What is PA System?

A Public Address (PA) system is a collection of audio equipment that allows broadcasts over a designated area. Often found in schools and office buildings, PA systems can be used for general announcements or emergency information, providing a simple way to get information out quickly. PA systems can be basic or advanced, and people can customize them to fit a variety of needs. There are even personal models that can be less expensive, but allow for a much shorter range.

Basic PA systems are comprised of loudspeakers placed in convenient locations around a broadcasting area, an amplifier to increase the sound, and a mixer that adjusts audio levels. The user speaks into a microphone, and the sound is transmitted through connected cables, or a wireless system, out through the speakers. Some systems also include microphones or intercoms near the speaker locations, allowing the listener to reply to the central location. These responses are not broadcast to the entire system, however, but only to the main user area.

Small System

The simplest PA systems consist of a microphone, an amplifier, and one or more loudspeakers. Simple and small PA systems of this type, often providing 50 to 200 watts of power, are often used in small venues such as school auditoriums, churches, and small bars. A sound source such as a Compact Disc player or radio may be connected to a PA system so that music can be played through the system.

Public address systems consist of input sources, amplifiers, control and monitoring equipment, and loudspeakers. The primary input sources are microphones for live announcements and a source of recorded sound. There may be a system which allows operators, or automated equipment, to select from a number of standard prerecorded messages. These input sources are fed into preamplifiers and signal routers that determine the zones to which the audio signal is fed. The preamplified signals are then passed into the amplifiers. Depending on local practices these amplifiers will usually amplify the audio signals to 50V, 70V or 100V speaker line level. Control equipment monitors the amplifiers and speaker lines for faults before it reaches the loudspeakers. This control equipment is also used for separating zones in a PA system. The loudspeaker is used to convert electrical signals into sound.

Large Venue System

For popular music concerts, a more powerful and more complicated PA System is used to provide live sound reproduction. In a concert setting, there are typically two complete PA systems: the "main" system and the "monitor" system. Each system consists of microphones, a mixing board, sound processing equipment, amplifiers, and speakers.

The "main" system (also known as "Front of House", commonly abbreviated FOH), which provides the amplified sound for the audience, will typically use a number of powerful amplifiers driving a range of large, heavy-duty loudspeakers including low-frequency speaker cabinets called subwoofers, full-range speaker cabinets, and high-range horns. A large club may use amplifiers to provide 3000 to 5000 watts of power to the "main" speakers; an outdoor concert may use 10,000 or more watts.

The "monitor" system reproduces the sounds of the performance and directs them towards the onstage performers (typically using wedge-shaped monitor speaker cabinets), to help them to hear the instruments and vocals. In British English, the monitor system is referred to as the "foldback". The monitor system in a large club may provide 500 to 1000 watts of power to several foldback speakers; at an outdoor concert, there may be several thousand watts of power going to the monitor system.

At a concert in which live sound reproduction is being used, sound engineers and technicians control the mixing boards for the "main" and "monitor" systems, adjusting the tone, levels, and overall volume of the performance.

Touring productions will travel with relocatable large line-array PA systems, sometimes rented from an audio equipment hire company. The sound equipment moves from venue to venue along with various other equipment such as lighting and projection.

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