Can a “linear array” PA system work for a rock band?
May 12, 2019 1:02 PM   Subscribe

I’m tasked with buying a new PA system for a band. I’ve been a working musician for most of my life and have worked with all kinds of sound systems. But I haven’t worked with the new hotness of linear array-style portable PA systems. They seem to have proliferated and I am encountering quite different views of how they work for a *bar-playing rock/country band* situation. If you’ve got experience with this or have been hearing bands work with these systems I’d love some opinions. Details ....

The band will consist of up to four vocal mics, with two primary lead vocalists, and a backlineof two guitars, bass, and drums. One guitarist/singer (moi) also sometimes plays keyboards, mandolin, lap steel, and several different guitars. That whole setup (keyboards, mando, acoustic guitar) is running through a mini-PA monitor (Bose S1) already, except the main electric guitar is going through a real amp (Deluxe Reverb). The other guitarist is on a straight up Strat through a Peavey tube amp. In most club settings where we will work, the guitars and bass are *typically* amp-only, and the drums are *typically* not miked at all. So normally, ONLY vocals are in the PA. But I’d like to be able to step up a level and DI the bass, mike the guitar amps, and mike the kick drum in some situations on the theory that using stage volume on the backline to reach the whole club is part of the constant volume-management problem of playing in these situations.

Repetoire is country and classic rock, sometimes loud and dirty, some clean and spare, and some more acoustic and old country material. Vocals are really important. Both lead singers are powerful voices.

The bars and bar/restaurants involved are mostly 75-200 person capacity, almost always indoors (a few outdoor gigs might require additional gear). Almost always they want bands to be quieter than you want to be if you’re using the amps to reach the whole room with guitars especially (it’s a constant tug of war between club manager and band if folks up front complain that it is too loud, and they often do, but folks in back find it too low!), so miking stuff up is really my ambition here — hence another appeal of subs instead of full range cabinets. But the vocals absolutely have to be loud and present.

I play these same clubs with bands now using a typical setup for bar bands, a pair of 1000 watt class d amp powered speakers with 12” (sometimes 15” depending on band) drivers mounted on stands and fed from a passive analogue mixer. Almost always the PA is just used for vocals. Separate powered stage monitors.

And I dislike it. Indeed I am starting to *hate* it. So I’m looking for alternatives to the usual pair of QSC 12.2 or Mackie Thumps or whatever that all the bands around here seem content to use. I want cleaner, better, quieter sound. But it needs to be loud *enough.*

I also dislike (who doesn’t?) hauling huge pieces of gear that weigh a ton in my hatchback, and I need a PA that can fit in a Mazda hatch with a guitar amp and keyboard gear and guitars. I can make the pair of 12” powered speakers work, but it’s a pain in every way. Especially because it means carrying 3 monitors at least.

So I see these linear systems everywhere online — Bose L1 and all its descendants. Sweetwater really wants to sell me one. I’m reading all kinds of great things about them for acoustic music and singer songwriter and DJ applications. But I’m getting very mixed readings on *rock band* usage. On the surface they seem ideal — wide dispersion means you don’t have to drive them super loud at the front to reach the back (and the manager is always near the front, right?). It also contains the potential of eliminating or reducing the number of stage monitors and *apparently* these rigs can be placed further back than front speakers. Space is at an absolute premium on most “stages” where I work. I’d love to get out from behind big black boxes above me and at my feet and have my monitor mix be the same thing my room is hearing and have a bare stage floor.

I’ve been looking at EV, JBL, Bose, and Turbosound options. The Turbosound Inspire lp2000 system seems interesting in that you could carry two of those and sometimes get away with using just one, they’re 60 pounds each, super compact, and very affordable. But they may not be good enough — reviews for their actual sound quality seem a bit mixed. (The next step up, LP3000 is possibly too big/heavy to carry two.)

