Alright, so buckle up, my loyal and loving readers, because you’re about to realize just how dumb I actually am. As we tackle the topic of pro audio basics this week and the perhaps the weeks beyond, I’m going to take things very slowly because (and here’s my confession): I am not an audio engineer whatsoever. Like, at all. When I started this job, I had mixed sound for people by blind, instinctual, dumb-luck with many mistakes , a few bleeding ears and lots of shame.
Oh, the humanity!
So, in their benevolent wisdom, my employers have asked that (for the benefit of myself and maybe yours, if I’m lucky) to blog a bit about pro audio and how you, as the brilliant and shrewd consumer, can make the most of your system. I know. I’m scared, too. But it MUST be done! For the greater good of the rawkin’ world! So, without any more time to stall, let’s jump in the very heart of pro audio basics beginning with…
The Basic Components
Any gamers who read this? No? Too bad! I’m gonna use a gaming analogy from now on and you’re gonna like it! If you’re familiar with multi-player RPG games (often games that, like, structure themselves around vaguely medieval universes with dragons and wizards and beast masters and there’s a lot of L33T speak or whatever the crap the kids say these days)…you’ll know that there are often three main types of characters in a group: a main hero, a berserker, and the specialist.
I obviously don't get out much.
Now, in the music world, any audio system can essentially be broken down into three main parts; a mixer, a power source, and speakers. Much like a RPG multiplayer group, each has their own individual strengths and weaknesses and each is essential to the campaign (in this case, the campaign is less about dragon slaying and more about melting faces with your sweet lixx).
"THIS is what I thought of Metallica's latest album! GAH!"
Let me break this down for you:
The Mixer (Gaming Analogue: The Specialist)
In an RPG game, your specialist may be an archer or a wizard or some sort of humanoid beast thing with a crap ton of mana or something. Often the brain behind the operation and less of the brawn, the mixer is the audio system equivalent of the details-oriented genius with awesome spells and special effects. The mixer takes all of the raw signal from your sources (instruments and vocalists) and edits, enhances, and generally soups up and cleans up your signal into a refined, listenable experience. Mixers come in all shapes and sizes with as many number of inputs as needed and with just as many options for signal refinement and then some. Mixers can be both digital, analogue or a mix of both and these days often have USB compatibilities and fancy, schmancy technological improvements. Usually the more sophisticated element of the audio RPG guild, the mixer is the little weenie one with all the cool powers that can’t be bypassed.
The Power Source (Gaming Analogue: The Berserker)
In the RPG guild, the big tough guy has one job and one job only: to be loud, destructive, and generally awesome. That’s why he’s always gonna carry an axe or a giant ball-and-chain thing that obliterates enemies and turns them into a bloody soup. Well, of course the main idea of an audio system to amplify and enhance the sound and the listening experience of the audience, just as the main idea of a RPG game is to slaughter the orc raiders attacking your happy little village. But in order to do that, you need muscle. The muscle in a P.A. system will be found in your amp, or your power source, otherwise nothing is gonna get through the speakers and no one can hear your rawk. What a shame. That’s why a power amp of some kind is essential to a P.A. system. You just can’t go without your big, dumb tough guy with the spiky boots in which to crush the heads of infidels in his way.
The Speakers (Gaming Analogue: The Main Hero)
Every guild has its main hero, the guy that brings the whole thing to a point. He usually has the shiniest armor and the coolest back story and has some magical sword with a really effeminate, dumb name. The parallel here in a P.A. system is, of course, the speakers. No one can hear your music unless you have speakers, just as no mystical quest can be accomplished without your hero. Like mixers, you can either have powered or unpowered speakers and each have this advantages and disadvantages involved in price, efficiency, and durability.
So now that you know your characters, it’s time to assemble and customize your team in which to conquer the pro-audio world. In this business, there are three main ways in which you can put together a P.A. system, and allow me to discuss the advantages and disadvantages or each configuration…
Option #1: Mixer --> Amp --> Speakers
This is probably the industry’s "ideal" configuration for a P.A. system for a number of reasons: firstly, by keeping each component independent and making the most of itself, the system is undoubtedly run more smoothly, efficiently, and the most faithful to the initial sound sources. Secondly, because each component is independent, individual components are freed up to be easily upgradeable or replaceable, and if something malfunctions, it is much easier to troubleshoot and fix than if one component is a hybrid of a couple others. In the RPG analogy, this configuration allows each character to use each of his abilities to the maximum: the Mixer-Wizard is casting spells and bypassing high frequencies with ease. The Power-Amp-Barbarian is running full speed and knocking everyone over with his sheer strength and efficiency. The Royal Level 78 Paladin of Speakers is producing heroic sound and blowing everyone’s minds. The music is superb!
