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Make A Joyful Noise: Portable PA for Houses-of-Worship

As the worship experience continues to broaden and diversify at churches, synagogues and other house-of-worship facilities, opportunities for congregational participation grow.

As the worship experience continues to broaden and diversify at churches, synagogues and other house-of-worship facilities, opportunities for congregational participation grow. Thus today’s HOWs require additional sound reinforcement tools—ones that are portable, user-friendly and built to last through many different end users. Modern portable PA (PPA) systems are purpose-built for these needs. They allow various HOW facility spaces to be used for performance group rehearsals, exercise events, guest speakers for small groups and numerous other fellowship-based activities.

Bose’s L1 Model 1S is an ideal all-in-one PPA solution when used indoors in moderately reverberant rooms. Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to recommend PPA systems to a diverse group of churches. In doing so, I have learned a lot about the unique needs of any given HOW. As different as one HOW can be from another, there always seems to be some common needs and desires. Here, I’ve sectionalized some main points to consider when shopping for the best PPA for your HOW.

The Look of “All In One”
First of all, let’s get visual appeal out of the way. Churchgoers often prefer visually unobtrusive sound system components, so the overall look of a PPA is worth some consideration. With such progress made in line array system development for HOWs and theaters, churchgoers have become rightfully spoiled by the stealthy aesthetic appeal of modern, “nearly invisible” audio systems and the seemingly contradictory large sounds they can deliver.

In these environments, all in one, line-array influenced (or, for lack of a better term, “stick PA”) systems by manufacturers such as Bose—with its slender, column-like L1 Model 1S + B1 bass—may be especially desirable. Covering all the bases, they are similarly visually appealing, yet user-friendly and comprehensive. At a lower price point and smaller feature set, manufacturers such as Fishman provide similar options; for the money, their SoloAmp is one of my all-time favorites of this kind of super-portable PPA.

However, such systems do come with limitations. They are often less powerful than competing powered speaker-and-mixer- based PPA systems. For example, Bose specs illustrate that the L1 Model 1S rig will deliver “180-degree coverage for audiences of up to 300,” and in my experience, that is accurate under certain performance circumstances—when used indoors in moderately reverberant rooms. This may be fine in most instances and overkill in others, while other systems may offer more flexibility for less money.

If the aesthetics of a PPA are less a concern at your facility, possibilities dramatically broaden, allowing consideration of more “black box” options that further put the “portable” in PPA. Case in point: Yamaha’s STAGEPAS 600i compacts to two fairly balanced pieces for one-trip PPA moves. It is a “just add mics” rig featuring a sleek, user-friendly layout of its 600 W powered 10-input mixer, which snaps easily into the back of one of the rig’s two Model 600S two-way passive enclosures. A perfectly-sized storage compartment holds four handhelds and cables, plus the included speaker cables and AC cord, in the back of the second Model 600S.

Weight, Size and Shape
The overbuilt, high-SPL Class-D powered speakers available on the market today have become the portable PA user’s new benchmark in terms of power and fidelity. As these 1000 W, two-way speaker boxes become the secular norm, so it goes for HOW applications, too.

Consider this obvious equation: Lighter Amps + Lighter Cabinets = Less Weight. As such, the benefits of employing Class D amplifiers in portable PA systems abound. HOW PPA users will be young and old, strong and weak, technically savvy and near-Luddite; for HOW applications, “easy to carry, easy to use” PA trumps ultimate fidelity.

Luckily, though, the best manufacturers in the PPA market have figured out how to pack nearly all the desired features, including great sound, into 1000 W boxes. Along with operating at lower temperatures, Class D amplifiers allow the modern portable PA to pack massive amounts of power into more efficient, lighter-weight packages.

Yamaha’s STAGEPAS 600i is a “just add mics” rig featuring a 600 W powered 10-input mixer, snapping easily into the back of one of the rig’s two dual passive speakers.E-V’s ZLX-12P 1000 W/Class D two-way enclosure features valuable features such as built-in DSP and a two-channel mixer, allowing standalone use—just add dynamic mic and cable. A most notable Class D-equipped portable PA line would be QSC’s industry standard-setting K Series—“K” for kilowatt—with dual 500 W amplifiers; its high-frequency and low frequency dual amps both draw their current and voltage from a single switch-mode Class D, high output/low heat power supply that adds a mere 6 lbs. to the total K Series package. In use, the QSC K Series sounds nothing short of totally professional.

