Sound Gear and the Newbie Performer

I spend a lot of time posting singing tips, vocal exercises, and other advice regarding being a singer, but I haven’t talked much about gear. So, let’s do that now.

This is for newbie (or wannabe) performers who have limited or no experience with stage gear.

When I was young, I completely neglected the concept of gear. My thoughts and energy (and projected fears) centered around learning lyrics and just generally hoping to not stink at singing during my performance. In my twenties, I did some cafe gigs – just my keyboard and myself singing originals. I plugged directly into an old practice guitar amp using a crappy mic some relative had gifted me that, if memory serves, had no brand name.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I started gigging with more experienced musicians that it occurred to me to reconsider my gear. And now, I regularly meet aspiring singers who also forget to consider such things.

Think about it…

I spent countless hours and other resources honing my singing and playing chops only to send my voice through crappy sounding gear. I didn’t even use reverb! Mission defeated.

Don’t do what I did.

I was reminded of my gear-neglected past last Saturday when my new duo, Uptown Boogie gigged at a Greek restaurant in Naples. We used standard stage mics and went through a Mackie mixer with onboard FX and into a couple of Peavy speakers. This isn’t a super high-end setup, but it’s a solid system, unlike the cheap mic and practice amp of my twenties. With this system, all the work I did preparing for the gig was worth it.

We did lack in one area, though. The small space we had in the corner of this restaurant made setting up a monitor nearly impossible. A monitor (for those of you who don’t know) is a speaker (or ear bud) that you use to hear the music and yourself as you perform. Because of where we had to fit it, we had to keep the volume down to avoid feedback. This made it almost useless.

As is often the case when a singer can’t hear herself, I started the gig by over-singing. This is never good, not for your voice and not for your show. But I caught on early and whenever I needed to hear myself better, I stepped forward so I could hear one of the main speakers. Not ideal. And kind of a rookie mistake not planning our monitor situation better.

Just as I did back in my twenties, I had been so caught up in making sure we were prepared musically that I didn’t put enough thought into how we’d use a monitor in that small space.

I share this with you now, not because I enjoy admitting it, but to try to be helpful. After all, we are all human. Annoying as that sometimes is…

So, if you’re a newbie (or wannabe) performer, you want to understand what a singer needs to perform her or his best. Here are the four basic necessities you want to be sure you cover as you plan:

  • Quality Microphone
  • PA (the speaker system)
  • Monitor (to hear yourself)
  • Reverb (or other vocal effects)

Before you can choose gear that’s right for you, there are a few things to ask yourself:

  • What size rooms will I be gigging in? Smaller rooms are easier to fill with sound. Big rooms with loud dance music will need a more powerful system.
  • What kind of volume do I expect to create? Again, how much power do you need in your PA?
  • How many instruments will be going into the system? If you’re starting with just you on guitar and singing, do you hope to add musicians over time? If so, look for a system that has the number of inputs (for each instrument and mic) that you’ll need. A quality PA system will be your biggest expense. You want to try to find one that will fit your needs for some time.

Examples…

Below, I give you some examples of gear that might work for you. But I’m not a gear-head (and you don’t need to be one either), so I encourage you to explore other options. Read lots of reviews and get feedback from people who know about gear before making purchases.

The mic is probably the easiest purchase.

You can get a decent stage mic for a minimal investment. The industry standard in stage mic’s is the Shure SM58. They run about $100 and are good for small or big/loud shows.

If you’re planning to stick with acoustic or quieter gigs and you want to go higher-end with your vocals, the Neumann KMS 105 is my favorite mic ever. But it comes at a relatively hefty $700 cost (and it requires something called phantom power in your PA). Just sharing in case you have a wealthy benefactor…

The PA is your biggest investment.

In a nutshell, a PA consists of a board/mixer you plug instruments and mics into, and the speakers the sound comes out of. An extremely popular system that many acoustic singers use is the Bose L1 ($1000). Performers set it up behind themselves to use it both as the main speaker and a monitor. It has two instrument inputs (1 mic, 1 guitar/keys) and doesn’t have built in reverb.

Around the same price point is the Fender Passport Venue. This system has built-in reverb, six instrument inputs (4 mic, 2 guitar/keys), and phantom power (for condenser mics like the Neumann I mentioned above). I have an older version of the Passport and my built-in reverb isn’t the greatest I’ve heard, but it is waaaaaay better than no reverb. There is a less powerful version of the Passport called Event, with 5 inputs (4 mic, 1 guitar/keys), reverb, and no phantom power. That one runs about $700. Any Passport system will require mic stands.

If you want to keep it simple and more budget-friendly, you can try a system like the Behringer Europort ($400). This has six channels and built-in reverb. It also has an mp3 player if you use backing tracks or want mood music for between sets.

You don’t have to buy a prepackaged system. Uptown Boogie uses a Mackie PROFX8V2 mixer (with built-in effects, like reverb. $200) and a couple of Peavey powered speakers. Speakers like ours can run from $300 to $600 for a pair. If you do your research, you can combine a good quality mixer and speakers for less than the cost of the Bose L1 or Fender Passport. But keep in mind, you’ll be humping a lot of gear. One of the perks of the other two systems is their ease of portability. Especially the Bose.

Monitors.

Many solo and duo acts use systems like the Fender Passport with one speaker facing the audience and the other facing inward, acting as monitor. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether that works for you.

If you want both speakers facing the audience then a personal monitor is super important. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (some instrumentalists just don’t get it!). You need to hear yourself, preferably WITH reverb. In-ear monitors are great, but expensive (can be between $400 and $1200). If you’re on a budget, save the big purchase for your PA and try a more affordable monitor option, something like the Nady PM-200A Powered Personal Stage Monitor. It’s small, effective, and you can get an adapter to attach it to a mic stand.

Reverb.

Many mixers and PA systems come with reverb built in. If not, you’ll want something like the TC-Helicon Mic Mechanic ($150). You plug your mic into it, and then plug it into your mixer/PA.

Keep in mind that setup and breakdown times are best kept short. The more separate components you have, the longer it will take. That’s why a lot of folks choose a portable PA system with reverb and simply turn one speaker toward themselves. But I encourage you to do more research to find what’s right for you, and read lots of reviews to see what other users have experienced.

The most important thing I want to impress upon you in this post is that Sound Matters almost as much as honing your craft matters. That means your mic matters, your speakers matter, reverb matters, and being able to hear yourself matters.

Good luck in your research, and let me know how it goes!

 

More great singer-related content: On YouTube, on Patreon, the OwJF website.