For churches, dealing with the purchase, setup and upkeep of a PA system is a necessary, and often unpleasant, task.
It can be an exceptionally difficult topic to navigate if your church is small and your budget is tight.
How much should you spend?
What pieces do you need?
How does it all fit together?
The church I attend, and play guitar for, has had a PA system setup since I started going there, which was something I never thought twice about. It wasn't until we planted a church 15 miles down interstate 81 that I realized how oddly ambiguous and difficult setting up a new PA system can be.
And since it was an entirely new building, we were starting from scratch.
It was a mixed bag of question marks, similar to the questions I listed above. For a long time we didn't know our budget, had an ambiguous idea of what we needed and knew little (or nothing) about where to start.
Researching it for my own clarity is what brought me to this point, where I now have a firm understanding of how a PA system is setup, what it costs and what a small to mid-sized church needs to get going.
It's likely your situation is similar to ours.
If so, you can benefit from my research, answering the following questions:
- What a small to mid-sized church needs to budget for a PA system
- What are the core components that a church PA system should have?
- What are your options, as the purchaser, that need to be considered?
- How do all the pieces fit together?
While I'm a guitar player first, and not a "sound guy," I had to learn the ropes, simply because our teams were small. We weren't a huge church with tons of resources. Pastors doubled as piano players, drummers doubled as sound guys and sound guys sometimes had nursery duty.
In other words, we all had to know the basics.
Thus, you can benefit from my mistakes and my learning experiences.
What is included in a PA system?
PA systems for a church, house of worship or any kind of organization, regardless of size, will have a specific group of core components.
Before you buy, it pays to know what those components are so can start to think about setup issues and what would be the most functional and optimal configuration for your church.
That must-have checklist includes the following:
- Mixer (that includes enough channels for all vocal and instrument sources)
- Power amp, powered mixer or powered speakers (more on this below)
- Mic stands and microphone cables
- Speakers and speaker cables
Note number two.
Particularly when it comes to power sources, this can create a bit of confusion.
Do I need a power amp, speakers or mixer?
If you know the differences between these options, you'll be able to make a decision based on your church and its unique needs.
Here's how you can sort the amplification and core components.
Simplifying the core components and amplification options
Any PA system can be boiled down to the following four components:
- Microphone (source)
- Mixer (processing)
- Amplifier (power)
- Speakers (projection)
Now, let's sort out the amplification.
In total, there are three different directions you could go to address this issue.
First, you could employ a standalone amplifier, mixer, speakers and microphone, where all four components are entirely separate entities.
Amplification Option #1: Standalone Powered Amplifier
With this setup, you have a standalone power amp that amplifies the processed signal (coming out of the mixer) which is then converted to audible, acoustic sound and pushed out to the main speakers, of which there are usually two.
In this scenario, the speakers, mixer and amp are all separate and must be purchased individually.
PA System diagram with standalone power monitor. | View Larger Image
In most cases, this setup is used by bigger churches in environments that demand a large-scale audio production setup.
If portability is a concern, this is almost never the best option, since the additional power amp means there is another piece to move and more cables to deal with.
For churches that need a sound system permanently installed, especially if you're in a larger building with a growing congregation, the four-part option might be your best bet, simply because it will allow more flexibility and can be more easily upgraded.
We'll focus primarily on the powered mixer option.
Option #2: Powered Mixer
This arrangement combines the mixer and amplifier portion into what we'd call a powered mixer.
In this scenario, your amplifier and mixer are purchased as a single device, giving you three core components instead of four, per the above diagram.
Realistically this means you only have two large pieces to consider, since microphones are small and easily setup, replaced or moved.
This setup saves you the trouble of having to transport and figure out cabling for an external power amp, as the amp is housed within the mixer's casing (you'll notice powered mixers are usually bulkier). Simply plug speakers and instruments into the mixer and you're good to go.
Core components of a PA system with a powered mixer. | View Larger Image
There's a major uptick in portability with a setup like this, making it ideal for churches that might need a PA system that's more mobile or at least not intended to be permanent.
