Live Sound Basics: How to Set Up Speakers

Where you place your PA speakers has a huge influence on how the sound reaches your audience

With “personal PA” systems becoming increasingly popular for medium-size venues like cafes, houses of worship, and conference centers, it’s important to know how to get the most out of these systems. Much of a PA setup’s effectiveness depends not only on the gear itself, but where you place the speakers, mixer, mics, and performers.

Although you need to consider technical issues (for example, you don’t want to place a power amp next to a heat source, or drape mic cables over transformers), you also need to think about the impact on the audience. Speaker placement is especially important because the sound needs to reach every corner of a venue, with no “dead spots.” We’ll explore the optimum placement for speakers, but first, please observe these rules regarding PA connections for power and audio.

  • Rule #1: Make all your connections—both audio and power—first.
  • Rule #2: Turn on the amplifier or powered speakers. Plugging or unplugging either audio or power connections while the system is on can produce loud pops. These are bad for your speakers, bad for your ears, and terrible for your audience.
  • Rule #3: Power-up your system with the mixer’s master volume control (or powered speaker level controls) at zero—full off. Turn up the gain only when you know that all is well.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s figure out where to place the speakers.

Positioning the Speakers

Most small-format PAs use a large subwoofer for the low frequencies and a smaller unit with high-frequency drivers (Fig. 1). The latter may be a column that mounts directly on top of the subwoofer or a smaller speaker that mounts on a separate tripod. Often, these PAs allow for “daisy-chaining” multiple units for greater coverage and wider sound dispersion. In other words, you can interconnect two or more systems to cover the left, right, and center areas of where the audience sits.

1_PA Systems
Figure 1: These personal PA systems are all based on a low-frequency subwoofer, and a column speaker with high-frequency drivers. From left to right: DB Technologies ES503, Electro-Voice Evolve 50, JBL Eon One, Mackie SRM-Flex, and Turbosound IP2000.

Place all speakers in front of any mics used by the performers, preachers, or presenters (i.e., the speakers should be closer to the audience or congregation), with as much distance as possible between the mics and speakers. The closer the mics are to the front of the speakers, the higher the chances of feedback. Caution anyone using a wireless mic (or a conventional mic with a long cable) not to step in front of the speakers. It may help to put tape down on the stage or floor that draws a line between the speakers. Advise anyone using a mic not to cross over that line.

In any event, avoid using microphones with an omnidirectional pickup pattern, which picks up sound from all directions. A cardioid mic like the Shure SM58S, which picks up sound from the front but rejects sound from the back and sides, works well for live sound. A hypercardioid mic like the Audix OM3 has even greater back and side rejection. You always want the sound from the person using the mic to be much louder than any residual noise picked up from the speakers.

Some personal PAs mount the speakers on tripods. When using speaker-mounting tripods, the speakers should be at least just above the highest people in the audience—and tightened down so they can’t move or rotate on the tripods. This is particularly important with systems like the Peavey Escort 6000, which don’t use a subwoofer but instead, include the low-frequency and high-frequency drivers in the same enclosure (Fig. 2). As a rule of thumb, if a tall person walks in front of the speaker, the speaker should be higher than that person; in some venues, mounting the speakers even higher may provide better coverage.

2_Peavey Escort 6000
Figure 2: Peavey’s Escort 6000 system (mixer not shown) mounts its speakers on tripods, which in some venues offers more placement options than column speakers.

This is important because high frequencies are very directional, so if everyone in a room can see the high-frequency drivers in a speaker, they can probably hear the high frequencies. Low frequencies are not only less directional, they can even bend around objects in a room. This is why systems invariably place the bass speaker on the floor, and the high-frequency speakers on stands, tripods, or extenders that attach to the subwoofers.

Some powered monitors (but generally not column-based ones) allow stacking units for wider coverage and more power, while other systems “split the difference” by being more modular. For example, the Bose L1 Model II System – Double B1 Bass Package includes two subwoofers (Fig. 3). Although one subwoofer is all that’s needed for most applications, being able to stack the subwoofers provides more powerful bass for DJs, electronic drums, and bands.

