Updated: Aug 11
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Sound boards are essential for many functions, whether it’s streaming a podcast or mixing a live concert. Though sound boards can vary greatly, coming in different sizes and fluctuating in complexities, their ultimate function is taking multiple input signals—such as microphones, instruments, recorded tracks, etc.—and merging them together so they can be sent to speakers as one signal. They are also responsible for routing sound and changing the volume level, timbre (tone color), or dynamics of audio signals.
Setting up a sound board may seem intimidating at first, but it’s not as complicated as it may appear. Here, we will cover how sound boards function and walk through how to configure them correctly.
How Sound Boards Function
Sound boards can be quite intricate, but they all have the same basic elements. For example, a sound board’s essential function consists of tracing the sound signal's path while it journeys through the mixer. Let’s take a look at the primary elements involved in sound boards:
A sound source is an external audio signal that is routed into the inputs on a mixer. The most common source is the sound from a microphone. Sound boards are also great at reproducing already recorded music. Music can be played through a PA system by feeding the sound through one or more channels on the mixer. Sound sources plug into the sound board via XLR jack or TRS (¼") cable jack.
Typically, sound enters the sound board from the top and travels downward in a straight line, where it encounters multiple controls along its route. The first control encountered is called gain, and it is essential because it decides the amount of sound that gets through. The gain knob determines how much signal is being amplified by the built-in preamp in the sound board. Don't think of this as volume but more about sensitivity since a lower gain only allows the loudest and most exposed sounds to pass through it. Conversely, a higher gain lets almost anything through.
Every input sound source corresponds to a channel, and each channel typically has EQ potentiometers. These allow you to control the sound source's frequency balance individually. With the EQ knobs, you are able to adjust the timbre/tone of each input channel so they blend harmoniously with one another.
Next are the controls for the auxiliary sends (also referred to as the aux). Not to be confused with the term "aux cable," the aux knob's job is to "send" the channel's sound to other output locations other than the main output (typically PA speakers). Think of the aux knobs as miniature faders that set the level for outputs other than the main PA speakers.
For example, if you had a singer on stage who needed to hear themselves singing, you'd set up a stage monitor (speaker on the ground tilted upward toward the singer) and plug it into the aux send on the sound board. Since the singer will likely want to hear themselves at a different level than you have set for the audience, the aux knobs give you independent control over the stage monitor's "mix."
Another example for using the aux knobs would be if you had an outboard effects processor like a reverb unit that you wanted to add to the singer's vocals. Since you don't want to put reverb on everything, just the singer's voice, you'd use an aux to set how much of the vocal you want to be "sent" to the reverb unit.
The fader’s primary function is adjusting the channel's volume to the main outputs. Each fader feeds into the master bus fader. They enable you to adjust the presence of each channel within the final output or mix. All channels should start at 0dB (referred to as unity) and can be adjusted accordingly from there.
Setting Up Your Sound Board
Now that we’ve covered the basic components of a sound board and its main functions, let’s delve into how to set it up correctly. The process is not as complex as it may first seem, and it’s broken down below.
Position and Plug in Your Equipment
Take the time to find the perfect spot for your sound board and equipment, arranging speakers, instruments and microphones where you want them. This will save you the hassle of adjusting the sound levels only to have to move things around and potentially start over.
Next, you’ll want to start hooking your audio equipment up to your sound board. Begin by running the male end of an XLR cable to each one of your PA speakers and plugging them into the sound board's main outputs. Next, run the female end of an XLR cable to each one of your sound sources and plug them into the sound board's inputs.
Many times, you'll have multiple sound sources to consider. One recommendation is to take console tape or masking tape and put a strip at the bottom of your sound board. As you plug sound sources into the inputs of the mixer, jot down what each input is with a marker. This will help you keep everything straight, and you will be able to see which microphone or instrument you are adjusting.
Common abbreviations used to label inputs on a sound board:
VOX = Vocal
BGV = Background Vocal(s)
WX = Wireless Microphone
MC = Emcee Microphone
POD = Podium Microphone
GTR = Guitar
E GTR = Electric Guitar
ACO = Acoustic Guitar
OH L = Left Overhead Drum Mic
OH R = Right Overhead Drum Mic
SNR = Snare Drum
PERC = Percussion
KEYS = Electric Keyboard
UKE = Ukelele
TRAX = Pre-Recorded Tracks
Test and Adjust the Sound Levels as Needed
Now that everything is in the right place and plugged into the sound board, it’s time to begin soundcheck. Before continuing, make sure that all of the knobs on the board are set to zero. To begin, turn on all of the equipment. Loud pops, which could harm the PA speakers, can be avoided by turning on the equipment first. Next, start with input 1 and begin testing it. For example, if it's a microphone, try talking into it. If it's an instrument, play a few notes.
You’ll note that the sound board should have some audiometers that let you know your sound level, which will then indicate which controls you need to adjust. Let’s say you have a microphone plugged into the first channel, begin speaking into it at the various volume levels you plan to use at the event.
As you do this, bring the fader up to zero (unity) and begin turning the gain knob up. You want the loudest sound level you expect to have during the event to just touch the "zero" marker on the meter, which means the sound is not too loud or too low.
Do this for every channel until you have everything the way you want it. Once everything is at the right level, congratulations, you have a fully operational sound board!
Since this process must be repeated for every new source plugged in, keep in mind that you may have to do this several times if you will be using many different sound sources. Sound boards allow you to adjust the sound quality and volume to generate the most optimal sound settings. Therefore, this isn’t likely the end of your sound board journey, but it helps you get started, and you can always continue to fine-tune it!
Here's a sample sound board configuration with a PA system, monitor mix and effects:
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