I Spent Good Money on my PA & it Still Sounds Crap

Sound is possibly the hardest part of <venue>’s remit to cover.

When it comes to lights and interiors, a picture tells a thousand words — the work of an inspired architect or designer is evident in a photo; the results of a professionally-commissioned lighting design will be easy to see on the page; but the sound? It’s impossible to tell. I’ve heard some tiny rigs sound awesome in the right setting and had $200k PAs leave me with a week-long migraine.

I thought I’d use this column to outline some of the classic audio errors I see on my travels. Most are based on naive ignorance.

Fatal Errors

Under-estimating the cost: Time and again I hear of operators under-estimating the cost of the sound system. Worse still, no money is devoted to the PA at all, leaving some no-name black boxes (installed when Elvis was still in jumpsuits) to carry the burden of contemporary music. Don’t stick your head in the sand — great sound doesn’t need to cost the earth but you’ll seriously regret making it the lowest priority.

Under-estimating the power: Under-powered rigs thrashed to within an inch of their lives sound absolutely diabolical. In this case, the badge on the speaker isn’t the issue. You could buy the most expensive baby wallmount speaker in the world but don’t expect it to function as a full-throttle nightclub PA. So make sure you determine what role sound will play in your venue before you spec it. Are you happy with the background tinkle of Richard Clayderman? Do you want something that will allow you to have solo/duo performers in? Do you want a DJ on the weekend? Are you hoping for more out of your sound system in 12 months? Ask yourself these questions early on, and it will go some way to ensuring you don’t have a rig that will be begging for mercy before midnight. Put it like this: In the same way that you don’t have two beer taps and one person behind the bar when you have a license for 500 people, don’t expect a home hi-fi system to provide the energy required for a dancefloor.

Copycat Purchase: Buying the same brand or even the exact same model of speaker as a famous nightclub in London will not guarantee you the same results. Yes, speakers have a sound and some speakers sound better than others but the success of your PA will depend just as much on how the speakers sound in your room. Not only that, the sound of your speakers will be greatly affected by the amplifiers you use and the digital processing/EQ. Copycat PA purchasing is akin to copying the menu of the best restaurant in town… no one would be so foolish as to believe it’s going to guarantee you three hats.

Copy Copycat Purchase: Ever heard this line: “mate, it comes out of the same factory in China that makes Brand X”? I have, and in some cases… it’s actually true. Saying that, the name brand has a good reputation because it only uses the components that make the grade —  the reject components get tossed in the bin or sometimes made into generic no-name copies. These speakers are cheap and they sound cheap as well.

Right, that’s what not to do… how do we actually get it right?

In the end it’s about expertise — it’s more about who’s spec’ing and installing the system than it is about the system itself. What?! I’m serious. The installer will make or break your PA. They’ll point the speakers in the right direction, team them with the right amplifiers, EQ the system to compensate for the characteristics of the room, and program the processors to ensure you have great sound no matter if it’s used as background or thumping away late on a Saturday night. All this is stuff you cannot hope to do yourself. Furthermore, your mate who’s a sparky won’t have any idea either. In fact, in my experience, there are only a handful of pros in every capital city who are worth approaching.

But don’t panic, they won’t necessarily cost an arm or a leg. So if you’re reading this and manage an intimate 100-capacity bar or small corner pub or a suburban restaurant, don’t fret — great sound is well within your reach and your budget. It is possible, you just need to approach someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Factor it in

Food and beverage bring in the real money, so it’s worth investing in good appliances, cool room etc; first impressions are critical, so hiring an architect or interior designer is a good investment; and lighting is obviously great to set the tone, so some money should be sunk into that… So where does that leave the PA? Often right at the bottom of the heap. But of all the factors that can make or break the atmosphere of your venue, arguably the audio is the most critical. Smart operators have figured this out long ago: diners can talk and relax with the right audio setup; paying punters go away raving about a gig in large part thanks to the right PA; while discerning nightclub patrons very often avoid venues with cheap or badly installed PAs…  So budget for it!

And next time you’re in a club, pub or restaurant that sounds great, don’t ask the manager what speakers he’s got, ask who installed them. You won’t be sorry you did.

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