Further, PPAs have become easier to carry as molded polypropylene speaker cabinets have become commonplace. Some users may not prefer synthetic cabs over traditional wood cabinets, but I’ve personally found that polypropylene cabinets are getting better all the time, becoming more impact and scratch resistant, as well as less resonant/rattle-prone in extended use.

A great example of improved non-wood enclosures comes from Alto Pro and its TS115A powered speaker; the TS115A’s trapezoidal enclosure with perforated steel grille is particularly rugged—far more than its low streetprice suggests. Personally speaking, having lugged many plastic powered speakers around, this is one I wouldn’t (and didn’t) fret about manhandling, banging around and/or dropping.

QSC’s K Series—“K” for kilowatt—packs 1000 watts of Class D amplification into a comparably lightweight, highly flexible PPA component. As molded polypropylene cabinetry becomes more common, so do improved ergonomics. Both the polypropylene TS115A and Peavey’s superb Impulse 12D are great examples of this; the Impulse 12D offers both “sculpted” handles for easy carrying, which would be difficult to recreate in a traditional “wood with metal handles” offering, while the TS115A provides neat “Lego-like” feet and tops that allow users to stack them without worry of toppling.

Features and Functionality
I recently recommended two DXR8 powered loudspeakers (from Yamaha’s DXR Series) to a small local church to serve as its “runabout” rig. The DXR8 features an eight-inch LF speaker, one-inch throat compression HF driver, and a total 700 W of Class D continuous power (600 W LF/100 W HF) with comprehensive I/O inputs, including one balanced Mic/Line XLR with XLR thru-put on channel 1, two separate unbalanced, quarter- inch line inputs (L and R) on channel two, and two unbalanced stereo RCA inputs on channel 3, with each channel having its own corresponding level pot.

The DXR8 is an outstanding performer in its class, and, in a HOW application—where on Tuesday and Thursdays it is the “Fit To Serve” aerobics sound system, Mondays and Wednesdays, PPA for the Youth’s monthly Song Service rehearsals, and so on—its I/O, ruggedness, simplicity and sound make it a true workhorse and bargain that the entire congregation can feel good about. Of course, that means a lot in a donation-based organization like a HOW.

A personal rule of thumb I keep in mind when recommending a HOW PPA is “remove the guesswork.” HOWs are where flexible gear with user-friendly layouts (and possibly even consumer audio-influenced functionality) are most necessary due to the sheer number of less-knowledgeable end-users sharing a system. Can you split a two-cabinet powered PPA in half, sending one side to, for example, a meeting with a guest speaker and the other to seniors bingo night, utilizing each without a mixer? If not, perhaps it’s not an ideal HOW PPA.

For example, Electro-Voice’s superb ZLX-12P 1000 W/Class D two-way enclosure is perfect for such environments. Each enclosure’s I/O includes two Neutrik combo XLR/TRS inputs for mic/ line input with adjacent rotary level adjustments; an XLR output for passing a two-channel mix to monitors; and a unique Aux In eighth-inch TRS stereo input—its signal appears on Channel 1, summed to mono. It also features simple DSP modes with Live, Speech, and Club EQ presets; Location with Pole, Monitor and Bracket EQ presets; Treble (-10 dB to +10 dB); Bass (-10 dB to +10 dB); Sub (a HPF with 80 Hz, 100 Hz, and 120 Hz settings); and a few LCD screen contrast/brightness adjustments, too. As such, the ZLX-12P is a great, all-around multipurpose powered speaker.

Begin Your Search
Ultimately, I recommend looking at every PPA component considered for purchase separately, and weighing its usefulness as a solo component. Powered speakers with generous input options available are a must, while more sophisticated mixer capabilities are an afterthought in the “PPA for HOW” investigative process. Choose enclosures first based on portability, intuitiveness, and power and strength; done right, they will be ready to best suit a HOW’s needs with room for augmentation as further needs and funds arise.

Strother Bullins is a gigging musician, recordist and the editor of Pro Audio Review.