For churches that rent a space, perhaps in a school or gym, having a powered mixer setup will make routine tear down and setup much easier.
Option #3: Powered Speakers
The third option migrates power to your speakers, meaning each speaker you use must be "active" meaning it has its own built-in amplifier. This allows you to use any non-powered mixer, even without an external power amplifier.
The only disadvantage here is that you can't add passive mains or monitors.
Passive speakers are simply speakers that don't have any kind of built in power or amplification.
If you rely on powered speakers without any other power source, every speaker you use must be powered.
Core components of a PA system with a powered speaker. | View Larger Image
However, it does free you up to buy a more versatile, perhaps more expensive, mixing board. This can be helpful for churches that need a mixer with more channels, but still need to be somewhat mobile and portable.
Adding a wireless receiver and lapel or headset mic
John Piper with a wireless headset microphone. | Flickr Commons Image via Vermin87
Any PA system you roll out can easily accommodate a wireless microphone which is often a desirable (perhaps crucial) feature, even if you're a smaller church.
Your pastor needs to be mobile, more so than any musician or even worship leader. It's easy to make that happen by simply adding a wireless receiver to the core components we've already covered.
These receivers simply plug into a channel in your mixer and usually come with their own wireless microphone.
Here's what you'll need:
- A wireless receiver
- A lapel or headset mic
Here are a few recommendations I'd make, based on the fact they get you both of the products listed above in one purchase.
Pyle's wireless mic system is one of the most popular, coming in a headset and handheld option. | Image via Amazon
This UFH receiver is one of the most popular and affordable wireless mic setups and is completely ideal for small to mid-sized churches.
Before purchasing, you have the following options:
- One headset mic
- Two headset mics
- One handheld mic
The most expensive configuration is the two headset mic system, which is still under $100. Note that it also comes with the two lapel mics.
This setup is a great, across-the-board option and will suit most church PA system needs.
You can easily connect to a mixer via the balanced XLR output on the back of the receiver.
The Audio 2000s wireless microphone system with two receivers and two headset microphones. | Image via Amazon
This wireless receiver by Audio 2000s has two channels and two balanced XLR outputs allowing you to route wireless microphones to two different channels on your mixer.
It's similar to the PylePro in that it gives you some helpful purchasing options.
- Two handheld microphones
- Two headset and two lapel mics
- One handheld and one lapel mic
- Two headset mics
Everything is under $120 and the frequency is still UHF, meaning the mics will be more resistant to interference.
This setup could be particularly helpful if you have multiple speakers who need the extended mobility that a wireless mic offers.
The PDWM3500 system with a headphone, handheld and lapel mic. | Image via Amazon
The crisp LCD display and blue lighting on this box give it a little more aesthetic appeal as it houses the UHF dual-channel system.
You've got XLR and 1/4" inputs on the back, with individual volume control for each channel.
Included are a handheld, headset and lapel mic.
All of this will run you around $130, though there are used options for much less.
A four channel Pyle UHF wireless microphone package. | Image via Amazon
In yet another UHF wireless setup from Pyle, you have four channels that come with two handheld mics, two headsets and two lapel mic clip-ons.
There's also a slightly more expensive version of this set that comes with four handheld microphones.
The need for a system like this will certainly be decided by the size of your church and how many people you want (or need) to have access to a wireless microphone. If you need backup mics, or you host events with multiple speakers, perhaps in a debate or moderated forum setting, this is good deal at just over $200 that will certainly accommodate.
For small churches that don't need as much firepower, the previous options we mentioned are going to be more ideal.
PA System Packages for Churches
Churches that meet in a small to mid-sized building will be better served purchasing a PA system as a package, with all the core components already included. From there, they can add pieces on an as-needed basis (more mics, music stands, etc.).
These are some of the packages that I would recommend, specifically for churches in the following situations:
- Need something affordable (between $500 and $1200)
- Need something portable (for easy setup and take down)
- Need something with minimal wiring
Now, if you're concerned about the absence of a wireless microphone, all you need to do is add one of the wireless receiver packages from the above list. They're an easy add-on to any mixer.
Just pick a channel.