I’m not automatically anti-Bose, although the prices are really high. (I bought an S1 for my keyboards and am amazed by it, although it was obscenely expensive — it sounds beautiful and is unbelievably loud for a 9 pound box the size of a 5 gallon gas can... I love it so much, and it runs on a battery, so it’s silent). The EV options seem to get good reviews too, and I have always liked EV gear.

I can spend $3000 or so, but more if it gets me even more portability for the same power. That will include a mixer (and I’m thinking of going digital for that). We have everything else already (mics galore, vocal processors, etc.) but that budget rules out a maxed out two column Bose double-column system. Or is that what I will eventually wish I had?

What I want is maximum flexibility, minimum size/weight, and sufficient power to cut through a sometimes loud rock backline and be heard by band and audience. The capacity to DI bass and mike drums and guitars and add subs for future situations is important.

Most importantly, what is it like to *play* in a band with these systems? Does it take getting used to? How realistic is using the same system to monitor from? I’ve seen videos where bands have these all the way in back behind the drummer. Does that really work or is feedback the demon it would be if you did that with regular mains speakers?

My theory is that we can play quieter with these systems, especially if we DI/mike instruments as much as possible. My hope is that we can set up faster and carry less gear with them. But will they actually work for rock and roll bar bands? Or will it sound weird? Does just one of these sound flat and monophonic? Or does the dispersion of a single unit replace the steep image of two speakers on stands?

I’ve been trying to find a bar band in my area that uses such a system but I hardly get to hear any of our competitors because I’m usually working myself the same nights and when I’m not the last thing I want to do is go out and hear music. Mefite rock and rollers, anyone got the skinny?

I’m willing to go higher on price maybe. Also interested in recommendations for passive digital live sound mixers with at least 8 channels (ideally 12) that *allow for control by an iPad* — I’m the sound guy too (or head control freak) in this scenario and I need to manage the mix from my keyboard stand.

I know some of these questions mean getting my ears on the options. But I’m not sure the array systems even ARE an option for my use case. But if you’ve been through these issues and made a decision lately (this space is changing FAST!) I wanna hear about it. Thank you! 🎸
posted by spitbull to Technology (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The only ones of those I have any hands-on experience with are the Bose things, and the Turbosound, as a demo from the sales rep. (Also the RCF E-vox system, which I'm pretty sure is unfortunately over your budget.)

The Bose does a bunch of weird Bose-specific processing in the amp modules so it works surprisingly well if you're using it in a situation that they have a preset for, and terribly if you're trying to mix an entire band through it.

The Turbos & RCF systems were both much more "realistic"-sounding, and surprsingly loud for their size & weight. I don't know that they were loud enough that I would trust being able to get away with just one.

That will include a mixer (and I’m thinking of going digital for that); passive digital live sound mixers with at least 8 channels (ideally 12) that *allow for control by an iPad*; Especially because it means carrying 3 monitors at least.

OK, so what quite literally almost everybody is doing these days is they have a rack with a Behringer X32 Rack mixer (or maybe an XR18 or 16), and enough wireless in-ear channels for everyone in the band and if a band member wants to control their own monitor mix the Behringer racks can be set up to interface with multiple iPads (you'll want/need an external router for this) or one person takes control of the sound duties with a single iPad. No monitor wedges, therefore much less stage volume, once everyone's mix is set up how they like it it stays 95% the same every night, so set up is much faster, and the whole thing can travel in a little 6-8 space rack.

I don't really work the bar band circuit as a sound tech anymore, but every so often I'll work with a bar/cover band at a larger event. This is how virtually every one of them works their monitor system these days. Some may have a split snake set up so I can get individual channels out at front of house, others will just hand me a pair of stereo outs (which I am not really a fan of, being a player on stage is usually not the bestest position from which to judge the mix, but whatever.)

