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Perspective: Sound System Shopping Summertime Blues

Mike Lawson • • May 9, 2016

Summer is upon us. This is when all that training as a musician I had as a kid gets put to use when my band gets to play summer gigs for fun and occasional profit. I need a new PA sound system. I’m also on a budget. Sound familiar?

This time, its personal. When my band plays out, typically the sound system is provided, so I haven’t had to think about providing sound for quite a while. However, a set of shows was recently offered at the right price with me providing audio production. I’m not as P.A. rich as I am over-indulged on guitars, microphones for my studio, peripherals like cables, and terabytes of software and samples. I’ve got an ancient Crate 8-channel P.A. mixer amp that is woefully underpowered and a set of their 1-15 P.A. cabinets. I’ve also got four old giant touring cabinets in road cases in my garage that I haven’t used in some years. My late friend Bob Welch, who used them for touring side fills and rehearsal PA, gave them to me. They take up a sizable amount of room in my garage. To use them, I need power amps. I need a new mixer. I need floor wedge monitors. I need new cabling and probably a road case to put stuff in. And don’t even get me started on my lack of lighting.

I began my sound system purchase odyssey online, where everyone goes these days. My, the world has changed. It wasn’t so long ago you could get a big packaged system from any number of suppliers. These days it seems more a la cart. On top of that, everything is different. Speakers, monitors? They’re largely self-powered these days, obsoleting the concept of separate power amps in a rack. Surely a constant would be mixers, right? Nope. Sure, you can buy an old-school analog mixer and connect it directly to powered speakers, or to power amps and then to the speakers, but so many manufacturers are now tempting me with these small, knob-less rack-mountable boxes with up to 18 inputs, aux outputs for multiple monitor mixes, and WiFi.

Wait, what? WiFi? In my mixer? What’s that for? These really cool and compact little mixers, basically the box of I/O (that’s inputs and outputs), are now using virtual faders and control of DSP (that’s digital signal processing, for effects like delay, reverb, compression, limiting, et cetera) using a tablet like an iPad or Android-powered tablet controlling their mixing abilities with an app.

It’s a lot to take in. It raises questions. Like, why do I feel so old? These digital mixers aren’t so inexpensive that they can be tossed aside and easily replaced when the companion tech that the sound companies don’t make, that is, the tablets, laptops, and phones, no longer support the hardware. As absolutely cool as it is to be able to connect everything you need in one small box and then walk around with the mixer in your hand via an iPad, what happens when the iPad not longer supports the software running the app the sound system companies give away with these fancy Wi-Fi mixer boxes? I don’t want to embarrass some companies whose products I’ve seen in my P.A. quest by calling them out for not thinking of some of this, you can figure it out yourself when you see a table-top mixer that runs o of an iPad with a 30-pin connector, something phased out a few years ago when the Lightning connector came along.

Technology is constantly changing. Some things will be good investments and used for several years, but nothing in the musical instrument world ages worse than digital audio equipment, which ages like ne sweat socks. Some tech is critical, modernly unavoidable and will always eventually get upgraded, but computer manufacturers can devalue something overnight if said manufacturer decides to modernize a protocol that is working for everyone. Case in point, those mixers that use 30pin iPad connections were obsoleted when Apple released Lightning connectors. And when Apple decides that connectors are bad in general, manufacturers will be left trying to figure out other ways to connect musical peripherals to iOS devices, and Lightning connectors will be obsolete.

I guess the point of this rant is to exercise caution when spending your program’s tech dollars. Computers, software, hardware, it will always grow obsolete sometimes before you’re done paying it off, as is expected. But non-computer items? Choose wisely when buying items for your program like P.A. sound systems, because today’s really cool tool to walk around controlling your sound with from a tablet or phone may become a big doorstop sooner than you think, and perhaps that good old-fashioned analog mixer would have been the better long-term purchase.

Who am I kidding? I’ll buy the gadgets and tech stuff, I can’t help it. I know better, but I can’t help it.

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