This week we introduce Dr. Richard Seaby, our resident sound technician at Total Voice. Richard has been running our sound desks at rehearsals and performances for three years now and has a vast knowledge of all things technical. He has also experienced many different performance settings and challenges during his journey with us from which he has drawn lots of knowledge. In this first section he talks about the basics of sound equipment needed for choirs of a rock and pop style using backing tracks. In subsequent articles in this series he will also cover choirs using a pianist or live musicians as well as reviewing some top tech.
Unless you are a choir that always performs in venues where there is a resident sound engineer to do the work for you, it is likely that you will need some kind of sound kit for your choir when you perform. If like the Total Voice Contemporary Choir you use backing tracks then this will also be necessary for rehearsals. With audio equipment you can spend as much as you want although with budgets in mind, I will give you some guidelines about what is needed rather than what would be nice to have. Of course when you hit the big time you can splash out on whatever you want! I do sound work for both the Contemporary Choir and Chamber Choir at Total Voice which require different set ups. The Contemporary Choir have performed everywhere from big community halls to garden parties (in all weathers) and a large shopping centre. However although the logistics, temperatures and acoustics may vary, everything is based around the same technical set up.
A sound system is always composed of four main parts
If your choir is using backing tracks, the amount of kit required is related to the size of group and venue you are going to rehearse in. If you are just starting out, it is probably not worth investing in the kit needed to perform with yet. This can be hired, or many venues have or can get hold of the equipment needed.
For rehearsals the absolute minimum needed for a small group of singers is a reliable music player. What form this takes does not matter particularly, I use a laptop for rehearsals now but I have used IPod, IPad, phones and even old CD players. The quality of the backing track you use and the music player will matter in performance but are not essential in the early stages.
Once you have chosen a method to play your music, you then need it to be heard. If you are ten people in a small room a home stereo system might suffice, as long as it will play or connect to your music. However for a growing choir such an investment can be short lived as for any larger group this will be unwieldy and you should consider getting a more professional system. Indeed Christine quickly grew out of several different music players when she started Total Voice.
When looking at going from a simple home stereo to a more proffessional and larger capacity system there are three main options:
Combination Style Amplifiers and Speakers – In this setup, all the parts (mixer, amplifier and speakers), are included in the package. These come in two forms, a single speaker with a simple method of taking in signal from your audio player (and often several different sources, such as mics or guitars), which is all built into one box and aften fairly portable (ours has wheels and a suitcase like handle). Many have a battery built in so that you can operate it for a couple of hours without plugging it in as long as you have remembered to charge it!
Pros – Easy to manage if you are running your choir and also dealing with the sound. Portable and easy to use in small venues and rehearsal rooms. Useful in certain performance situations even after you have a full PA system, for example we sing in an old people’s home every Christmas where space is limited and we also do a walkaround. The speaker on wheels is ideal for this
Cons – Less flexibility than a full PA system. Mono sound. We have found battery can be unreliable and mains power ideal again restricting flexibility.
The second type of combination system is becoming more popular and comes with a central mixing/amplifier unit and detachable speakers.
Pros – Stereo sound, speakers can be spread out more, most of these system include a basic mixer.
Cons – More expensive than the first option, less portable.
The third type of system is a full PA. For larger choirs this is the best option as it has a proper dedicated mixing system with separate speakers, this allows you to match the amount of power needed from your speakers to the rehearsal or performance situation.
Pros – Flexible in a variety of situation, high quality sound, vocal effects are available to the singers, can be linked to other systems on location, is a good investment as it will grow with your choir.
Cons – Requires more technical knowledge, needs to be operated by a separate person, more equipment to carry around, move and store, requires more financial outlay upfront.
So that rounds up the first part of my tech know-how series. Next time I will be looking at each component making up the sound system; the music player, mixer, speakers and microphones and talking about different options for you. In the meantime I would love to hear from you if you have any music tech related questions.