By TJ Cornish, March 2015
(This page is a work in progress)
From time to time I get asked what audio equipment I recommend. This can be challenging, as people’s needs and budget vary so much, and many folks have a hard time articulating their expectations since audio quality is subjective. Hopefully over time this page will evolve to be more complete, but for the present, I’m targeting groups of 150 - 500 people in attendance with what I consider a moderate budget - $20,000 - $40,000 for a complete portable system. This page deals with individual components. I have also put together a complete turnkey system.
People seeking a permanently installed system may find value from some items on this page, but please don’t look here for suggestions for flown main speakers. Speakers designed for portable use are rarely the right fit for a permanent installation. Installed systems really need to be designed to the space, and folks shopping for such a system should really work with an experienced sound designer and installer.
Before jumping to spending money, take some time to determine if you have an equipment problem, or if you may be able to get where you want to go by changing how you use what you already have.
Elements That Effect Sound Quality (greatest to least):
- Quality of musicianship on stage
- Stage volume
- Room acoustics
- Skill of the sound operator
- Speaker placement
- Speaker quality
- Microphone quality
- Everything else
When you do spend money, try to spend it on things at the top of the above list. For example, spending $2000 on room treatment will likely give you more of an improvement than spending $2000 on microphones.
Note: I am not in the business of selling equipment. The equipment on this page is listed here because either I have used it personally and have found it to work well, or know other people who have used this equipment and found it to work well. All links below are to the manufacturer’s websites. I receive no compensation of any kind for these recommendations; this page is offered as a public service.
Of all the equipment in your system, speakers have the greatest influence on the sound quality of your system. Thankfully, this is one area where technology has really made a difference - particularly in the last few years. Most people are best off with self-powered speakers, as they are pre-tuned so they sound great out of the box, and are also well protected against damage due to overload.
Yamaha DSR-112 ($900) - This is a great sounding medium range main speaker. It is well behaved and appropriate for many medium-sized situations. Pairing this with a subwoofer like the QSC KW-181 makes a great sounding full-range system (Though Yamaha makes a DSR-series sub, it is not up to the standards of the rest of the DSR line - the KW-181 is a better sub). If you use a subwoofer, the DSR-112 is preferable to the DSR-115, as the DSR-112 handles upper-midrange frequencies a little better than the 15” DSR-115. The DSR-115 has slightly more low-end, however that is better covered by the subwoofer.
EV ETX-12P ($1200) - This speaker is slightly more powerful than the Yamaha DSR-112 and has onboard EQ as well as presets for use with the matching subwoofer. The ETX series, along with the Yamaha DSR series and the JBL SRX800P series, are the latest generation speakers that use a technique called FIR processing, which solves a lot of sound quality issues in software. The result is a great sounding box with better gain before feedback, and better sound quality than older speakers.
EV ETX-18SP ($1500) - This is the matching subwoofer to the ETX-12P, and used together, they form a complete, aligned system that sounds great right out of the box.
QSC K10/K12 ($700, $800) - These boxes are lighter in weight than the Yamaha DSR-112 and can do dual duty as a monitor wedge or main speaker. They don’t sound quite as good as the Yamaha DSR-112, however the K10 is a really useful box considering its small size. The K-Sub is not recommended - the KW-181 is a better sub.
QSC KW-181 Subwoofer ($1400) - This sub sounds great and is a good value. It has more output than the Yamaha DSR-118X. Normally it’s a better idea to match system components, but in this case, the DSR-112/KW-181 is a better combo than an all DSR or all KW system.
Alto SXM112a ($300) - This is an inexpensive coaxial monitor speaker that sounds great for its very low price. Coaxial speakers are desirable for use as monitor wedges as the pattern is more consistent as the musician moves around. This box is not super loud. It’s fine for a contemporary worship service, but may not be up for Rock & Roll.
In-ear monitoring can be done wirelessly or wired. While it’s convenient to be wireless for some positions such as vocalists where wiring to the front of the stage could be problematic, others are fine with a wired setup, including drums, keyboards, and possibly guitar and bass. Don’t let the high cost of an all wireless in-ear system keep you from getting started with in-ears.
