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Public Address Systems Explained

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Small systems

The simplest, smallest PA systems consist of a microphone, an amplifier, and one or more loudspeakers. PA systems of this type, often providing 50 to 200 watts of power, are often used in small venues such as school auditoriums, churches, and coffeehouse stages. Small PA systems may extend to an entire building, such as a restaurant, store, elementary school or office building. A sound source such as a compact disc player or radio may be connected to a PA system so that music can be played through the system. Smaller, battery-powered 12 volt systems may be installed in vehicles such as tour buses or school buses, so that the tour guide and/or driver can speak to all the passengers. Portable systems may be battery powered and/or powered by plugging the system into an electric wall socket. These may also be used for by people addressing smaller groups such as information sessions or team meetings. Battery-powered systems can be used by guides who are speaking to clients on walking tours.

Public address systems consist of input sources (microphones, sound playback drvicrs, etc.), amplifiers, control and monitoring equipment (e.g., LED indicator lights, VU meters, headphones), and loudspeakers. Usual input includes microphones for speech or singing, direct inputs from musical instruments, and a recorded sound playback device. In non-performance applications, there may be a system that operators or automated equipment uses to select from a number of standard prerecorded messages. These input sources feed into preamplifiers and signal routers that direct the audio signal to selected zones of a facility (e.g., only to one section of a school). The preamplified signals then pass into the amplifiers. Depending on local practices, these amplifiers usually amplify the audio signals to 50V, 70V, or 100V speaker line level. Control equipment monitors the amplifiers and speaker lines for faults before it reaches the loudspeakers. This control equipment is also used to separate zones in a PA system. The loudspeaker converts electrical signals into sound.

Large systems

Some PA systems have speakers that cover more than one building, extending to an entire campus of a college, office or industrial site, or an entire outdoor complex (e.g., an athletic stadium). A large PA system may also be used as an alert system during an emergency.

PA systems by size and subwoofer approach

PA system set-upVenue size
Small system: 2 pole-mounted mid/high frequency PA speaker cabinets and 2 small subwoofer cabinets with 15” or 18” subwoofers (Note: this would be used in club where jazz, acoustic music, country music or soft rock is played)Small club with capacity for up to 300 people
Small high amplifier power system: 2 high amplifier power-rated mid/high frequency PA speakers with 15” woofers and a large horn-loaded tweeter; two high amplifier power-rated subwoofer cabinets with one or two 18” subwoofer cabs (front-firing, also known as “front loaded”, or manifold-loaded subwoofer cabinets)Small club with capacity for up to 500 people
Mid-size PA system: 4 larger multiwoofer mid/high frequency PA speaker cabs (e.g., each with two 15” woofers) and four subwoofer cabinets, either front-firing, manifold loaded or a folded hornLarge clubs with capacity for 500+ people, small music festivals, fairs
Large-size PA system: Multiple mid/high frequency PA speakers, possibly “flown” up high in rigging, and a number of subwoofer cabinets (either front firing, manifold loaded or folded horn)Large venues with capacity for 1000+ people, larger music festivals


Telephone paging systems

Some private branch exchange (PBX) telephone systems use a paging facility that acts as a liaison between the telephone and a PA amplifier. In other systems, paging equipment is not built into the telephone system. Instead the system includes a separate paging controller connected to a trunk port of the telephone system. The paging controller is accessed as either a designated directory number or central office line. In many modern systems, the paging function is integrated into the telephone system, so the system can send announcements to the phone speakers.

Many retailers and offices choose to use the telephone system as the sole access point for the paging system, because the features are integrated. Many schools and other larger institutions are no longer using the large, bulky microphone PA systems and have switched to telephone system paging, as it can be accessed from many different points in the school.

PA over IP

PA over IP refers to PA paging and intercom systems that use an Internet Protocol (IP) network, instead of a central amplifier, to distribute the audio signal to paging locations across a building or campus, or anywhere else in the reach of the IP network, including the Internet. Network-attached amplifiers and intercom units are used to provide the communication function. At the transmission end, a computer application transmits a digital audio stream via the local area network, using audio from the computer’s sound card inputs or from stored audio recordings. At the receiving end, either specialized intercom modules (sometimes known as IP speakers) receive these network transmissions and reproduce the analog audio signal. These are small, specialized network appliances addressable by an IP address, just like any other computer on the network.

WMT PA Systems

Wireless Mobile Telephony (WMT) PA Systems refers to PA paging and [intercom] systems that use any form of Wireless mobile telephony system such as GSM networks instead of a centralized amplifier to distribute the audio signal to paging locations across a building or campus, or other location. The GSM mobile Networks are used to provide the communication function. At the transmission end, a PSTN Telephone, mobile phone, VOIP phone or any other communication device that can access and make audio calls to a GSM based mobile SIM card can communicate with it. At the receiving end, a GSM transceiver receives these network transmissions and reproduce the analogue audio signal via a Power Amplifier and speaker. This was pioneered by Stephen Robert Pearson of Lancashire, England who was granted patents for the systems, which also incorporate control functionality. Using a WMT (GSM) network means that live announcements can be made to anywhere in the world where there is WMT connectivity. The patents cover all forms of WMT i.e., 2G, 3G, 4G ….. xxG. A UK company called Remvox Ltd (REMote VOice eXperience) has been appointed under license to develop and manufacture products based on the technology.

