In the early months of 2017 our small(ish) church of roughly 200 regular attenders set about planting a second congregation in a neighboring town.
One of our most significant tasks was to procure, setup and maintain a second sound system that would accommodate a pastor and a worship team. We needed to essentially clone the setup that existed at the original site. Since our new site was to meet in a middle school forum, we needed a portable PA system that could be taken down and setup on a weekly basis.
Figuring out what to spend, how much of everything to buy and how to configure it all was daunting, to say the least.
- What to buy
- How much of it to buy
- How to make sure it will all play nice
Peter Driver (who co-authored this article), a deacon and one of our worship leaders, did a massive amount of research to answer these questions. This is a documentation of the results of that research.
For anyone needing a small, portable PA system, this is a record of exactly what to buy, how much of each thing you'll need and how to fit it all together.
First, let's start with a functionality checklist.
Item List for Our Portable PA System
What Our Portable PA System Needed to Do
If you're setting up a PA system, you'll want to start by answering the question of basic functionality.
What do you need it to do?
Here are the functionality prerequisites we had to work with.
- Wireless microphone (for our pastor)
- Vocalist mics
- Bass guitar input
- Electric guitar input
- Acoustic guitar input
- Keyboard synthesizer input
- Accommodate an in-ear monitoring system
While these requirements will vary, depending on your situation, it's a fairly predictable task list for your "garden variety" PA system. Whether you're a church or just a local band, these make a typical accomplishment list for any PA system setup.
The confusing part is what to buy and how much of each item you'll need.
We'll cover specifics for the following categories:
The Mixer | Mackie DL1608
The mixer we purchased was a Mackie DL1608 iPad-controlled digital mixing board with the following specs:
- 16 channels + 16 Onyx mic preamps
- Lightning connection
- Up to 10 wireless iPad connections (for controlling the main and individual mixes)
- Six aux sends
This mixer allowed anyone with an iPad or iPhone (sorry Android folks - iOS is the only thing currently supported) to control any of the mixes within range of a wireless router, which we purchased separately.
A wireless router is required to allow wireless access to the mixer, otherwise it can only be controlled by a ‘docked’ iPad (pictured in the above photo).
We also threw in the rack mounting kit made specifically for the DL 1608.
We've got the brains of our operation, now we need a place to house it.
Racks & Cases: Gator 10U Top 12U Side Console Audio Rack
The audio rack we purchased would allow us to place the Mackie mixer, using the coated mounting piece, on top of the unit where it would be easily accessible.
You can see how we fit the pieces together via the photo below.
We also purchased a couple of drawers along with a Furman M-8x2 power conditioner.
- Gator GRW-DRW2 Standard Rack Drawer (2U - 14.2 inches deep)
- Gator GRW-DRW3 Standard Drawer (3U)
- Furman M-8x2 Power Conditioner
Once we had it all setup, here's what it looked like:
Our Gator rolling case with the iPad and mixer installed. (View Larger Image)
Mics, clips, cables and electrical cords items were all stored in these drawers.
In terms of being portable, this made it really easy for us to keep everything in one place for a quicker setup and teardown process (more on that later).
The wireless router mentioned earlier simply mounts on top of the unit.
The wireless router mounted on top of the Gator case. (View Larger Image)
Exactly how the mounting process works in your situation will depend on which router you use.
The router connects to the mixer via a regular CAT-5 cable and has a power adapter that we plug into a black 3-prong extension cord, which you can sort of see in the above photo. We actually bought several of those cords (close to 10, I believe) which gave us a way to plug in the monitors that we clipped to the mic stands (more on those later).
We are powering as many items in the "signal chain" as possible off of the Furman M-8x2 Power Conditioner mentioned in the list with the drawers. This gives the components that handle the signal clean power and a good shared ground, which is important for reducing noise in the signal path.
Vocalist Microphones: Shure Beta 58A
We purchased six Shure Beta 58A microphones.
For microphone stands, we grabbed a bundled deal that included six On-Stage tripods and a carrying bag.
For every person that would need a microphone during the service, we purchased one of the following:
- Mic stand
- Mic cable (XLR)
- Microphone storage bag
For example, we typically have four vocalists (at the most) and one scripture reader. Thus, we aimed to accommodate up to six active microphones at any one time, not including the pastor's wireless mic.
This means we needed to order six of everything needed to make a single microphone work.
Here's my (Peter's) mic stand setup without the microphone.