Figure 3: The Bose L1 Model II system lets you choose how much bass you want by making it easy to stack subwoofers.

Stacking subwoofers is easy, because they usually sit on the floor. However, if you plan to stack powered monitors, make sure the combination is stable, out the way of the audience and performers, and can’t tip over. The last thing you want is a lawsuit because someone knocked a speaker column over on a child. It’s your responsibility to set up speakers so that their location won’t cause problems.

For the best coverage with two speakers (note that in most cases, two speakers aren’t there to provide stereo, but to increase the coverage of a mono signal), mount them toward the left and right sides of the stage, and angle them slightly toward the middle of the room. One common method to choose the optimum angle is to pretend there’s a line that goes down the middle of the audience. Aim the speakers at a point approximately 75% of the way toward the farthest end of the room (Fig. 4).

Figure 4: Angling the left and right speakers toward the middle of the room, at a point about 75% of the way toward the furthest wall, often optimizes the coverage.

Because sounds bouncing off a side wall are generally less of a problem than sounds bouncing off a wall behind (or in front of) the speaker, this type of setup can also help produce the best possible sound for people in the front and back of the room.

Positioning with Respect to Walls

Because the typical room is filled with reflective surfaces, the audience will hear sounds reflected off the walls, ceilings, and various objects—not just the sound coming out of the speakers themselves. This can be problematic because the reflected sounds will arrive later than the direct sound, which makes speech less intelligible, and with music, makes it more difficult to differentiate among instruments.

Sound travels at about one foot per millisecond (a thousandth of a second, or ms). Most listeners don’t object to delays under about 30 ms, but delays longer than 30 ms produce an audible echo effect that can be distracting. Ideally, for an audience member, the difference in distance between the speaker and the nearest reflective hard surface (which produces the loudest reflection) will be 30 feet or less. In most rooms, this isn’t always possible, but it’s a goal worth trying to achieve.

However, distance can also be your ally. Even if the reflection path is longer than 30 feet, if there are a lot of people, drapes, objects, and the like between the audience and the wall, the reflections will weaken considerably. Reflections are most problematic in smaller spaces with reflective surfaces.

Another point to consider is where you place the subwoofer in a room because this can influence the amount of bass. Bass frequencies have a long wavelength, so placing the subwoofer in a corner will cause the bass to reflect off the walls, thus reinforcing the main bass signal. This trick can make one subwoofer seem like two. Placing a subwoofer a few inches away from where a wall meets the floor can produce similar results, but the results aren’t as dramatic as placing the subwoofer in a corner.

Where to Place the Monitors for the Performers

Because the performers or presenters are standing behind the speakers, they won’t hear themselves. In many cases, this doesn’t matter—but it usually does matter for musical ensembles, who need to hear each other as they perform.

In-ear monitors are the preferred choice by many professionals. The sound is clear, the mix can be customized for each person on stage, and feedback isn’t a concern. However, some performers prefer “wedge” monitors (Fig. 5). These point up to the performer at a 45-degree angle, away from the audience and other people on stage; with a quality cardioid or hypercardioid mic, the pickup pattern will tend to reject the sound of the monitors.

5_Bose S1
Figure 5: The Bose S1 is a personal PA that’s designed for double-duty—when placed on its side, it can act as a wedge monitor.

It’s All About the Setup

Experimenting with speaker placement before the event can be very helpful. But be aware that as people fill up a venue, the acoustics will change—for example, if it’s a cold winter night and people are wearing thick coats, the fabric will absorb sound. If the audience consists primarily of children, you may not want the high-frequency drivers mounted as high on their stands or tripods.

Fortunately, many PA systems now offer remote control apps, as well as the ability to stream in audio from a smartphone or tablet (or feed audio in from a 1/8” stereo jack). This means you can play music as you walk around the venue, and use the app to adjust the PA’s controls for the best possible sound.

Of course, a personal PA isn’t going to fill a stadium with ear-splitting volume—but proper speaker placement will help you get the most out of any PA system, large or small.

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