Building a Portable System

On Twitter, @busyscott asked if I knew of any “How To” guides for building a portable sound system. I thought for a while, and realized I couldn’t think of any. So I thought I’d write up a Reader’s Digest Condensed version. This won’t be comprehensive, but will have a few thoughts on what I consider important for portable system design. Of course, all these ideas need to be considered in light of your needs, which may be different from mine. 

Make it Portable

This may seem obvious, but based on some of the “portable” systems I’ve seen, it seems this rule is oft-ignored. Mike’s first rule of portability is this: Never carry what you can roll. The second is like it; never roll what you can get someone else to roll. Even when people remember this rule, there are a few things that sometimes get missed. 

First, use good wheels. And by good, I mean at least 2-2 1/2” in diameter (larger is better). Second, make sure the wheels (at least some of them) lock. In portable situations, you may find yourself setting up on un-level ground, and locking wheels will keep your portable system from ending up in a pond. 

Part of portability means smart packaging. SKB and others make very slick rolling racks with mixer rails in the top, and vertical rack rails below. These make ideal small system building blocks. Drop in a rack-mountable mixer, add necessary outboard gear and you’ve got FOH taken care of. 

I’ve been working on a system like this at Coast Hills for a few years. I’ve slowly been re-purposing equipment, and filling out my rack to get us to a place where we can roll it out and be ready to go. 

Manage Expectations

This isn’t so much a rule as a reminder as you’re building your system. We sound guys like to overkill everything, all in the name of the best possible sound. That’s a good thing, generally. But in portable systems, we’re typically doing simple events that don’t require concert level sound (and if they do, bring in a concert level PA...).

I find myself using my portable system with an iPod for background music and one or two mics for announcements about 80% of the time. The other 20% consists of off-site retreats and the like where the acoustics are much, much less than ideal and the expectations are similar. 

This is a good thing, as we don’t need to spend a small fortune to build a high-end system. We are typically looking for basic sound reinforcement, so a set of powered speakers usually work just fine. If you pair them with a set of powered subs as well, you’re well down the road to decent sound. 

In our case, when we installed the EV LiveX system in our student room, I pulled down the old EONs and the subs. Those got re-purposed as my portable speakers. They’re not the best, but they work fine for what I need.

Consider Analog

Digital is all the rage right now, but for a portable system, I don’t mind going analog; though this is primarily a cost issue for me. I have a lot of older, still working analog gear that worked great in my system. A couple of DBX 166A comps gives me 4 channels of compression, an SPX 990 works wonders on effects and the DriveRack PX works fine for basic PA tuning. Add in a Furman for power and a rack drawer for sharpies, board tape, gaff and batteries and we’re ready to roll. I’m short just two channels of wireless for our system, and I’m still debating what I’ll buy for that. 

While digital is nice in that does package all that outboard gear in one box (an 01V could work really well), it’s a lot of money if you have to go buy one. And given how infrequently we use our system (5-6 times a year), it’s too much money for me to tie up sitting in a closet. Of course, if you have an 01V sitting around...

Keep it Self-Contained

One of my biggest goals for my portable system is to make sure I have everything I will need in the case without having to pull anything from my regular stock. That includes patch cords, mic cables, extension cords, etc.. 

Now, I do sometimes break that rule when it comes to mics. If I’m doing a retreat and need a few DIs and drum mics, I will pull from my regular mic locker. Again, it doesn’t make sense to me to have $1,000 in mics and DIs sitting in a closet most of the year, waiting for that occasional outside event. 

However, as much as possible, I want to be able to grab the racks and cases and go; I don’t want to be grabbing a ton of stuff from main stage to make it happen. Consider your possible needs for cabling, then assemble those cables in a rack, box, or other rolling container and keep them there. You might even want to label them.

Adjust as Needed

Now, the system that I’m describing is very basic and handles small events very well. If you find yourself doing outdoor worship services multiple times a year, or other larger events, you should consider the cost of building your own portable system versus renting what you need. You may find that simply renting a PA for the day will get you better quality at a lower cost than you could afford to buy. 

On the other hand, if you need it often enough, it may make sense to build your own system. Keep in mind, you could ease into it. Start buy renting the whole system to figure out what you need. Then build your own FOH rack with mixer and other gear, but rent the speakers. When it makes sense, buy speakers.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive guide, but hopefully it gives you some ideas and a launching off point. Do you have a portable system? What does it look like?

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