Basic mic stand setup. (View Larger Image)
Pastor's Wireless Mic | Shure BLX14R/W93 Wireless Lavalier System
Our pastor needed a wireless microphone, which could be easily added into one of the mixer's 16 channels with a small Shure wireless receiver. The BLX14R from Shure is a single-channel box that can be rack mounted in the rolling case we purchased.
In-Ear Monitors | Rolls MP50s Personal Monitor Amplifier
These Rolls personal amplifiers allowed us to run a signal into the MONITOR INPUT (We actually used the "mic input" but either the mic or monitor input work. The mic input is XLR and the monitor input is ¼") which we could then listen to through a pair of in-ear headphones or earbuds.
The amp itself was fixed to our music stands with a Rolls mic stand clamp.
- Rolls MSC106 Mic Stand Clamp
- Headphones (in-ear or just regular earbuds)
- Balanced TRS to XLR, the six "AUX" mixes from the DL1608 are balanced mono with the output from the mixer being a ¼" TRS and the input on the Rolls headphone amps being XLR or ¼" depending on whether you choose to use the mic or monitor input on the Rolls.
Picture of Rolls monitor setup and clipped to a mic stand. (View Larger Image)
Speakers | Mackie Thump 12" Powered Speaker Package
Our two main speakers were the Mackie Thump 12" pairing that we purchased in a bundle which included stands and cables for each speaker.
However, we ended up adding our own 50' speaker cable, one for each speaker, along with a Mackie subwoofer.
- Mackie Thump 18" 1200W Powered Subwoofer
- 2x Pro Co EXM-20 Excellines Microphone Cable (20 feet)
- 2x Pro Co EXM-100 Excellines Microphone Cables (100 feet)
The signal goes from the A and B mixer outputs to the sub woofer, which then routes the main mix to the two speakers. The sub also acts as a crossover, reproducing the low frequencies in the mix signal from the sub and passing on the higher frequencies in the mix to the left and right main speaker.
The signal goes into the sub woofer than out to the powered speaker. (View Larger Image)
Just for clarification, the A and B outputs from the mixer feed separate A and B inputs on the sub and the sub sends separate A and B inputs on to the L and R main powered speakers.
Additional main speakers could be added and run by using the "thru output" on the main powered speakers.
Image of the back of the speaker. (View Larger Image)
These are what we'd call the "mains" and our primary mix, controlled by selecting the "Main" mix from the Mackie Master Fader app.
In the photo below, you can see the Maser Fader app with the "All" mix selected which is the primary house mix that folks hear through the speakers and sub.
Screenshot of the "Main" mix on the Master Fader app. (View Larger Image)
Whoever handles our sound can now control the main mix coming out of the two speakers and subwoofer with this channel on their iPad.
Setting Up iPad and iPhone to Control the Mix for a Specific Channel
Once you have the physical setup in place, you can download the app that goes with the Mackie DL1608 called "Master Fader." Whoever has this app on their phone can control the mix in their own in-ear monitor, assuming they have a Rolls MP50 amplifier.
Here's a diagram of the setup:
The wireless signal from the IOS device actually goes to the router (via wireless network) then to the DL1608 via CAT-5, then from the DL1608 AUX outputs to the Rolls mic or monitor inputs via balanced cable and then to headphones or earbuds.
With this setup, each channel on the mixer has its own mix that is separate from what you hear coming out of the mains and sub. This way each musician can customize their own mix, autonomous of every other musician and the main speakers.
Selecting your Mix
These are the steps you need to go through to get your iOS device to connect to the wireless signal and control your individual mix.
- Download and open the Mackie Master Fader app from the app store.
- Make sure your device is connected to the wireless signal for the router connected to your mixer via the CAT-5 cable.
- Click the "cog" settings icon in the top right corner of the Master Fader app.
- Click "Devices"
- Select "DL1608"
- Go back to mixer view and click "LR" under "Mix" on the right side of your sceen.
- From this menu select your mix (A3, A4, A5, etc.)
Once you've gone through these steps you'll be able to control what you hear in your monitor. You now have your own mix that can be adjusted however you'd like without effecting the mains or without asking for help from a sound tech.
What headphones or earbuds does everyone use?
Once the signal makes it to the Rolls monitor, each person on our team handled monitoring differently, using everything from a Shure In-Ear headphones set to the white iPhone headphones.
