining the function of each one in easy-to-understand language. Though it’s featured on a commercial site, it’s ripe with info and relatively low on cross-selling, except in instances where there is an industry-wide standard worth mentioning, like the Shure SM58 mic or the BBE Sonic Maximizer processor.
I have a minor in music production and I’ve been setting up various PA systems for Lyndzapalooza since 2003, but a lot of the guide was either surprising news or a welcome refresher. Especially handy were the following two definitions, which I tend to fuzz into a single explanation when talking to Gina or Elise:
Compressor – will limit the amount of variation between the loudest and softest sounds.
Limiter – allows compression to occur only above a set threshold and the compression ratio can be very high. This prevents clipping, distortion, and other related problems.
It goes on to explain the (relatively arbitrary) difference between “parametric” and “graphic” EQ, which has always puzzled me. The difference? The sliders on a graphic equalizer control a set portion of the frequency band, so when you adjust them en mass you get a “graphic” up vs. down visualization of the changes you made to your sound. That’s it.
I’ve been collecting some thoughts on my year of gigging, and I think I might have enough to warrant an ongoing series on the various pitfalls of live performance. Does that sound useful or – to those of you who aren’t performers – interesting?