I'll focus on systems that have a powered mixer, main speakers, cables and a few microphones.
These PA system packages are sometimes a conglomerate of different brands that have been combined for an optimal setup.
In this case, the mixer is Peavey, the speakers are Phonic and the microphones are Audio-Technica.
It's not going to cause you problems to have a mix of different brands, but it is something to be aware of so you're not surprised when your speakers don't have the Peavey logo on them. Basically they've saved you the task of having to piece all this together from scratch.
And in the process, they usually knock a few dollars off the final cost. In most cases, buying each piece one at a time wouldn't be quite so cheap.
Typically the mixer, a PVi 6500, is a standalone purchase from Peavey.
The PVi 6500 powered mixer on Peavey's website. | Image via Peavey
In this PA system package, the PVi 6500 is the brain and nucleus of the entire operation, serving as both a mixing board and power amp.
Additionally, this system comes with the following components, all pictured above:
- One powered mixer
- Two main speakers
- Two speaker cables
- Two XLR cables
- Two microphones
- Two speakers stands
- Two mic stands
For all this, the price hovers around $650, which is on the low end of all the packages that I looked into with this kind of firepower.
However, there are some limits to be aware of.
First, the mixer is only six channels, which severally caps your ability to add more mics or instruments. This can present a host of growth problems depending on your situation. If you're a small church with just one or two instruments and the pastor's mic, you'll be fine.
Even then, you'll need to do some forward-thinking and be certain that you won't need more than six channels in the future.
The 400W of power it provides is plenty to fill a small to mid-sized room with sound.
Other mixer features
For its small size and only six channels, the PVi 6500 mixer is well-stocked with features and extras.
Here's a quick highlight real:
- Bluetooth compatible (for streaming audio)
- 9-band graphic EQ
- On board digital effects
- Footswitchable effects
- Master mute
- External monitor compatible
If you need to add stage monitors, they can be easily plugged in via the back of the mixing console in the 1/4" jack labeled "MAIN MONITOR."
Main monitor input in the back of the VPi 6500 powered mixer. | Image via Peavey
Once plugged in, monitor volume can be controlled via the dark red knob on the front control panel.
Monitor volume control on the front of the VPi 6500 powered mixer. | Image via Peavey
You'll notice the phantom power, master mute and Bluetooth buttons are all just to the left of the orange control knobs and easily accessed.
Peavey did a good job of packing a lot of functionality into an interface that's simple to learn. While this PA system is designed to be easy to transport, it could serve as a permanent setup in a church that isn't worried about adding more channels down the road.
If you're happy with the six channels, it's an easily configured, powerful mixer that will provide plenty of volume for most rooms under 5000 square feet.
This Yamaha system has a wider scope with 12 total channels and four microphones, which should be considered if your church is more contemporary and needs a PA system that will accommodate a larger band.
12 channels gives you plenty of room for a four or five piece band and a pastor's wireless mic system, with room to grow.
Yamaha's powered mixer is also a little louder than the PVi 6500 at 500W, meaning it can accommodate larger rooms or venues that might need a slightly louder system.
Again, that's a plus for PA systems intended to serve musicians in addition to speakers.
The EMX512SC mixer features
The EMX powered mixer series from Yamaha. | Image via Yamaha
The 512SC is part of the EMX mixer series from Yamaha, that includes several powered mixers, all of which come with a similar set of features.
Here's the summary from the Yamaha manual:
Feature checklist for the EMX512SC powered mixer. | Image via Yamaha
Note the two different EQ options.
You've got both an individual channel EQ with three bands each and a 7-band graphic EQ, both for the monitors (if you're using them) and the main speakers.
Three different EQ mechanisms on the EMX512SC.
You'll also notice there's a master volume knob in red next to both the MAIN and MONITOR EQ sections, which makes it super easy to control your mixer.
The blue knob for each channel will then control the level of each instrument in the monitors, while the LEVEL knob (the second white one) controls its volume in the main speakers.
Other features include phantom power, standby mode and a slew of digital effects that are built into the mixing board and can be controlled in each channel.