Now, if this is the ideal, how come it isn’t the most common configuration? Well of course, back in the day, all pro audio configurations were the meat-and-potatoes “mixer to power to speaker” set-up. But these days, the industry has gotten cleverer and more sophisticated with their designs. Because each component is independent, they tend to be the more specialized and are therefore, often more expensive. Chances are, you’re not going to go see a show from your local garage band that’s being driven by this sort of P.A. configuration. Larger shows like at music festivals and touring artist concerts will undoubtedly have the cash flow to afford the best and therefore keep their components optimal, which is a factor in why professional audio sounds better than…well…not professional.
Which is why, for us mere mortals, there are more affordable, though perhaps less high-end, options:
Option #2: Powered Mixer --> Speakers
Now imagine, if you will, your three-piece band of highly specialized heroes have stumbled upon a magical rune that accidentally fuses two of you together: the Mixer-Wizard and the Power-Amp Barbarian have now magically combined into one super-warrior! Holy goblets! Now we’re talking efficiency! All the best of two fighters in one, convenient person! That’s one less mouth to feed, one less body to protect from enemy onslaught, and yet still all the power and special effects you need to continue on to the speakers!
Just like in that example, (yes…JUST like it), introducing a powered mixer into the system simplifies some things and gives you a whole other set of possibilities. With a powered mixer to speaker configuration, there is obviously less initial cost because instead of buying three separate pieces, you only need to buy two. And if you happen to be a group of people who are on the road a lot, there’s less to carry around and maintain and less to set up at the venue. On the other hand, disadvantages often are:
- Powered mixers, if they break, are pretty much toast. It isn’t that they aren’t repairable, but it may cost you much more in the end to troubleshoot and fix the dang thing than it would be to just get a whole new one. In the same way that fusing two people together would create a much more complex person, fusing a mixer and a power supply creates a much more complex component in a P.A. system and can be a pain in the ass to fix.
- Cables are expensive. Powered mixers require special, beefy cables in order to set-up properly so that all the current you’re generating from the mixer can be faithfully reproduced in the speakers.
- If you decide that you want to add extra inputs or power to your mix (say that jazz-banjoist you were thinking about hiring for your gig has just now decided he’s in the band for the long-haul), it is rarely worth the effort and money to go through the trouble to add another input to your configuration. If you buy a powered mixer with 12 channels and a finite amount of wattage, make sure you can live with those numbers because you won’t be able to change them later, unless you want to buy a completely different mixer.
So though there is less initial cost and certainly more efficiency in Option Number Two, there are certainly drawbacks to fusing your Mixer-Wizard and your Power-Amp Barbarian on this quest. But luckily, life in the music business is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” game, so there is yet a third scenario:
Option #3: Mixer --> Powered Speakers
What’s this?? The powerful magic from the runes has now transformed the Barbarian and the Royal Paladin of Speakers into a single, kick-ass entity of justice! All the efficiency of the one-less person, but now we have more options than ever before, and much less cost to our campaign!
Such is life with powered speakers and a mixer, instead of visa-versa. Like powered mixers to speakers, combining two of the three elements saves you money and energy if you have to travel with your P.A. system. Affordable and portable, less components can pay for themselves much quicker than your classic set up discussed in Option Number One. But then, there is even an advantage over Option Number Two in that adding inputs is just as easy as upgrading your mixer, and adding power is just as easy as adding an additional speaker to the system. Also unlike the powered mixer option, there is no expensive cabling required with is another time and money saver.
Really, the only disadvantage is this set-up is, like when powered mixers break or malfunction, a powered speaker is generally much trickier to troubleshoot and repair than an unpowered speaker. So if you bust a speaker, it may just be easier to replace it all together than to try and fix it yourself. But all that aside, if you don’t have the coinage to get yourself an excellence three-piece audio set-up, Option 3 is often the best go-to solution and highly recommended here at the shop. Not only has it proven to be one of the easiest and most efficient configurations, but it is actually gaining in popularity in all venues and with all levels of professionalism, sicne active speakers and cutting a wider swath in the higher-end markets and as well as the economic markets.
That’s all we’ve got for you this week on pro-audio basics (and also, Dungeons and Dragons-eque nerd references), although we will be having a mini-blog on Ohm readings and how to mind those while setting up your system in order to not blow stuff up and thus, doom your Pro Audio Quest forever.
Have a good week, adventurers and stay excellent! I’m off to go play some Elder Scrolls!