Sound Amplification For Vocal Groups

by Tom Dustman

The following article is about amplifying the human voice, in other words, singing over a P.A. system. It is not a panacea, nor is every question answered, there is always more to learn, but if you've ever been intimidated, frustrated or just plain infuriated by the P.A. systems then maybe this information can help. The procedures suggested here have originated from many years of hands-on experience as an educator as well as hundreds of performances around the country with my professional touring group, "Beachfront Property."

How to Start - Buying the right P.A. system

Like purchasing anything, money tends to define what you can get. But before you head to the music store with fund-raising dollars in hand, ask yourself the following questions: What is the application and how am I going to use this P.A. system? Will I use it for my large choirs or only for my jazz group, or both? Do I want each singer to hold the microphone or would area mics be better? How many mic inputs do I need and should the mixer also have monitor controls? Will it be used in the auditorium only or will I need it for other performances as well? How much area do I want to fill with sound; the theater, the football field, the Elks? And finally how much money will I need to purchase a good P.A. system? By answering these questions you are finally prepared to go shopping for a P.A. system perfect for you. It will also help the people selling you the equipment to better understand your needs so they can more accurately make recommendations. If you find you don’t have enough money, inquire about used equipment or even try to work out a payment plan (they're usually very eager to work with an established organization like a school and I'm sure your district's financial history ranks right up there with most of the local rock bands!). If you still don’t have enough money, I highly recommend waiting, perhaps organizing more fundraisers and then getting a quality P.A. system that exactly fits your needs. It's totally worth it.

Finally you need to be the judge on what speakers and microphones sound best. Assimilate all the information given to you, but don’t let anyone else decide what sounds best for you. You are the one with choral director's ears and everything you've ever done involving music has prepared you to make exactly the right decision. Most music stores or outlets will let you try out equipment at the store. Take a few students with you and have each of them sing over a variety of microphones; close your eyes and let your ears choose what sounds best to you. Choose the mixers and the speakers the same way. You wouldn’t let the person selling you this expensive equipment direct your choir, so don’t let them pick your equipment either.

Setting up The Equipment - And tearing it down

I really think one of the main reasons some teachers don’t use a sound system is the general inconvenience of setting the darn thing up and putting it away not to mention schleping it from one gig to another. But the solution to this time consuming dilemma is right under your nose; the students. With less rehearsal time than you might think, you can turn your singing group into the fastest roadies in the west (or east wherever you are)! With each student doing one or at most, two things, you'll be able to set up and tear down in under ten minutes. Besides it's important for students to know how a sound system works and setting one up is one of the best ways to learn that. After all it's their equipment, too and they'll also take better care of it if they're involved in making it work. Here's how:

1. Select a few students (usually one per microphone) to plug the mics into the cords at one end and either the mixer or the snake at the other (a snake is a long umbilical type cord that connects the microphones and other instruments from the stage to the mixing board). If you also use mic stands have the same students set them up too. Or if you have a larger group, use a separate crew for that.

2. Have another group of students take care of the speakers and the monitor speakers. They can carry them from the bus or the truck and then set them up at the performance site.

3. Next have another small crew in charge of connecting all the speaker cords from the mixer, to the amps, to the speakers.

4. If you use a snake, have two people in charge of connecting it from the mixer to the stage area. I highly recommend using a snake in the budget.
Basically that's it and in case you didn’t notice your name wasn’t on the crew list. After a couple of run-throughs, everybody, including you will feel more at ease with the whole procedure. Just for fun you might also want to try timing them. They'll take a lot of pride in trying to beat whatever deadline you set. Besides it's very important to get the soundsystem up and running well before a performance, this will lower the stress level for everybody involved and more time can then be given to the performance.Signal Flow (sung to the tune of "Dem Bones") "The microphones connected to mic cord/ mic cord's connected to mixer/ mixer's connected to amplifier/ amplifier's connected to speakers now hear the sound coming out!"

Alright so that's a little dorky, but you should be getting sound out of your P.A. at this point and after all, that's the bottom line. If you have a new P.A. system it may even come with directions for assembly, but depending on your ability to decipher "tech talk" you may soon find yourself humming "Dem Bones." Seriously there are numerous people in your musical community (probably at your local music store) who can help you get your system up and running. These are also the same people who will support you when you need to repair or get new equipment, so getting to know them is very important.

Playing With The P.A. - Getting the best sound out of the equipment

How can you make your jazz choir sound as good over a P.A. system as they do in your choir room? Let me paraphrase what the great recording engineer, Geof Emrick (Beatles) said about using mics on instruments and voices. " Listen to the voice or instrument acoustically first, then make it sound like that when you mic it." That's not as difficult as it may sound, unless you don’t know the real (or acoustic) sound of whatever it is you are putting infront of the mic. But in your case you do know the real sound. Who knows what your choir sounds like any better than you? Nobody. So who's running the P.A. System? "Now wait a minute," you are probably thinking," how can I run the P.A. system and direct my choir at the same time?" Fortunately, you don’t have to do both, but just as you need to prepare your choir for its performances musically, so too do you need to prepare the amplified sounds coming out of your P.A. System so it sounds like your choir and not a bad dream.

