How to Set Up and Run Your First Sound System for Live or From-Source Sound: Music Teacher Edition

If you’ve taught any music in public school, you know that running a sound board is expected of you even if you have no idea how to run one. It isn’t taught in our music education degree, and there are usually no courses that help us understand it. This means that we are usually left to spend thousands on a sound guy for a concert or figure it out on our own which can be a daunting task. I did a Workshop recently on the basics of sound with regard to live and from-source sound. A printable PDF version of the following can be found here on the Steve’s Music Room Lesson Plans page from that presentation.

If you've taught any music in public school, you know that running a sound board is expected of you even if you have no idea how to run one. It isn't taught in our music education degree, and there are usually no courses that help us understand it. This means that we are usually left to spend thousands on a sound guy for a concert or figure it out on our own which can be a daunting task. I did a Workshop recently on the basics of sound with regard to live and from-source sound. A printable PDF version of the following can be found here on the Steve's Music Room Lesson Plans page from that presentation. 
Setting Up Your First Sound System: The Music Teacher Edition

 

BASICS

The following equipment is a list of basic requirements for live sound:

What your school will likely already have:

Mixer

Mixer for blog

2 ‘main’ speakers

main-speakers-sm

Vocal microphones

SM 58

Enough XLR and speaker cables for each

You can get by with the above equipment but to make your equipment more versatile and accommodate many live situations your school will need:

2 monitors

monitor pair

Instrument microphones

sm 57

Condenser microphones

condenser

Wireless Headset microphones

wireless headset

DI (Direct Input) boxes

DI box

Cable snake

cable snake

Various XLR and 1/4″ adapters

 

2 Most Common PA Setups

Powered mixer with unpowered speakers

Unpowered mixer with powered speakers

The power has to come from somewhere. Plugging them in does not assume they have power. They need a built in power amplifier to generate power. Powered mixers will be heavy and bulky and will have cooling vents and a wattage value on the back.

Powered speakers will have a switch to turn them on and off as well as a levels and volume knob.

Pros and Cons of each system

Powered mixer with unpowered speakers

  • Can plug in anywhere and only needs 1 outlet.
  • Need to know a lot about wattage and impedance

Unpowered mixer with powered speakers

  • Need a lot of power cables and extension cords using multiple outlets.
  • Can easily mix and match speakers to customize setup without worrying about impedances.

Setup

Below is a typical setup for live sound taken directly from Chapter 3 of my book:

Basic Setup for Unpowered Mixer

NOTE ABOUT THE PRINTABLE HANDOUT VERSION: In the two setups we learned about, power amps are built in to either in the mixer or the speakers. In this setup, neither have a built in power amp so you have to have a separate power amplifier to power both. Typically it is built into one or the other. Also, graphic EQs and effects units are more often built into the mixer and likely would be built in using the setups described in the presentation. Everything else is the same.

BASICS OF FROM-SOURCE SOUND

From-source or just source sound is what you do when you plug in an iPod or a laptop to a sound system or a set of speakers. Here is a list of cables and equipment you need for this:

Mixer

2 main speakers

1/8” or 3.5 mm male to dual male RCA

3.5 mm to RCA

1/8”male stereo to dual male 1/4” mono

3.5 to dual mono

Male to male dual RCA

dual RCA

Male to male 1/8” cable

dual 3.5

SOME THINGS TO REMEMBER WITH SOUND

  • Just because your speaker goes to 10 does not mean that it should ever go to 10.
    • This will blow your speaker. You never run a marathon at full tilt because you will wear out much quicker.
  • Speech is different from singing
    • Understanding speech relies on the high frequency sounds in words. Adjust the high frequency knob on that channel. Without them, it is very mumbled and incomprehensible.
  • Gain is how much comes into the mixer. Volume is how much gets out.
    • There is a balance between the two. Some inputs will need more gain while others will need very little.
  • If you think of the mixer as a “prison guard” and the speakers as the “gate keepers” it will help you understand the basics of how sound works.
  • Regular vocal and instrument microphones work without phantom power. Most condensers and some other types of microphones need phantom power.
    • Look for the 48v phantom power button at the top or the back of your mixer if everything is set up properly but the microphone is not working.
  • If you are using a performance example from Share the Music or any music that pans left and right through your mixer you will need the 1/8”male stereo to dual male 1/4” mono cable mentioned above.
    • 1/8” stereo to dual male RCA will work too but you won’t be able to control its volume separately from the rest of the mix.
  • Headphone out is the same as speaker out. If you see a headphone jack on an instrument like a keyboard, that is how you plug it into the mixer or into the DI.
  • Monitors plug into Aux outs and can be controlled separately from each channel.
    • Performers need to hear themselves, so do kids. If you are using a backing track or any type of accompaniment in a performance, monitors are essential.
    • You may need an end adapter for this.

If you have any questions about anything on here, please do not hesitate to ask.

Until next time, Happy Musicking!

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