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  • 1.  Sound Equipment Purchasing

    Posted 11-18-2021 14:23
    Sorry for long post but I need guidance on purchasing sound equipment.

    We are a fairly new high school theater department and we have been renting our sound equipment for each show and it's not cheap! I have decided to purchase our own equipment to save money down the road. I am in a small town and our small stage is in a small gym. The acoustics are horrible and the school keeps saying they are going to put up sound panels to help but they have yet to do that.

    I was told by the person we rent the sound equipment from that we shouldn't have more than four floor mics and eight body mics. Not sure why this is the limit but that is what I was told. It would be nice if we could do a few more body mics though.

    I know we need a mixer (13 channel minimum so we can connect a laptop for sound effects), digital snake, speakers/stands, 4 floor mics, and 8 wireless body mics. I know how it all works and how to hook it all up, I just need help with what to purchase. The problem is that there is so much out there to choose from! I got a quote from the person we rented from and he said $40,000 for everything we need. I have priced stuff on my own and it ranges from super cheap to super expensive. I know you "get what you pay for" so I don't want to do cheap but $40,000 seems horrendously expensive! I don't know what brands are good and what is "crap". I don't know if $40,000 is a good price or if he just wants me to keep renting from him. 

    I searched this forum and found a couple of posts that helped a little but both were over 5 years ago so I thought I would ask for help and see if anyone can give me more updated info. What brands have worked for you? What price range is good? Where do you purchase this stuff from? What am I forgetting? What else do I need?

    Any help you can give is appreciated!!


    Amy Williams
    District Librarian/Theater Teacher
    Thespian Troupe #8881
    Auburn High School
    Auburn, IL

  • 2.  RE: Sound Equipment Purchasing

    Posted 11-19-2021 08:41
    Hello!   I too am in a small school on a small stage, but thankfully not in a small gym. (AND I'm a Librarian/Theatre teacher too!! Thought I was on my own out there!) I ordered sound equipment for our historic auditorium two years ago, and have been pretty happy with the set up.  I already had the 18 channel mixer, a Behringer X Air X18 and a rolling roadie hard case that doubles as a sound table when opened up (Amazon). Then when I received a larger lump sum through multiple grants, I contacted They were wonderful to work with in the whole process, and their prices are pretty comparable to what you find on Amazon. I wanted 12 body microphones.  After much discussion with them I ended up with a Shure receiver/transmitter setup with Countryman lavalier mics. Then I just build my own custom ear rigs each year for the kids. I'll be happy to send you the specifics on that if you would like, but they checked the frequencies for my areas (and my traveling areas) and compatibility for me. Which was really nice because I have no clue what I am doing! My total for the 12 mic set ups, and two new speakers (with rolling cases) was around $8,000, so if you add in my rolling case and mixer, and monitor speaker, I probably have about a $9,500 set up altogether, stands, carrying cases, cords, everything. (We have a local company that the school has used forever too, and they would have been significantly more too! So I saved a ton being willing to learn enough about it to set it all up myself.)

    It has worked perfectly for us for two seasons now in our auditorium and sounds great!  I have a dad that is also a DJ that has helped fine tune the mixer for us this year, and he says he really likes the set up and the capabilities of it (the software is on an ipad). He has played around with it quite a bit, which I am very grateful for...but it was also easy enough for me to figure it out enough (with the help of some Youtube tutorials) to make it work before then. 

    The only issues I have experienced with it is when we traveled with it for our region and state competitions.  At region, we had wireless issues with our mixer connecting to the ipad. Something in their building interfered with our connection, maybe other devices or their power.  We have now fixed that with a hard wired router.   And at the state competition, their stage was so wide, our mics lost signal the further the performers moved away from our case.  So we will remedy that with purchasing stronger antennas for the next season.  We have also had one receiver that is not working this year, and one transmitter that we are now worried about.  But I figured that there would be some faulty things here and there each season to have to work through and spend more money on. So you will need a cash reserve to keep your system running, unfortunately.  

    Kudos for your work and your drive to take on this for the sake of your students!  Sound was a major set back for us too, and I am grateful to now have our system.  We've packed our little auditorium all season this year and have had no complaints about not being able to hear the kids (and this year we did a musical with underscoring throughout), so that is huge! Best wishes!

