A church PA system or “public address system” is an electronic sound amplification tool with a distribution system that has loudspeakers, an amplifier, and microphones. Any kind of system using a microphone and speakers is likely to be referred to as a PA system, although purists may choose an alternative term! In short, it is used to address a number of people at the same time, amplifying the voice or instruments of one or multiple people. A church PA system may also include a mixing console and amplifiers together with loudspeakers for music or for speech.
The quality of the church PA system will affect the quality of sound that people can hear. It isn’t always the case that the most expensive system is the best one. The PA system works by sending audio signals from an input (such as a microphone or an instrument or computer plugged into a cable) to an amplifier and then on to loudspeakers, potentially with a mixing desk somewhere in the middle. The sound that we hear from the speaker is not just the pure audio signal that was originally created, as there will also be a certain level of noise.
This noise is created by imperfections in cables and connections, as well as the quality of the speakers – and most importantly, the quality of the input. Unattended electric guitars can feed back, generating a low hum that builds into a squeal. While feedback can be used for dramatic effect by skilled guitar players, unwanted feedback can make a very loud noise that nobody wants to hear!
The best way to avoid feedback is to ensure that loudspeakers are placed in front of the band to eliminate the most common cause of feedback loops – speaker output being picked up by microphones or guitar pickups.
Aside from this, optimizing the sound and reducing hums and buzzes can be facilitated by choosing a mixing desk with EQ settings on it.
In a live music situation, the midrange of the EQ is where guitars will sit, whereas bass will be lower. Drums will spread across the range with cymbals being in the treble range, and voices can sit in different places depending on the singer. If you want to separate the sounds so each can be distinctly and separately heard, a graphic or parametric EQ is a good choice to make changes simply.
In addition to EQ, the master control section on a large live sound/recording mixer typically has sub-group faders, master faders, and other sliding controls. Smaller mixers will have rotary knobs instead to save space. Buttons to “solo” instruments or microphones are useful, especially for troubleshooting sound issues, as everything except a single input can be silenced. The opposite of this is a mute button, allowing the muting of a single channel (instrument or microphone) or muting the entire sound output.
Channels can be stereo or mono depending on the mixer. Connections to channels are often XLR, a standard cable type for good quality sound. However, many may have RCA or quarter-inch TRS phone connector line inputs. The number and type of inputs should be a prime consideration – if you have a band with multiple instruments, each one needs to plug in and ideally be individually adjustable. Small inexpensive mixers may only have one XLR input with the other inputs being line inputs, which is fine, but can significantly lower the quality of the sound.
Keep in mind that quality and volume are not the same thing. You can play something at a very high volume on a quality sound system and it still sounds good – loud, but good. On lower quality systems, there will be crackling, distortion, and plenty of headaches.
Even with lower-spec speakers, if the sound from the mixing desk is clean, the output will be clear, and the shortcomings of the speakers will be less evident. Speaker choice is also an important factor to consider for your church PA system as it isn’t all about the volume. Overpowered speakers in a small room will obviously produce unsatisfactory results, but overpowered speakers in a large room will also make it sound as though there is something missing.
Underpowered speakers will cause some people to be unable to hear properly, but it won’t necessarily be the back row. Human bodies absorb soundwaves, whereas walls and ceilings can reflect them. Those people in the middle, surrounded by other humans, may receive the fewest soundwaves. Not only is the size of the room and power of the speakers important, the SHAPE of the room is too.
An article on choosing the correct speaker setup will be posted soon, so check back here for more info.
Analog vs Digital PA Desks
While traditional PA mixing desks used sliders and knobs that are manually controlled, software mixing is heavily integrated as part of a digital audio workstation (DAW) or digital PA desk. This makes it easy for digital mixers to allow for extremely easy building of a mix from saved data – even if the system isn’t fully automated, pressing a button can change the mix instantly. If a band is playing several songs with different “feels” during a set, this can be invaluable.
Desks are even available without the traditional large control surface of the mixing console, with either no physical mixer fader bank at all, or alternatively a compact group of motorized faders. It’s a space-efficient solution, as well as being very convenient.
Recording via your Church PA Equipment
Recordings of live performances can be made directly from the mixing desk. While it isn’t the same as a fully installed recording studio, it’s a budget solution that does deliver great results. The mixing process can be performed on screen, using the built-in software and the associated input, output and recording hardware.
If you’re recording via a PC or Mac, you may need an external audio interface such as the FocusRite Scarlett 2i2.
Recording via your mixing desk and church PA system makes it a simple process to record podcasts as well as music. Remember, if you’re publishing a recording for access by the public, you need to ensure you have the appropriate licences in place for music and streaming.
Indoor or Outdoor Church PA System?
A church PA system can be an indoor or outdoor system depending on your requirements. For indoor services and events, a complete hardwired setup is most commonly installed. However, if you have more outdoor events or cannot install a permanent indoor system, you may need a portable or battery powered PA system.
When there are power sockets available, the best choice is a non-battery operated church PA system. If your events are mainly outdoors or in areas where a power socket is not easily accessible, then going for a battery operated PA system is the better choice. Being portable, you don’t need to fully install it, and can take it out of the room when it isn’t in use.
There are multiple types of microphone with a variety of uses and placements. This includes vocal mics, instruments mics, and room mics. The choice of microphones for your church PA system is beyond the scope of this article, but we’ll have a post up soon dedicated exclusively to microphones.
Choosing Your Church PA System
As with any other purchase, you want a church PA system that will provide great value for money while producing the best results. Measuring value for money is something only you can do, as whatever you choose must fit your requirements, and not the requirements of somebody else.
Every church building is unique, every church situation is unique, and the people who volunteer or work in a church are unique too. What’s perfect for one church is not suitable at all for another – a megachurch PA system will never be suitable for a 1,000 year old building in a small village.
We hope this article has given you a small insight into some of the issues you need to look for when choosing a church PA system. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll be adding more detailed information about each aspect of church PA systems in their own individual articles, so please check back for more.