Price and scope
The only downside is that the entire system hits the top of our price range at around $1200. However, that's still cheaper than most scenarios you'd encounter, trying to buy each piece by itself.
The deciding factors should be the following:
- Do you have a larger room to fill and need a louder system?
- Do you have a contemporary-style band (more pieces)?
- Will you come close to utilizing the 12 channels?
Justifying the price means utilizing the system's capabilities in your situation. If it's overkill, you can save money by going with PA systems that are lower wattage and don't have as many channels.
However, if you answered yes to the questions above, $1200 could be a worthwhile investment.
Keep in mind:
Even if you don't use all the channels now, your church, band or building size could grow in the future. If you can anticipate growth, having the extra wattage and channels might be a good thing to take care of now.
Besides, you can always turn the volume down.
If you just need speakers...
A lot of churches don't need an entire PA system package.
Parts need replaced, segments of a PA system need upgraded and sound systems will often be "pieced" together.
It's also not uncommon to have some pieces, perhaps used or second hand, that need to be subsidized or added to.
Now that you know how core components fit together, I can show you how to shop for specific parts of a PA system.
We'll cover speakers and microphones in that order.
Technical factors to consider when buying speakers
We've already seen that you can buy either powered or passive speakers and that wattage is your primary technical consideration.
When buying just speakers, you'll need to consider the power capabilities in terms of ohms.
Ohms are a unit of measure used to denote impedance.
Impedance ratings in a speaker will typically be one of the following:
- 4 ohmns
- 8 ohms
- 16 ohms
These values are considered "nominal" since there are a number of factors that can impact and effect a speaker's impedance.
So, how do you match the right speaker impedance with your amplifier or powered mixer?
Let's say for example you have a powered mixer that can produce 700 watts into an 8-ohm load. This is something you can always check on your manual or specs list. Take the EMX512SC for example:
In the EMX512SC specs list, we see that the power amp is capable of pushing 350W for each 8 ohm speaker. | Image via Yamaha
Since we see that the output power is 350W per 8 ohms, we can surmise that two 8-ohm speakers would land us 700W of power with this mixer.
Use the powered mixer's output rating to calculate the peak power handling that a pair of speakers would need to meet. | View Larger Image
Usually power amps or powered mixers will give a corresponding wattage for both four and eight ohm speakers, meaning you need to first determine the impedance of the speakers you're considering, find the wattage rating on your amp or powered mixer, then go back and make sure that the speakers can handle at least that much power in wattage.
For example, the above diagram shows us that the peak power for the two 8-ohm loudspeakers should be 700W, if they're to be paired with a mixer that rates 350 watts of power for every 8 ohms.
These are the actual speakers that Yamaha pairs with their EMX512SC powered mixer.
If we look at the BR15 (the speakers pictured) specs on Yamaha's website, we'll see that they have peak power handling of 800 watts, which gives you a nice cushion above the 700W required.
The peak power handling of the BR15 speakers is 800W, making it a good pair for the EMX512SC powered mixer, which has an output of 350W per 8-ohm speaker. | Image via Yamaha
Thus the EMX512SC powered mixer and two of the 8-ohm BR15 speakers are a good pair, since the amp in the mixer produces 350W of power per 8 ohms of impedance and the speakers can handle 800W of peak power.
Here's a simple equation to go by:
Assuming two 8-ohm loudspeakers:
Amplifier output per 8 ohms should be less than or equal to peak power handling of loudspeaker.
With that in mind, here are a few passive loudspeakers speakers I'd recommend as standalone purchases to supplement an existing PA system.
Three loudspeaker options
Two-Way Speaker Cab
Two-Way Speaker Cab
Two-Way Speaker Cab
If you just need microphones...
Now, should you need to buy just microphones, it's a far simpler venture, where you don't have to worry about nearly the same level of complexity as you do with adding speakers.
When buying microphones, there are basically two different kinds:
- Dynamic microphones
- Condenser microphones
In most cases, when you're dealing with a PA system and live sound, you'll be adding dynamic microphones. These are the mics that you typically see being used by singers or worship leaders in a performance scenario.