    Analiese Hamm
    ECHS Drama Director
    Echols County High School
    Statenville GA

  • 3.  RE: Sound Equipment Purchasing

    Posted 11-20-2021 09:19
    Amy - this too will be a long post ...

    I have been designing and installing/selling sound systems for theatre and churches since the late 70s so I think I know a thing or two.

    If you give me a budget from $5,000 to 500,000 I can "design" a sound system to fit the budget. One that may or may not exactly meet your desired outcome and with reliability that may or may not make you happy.

    The point is that throwing money at sound system choices is not always - and usually wont - provide you with a solution that works to meet the needs you have.

    Any set of brand name (and many/most off-brand) components will "work".  Whether they provide a natural sounding result that is evenly distributed throughout the listening area and with sufficient headroom (that is level before feedback) is a completely different question.

    I have heard low budget systems that have worked in a particular situation and I have heard high budget systems using all the "best" product that sound simply awfully.

    Two likely reasons
    • it maybe matches what he has and or is comfortable using
    • in his experience that is all the "open mics" - number of microphones turned on at any one time - that he can use before he runs out of headroom before the system starts feeding back (squealing like a stuck pig).

    If the first, you can ignore his advice entirely if you have someone competent to run the system
    If the second - which is likely if he is competent - then the restrictions are based on a combination of the room's acoustics and the speaker system characteristics and placement.

    I will try and deal with the following:
    • The Space
    • Speaker Selection and Location
    • Sound Board/Mixing Console/Mixer
    • Wireless Microphones
    • Floor Mics and Hanging Mics


    What you describe is both common and a disaster from an audio viewpoint.

    The biggest problem is the hard walls and floor - if the walls have mats on them (as many do) that can help a lot. These hard surfaces reflect the sound straight back at the stage (that back wall is the biggest culprit) which increases the likely-hood of feedback

    This is simply physics at work - the more open mics and the more reflected sound the more chance there is of feedback.  As we double the number of open microphones we reduce the safe working environment in the space by 3db, so if with a single mic we can get a maximum volume of say 102 dBSPL before our battle with feedback begins
    then with
    • 2 this drops to 99dBSPL
    • 4 this drops to 96dBSPL
    • 8 this drops to 93dBSLP
    • 16 down to 90dBSPL

    The reflections from the side walls and floor may or may not contribute to feedback, but the will decrease the intelligibility of the speech/lyrics.  For school plays the desire of most of the audience is to hear the voice of their performer, and whether they can easily understand the words is of little conseqence, but if you want your audience to hear the message that the playwright was trying to get across then this becomes a major issue.

    The schools "Sound Panels" if properly specified and installed will help greatly with reducing the reflections.

    In the meantime ... purchase or rent some "pipe and drape" - the sort of thing used at trade shoes to separate the booths, except you will want something that is 16ft high and uses heavy velvet/velveteen curtains.  Use these to "enclose" the seating area - helps to create an intimate atmosphere too.  The more you have the less exposed wall and the less reflections.  At least cover that back wall.  60ft of "pipe and drape" takes 2 people about 30 minutes to erect once they know what they are doing.

    Not all speakers are created equal!  There is a reason why even a simple speaker type may range in price from $200 to $20,000.  The main differences are
    • naturalness of the output - does it sound like the original voice or instrument across the full range
    • intelligibility - is it as easy to understand as the person  or does it seem you have to concentrate more to hear the actual words
    • distortion (lack of homogeneous sound) at the crossover point between whatever is handle the bottom end vs. the higher frequencies
      • most 2 way boxes have a crossover point smack dab in the middle of the vocal range (between 1000 and 1500Hz typically)
      • unless they use very high quality crossovers (passive or active) the sound wll seen to change tonal quality as the vocal transitions from being handled by the cone speaker to the horn speaker
    • power handling, maximum undistorted volume
    For theatre I am a firm believer in the use of small cone speaker  columns (now commonly called vertical line arrays for natural sounding vocals.  This is another physics question and is based on how a loudspeaker reproduces sounds of different frequencies.  The larger the diameter of the speaker handling the voice the more complex the actions of the cone to produce a particular note, and the more likely (especially over time) for that to introduce distortions to the sound (not usually harshness, but a loss of naturalness.  Since the late 70s I have used column speakers with subwoofers for theatre events and now it seems the speaker manufacturers are getting on that trend.