Long line PA

A Long-Line Public Address (LLPA) system is any public address system with a distributed architecture, normally across a wide geographic area. Systems of this type are commonly found in the rail, light rail, and metro industries, and let announcements be triggered from one or several locations to the rest of the network over low bandwidth legacy copper, normally PSTN lines using DSL modems, or media such as optical fiber, or GSM-R, or IP-based networks.

Rail systems typically have an interface with a passenger information system (PIS) server, at each station. These are linked to train describers, which state the location of rolling stock on the network from sensors on trackside signaling equipment. The PIS invokes a stored message to play from a local or remote digital voice announcement system, or a series of message fragments to assemble in the correct order, for example: ” / the / 23.30 / First_Great_Western / Night_Riviera_sleeper_service / from / London_Paddington / to / Penzance / …. / will depart from platform / one / this train is formed of / 12_carriages /.” Messages are routed via an IP network and are played on local amplification equipment. Taken together, the PA, routing, DVA, passenger displays and PIS interface are referred to as the customer information system (CIS), a term often used interchangeably with passenger information system.

Small venue systems

Small clubs, bars and coffeehouses use a fairly simple set-up, with front of house speaker cabinets (and subwoofers, in some cases) aimed at the audience, and monitor speaker cabinets aimed back at the performers so they can hear their vocals and instruments. In many cases, front of house speakers is elevated, either by mounting them on poles or by “flying” them from anchors in the ceiling. The Front of House speakers are elevated to prevent the sound from being absorbed by the first few rows of audience members. The subwoofers do not need to be elevated, because deep bass is omnidirectional. In the smallest coffeehouses and bars, the audio mixer may be onstage so that the performers can mix their own sound levels. In larger bars, the audio mixer may be located in or behind the audience seating area, so that an audio engineer can listen to the mix and adjust the sound levels. The adjustments to the monitor speaker mix may be made by a single audio engineer using the main mixing board, or they may be made by a second audio engineer who uses a separate mixing board.

Large venue systems

For popular music concerts, a more powerful and more complicated PA System is used to provide live sound reproduction. In a concert setting, there are typically two complete PA systems: the “main” system and the “monitor” system. Each system consists of a mixing board, sound processing equipment, amplifiers, and speakers. The microphones that are used to pick up vocals and amplifier sounds are routed through both the main and monitor systems. Audio engineers can set different sound levels for each microphone on the main and monitor systems. For example, a backup vocalist whose voice has a low sound level in the main mix may ask for a much louder sound level through her monitor speaker, so she can hear her singing.

The “main” system (also known as Front of House, commonly abbreviated FOH), which provides the amplified sound for the audience, typically uses a number of powerful amplifiers that drive a range of large, heavy-duty loudspeakers—including low-frequency speaker cabinets called subwoofers, full-range speaker cabinets, and high-range horns. A large club may use amplifiers to provide 3000 to 5000 watts of power to the “main” speakers. An outdoor concert may use 10,000 or more watts.

The monitor system reproduces the sounds of the performance and directs them towards the onstage performers (typically using wedge-shaped monitor speaker cabinets), to help them to hear the instruments and vocals. In British English, the monitor system is referred to as the “foldback”. The monitor system in a large club may provide 500 to 1000 watts of power to several foldback speakers; at an outdoor concert, there may be several thousand watts of power going to the monitor system.

At a concert using live sound reproduction, sound engineers and technicians control the mixing boards for the “main” and “monitor” systems, adjusting tone, levels, and overall volume. Touring productions travel with relocatable large line-array PA systems, sometimes rented from an audio equipment hire company. The sound equipment moves from venue to venue along with various other equipment such as lighting and projection.

Acoustic feedback

All PA systems have the potential for audio feedback, which occurs when a microphone picks up sound from the speakers, which is re-amplified and sent through the speakers again. It often sounds like a loud high-pitched squeal or screech, and can occur when the volume of the system is turned up too high. Feedback only occurs when the loop gain of the feedback loop is greater than one, so it can always be stopped by reducing the volume sufficiently.

Sound engineers take several steps to maximize gain before feedback, including keeping microphones at a distance from speakers, ensuring that directional microphones are not pointed towards speakers, keeping the onstage volume levels down, and lowering gain levels at frequencies where the feedback is occurring, using a graphic equalizer, a parametric equalizer, or a notch filter. Some 2010s-era mixing consoles and effects units have automatic feedback preventing circuits.

Feedback prevention devices detect the start of unwanted feedback and use a precise notch filter to lower the gain of the frequencies that are feeding back. Some automated feedback detectors require the user to “set” the feedback-prone frequencies by purposely increasing gain (during a sound check) until some feedback starts to occur. The device then retains these frequencies in its memory and it stands by ready to cut them. Some automated feedback prevention devices can detect and reduce new frequencies other than those found in the sound check.