To the best of my knowledge, most of these bands are NOT using any kind of array system around here (Cleveland, Northeastern Ohio) when they are providing their own main speakers, the powered QSC's and Mackie's & EV & JBL's like you describe are it, usually with matching subs. I suspect this is more of a budget factor than an "audio quality" factor, though.

wide dispersion means you don’t have to drive them super loud at the front to reach the back

Not really? "Wide" dispersion, in my mind, means the spread of sound side-to-side, left to right. Arrays will let you get a wide dispersion from a very narrow box, which is nice from a "speaker footprint"/visual standpoint, and some array-style systems (pro line arrays at concerts) are designed to throw the sound further (and with better phase coherence) than the old-school box/trapezoid speakers, but I don't know that these Bose-style stick systems will really hit the back of the room all that well without still being loud in the front - physics is still physics, the inverse-square law still applies, and 200-pound sacks of water (aka your audience) will still soak up a lot of sound waves. Speakers on stands over the patrons' heads still works pretty well.

My theory is that we can play quieter with these systems, especially if we DI/mike instruments as much as possible. My hope is that we can set up faster and carry less gear with them.

My 2 cents is spend the money on the digital mixer & in-ear monitor systems & a couple of powered subs. You can reduce the stage volume by getting rid of monitor wedges and the "loudness wars" of everyone turning up/playing harder just to hear themselves, and (hopefully) y'all can adjust amp/playing volumes to be appropriate for the size of the room, and with everything mic'd/DI'd you can always add a touch to the main speakers if needed.
posted by soundguy99 at 2:26 PM on May 12, 2019 [19 favorites]

Soundguy99, I was hoping you’d show up and thank you very much!
posted by spitbull at 3:04 PM on May 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

I haven't personally used the L1 type speakers, but everyone I know that's not a single person singer songwriter type that used them has gone back to using speakers on sticks. Take that for what you will. I agree with soundguy99 that DSP and clever speaker design can only cheat physics but so much. The sweet spot for those systems tends to be rooms with seated, relatively quiet audiences, not ones where the audience is more likely to be standing in front of the speakers and talking over the show.

You're looking at spending enough money that my best advice is to take a few nights off from gigging to hear the types of systems you're considering in use by similar bands in similar rooms and see what you think from the audience perspective. If it does sound good enough to consider buying, ask the band about their monitor setup. My suspicion is that you'll find that they aren't quite the sound you're looking for but YMMV.

For small and light situations, I had good success using the now discontinued JBL SRX712M floor monitors up high on stands as mains.

My theory is that we can play quieter with these systems, especially if we DI/mike instruments as much as possible.

How much of the other guitar player's tone is dependent on driving the tubes/speakers at their current volume? That's part of the usual battle of getting guitar players to turn down - it's not just a matter of loudness that they're after but sound.

If you can make it work, it's a win - guitar amps tend to have a narrow cone of sounding good and if you're outside of it (which most of the audience is), it's non-optimal.

Bass is less of a clear victory, especially at the 70 person venue size, if the player's amp is good quality and loud enough for the room.
posted by Candleman at 3:43 PM on May 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Er, important typo. Should be "that used them hasn't gone back to using speakers on sticks"
posted by Candleman at 5:38 PM on May 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

IME most guitarists are full of shit about how much driving their amps is part of their special individual tone, and by far the biggest improvement I've ever made in that kinda bar band setup is getting the guitars to turn way down so I could actually mix their instruments.

Those Behringer X32s are sweet. I'm constantly surprised by Behringer making good gear again.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:29 PM on May 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

True dat. I’m still wary of Behringer gear. They now share ownership with TC and Turbosound too.

Yeah a pair of Princeton Reverbs might be my best investment.

Thanks for all the answers! Super helpful.
posted by spitbull at 7:45 AM on May 13, 2019

Yup, Behringer's QC is noticeably improved since their bad old days, but they're gonna have to keep at it to make up for that rep. Their hobbyist mixers and such are still crap, but IMO no worse than Mackie boards in the same price point.

As a longtime detractor I have to say the newer rack stuff is surprisingly decent. E.g. the ADA8200 is incredible at that price point and handles the particular job I need it for better than any of its direct competitors.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:43 PM on May 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

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