    The other major advantage of any line array design (whether columns or those big clusters used in concert arenas and on broadway) is the controlled dispersion.  This helps us direct the sound at the audience and not fill the space above their heads with unnecessary energy (which also hs an effect on how loud  the system can get without feedback.  Most 2 or 3 way speaker boxes utilize horns to handle the higher frequencies and control the directivity of the box - these are most commonly 90 degrees wide by 60-70 vertically.  A column line array is usually 120-120 wide x 20-30 degrees vertical, which results in a much more targeted beam of sound which can be directed to the audience and not into unoccupied spaces.

    For portable systems all the major manufacturers have suitable systems that comprise a subwoofer with the amplifier built in, and a column that mounts on top.  With the sub on the floor the column center is at about head height.  The once worth considering range from $800 to $2,000 per side.  I personally like the JBL PRX ONE at around $3,000 and have had great success with their previous model the JBL EON ONE  a pairand with the Turbosound IP2000.  Models from Bose, RCF, EV and LD Systems are also worth looking at.

    Permanent versions have a major advantage:
    • The columns can be mounted high on the wall allowing to sound to be aimed at the whole seating area
      • The height means the sound level between the first row and the last row is much closer to the same volume than floor mounted solutions
      • Bear in mind that our brains expect the volume to be lower the further back from the source and to some extent compensate, so you do not need the levels to be equal front and back to achieve acceptable results - otherwise we would have to give each person their own speaker.  Our sub-conscious brains are very clever.
    These are on the whole more expensive as you need the column array, mounting hardware, subwoofer/s for bass and power amplifiers (maybe in the subwoofer), plus cabling.  Suitable columns range from $400-$2500 each and subs (without amps) in the range of $400 to $1000 and then another $1000-2500 for good power amps.

    If you want to stick with the idea of a 2 way box on a stick (speaker stand) don't buy cheap - the least I would look at would be the QSC K series or the JBL 600 series.  The smaller the cone driver is the better.  A 3 way box will handle the vocals more honestly, but there are few available.

    If you ever think you may need to control more than 12 channels, I would seriously advise the use of a Digital Mixing Console.  Having said that these cover a large range of devices from simple iPad controlled boxes to a Broadway 80 channels half million dollar solution.
    • A board with real "Flying Faders" is easier to control that something based on a computer or ipad.  Also more expensive
    • You want something that will provide you with ample "scene memories" so that you can get each scene (which may or may not match the scenes in the script - usually not) set up in tech rehearsal, and come show time you just have to press next and make minor tweaks, usually just to volume when an actor goes quiet or decides to yell their line.
    • Have enough channels to be useable as you input needs grow (and from experience I will guarantee they will grow).  eiither with plenty of on board mic pre-amps or the ability to add additional "digital stageboxes"via CAT 5/6 ethernet cables.
    Our favorite at the moment is the Soundcraft Si Impact - this has 32 on-board mic preamps, digital scribble strips (allows you to label/color-code each input), flying faders, add expansion digital stahge boxes, ability to control up to 48 simultaneous inputs, iPad control and 100+ scene memories - Runs around $3,500.  There are similar units from Allen and Heath and Presonus that are worth considering too.  If you think you will never need more than 16 input channels (including mics, sound effects, backing tracks, walk-in-walk-out music I would look at the Allen & Heath SQ16 or QU16 and the Soundcraft Si Expression 1.

    This is likely he most expensive part of of a theatre sound system, it is also the most complex and most likely to give you heartburn.

    There is almost no limit to the number of wireless microphones that can be used in a single location - at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 my previous company used over 100 wireless and another 50 wireless intercom chanels for the opening and closing ceremonies.  They repeated this in the Beijing Olympics with even more.  The limitations on how many is money and headroom (level before feedback - I think this is were your sound guy was coming from).

    For you the first consideration is "will I need to grow how many I need over time". From experience I would suggest over the life of the mixer (7-10 years) you will likely double the number wireless you start with.