Let's begin by experimenting a little. Without the pressure of a 'down beat' set aside a few extra hours, perhaps after school and set up the sound system in the choir room. With only a few students present (you don’t need the whole group) have one student begin speaking and eventually singing over a microphone and then (now get this, here's where the technical talk comes in) mess with the EQ knobs (bass, mid range and treble controls). Also play with the reverb and the volume controls until it starts to sound good to you. Nobody in the world knows your students' voices more than you do, so it is important that you are now shaping the sound coming out of the speakers. Encourage the student on the mic to keep singing even if it’s the same phrase over and over; you cant make adjustments if you don’t have information or 'program' to work with. Keep making minor adjustments until what comes out of those speakers sounds as close to the acoustic or real sounds as possible. Now naturally it's going to be louder and that too can affect the tone of the speakers so you'll also need to experiment with what volume sounds best to you. Listen closely to the lower part of the singer's range, then the middle range area (often that's exaggerated with amplification and might sound better if it's turned down a little, usually to the left). Now listen to the top pitches or frequencies (fancy word for pitch). When you turn the high EQ knob (treble) up it brings out the crispness of consonants and over all tends to brighten the sound. Repeat the same for each mic. After you've accomplished the first step you are now ready for a sound check with the whole group. Set aside an entire rehearsal for this and try not to move too quickly through the described procedures. Both time and patience are necessary to accomplish the desired results.

The Sound Check. - Mixing for a one-on-a-mic group

Have the group set up the P.A. system in either the choir room or your performance area and then balance all the microphones to the same volume (you can fine-tune later). Begin by having one student count to ten over microphone number one. When mic number one is at a comfortable volume for you have the same student (it's good to use one student for all the mics to maintain consistency) move to mic two and continue to count to ten. When mic number one and number two sound like they're the same volume, have the student move to mic number three. Continue through this procedure through all of your vocal mics, but always compare your mics to mic number one; this keeps the original volume consistent and makes the whole procedure more accurate. If you are using monitors, repeat the above procedure leaving the "house" system on at a comfortable performance level. Monitors are extremely important for your singers and are probably the least understood in this chain of events, but suffice to say, your singers will never sing any better than they can hear. I'll cover the monitor system in more detail in a moment.

Now have each singer sing over the P.A. system one at a time. While they're singing begin adjusting the EQ controls finding the best setting for that particular singer. By the time you're finished with all the singers, it's very possible each will be EQed differently, but that's ok., your goal is to make each singer sound the same over the mic as they do acoustically, and, again nobody in the world knows that better than you. After you're satisfied with each singer individually, have them sing something together (preferably something a cappella so you can more clearly hear each part). Since you've already made each mic the same volume, if certain parts stick out now at least you'll know it's the singer that should adjust. It's also a good idea to have the group sing several songs (the next one with accompaniment) so they can "settle in" to their new environment. While they're singing you should be in the audience area so you can better determine if the balance is what you want. You may even determine to adjust some of the mic volumes to better attain your desired balance. Give yourself and the group enough time to arrive at these decisions, after all, you've spent many hours up to this point learning and fine tuning the music, a few more minutes is not asking too much and it's going to make a world of difference.

Monitors, - Getting the right balance

Monitors are speakers that face toward the performers so they can hear the sound they are producing. Since the monitors are separate from the "house system"(those speakers facing the audience or house) they will also need their own amplifier and mixing capability so when purchasing a mixing board, choose one that also has monitor volume controls (usually standard on most systems). The amplifier, however, should be separate. Now with the house system fairly close to the volume you desire for the performance, leave it at that volume and begin balancing the monitor speakers the same way you did earlier with one student counting up to ten and bringing up each mic volume so they are all very close to the same level. Let the singers make this decision collectively and watch their heads until you notice most of them agreeing, then move on to the next mic.

After all the mics are fairly even have the whole group begin singing and then, after about 16 measures, ask them if they want the monitors softer or louder (softer is usually the musical direction). Just like ordering a pizza, however, everybody will have their own opinion, but try to get a consensus (there will also be somebody who will say they can't hear! Assure them it will get better in time and quickly move on). Now it is important for them to just keep singing. This is the "settling in" period and they'll just need to get used to hearing their new amplified (and very foreign) sound. Having guaranteed each mic is the same volume through both the house speakers and the monitors, the singers should now be able to balance their parts as they would acoustically (without the P.A. system). If some singers are sticking out, you'll at least know their mic isn't louder than the others. It may mean they are having trouble hearing through the monitors or they may be singing too loudly, again, more time in settling in will help this problem. By setting up and singing through the monitors only in the choir room from time to time they will greatly improve their performance skills.

Well, there it is and all about it. Now you're ready to take your sound and your sound system just about anywhere. Instead of being at the mercy of the acoustics, now you can shape and control your own. Even a great P.A. system can't make your group more in tune (although there are processors that can). Nor can a P.A. system help your group sing prettier or with more style. But a good P.A. system will help guarantee that all your musical efforts will be heard more clearly and that, after all those countless hours of rehearsal, is definitely worth the effort.

Tom Dustman
is Professor of Music at Long Beach City College in California. He is also the founder, artistic director and singing member of the vocal group "Beachfront Property," whose three, nationally distributed CD's on Cexton Records are also available through Primarily A Cappella.

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