SOUND OFF by Mike Rogers
Fellow magicians frequently ask me which public address sound system is best when performing magic. Maybe I look like I’d know the answer. The fact is, having owned several sound systems, I do know the answer and will discuss it now. Moreover, I’ll discuss it in a manner in which everyone will understand; I’ll discuss it in layman terms with few technical statements or words. I’ll even tell you what to buy, where to buy, what to expect, and how much to pay.
A sound system is a very personal thing and what works for one may not work for another. It can be anything from a cardboard megaphone to a maze of complex electronic gadgets costing several thousand dollars. In this article we won’t consider either extreme.
There are three essential basic parts to all sound systems: the microphone, the amplifier, and the speaker. With that in mind you must understand that every time you improve the system you are giving it a reason to fail. Hence, with each embellishment you “pay the price.” For instance, let’s assume you want to increase the length of your speaker cable, so you add an additional cable. You now have improved the system to fit your needs, but by adding the extra cable you have added another connection which can go bad or short out. Lets assume your microphone plug is a mini plug and you need to add an adapter to make it fit the larger input jack on the amplifier. You have improved the system because the mic now fits, but the added adapter gives the system still another reason to fail. Here’s one more example. Let’s assume you want to use a small clip-on lapel mic. The tiny clip-on mic is less cumbersome, thus improving the system. However, there will probably be some loss of quality. Moreover, most mics of that type require a pill battery which can always go bad. Hence, again, the improvement gives the system still another reason to fail. You get the idea I’m sure.
Let’s talk about wireless systems for a minute. A wireless system requires two additional components: a transmitter and a receiver. Yikes! Two more reasons for the system to fail! So ask yourself if you really want a wireless system? The answer, of course, will be yes. Who wouldn’t want a wireless system? Go ahead and live with that answer for a day or two, and then ask the question again in a slightly different way. Rather than asking if you WANT a wireless system ask if you really NEED a wireless system. Chances are you don’t. While deciding on your answer keep in mind that even the best of wireless systems are subject to interference, and this interference can come from anything electronic including the ignition on a passing automobile.
OK, in layman terms we have touched on the three basic parts of all systems, some reasons why they can fail, and the two additional parts should a wireless system be needed. Let’s talk about one more thing before moving on as to which system to buy and where to buy it. You need to consider the power supply. Will you always be able to plug the thing in for 110 volts of power (AC power), or will you have to run the thing using batteries (DC power)? Perhaps you’ll need both. Keep in mind, of course, that the convenience of DC power also gives the gadget another reason to fail as batteries can always die.
Finally when you do get ready to buy you will be boggled with the technical specifications of the system. They really are not that important to you. What is important is this: Will the system work for you in the venues where you will be performing? There is only one way to be sure and that’s to test the system before buying it. I can’t stress that point enough. Not all microphones work the same for different speaking voices, and amplifiers react differently with different speaker cones. This is the reason I say the technical specs are not really important. You simply have to personally test the system. A system that sounds great when being used by one magician may sound terrible when being used by another.
So where do you start? Here are some suggestions:
One of the most popular systems available is an FM-AV4 manufactured by Lectronsonics, Inc. This is a portable DC powered system about the size of two shoe boxes and weighting 17 pounds. The built in battery when fully charged will hold up for 30 to 40 hours of use. It is a wireless system, but also has a mic input for a hard wire as well as a music input. It comes with a wireless mic, the needed transmitter, and the receiver is built into the cabinet. An excellent feature is the system can be connected directly to a larger house system should the occasion arise. There are a couple of disadvantages that need to be considered. It is DC powered and though you receive an AC charger this charger will not provide enough power to keep the system operating should the battery die. In other words, if the battery goes dead you can’t operate it for any length of time by plugging it in to the charger. Also, since the battery is built in the entire gadget has to be sent to the factory for battery replacement. Lectrosonics, Inc. is very helpful in this area and will normally give you a one day turn around when you send it to them. Another disadvantage, one seen in most portable systems, is the amplifier and speaker are installed in the same cabinet. Thus the controls will always be with the speaker and unavailable to you should the thing be placed away from you while in use. Still this is a top of the line portable system. It is available from various distributors throughout the country, but if you wish to keep it in the family they are sold by Dick Stoner’s Magic and Fun Stores. Expect to pay around $1000.
Another extremely popular system is the PERMA POWER sound system in a briefcase. It literally is a briefcase containing a complete sound system. For years this has been the “Work Horses” of the industry for anyone wanting a portable PA system. It is powered by ten D cell batteries which can always be found easily. The batteries normally hold up for several days of use. One extremely nice advantage is the amplifier can be removed from the case and placed where you have easy access to the controls while performing. Though it comes with it’s own microphone most magicians like to substitute a smaller clip- on mic. This is not a wireless system. You can keep this purchase in the family by purchasing it from Magic, Inc. Expect to pay around $500.
Among the best of the best comes from a company called ANCHOR. They offer absolutely everything anyone could desire and their products are all of the highest quality. They are sold around the country through distributors, so check the yellow pages. Expect to start around $500 with the price going up rapidly as you mix and match.
If your budget won’t handle any of the three already mentioned not all is lost. There is a chain of guitar stores called Guitar Center. Stop in any Guitar Center and you will be in “Sound System Heaven.” Check out the basic guitar amplifier/speaker systems normally costing less than $200. They will almost always be AC powered and you will always need to add your own microphone. Don’t worry, the Guitar Center also sells a variety of microphones. The controls and speaker will be mounted in the same box, so you will have to live with that inconvenience. However, the price is right and it’s amazing how well these things work. Almost all guitar amps are ideal for voice use, but you will have to experiment with different microphones.
While at the Guitar Center check out the PIG NOSE and the HOG NOSE units. These are self contained portable DC powered practice guitar amps. They are extremely well made and entirely self contained. You will have to add a microphone. They are not quite large enough to handle all venues, but for the right places they are wonderful. These can be obtained for less than $200.
I’ve covered quite a bit and tried to keep it entirely in layman terms. Let me state again, no matter how it looks, how much it costs, or how good others say it is, ALWAYS TEST THE SYSTEM YOURSELF BEFORE BUYING.