    Because of our ever increasing need that our cellphones become supercomputers, the wireless carriers will continue to ask for more and more bandwidth .  we have already lost the 600MHz and 700MHz bands and I suspect we will lose more in the next decade.  This means we need to squeee more channels into ever decreasing space.  To this end we have almost entirely upgraded our 500 rental systems to Shures digital audio over UHF series (SLXD, QLXD, ULXD).  These systems allow more channels to fit in a given space.  Even with the entry level SLXD we are able to get 50-60 channels to play nice in even the toughest RF markets (NYC, LA)

    These units also sound better.  Sennheiser also released a quality digital audio over UHF model recently.  The entry price of the SLXD system with bodypack is around $700 plus microphone. This is most likely what I would recommend for your program.  These systems rent for around $600 for 8 channels with mics first week the 8% per extra day (this includes shipping to you and back to us).

    • RENT vs BUY
    • Because of the relatively high aquisition cost and high maintenance of wireless systems unless you are using the whole system 3-4 times a year it is generally better use of resources to rent the wireless and spend your capital on the "best" sound system for your space that you can afford.

    While adding floor or hanging mics is the easy way to "capture" the sound from the chorus or minor players, it is fraught with problems.

    I love a combination of floor and hanging mics for straight plays where everyone has reasonable projection skills - in this case it becomes an equal opportunity vocal lift - everyone still sounds like they should and the audience can hear more easily.

    When combined with wireless systems on the "important" cast members the difference in sound quality and tone between the haves and the have-nots creates a theatrical apatheid where some are more equal than others.  If any of these "have-nots" have lines and are not just a chorus this difference is even more exaggerated.  If you can't mic every one with a line, then choreograph it so that are close to someone wearing a mic and teach them to project, or have a handheld mic that they use (works well in crowd scenes when they are just a voice).  If you are trying to capture the chorus, use a rotating trio/quartet that gather around a stand mic/or two - eventually all the parents will hear the progeny, and the entire show will have  the same sound.

    If you choose to "share" wireless systems, always have each actor who will get a transmitter pack during the show fitted with their own microphone, which then can be connected to the shared transmitter as required.  This results in faster transfers and less microphones becoming dislodged once the actor enters the stage and hence useless - lost count of how many times I have seen this.  Really messes with the flow of the show.

    Please feel free to contact me directly or via this forum

    In summary there are as many answers to your questions as there are sound gurus - you have to chose which factors are most important to address

    I am pretty sure the $40,000 is one the high side for a portable quality system with your current spec, but if I used the "best of everything I could certainly get there.
    My take:
        4x Crown PCC160 floor mics
        8x Shure SLXD14 wireless systems, with antenna distro and racked ready to use
       10x Bodymics Broadway earsets or lav/cheek/hair microphones for wireless bodypacks
        1x Soundcraft Si Impact 32 channel digital mixer with road case
        1x Soundcraft mini Stage box 16 - to plug in floor mixs and outputs to speaker system
        1x 100ft Tactical Cat 6 cable (stagebox to mixer)
        2x JBL PRX One vertical line array systems with sub. column and built in power amp
        set of XLR Cables from PCC160 and to speakers
        1x case for cables and PCC160

    TOTAL AROUND $24,000 - not a quote but a guide to a good mid-range portable solution

    Using lower cost analog wireless and a 16 ch digital and a smaller speaker systems it would be about half that

    See no easy answers
    Hope this provides some insight

    Rod Reilly
    Owner, Bodymics
    Somerset NJ

  • 4.  RE: Sound Equipment Purchasing

    Posted 11-21-2021 12:47

    $40K for a school sound system is low - even in a smaller space. And it sounds like you need acoustical treatments on your walls, too, otherwise it doesn't matter how much you spend on the system, it's still going to sound bad. 

    I you're going to buy a package, you want to future-proof and have some spares so 12 mics minimum, plus another 4 lines for computer, piano, etc. And that's on the absolute smallest end assuming you never do a show with more than 10 people. 

    Often, the loudspeakers are a big part of the problem. 

    Ask AV companies from the area (St Louis isn't too far from you) to come in and bid on the project. Make certain an "EASE" model is part of it and you get the acoutsical panels installed. Your sports fans will thank you, too. 