Sennheiser EW 300-2 IEM G3 ($1200) - The Sennheiser EW300 series IEM system is the entry-level standard for wireless IEMs. Each transmitter can support up to two body packs if run in mono (focus) mode, bringing the cost per user to $600 - $800, depending on quantity.
Sennheiser AC 3 and A2003-UHF ($1000) - This is an antenna combiner system and remote antenna that enable up to four Sennheiser EW 300 series transmitters to share the same antenna and prevent interference between multiple transmitters. This equipment is highly recommended if multiple transmitters will be near each other.
Behringer Power Play P1 ($50) - This is a basic headphone amp that accepts a line-level feed from your mixing board and provides a level control and optional stereo operation. It runs on a 9V battery or can be plugged in. This is a great starting point for your drummer or anyone else not needing to move around too much.
The secret of in-ear monitoring is the isolation that in-ear buds offer, keeping the stage wash out and the desirable mix in. Buds are fragile, and pretty personal - they get put in our ears. Ideally, each musician should purchase their own set. That ensures that they are well cared for, and each musician can choose how much to invest. There are many choices of earbuds, from nearly disposable, to very expensive custom-molded. Sound quality is affected both by how well the buds seal to lock out ambient sound, as well as the quality of the driver.
Disposable-grade ($6!) - These are very inexpensive, but they are isolating buds, and are passable. They won’t last as long as more expensive buds, but at $6, you can afford a few spares.
Shure SE-215 ($100) - These sound better than the super-disposable Monoprice ones, and also have replaceable cables, which is usually where failure occurs.
Shure SM58 ($90) - The standard for decades. A good sounding, rugged mic that’s predictable.
Heil PR35 ($275) - A dynamic microphone that has the sensitivity of a condenser. Sounds particularly great on male vocals. A good value mic.
Shure SM86 ($180) - A little bit of a sleeper - this mic should be more popular than it is.
Shure KSM9 ($700) - An expensive microphone with switchable pickup patterns. This isn’t a starter microphone, but sounds great on any vocal.
Shure SM57 - ($90) Like its sibling the SM58, the SM57 has been the go-to standard instrument mic for decades. Nearly indestructible and inexpensive.
Sennheiser e906 ($190) - A great guitar amp mic. This mic picks up a lot more detail than the SM57. The e906 sounds better than its little brother the e609.
Shure Beta 91A ($240) - Kick drum microphone with some pre-tailored EQ. Requires a hole in the resonant kick drum head. This is improved over the previous version (Beta 91) in that it now accepts a full-size XLR cable, rather than the somewhat fragile micro cable of the previous version. I like this because it saves a mic stand and doesn’t clutter the drum kit. This also works well in a Cajon.
Shure Beta 52A ($190) - A popular kick drum mic that doesn’t require a hole in the resonant head. It’s large. If you have a hole in your kick head, I would recommend the Beta 91A over the Beta 52.
Heil Handi Mic Pro Plus ($110) - This is a nice snare and tom mic. It’s very small and sounds good. Unlike some other tom mics, this one accepts full-sized XLR cables.
Audix DVICE ($25) - This is a tom/snare mic gooseneck clip/stand that works well with the Heil Handi Mic Pro Plus. It’s very small and connects to the rim of the drum (this is a microphone stand, not a microphone).
Audio-Technica AT4041 ($250) - A small diaphragm condenser mic that’s good for overheads, hi-hat, and acoustic instruments.
Audio-Technica Pro-37 ($130) - An inexpensive small diaphragm condenser mic. Doesn’t sound quite as good as the AT4041 but is less expensive.
Allen & Heath QU Series ($2000 - $3800) - The Qu series ranges from the 22 channel QU-16 to the 38 channel Qu-32. These are straightforward, easy to use digital mixers with full recall. There is a digital snake option. The Qu series supports 4 mono and 3 stereo monitor sends onboard, and has a personal monitor mixing system option that provides remote pods for band members to mix their own feed. The Qu series can record the stereo bus to a USB flash drive and supports multi-track recording to a hard drive.
Behringer X-32 ($2800) - The X-32 series offers up to 40 input channels and up to 8 stereo or 16 mono mix outputs. The X-32 series has a digital snake option. The X-32 series is more complicated than the Qu series, but is more flexible. Like the Qu series, the X-32 has a personal monitor mixing system option providing mixing pods for band members.