Condenser microphones are more often a tool to be used in the studio or for recording podcasts and, in most cases, don't make great live mics.
If you need to add a few microphones to an existing church PA system, you'll want to stick with the dynamic options.
As luck would have it, a decent mid-grade dynamic mic is affordable for most budgets.
Here are a few I'd recommend:
Three dynamic microphone options
Church PA System Setup Diagrams and Help
Setup help is hard to give broadly, because each church and subsequent PA system are going to be a unique combination of variables, acoustic issues and even room shapes.
Accounting for every eventuality is impossible.
Note that many of the product packages will come with their own setup diagrams in the user manuals, particularly the powered mixers.
Check there first.
Take the EMX312 SC powered mixer, for example.
If you don't have the manual with you, just Google, "EMX312SC manul *pdf" (or the name of whatever mixer you're using).
Use the tag "*pdf" to search for PDF versions of your mixer's manual.
In the results, look for the "Owner's Manual" text and "PDF" label.
The PDF for your product will usually show up first.
Once you click on that link, the owner's manual for your mixer will load into your browser.
The Yamaha EMX series manuals. | Image via Yamaha
Scroll down through the PDF file and look for setup diagrams. Keep in mind that not every manual for a mixer will have setup info and that it's going to depend heavily on the brand and model.
Some companies just don't include this kind of information.
Most of the time you'll have a catch-all diagram like the following:
An example of a setup diagram that might be provided in a user manual. | Image via Yamaha
Even if you don't have access to a manual like this, most PA systems can be setup the same, whether in a church or elsewhere.
Recall the core components of our system:
- Powered mixer
- Microphones and instruments
Getting these hooked up is fairly simple, as microphones and instruments go into mixer channels and the mixer then connects to the speakers.
A basic diagram would suffice:
The core components of a PA system with a powered mixer are easy to setup. | View Larger Image
The core components are always the same. Mics and instruments go to mixer channels and speakers simply plug into the mixer via the speaker cables.
Source, processing and projection.
Now setup should account for room size as well, meaning you'll need to consider the length of the speaker cables and possibly the microphone/instrument cables as well. Again, this is environment specific, but the solutions to most potential problems are fairly straightforward.
You might have to buy new speaker cables or move the mixer, but the complexity is minimal.
Most small to mid-sized rooms should have two main speakers with one on the left and another on the right side of the room.
Placement of your mixer will depend on cable length, though the most typical locations include the following:
- To the side of the stage
- On the stage
- Behind the congregation
The only real rule is that you should have a left and right main speaker. If you add monitors to the setup, you'll need to account for the cable length there as well, but generally, this is what your setup will look like:
Typical PA system setup in a small church sanctuary or class room. | View Larger Image
An audio snake would allow you to route all your instruments from the stage to the back of the room, which is an additional investment you'd have to make if you want to locate your mixer in the back.
If you keep the mixer on or close to the stage, there's no need for an extended snake cable.
This setup is also common in a situation where you want to have a PA system permanently installed.
Getting to a high-level view, we see that setup, especially on such a small scale, is really simple with a manageable learning curve. I'd be willing to bet you'll have an easier time with setup than with knowing what to buy in the first place.
A little research, in both areas, goes a long way.
Other Resources for Church PA System Setup
Here are a few other places I'd recommend checking out for help with setup and the technical aspects of church audio production.
BenetonElectronics: A thorough blog with plenty of info on church sound and PA system setup info.
ProSoundWeb, Basic Connections: A post on basic mixer and system setup for church audio.
Church PA System Configuration post from PreSonus: An article from the PreSonus blog that details PA setup info, specific to churches and houses of worship.
Yamaha House of Worship Setup: A detailed guide from Yamaha on both analog and digital PA system setups for a house of worship.
Diagram for a simple PA System: A starters guide for learning PA system basics.
Instrument Amplification via WireStrungHarp: A brief and succinct guide on micing instruments into a PA system.
Questions and Examples
If you have questions about the setup options and products listed here, or if you want to share your own church's PA system configuration, drop us a line in the comments so other readers can benefit.
Thanks for reading and best of luck.
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Flickr Commons Image via Reid