Music magazines, like Live Sound International or FOH (Front of House), often feature articles highlighting the latest in sound systems, but it seems a majority of these articles are catered towards large, up-scale budgets and locations. It’s always fascinating to read about what these bigger venues are doing and how quickly technology is progressing. However, many sound people work in hundreds of small venues throughout the US. If your band plays gigs in small venues or if you operate sound systems in small venues, your sound dynamics radically differ from the larger sites. You have to adapt your skills to the characteristics of small venues to achieve sound success.
If you are a one-person show or setting sound for a solo performer accompanied by an electric piano or guitar, a combo amp specifically manufactured for acoustic guitars may be the perfect system for a small space. In this scenario, acoustic guitar amps work better than electric guitar amps because they basically act like a miniature PA system.
Electric guitar amps, on the other hand, add their own music to the sound they project. Acoustic guitar amps are perfect for a solo performance as they customarily include an XLR mic input and a musical instrument input. These acoustic amps usually have speakers that can support a broad vocal range and incorporate some fundamental effects like reverb.
A solo performer with an instrument rarely creates enough low frequencies to necessitate bass extension, but if you are playing in a band or setting sound for one, you have to think about incorporating electronic keyboards, backing tracks, and bass and drums in your sound equation. In small venues, a system with a small sub plus two satellite speakers will probably work best. These systems are easy to transport and will easily fit in a car.
They are, however, strong enough to amplify sound well in a small venue and make it an enjoyable experience for the audience. The sub in these systems manages the bass; the speakers may be extremely small (you can almost go down to a shoe-box size). The majority of these systems can provide good stereo sound even with just the lone sub. If the band playing needs to project more drum and bass sound in the PA, one or possibly even two 15-inch subs ought to be viewed as the basic requirement. In such cases where more is also needed from the tops, there’s always the traditional system with 12-inch (plus horn) main active speakers to project more.
Line array systems, although generally viewed as large venue systems, have been scaled down to what are called column array systems and can work great even in small spaces. These column array systems are made up of a column of small-diameter mid/high drivers coupled with a 10-inch or even 18-inch sub. These systems are great for bands playing in small to medium venues. The tiny size of these systems may give you the wrong impression that they won’t work for a band, but these column array systems can outperform typical “box” systems, projecting better sound coverage and producing more natural vocals.
Just keep in mind, line array or column array systems are usually very wide dispersion speakers and cannot be placed side by side like narrow dispersion conventional speakers. But this is also a plus, because they are so wide in dispersion you don’t need to add more side by side speakers. They may seem to have a higher cost, but they will do much larger shows (and still do the small shows). Their even projection to the audience both in width and front to back provides a friendly experience to all listeners both near and far.