Interview with Chris Clough – Live Sound Engineer

Setting up small venue PA systems

How important is it to design the right PA system for a performance space?

It is very important because people are getting used to hearing the quality of audio at public events that they are hearing from a home theatre. That is technologically far more challenging in a large space due to problems such as reverb and so on.

How do you best determine what PA to put into a room?

There are several factors: the bandwidth required, whether we are reinforcing music, whether the music is live or ‘canned’, and the type of music concerned. For speech reinforcement, the requirements are not quite as strict, you don’t need quite the bandwidth. You also don’t need quite the same amount of power, as you would with, say, a rock‘n’roll show. A little rule of thumb that we use is: for barely acceptable speech you need 1 watt per head/audience member; for great speech, 2 watts per head; for acceptable cabaret-level music, 5 watts per head; for acceptable rock‘n’roll, 10 watts per head; for acceptable hard rock, 20 watts per head; and for acceptable metal, 50 watts per head. But that is a really rough ballpark guide and this is all assuming that you have quality speakers that are of industry-standard efficiency, and the appropriate installation of those speakers to cover the audience.

What kind of information do you need from someone wanting to hire a PA to best meet their needs?

First of all, I need to know when the event starts, when it finishes, what the nature of the event is, what type of inputs I am likely to have to cope with, what sort of program material there will be, how big the audience is likely to be (and how the audience is distributed through the venue), and what the venue layout looks like. All of those sorts of things come into play when you are looking at a PA.

Are there any hints that you would give to people setting up an event to find out before calling you so that you can do the best job possible?

All of those things listed above. A well set-up company like ours actually has room plans of half the venues in town, and we can utilise those to design a system that will cover the venue appropriately. You also need to have realistic expectations. People often have expectations beyond the capability of the equipment. Take a lapel mic, for example — people’s expectation is based on seeing them used on television programs where there is no PA. The mic is picking up someone’s speech but it is not running through a PA. It’s not quite as easy in a live situation. Clients need to be as informed as possible about their events and they need to have realistic expectations about what the PA is able to do.