    Kristi Ross-Clausen
    IATSE 470/Actors Equity
    Alliance for Wisconsin Theatre Education
    Stage Managers Association Board
    Teacher, Author, Speaker
    Appleton, WI

  • 5.  RE: Sound Equipment Purchasing

    Posted 11-22-2021 11:23
    If I was to put on my Audio Installer/Consultant cap - and I did exactly this work for 25 years in Australia before emigrating to the US - I would be thinking along the same lines as Kristi.  In a perfect world the School Board would have no problem
    • Hiring a qualified Acoustical Engineer with a specialty in audio and not a/c vibration at a fee of $5,000-25,000
    • Putting out tenders for his suggested acoustical treatments which are likely to run $25,000 to $125,000 depending on the rooms acoustical characteristics - if they start talking multiple bass traps (which likely will be necessary in the average gym) - expect the costs to sky-rocket.
    • Hire a qualified audio installation consultant - it may be the same firm as the acoustical Engineers, but that is rarely a good idea unless they have a great track record of both - another $5,000 plus 15% of install cost or similar.  Their recommendations if they value their reputation will normally specify a system in the range $80,000 to $200,000.
    • Hire a competent contractor to install - not an electrician, not the lowest bid, not a friend of a staff member - check their other work
    All that being said, on this forum I address the needs of the average school theatre department that never seems to have enough resources and are treated like the red-headed step-child (I guess in the current cancel culture I should find a less offensive simile) and so put forth my proven real world low cost solutions  that work well enough to improve
    • coverage of the audience area, - CAN I HEAR
    • intelligibility - CAN I UNDERSTAND 

    I would be ecstatic to live in a world where every theatre department had a first class theatre that was properly acoustically treated with a well designed sound system and top of the range wireless microphones in unlimited numbers, and a full-time staff to run and train students in the proper use, but sadly .......

    I think any system installed or used as a portable, should have a minimum of
    • 16 ch mixer  digital mixer with 100 scene memories ( strongly recommend 24)
    • core of 12 wireless microphones - rent extras, fun-raise for extras etc
      • for future proofing I would go with digital audio over UHF with the ability to run at least 32 simultaneously
    • speaker system based around small cone drivers and subwoofers, with very well controlled dispersion characteristics.

    Rod Reilly
    Owner, Bodymics
    Somerset NJ

  • 6.  RE: Sound Equipment Purchasing

    Posted 11-23-2021 08:37
    Thank you everyone!! Very useful information. I feel better prepared to go forward with this project.

    Amy Williams
    District Librarian/Theater Teacher
    Thespian Troupe #8881
    Auburn High School
    Auburn, IL

  • 7.  RE: Sound Equipment Purchasing

    Posted 12-02-2021 23:25

    Thanks for posting. I too learned a lot from this thread.

    Crit Fisher
    Lighting/Sound Designer
    New Albany High School

  • 8.  RE: Sound Equipment Purchasing

    Posted 12-10-2021 05:41
    "The acoustics are horrible".  This needs to be brought under control, or all the money in the world isn't going to buy you functioning sound system.  Gyms are difficult spaces to tame, but it is doable.  Get an independent acoustical consultant involved that understands theatre spaces (surprisingly, many acoustical consultants don't).  They can assess the acoustical properties and noise characteristics of the space and create a specification and drawings package that can be competitively bid for installation.  Once that design process is complete and the room acoustics (and possibly the HVAC system noise) can be a known good part of the process, then you can hire a good independent audio systems consultant to create a set of drawings and specifications for your sound and production communications systems.  Occasionally, you can find a good consultant that understands both room acoustics & noise control AND sound systems, and this can save some design costs.  Be aware that not all sound system designers understand acoustics and noise control, and not all acousticians can do sound systems design.

    It is possible that the show production sound system and the sports sound system can share some components and the system is automatically reconfigured at the press of a button to serve either situation.  This lets both sets of users enjoy a better environment.

    The key to a successful project is to hire someone knowledgeable to figure-out what you need and develop a budget requirement to achieve that goal.  Don't let an unrealistic budget control the project (tail wags the dog).  If the design solution requires more funding, then that is the administration's job to figure-out how to pay for it.  Maybe it will require a construction bond program, maybe it will require some serious creative fund-raising.  You won't know until some facility assessment and corrective design is developed.

    Feel free to contact me directly or through the EdTA messaging system if you would like to discuss this in more detail. You are just a few hours away from us.

    Erich Friend
    Theatre Consultant
    Teqniqal Systems LLC