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Why You Should Learn How To Run A PA System

23 Jun Posted by in Blog | Comments
Why You Should Learn How To Run A PA System

Have you ever played an open mic and you couldn’t hear your vocals? Or maybe they were drowned out by your guitar?

Have you ever tried getting a little more volume out of your guitar but it wouldn’t stop feeding back? Or maybe the guitar sounded good, but the vocal mic was feeding back in the monitors?

Have you played an open mic where your guitar sounded fuzzy and distorted even though you wanted it to be crisp and clean? Or your vocals were really boomy or harsh?

Have you been listening to a songwriter presenting their latest masterpiece but were unable to understand the words? Or the vocals were so loud to be heard over the guitar that the whole sound was mucky and harsh?

As a performer or a host, knowing how to run a basic PA system is invaluable toward getting the best performance and the best response from the audience. Imagine if you were listening to the radio but it was really quiet and distorted. How would you know if you liked the song that was playing if you couldn’t really hear it clearly?

I’ve played many open mics where the host had very little knowledge about running sound and as a result the music was imbalanced, distorted, glitchy, obnoxious, or worse. I rarely return to an open mic with poor sound, so if you are one of those people running a show, and you are trying to build a faithful following, then knowing how to produce good sound should be very important to you. It has been my experience that many seasoned professionals think that they know how to run sound, but have been doing it poorly for many years.

If you have no formal training in sound, then it is likely that you are making mistakes that adversely affect the quality of your sound. How drastic these mistakes are can affect the sound slightly or very much. A basic understanding of the fundamentals of running live sound, which you can learn in an afternoon, can make a HUGE difference in the overall quality of your presentation. The great news is that you do not need a degree in sound engineering to run PA for live applications. A few simple concepts can make a profound difference.

Also, as a performer, understanding the basics of running sound can help you to provide a quality signal to the person who is running sound, and make it much easier for them to create an excellent mix. You’ve spent years learning to play your instrument, learning to use your voice effectively, learning to write excellent lyrics and melodies over compelling chord progressions. Doesn’t it seem worthwhile to learn how to present all these skills in a more attractive way?

There are a few basic concepts that radically influence the quality of the sound that comes out of the speakers. Here are a few of the most important:


The most important idea is that you want a strong (but not too strong) signal at each step of the chain, from the mic or instrument, through the mixing board and into the amplifier, and finally out of the speakers. The technical term for the strength of the signal is ‘gain’. Properly managing the gain of your signal prevents distortion, feedback, hum and hiss, and other artifacts that make your sound less than optimal. Managing gain is a fairly simple process if you understand the signal chain and the steps involved but is the most common mistake that seasoned professionals make through simple ignorance. Don’t be that person, learn to manage the gain through your signal chain.


Another common mistake is poor equalization of the signal. Poor EQ can cause voices to be boomy, harsh, or weak, and cause guitars to feedback, distort, or sound thin. Simple EQ concepts can also heighten the separation between voices and instruments and help them both be heard more clearly at lower volumes. Learn a little about this process and some simple steps to achieve more pleasing sounds.


Another simple concept that can help everybody sound better and feel better about their performance is knowing how to set monitors. The general idea here is that you should only provide the performer with the sound that they need, which is often mostly vocals. You cannot sing accurately if you cannot hear yourself. Including the guitar or keys may be less important because it is likely that the performer can hear their instrument directly. That’s not to say that you should provide only vocals, but providing more vocals than instruments is one way of getting the performer(s) the needed sound support while avoiding feedback. At the same time, the performer needs to be able to hear the instruments well enough to sing in tune with them, so getting a reasonable balance is important. Fortunately, a little knowledge and practice can make a significant improvement.

A few other important concepts are:

  • Prevent pops and bangs when turning equipment on and off
  • Avoid clicks and pops when plugging and unplugging instruments and mics
  • Treat microphones properly to avoid damage, feedback, ‘proximity effect’ and other unwanted artifacts
  • Place speakers for maximum effectiveness

If you THINK you know how to run sound but have had any of these problems and didn’t know how to solve them, then you should probably take a few hours and learn to run a PA system. It’s not very difficult if you understand the basic concepts. Without that knowledge it is difficult to avoid common mistakes. Don’t be that person; your audience will be happier, your performers will be happier, and you will be happier.


Griffin is an experienced author, songwriter, performer, and recording engineer/producer. Hear his music at

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