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Help for a newbie in sound

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  • Help for a newbie in sound

    I've got some very basic questions that I'm having trouble getting answered by Googling. I want to do some very simple setting up of sound/instrument equipment at home. I don't understand the difference between powered and unpowered mixers and between speakers/amps/cabinets/monitors. Can y'all please give me a basic understanding of what I need.

    Here's what I want to hook up: 1 electronic piano, 1 acoustic/electric guitar, 2 electric guitars, and PC (eventually).

    Mostly I just plan to use it at home to avoid having to plug and unplug various cords and cables when I want to switch instruments. But I might be interested in using it as a PA system when I play somewhere else. So portability would be desirable.

    I have a guitar amplifier (Crate) that I could use for sound, but don't have to if another option would be better.

    So what would you experts recommend?

  • #2
    We use a lot of terms, sometimes we get sloppy, and sometimes we just use more than one word for the same thing. SOunds systems are all similar in concept, and they work just like your home stereo.

    TO make sound we start with a signal - all that means is the source of sound we start with turned into electrical impulses. The signal might be the output from a guitar, a microphone, a CD player, whatever. We want that signal coming out a loudspeaker so everyone can hear it, but the signal is not strong enough to move the speaker cone. SO we use an amplifier. The amplifier makes the signal stronger, so it can move the speaker and male sound. AMplifiers can be simple or loaded with features. AMplifiers can be alone, or included within some piece of gear.

    The amplifier just makes whatever you feed it louder. Sometimes you want more control over the sound - like volume control, tone control, and other stuff. For that we add a preamplifier - a preamp. The signal enters the preamp where the controls are, then the preamp passes it along to the amplifier, which in turn pumps it up and out to the speakers.

    That is a basic system. Of course somethings can be combined. A preamp and amplifier can be put in one piece. A guitar amp head is like that - a combination preamp and amplifier. For that matter, guitar amps often also include the loudspeaker too. Everything except the signal source in one package.

    Guitar amps with no speaker are just called guitar amps, or sometimes heads. If the guitar amp has the speaker too, we call that a combo amp - for combination amplifier and speaker.

    A mixer is just a preamp with multiple input channels. It is used when several signal sources need to be used together - it mixes them together into one whole master signal for the amplifier.

    To be clear, what I have been calling an amplifier, I really should be callign a power amplifier. The preamp feeds the power amp. And the power amp feeds the speakers.

    A mixer that includes a power amp is called a powered mixer. No more difference than that - mixer with powr amp.

    COming from the mixer is that master signal. At this point it could be sent to the power amp and speakers, but it could just as easily be sent to a recorder or your computer. If you want to play out at gigs and need speakers, then a powered mixer is handy. One piece of gear instead of a separate mixer and power amp. But for recording in the bedroom, a plain mixer might be more your need. Of course you can use the mixer portion of a powered mixer without also connecting speakers.

    Loudspeakers are the round things with the cone in the middle that make sound happen. We call them speakers a lot for short. Speakers are not used just sitting there on a table, they need to be enclosed in a box. The box with a speaker in it is called an enclosure. SOmetimes we refer to the enclsure as a "speaker." Unless the context is clear, I try to use the term enclosure if I also will be talking abut the loudspeakers themselves. So I would say that speakers are mounted in an enclosure. If I said speakers are mounted in a speaker, that would be confusing. But I don't always remember to do that, and many other folks don't either.

    So an enclosure is just a box with loudspeakers in it - and a few parts to separate the bass from the treble. One speaker in an enclosure is a simple enclosure. An enclosure with a woofer and a tweeter is called a two-way enclosure. An encloosure with a woofer, a tweeter, and a midrange would be a thre-way speaker. And so on. 5-way? Sure.

    For convenience, they sometimes make speaker enclosures that have a power amplifier mounted inside them. Those are called powered speakers or powered enclosures.

    A cabinet is another word for enclosure. A big box for the speaker, usually wood, but not always. The cabinet itself is really just the box, but we generally assume the term cab to include the speakers, otherwise it wuold be of no sound value. But for example a guitar head us a wooden box with the amplifer works inside it. No speaker there, but I refer to the wooden box as the cabinet.

    Speaker cabs have various purposes. SOme are intended to fill an auditorium with sound to entertain the crowd. We call those sound reinforcement speakers or public address speakers. Oops, i should say enclosures, but we often don't... sorry. Other speakers are used for the artist to hear his own performance, or for the recording engineer to hear what is going on. We call those monitor speakers or monitor enclosures. The term monitor refers to the use, rather than necessarily something physical. I can use huge PA speakers as monitors. But monitors are often specially designed for the purpose. FOr example stage monitors are small wedge shaped sound reinforcement speakers that sit facing the performer on the stage so he can hear himself. Studio monitors are speakers designed for the recording engineer in the control room. Those would ideally be very low in distortion and sound coloration.

    Do you want to send music to the pc for recording? Or do you want to send music from teh pc out to speakers to play along with? Looks like you have 4 or 5 signal to mix - even if you only play one at a time, we still say they are mixed. Mixers can be basic or feature laden. Small basic mixer come in the size of a dinner plate or less. There are small mixers - both powered and non - that mount in a rack. Even powered desk mixers can be small. SOmething like Behringer PMH1000 is only about 14" square

    A rack is a vertical frame that things bolt into. Mixers that sit flat on a table are called desk type mixers.

    Something like that Behrringer or its equivalent in a number of other brands mught be a place to start for you. Basic mixer with some effects built in, enough channels, and a power amp suited to small gigs or non-loud music. Add a couple speaker enclosures and you have a PA.
    Education is what you're left with after you have forgotten what you have learned.


    • #3
      Enzo... Thanks for the info. Your post was very thorough and helped clear up a number of things for me.


      • #4
        pc recording

        Hi Tex,

        If you don't have any pc recording software yet, get yourself to a big magazine store and buy Novembers' copy of Computer Music. In it you will find a fully functioning dvd with Samplitude 9SE on it. I have been using Sam8 for a year and it is great!

        I don't know how advanced your pc recording plans are but if you have got a mixer by now I would look at a pci card such as the M-Audio 2496.

        I know the "plug and play" Firewire and usb devices look like an easier option but they can be more hassle, especially if your pc is not very new and fast.

        If your pc has built in sound, not good, if you have, or are thinking "Sound Blaster Card". Don't.

        Come back if you need more help.


        • #5
          I'm also a big fan of the M-Audio PCI cards. They've always been totally hassle free for me. I use a Delta 1010 with Pro Tools M-Powered nowadays.
          "Enzo, I see that you replied parasitic oscillations. Is that a hypothesis? Or is that your amazing metal band I should check out?"