OK, you've got a really good act, funny material, great props, costumes, etc. You go over great at all the small birthday party shows but you fall a little short and find yourself working so much harder at the large assemblies and company picnics or in the meeting and banquet rooms. Perhaps the problem is that the audience can't hear you clearly (unless you're a mime!). Do you need your own public address (PA) system for your shows? If you perform before groups of 25 or more people at birthday parties, churches, schools, fairs, company picnics, shopping centers, schools, organizations, hotels, parks, etcetera, etcetera, the answer is YES! How many times have you had to fight background noises such as rude adults who continue to talk loudly during your show, noises of other attractions in the area where you are performing, noisy kids or simply working outdoors or in a very large room where the sound disperses? These noisy distraction can turn what could have been a great show into a mediocre show, which may have not been your fault, but may affect the decision to rehire you in the future, because you didn't get a big enough response.
I don't know how many times the committee person hiring me has told me not to worry, they have a PA system at the club, school, etc. only to find out when I get there that the PA either doesn't work at all, is so old and outdated (undoubtedly donated by someone who realized it was useless), or is totally unsuitable for my performance (the microphone mounted on a podium!).
The solution, of course, is to carry your own portable PA system with you to every show. Should the venue have a very good system, great - leave yours in the car. However, if their system is not adequate, or they don't have one, you are prepared!
What kind of system do I need, you may ask? How much power? Should I use a wireless microphone? A handheld mic, a lapel mic or a headset mic? Well dear reader, be comforted, I will attempt to take you by the hand and lead you down the path of sound reinforcement and try to give you a clear view of what you need. My family was in the music buisness for twenty years and has sold countless PA systems. In addition, being a performer I understand what your needs are and I have supplied many, many hundreds of performers through Florida Magic & Sound Company with PA systems that fit their needs.
The first step is that you must identify the size system that you require. What type of venues do you regularly perform at? Large venues such as shopping malls and fairs (on the main stage) require a large system. This large system will include a PA head (the amplifier and all the controls in a box like cabinet), two speakers, speaker stands, microphones and mic stands, plus cables for the mics and speakers. For this size system, be sure the amplifier has at least 150 watts r.m.s. (r.m.s. is a standard of measure for wattage). The head will have a number of inputs (4, 6, or 8). Into these inputs you will plug your microphones, tape deck, etc. For most of us, the four channel is more than enough. Each input has it's own controls for volume and tone so that you can adjust the output for each microphone or tape deck. Purchase two speaker cabinets with 12" speakers (you can also get larger speakers, but they don't improve the voice range, and they are a lot bulkier). Speaker stands are a good buy, because they allow you to raise the sound off the ground, up to six feet in the air. This aims the sound at the audiences ear level and makes a lower powered system workable for a large group. Don't forget the speaker cables. You can purchase them in any lengths - 2, 25' speaker cables should be adequate. You will also need a microphone (or more than one if there are multiple performers) and stands if you have chosen to use the hand held variety of microphone. Expect to spend around $1500.00 - $2500.00 for this large system. Happily, most of us can use a smaller system.
Before we get into the details on the smaller system, let's talk about microphones. What type of microphone is best? Once again, it depends on your show. A good hand held mic still has the best sound quality, but if you need your hands free during the show you will have to place the mic in a stand and not move from that spot. The best quality mics are low impedance (identified by a funny looking three prong plug). High impedance mics can be quite good and have a standard 1/4" plug. The Shure SM58 is the standard of the industry when it comes to vocals, however they are quite expensive, and there are now a large number of mics on the market that are every bit as good (some maybe better) for half the price. Personally, I am used to this style of performing and it doesn't bother me, but I realize that many of you do need the freedom to move about. For these performers you may want to look into lavalier (lapel) mics or headset mics. I like the headset mics. OK, so you look like you work at the Drive-Thru, but the mic is positioned right in front of your mounth and you still have your hands free. More and more, the headset mic is becoming the choice of all those entertainers that require the use of their hands(turn on your favorite music television station and see the number of musicians using headset mics).
Do you want to go wireless? The freedom is great, however there are some things you should be aware of before cutting the cord. First, you must get a good wireless system. Everyone I have spoken with (myself included) has been disappointed with the cheap wireless lapel mic from a cerain electronic "Shack" store. There are several good manufacturers of wireless systems - Nady, Samson, Sekaku, Shure, Telex, just to name a few. Their systems start around $350. and go up into the thousands of dollars. The inexpensive ($350.-$500.) systems should be fine for our use. When purchasing your wireless system, insist that it is a "High Band" system. That is, it should operate at over 160 megahertz (mhz). Beware of FM wireless systems operating at 49 mhz (the cheaper systems), as they can pick up interference from garage door openers, cell phones, TV reomotes, car alarms and more. High Band systems are the way to go!
