How To Set Up A Sound System For A Live Event [PA System Setup Tutorial]

Written By Kyle Mathias  |  Audio Basics, Live Sound 

In this post, I’ll walk you through the steps of setting up a sound system for a live event. By following these steps, you’re going to avoid the most common mistakes and by the end you’ll have a great sounding system.

If this is our first time meeting, my name is Kyle. Welcome to Audio University!

Step 1: Room Layout

The first step is to determine the room layout.

It’s really important to put things in place before you start making connections. Otherwise, you’ll just end up making a mess, which will make your job more difficult.

There are three things I want you to consider: speaker placement, mixer location, and cable pathways.

Speaker Placement

Let’s start with speaker placement.

The goal is to place the speakers in a location where everyone in the audience can hear while preventing microphone feedback. To get maximum coverage of the audience, I recommend placing the speakers on either side of the stage.

If you have speaker stands, it’ll help you get the speakers higher so that the sound will reach everyone in the audience, not just the people in the front row. If you don’t have speaker stands yet, check out the post about my favorite speaker stands. I really can’t recommend them enough.

To prevent mic feedback, it’s helpful to place the microphone behind the speakers rather than in front of the speakers.

If you place the mics in front of the speakers, you won’t be able to turn them up very loud before you’ll start to get microphone feedback. And trust me, nothing ruins a performance like the squealing sound of mic feedback.

Mixer Location

The next thing you want to consider is the mixer location.

Now, ideally, you’d place the mixer right in the middle of the audience so that you can hear what the audience is hearing while you’re at the mixer.

However, that’s not always practical. In many cases, the best place for the mixer is to one side of the stage. This keeps everything together so you won’t need to run any long cables.

In some settings, however, you’ll need to hide the mixer so that it’s out of sight. In those situations, you’ll really just need to find a place to tuck the mixer away based on your unique situation.

Cable Pathways

Once you’ve decided on the location of the stage, the speakers, and the mixer, you’ll need to determine the safest cable pathways to avoid creating tripping hazards.

Try to run the cables along the wall wherever possible and if you need to cross a doorway or another walkway, you’ve really got two options.

The first option is to go up and over the doorway and the second one is to keep the cables on the floor by using gaff tape or cable ramp.

Step 2: Power

Now that you’ve got everything in place it’s time to run power. This is a good opportunity to verify that you have working power while there’s still time before the event begins.

You can either test power with a tool like this (power outlet tester) or you can simply turn on the speakers in the mixer.

Just make sure that you turn everything off once you’ve verified that you have power, because we’re going to turn everything on once we’ve already made the connections between devices.

Step 3: Normal Mixer Settings (Default Settings)

The next step is to normal the mixer. That means that you set all of the settings to their default.

This will help to make sure that you don’t encounter any surprises left for you by the person who used it last and it’ll make sure that you’re starting with a blank slate.

Step 4: Connect Mixer To Speakers / Amplifiers

Finally we can start connecting things together. Let’s start with our outputs.

Main Speakers

I usually recommend connecting the main outputs of the mixer to the main speakers. In this case, I’ll use an XLR cable from the left output on the mixer to the input of the left speaker and another XLR cable from the right output of the mixer to the right speaker.

If your mixer has 1/4-inch outputs instead, you can use a 1/4-inch TRS to XLR adapter that will convert those outputs to XLR.

Stage Monitor Speakers

You might also need to run speakers to the stage so that the performers can hear themselves play.

If you are running monitor speakers, I’d recommend connecting them with the auxiliary outputs on your console. I’ll use aux 1 for one monitor and aux 2 for another.

At this point you can go ahead and turn on the mixer and then the speakers. Turning them on in this order will help to prevent any pops or clicks that could damage your speakers.

Step 5: Connect Microphones & Other Inputs To Mixer

Now let’s connect some inputs to the mixer.

Depending on the show, the inputs will vary. I’ll show you how to connect a variety of inputs so that you’re prepared for anything.

Line Level Input (Smartphone, Laptop, etc.)

Let’s start with a line level device. That could be a smartphone, a laptop, or something like that. To do this, I’ll be using a 3.5mm to dual 1/4-inch adapter.

You could connect your device to any of the 1/4-inch line inputs, but I recommend using one of the stereo inputs instead. The stereo inputs will help you to save space and control both the left and right channel with one channel strip on the mixer.

These adapters can really only be used for short distances. For longer distances, you’ll use a DI box.

Direct Box (DI Box)

A direct box or DI box can be used in a few different ways. First, let’s say you’ve got a presenter on stage who wants to play a video for the audience.

The distance from the laptop on stage to the mixer is just too far for the adapter that I just showed you. Instead, you should use a two-channel DI box like the Radial ProAV2 or a simple tool like the Rapco Horizon LTIBLOX.

DI boxes are also useful for instruments like electric guitar or bass. Just plug the instrument into the DI box and plug the DI box into the mixer.

Dynamic Microphone

Most microphones you’ll encounter in live production are dynamic microphones.

You can connect a dynamic mic directly into any of the XLR inputs.

Condenser Microphone

Condenser microphones are microphones that require an external power source and in most cases they’ll get power from the mixer through phantom power.

Some mixers have a phantom power switch for each input and other mixers have a single phantom power switch for all channels.

Step 6: Test System & Set Up Gain Structure

At this point, you should have everything connected. So let’s start to set up the gain structure and route some inputs to the speakers.

Pay special attention here, because this is where a lot of people make mistakes. By following the process I’m about to lay out for you, you’ll optimize the performance of your system and make your job a lot easier.

Set Master Fader To Unity Gain

I like to start with the volume level on the speakers or amplifiers turned all the way down. To start, set the master fader to unity or 0 dB.

Play Test Music

Next play some music on the phone or laptop that’s connected to the mixer.

Unmute the music channel and begin to bring the music channel fader to unity. You should start to see signal on the master level meter.

Adjust the volume level of the music player or the preamp knob at the top of the channel strip until the meter averages at about -6 dB.

If you don’t see any signal on the meters yet, you might need to select the “L-R” or “Main” button at the bottom of the channel strip to route the signal to the main output.

Adjust Speaker / Amplifier Output Level

With the music playing, start to turn up the volume knob on the speakers until the music is at an appropriate loudness level for the audience. I’d recommend erring on the side of too loud rather than too quiet here.

Once you’ve completed these steps, your system will be optimized to provide enough sound to the audience.

Set Input Fader To Unity Gain

For each microphone or other input, start with the fader at unity.

Setting the fader to unity means that it won’t be boosting or reducing the signal. It’ll just let the signal pass through and that’ll help to make sure that you don’t use unnecessary gain, which could make your job more difficult down the line.

Set Microphone Preamp Gain

With the channel fader set to unity on each channel, boost each signal to the appropriate level in the speakers by adjusting the preamp gain at the top of each channel.

Don’t pay too much attention to the meters here. Just boost each signal until it sounds loud enough in the room.

Ring Out Speakers With EQ

Through the course of boosting the level of each signal, you might start to experience some microphone feedback.

Now, remember that the further the speaker is from the microphone, the louder you’ll be able to boost that signal. But if feedback is still a problem, you can try using some high pass filters or EQ to reduce that feedback.

I created a post all about eliminating microphone feedback that might be helpful for you.

Audio Mixer Tutorial

If you want some help using your mixer, check out this post on using a mixing console. It will help you learn what each knob, button, and fader does. I know it can be intimidating, but you’ll see in that post that it’s a lot simpler than it looks!

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