As of writing this, here's what each band member used:
- Peter (lead vocal, acoustic): Shure In-Ear Monitors SE215 (usually just one side)
- Everette (bass): Shure In-Ear Monitors SE215
- Bobby (electric, vocal): No headphones (listens to mains) or Skullcandy Smokin' Buds
- Kiley (vocals): White Apple Earpods
- Ash (vocals): No headphones (listens to mains)
The most conventional (and affordable) choice, if you want a legitimate in-ear set of headphones would be the Shure SE215.
A case and extra foam pads are all included.
The Shure SE215 headphones we used for in-ear monitoring.
They have a soft padded foam that you can compress (like earplugs) which then expand to the shape of your ear. The sound quality for this set is also remarkably better than the Skullcandy or Apple sets, which aren't designed for professional monitoring.
Having said that, everyone who used the in-ear setup with our portable PA system has had success with a wide range of headphones.
In that regard, the setup is very forgiving.
How much time is setup and takedown?
Predictably, setup is a somewhat longer process than takedown.
That said, it's not terrible if you have two or three people helping.
To start using the system (practicing) at 8am, I (Peter) arrive at 7am along with one of our sound techs. Together, we have the system setup and ready to go within the hour.
The sub rolls out first.
Our sub woofer on a wheeled platform. (View Larger Image)
That wooden contraption it's resting on was something we built ourselves with wheels on the bottom, making it really easy to roll wherever. Highly recommend.
The mixer and case already had wheels, so that gets rolled out as well.
The case (thankfully) already had wheels. (View Larger Image)
Most everything else fit in a wheeled closet that I believe (though am not certain) belonged to the school.
A large wheeled storage closet we use for mic stands, music stands and "everything else." (View Larger Image)
Again, this is something we'd highly recommend, as it significantly reduces both setup and takedown time.
While a wheeled closet of this size is hard to come by, there are plenty of wheeled storage containers of varying sizes that would function in a similar manner.
- Sterilite 40 Gallon Wheeled Tote
- Remington Heavy Duty Rolling Storage Trunk (2 piece)
- Rubbermaid Roughneck 45 Gallon Tote Locker
Being able to wheel all this out to the area we setup cuts time significantly and keeps the setup right around an hour in length.
Takedown is a bit quicker and shorter, usually around 45 minutes, though this is partly because we often have a couple extra sets of hands after church is over. It also depends on how motivated we are to get home, as people usually don't clean up as quickly as they set everything up in the morning since there's no urgency.
In short, I'd advise planning for an hour on each end for both setup and takedown.
Were there a lot of "bugs" and issues when setting it all up?
Anytime you have a PA system with this many moving parts, you're bound to have issues and bugs to troubleshoot during the setup process.
However, the issues we encountered were almost all taken care of during the "testing" phase where we had it setup in a basement. By the time we were using it at church, most of those issues had been dealt with.
I would advise having a similar testing phase in a controlled environment where you set everything up and work out the kinks.
We also noticed that the more we used it, the less noise, issues and discrepancies would occur. The fifth time we set everything up was far smoother than the first or second.
Common issues included the following:
- Excess noise coming through in-ear monitors
- Users not knowing how to select their mix in Master Fader
- Lousy wireless router signal (we eventually just bought a nicer router - easy fix)
- Excess noise coming through electric guitar channel
The only problem that stuck around was the noise coming through the electric guitar, which we found was likely due to the magnets in the pickups generating feedback off the Rolls monitors, which is positioned on the music stand at eye level with the guitar's pickups.
This is part of the reason I (Bobby) often just turn the monitor off and go without earbuds.
It solves the noise issue and, since the room is small, I can hear pretty well without them.
Larger rooms might have to figure out a way to get the personal monitors away from instruments, but that's only if the problem recreates itself in other environments.
Chances are you'll have a different list of problems to iron out.
Though overall, it wasn't an unexpected or inordinate amount of issues, considering the complexity of the setup.
It was all surprisingly smooth and functional.
Your Questions and Conclusion
Peter Driver, who helped author this article, brainstormed this entire setup. I've listed him as an author and included an email contact below in his author bio.
However, if you have questions about the setup, I'd recommend putting it in the comments section, which either me or Peter will be able to answer and, in so doing, benefit others who might come later with similar questions.
Feel free to drop comments and questions there and one of us (probably Peter - he's way smarter with this kind of stuff) will respond.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of TomSCY2000