The wireless system consists of a transmitter attached to the microphone and hooks onto your belt and the receiver which plugs into your PA amplifier. Inside the beltpack is a place for a 9 Volt battery. You must use a good battery, such as an alkaline (Energizer, Ray O Vac, etc.) and you must change the battery often. Depending on how much you work, you should change the battery before every or every-other show. I often work in Las Vegas style revue shows, we use six to eight wireless microphones in the show, and the stage manager changes the batteries in each microphone before every single show (2 shows a night). The point being, better to shell out a few bucks for fresh batteries than having your mic go dead in the middle of the show! Personally, I carry with me a standard hand-held mic with cord just in case something happens to the wireless (like forgetting to buy batteries!). Also, it is important to "check the room" with your wireless mic. That is, walk around the room where you will be performing and listen for certain areas (such as under air conditioner ducts or certain light fixtures) that produce static in your system or where the mic seems to cut out. By doing this before the show, you can remember to avoid those areas while you are performing. When using more than one wireless system, each must operate on a different frequency. For example, if your microphone is operating at 232.32mhz, your partner's mic should operate at a different frequency, say, 227.22
Now, let's talk about the type of PA system suitable for those performers who do shows in schools, churches, company picnics, organizations, etc. Most of you reading this article probably fall into this group. You can get along with a smaller system with 15-30 watts, however, please be sure to use a system designed for voice and not musical instruments such as guitar amps. Guitars actually soun better with certain amounts of distortion, so this is built into all guitar amps. The human voice, however, must be clear. There are a few good systems on the market. You may want to check out the Anchor systems, the Amplivox unit, etc. However, and this is important, be sure the system fits your performing style, and budget! The larger systems do sound great, but will break your back as well as your wallet. Systems without wireless mic systems built in will mean you have to use a full size mic in a stand (and you will be stuck behind that stand durring the show - no freedom to move about), or you will have to buy a separate wireless system ($350. - up) and hook it up at every show with patch cables. Do not waste your money on cheap Karaoke machines you see in the discount department stores. They are designed to amuse your friends in a living room - not a large hall. It is very, very important that whoever is selling you a system be knowlegeable, not only of sound equipment in general, but also of your specific needs as a performer. Most salesmen in music and electronic stores are used to dealing with musicians and will have no trouble in putting together a system for them. However, if a birthday party/company picnic clown or a street performer juggler or a trade show booth performer comes in, the salesman most probably will not be able to recommend a good system because he doesn't understand the customer's needs. Likewise, many magic shop owners may not have enough technical knowlege when it comes to choosing a system to stock, they usually choose based on selling price, not quality or features. The key, of course is to find someone with both technical knowledge and experience in supplying others in your field. Ask lots of questions! Do they carry accessories for the system? How about customer service? What if there is a problem? Will they be there and be able to help you out? Do they have access to parts and repair personnel?
Personally, I feel the best all around unit on the market, price and performance wise, is the system I have been using successfully for some time. This system is called the PORTABLE SOUND PA SYSTEM model PAS-8000 by Alphavox and available from Florida Magic & Sound. It is small, approximately 11"x8"x6" and weighs about eight pounds. It provides enough power in this small package to fill a school auditorium with 500 kids. The system comes complete with a great wireless microphone system built right into it (a High Band System, of course) and you get two microphones. You have your choice of using the headset mic or the lapel mic. Plus there is a second built-in wireless mic system with a handheld mic (as each wireless system operates on different frequencies, both mics may be used at the same time!).Additionally, there is an auxiliary input (with it's own volume control) on the unit for hooking up a CD or mp3 player, tape deck or another microphone. There is a line out - very useful if the venue you are performing in already has a great PA. simply hook up your line out to their PA's input and you can use your wireless mic with their system! Finally, its own built-in rechargeable 12Volt battery so you can work outside, away from everything. The unit has more power and more useful features than any other unit in its price range. The system is lightweight, easy to carry and sets up in about a minute! I am very pleased with this system and have not only used it myself, but also sold literally thousands of these units to performers, teachers, speakers, etc. throughout the world. Everyone who has one is happy with it, many even have recommended it to their friends.
One important note: when using a small system such as this, it is important to raise it up off the floor. Place your system up high, perhaps on a table, stand, stool, etc. The unit will also mount on a standard microphone stand giving a very professional appearance. You want the sound at your audiences ear level or higher. If you leave the system on the floor you are aiming at the audiences feet, so keep it high!
Please dear reader, think about your PA system needs. It is so important to be heard. I have talked to countless people who tell me they can really use a system, but then turn right around and buy a new puppet, magic trick or prop instead. I admit, buying a PA is not as exciting as one of these items, but it will add more to your professionalism than any of them. You can have the best of everything in your show, but if they can't hear you...
Dan Christopher is a professional ventriloquist who performs for both adults in production shows, on cruise ships and conventions, and for children in school assembly programs with educational themes, as well as family audiences. He is also the president of Florida Magic & Sound and supplies pros and amateurs alike with props, custom cases and PA systems. He makes his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his wife and two children.