The sound systems used in most music rooms have changed greatly over the years. The cassettes of the 80’s and 90’s gave way to CD players and now are transitioning to solid state and streaming media in the form of MP3 players and computer based audio applications. The next ten years will be even more digital as we continue the trend away from the CD and onto other media like SD cards, hard drives, and online cloud storage services. Making informed and intelligent purchasing decisions now can help make sure that whatever audio system you invest in today will still work well with the technology of tomorrow. Consider these tips and suggestions when planning any new audio technology purchase for your room.
Buying A Sound System With The Future In Mind
Buying a sound system based solely on a person’s current needs or on convenience is often a recipe for buyers remorse down the road. A recent purchasing trend in many schools that should be avoided is the use of home theater systems or other bookshelf style all in one audio systems in the classroom. The assumption that is made by many buyers is that these systems, often with five or more speakers, will offer better sound coverage in the classroom. In practical use, home theater systems are intended for playing back the surround sound information contained on most movie sound tracks. Multi channel sound is almost never used in professionally produced classroom reference materials. Because of this the rear channel speakers are actually used very little if at all and thus can become a liability rather than a benefit.
Another problem with this kind of system is that they are usually intended for use in a smaller room and with people sitting much closer to the speakers. Cranking up the volume to a level where it can be heard over other instruments or singing voices often results in sound distortions or damage to the speakers themselves. Moreover these hard wired systems offer very little in terms of forward compatibility and flexibility with new technologies and wiring configurations.
Forward Compatibility and Future Proofing Your Purchase
Just as the cassette gave way to the CD the CD is now giving way to other forms of solid state storage. In general terms this refers to things like computer hard drives and removable storage like USB thumb drives and SD cards. The use of CD’s will continue, but over the long term the CD seems destined to be used as an archival medium to safeguard our music collections and other files from a catastrophic loss. Because of this a primary consideration when buying any system should be that it will not only allow you to use current input devices but also any new devices that might come along in the future.
At a minimum any system should allow you to easily plug in your computer, a portable MP3 player, and any additional audio equipment that you have on hand or that you might consider buying in the future such as your existing CD player or other devices. The use of a mixer or one of the other options discussed below are fairly cheap and versatile ways to future proof any new equipment purchase by separating the mixer and any input devices from the actual speakers and amplifier.
Buying Speakers and Amplifiers For The Classroom
One of the biggest factors that weighs into the purchase of a sound system for school use is the way in which the system is to be used. The decision must be made as to whether the system is to be permanently mounted in the room or is to be portable and able to be moved to a variety of different rooms or venues.
Permanently Mounted Audio Systems
Best For: Large rehearsal spaces and performance venues
Primarily found in larger rehearsal spaces these often consist of wall mounted rack systems with a lockable door. These systems are essentially professional versions of traditional component audio systems, with individual decks in the rack for the amplifier, mixer, CD player, and any other equipment that the room requires. The sound is sent out to mounted speakers spread around the room and the system cannot be easily be moved from place to place. Because of this it is important to invest in equipment that will not only meet your current needs but also your future needs as well.
Questions To Ask:
Does the rack system have enough recording inputs and are they easy to get to if you need to make wiring changes?
How easy is it to plug in a different sound source like an iPod, a computer, or a portable audio recording device?
How easy will it be to get the audio out of the rack and into a piece of editing software? What outputs will the system have available to do this with?
Do you need to have a built in CD player/burner in the rack?
Does the system also need to include video capabilities for sending video out to a projector? If so, does it have additional video inputs in a variety of different formats?
Contact your local music stores or professional audio retailers to get quotes on what your specific needs are for the room you will be using it in.
Portable Audio and Public Address Systems
Best For: Smaller rehearsal spaces or portable use in multiple practice areas. Also good for temporary use outside or in gymnasiums without built in PA systems.
The term portable audio system in this discussion refers to all in one audio amplification systems that usually come in the form of one large speaker mounted into a case that can be rolled around like a piece of luggage. Included with the speaker is a built in amplifier and usually some form of a mixer with one or more inputs for microphones or other audio sources. Higher end systems may include options like built in CD players or wireless microphones. Dual (stereo) speaker systems and those with separate mixers are also available from many manufacturers.
Questions To Ask:
Many of these systems can power additional speakers to extend their output capabilities and range. Will a single speaker system be adequate for your needs?
What built in options do you need to have on hand? Do you need a CD player? Do you need built in wireless mics and receivers?
What external inputs does the unit have available? Do they match any portable audio equipment that you might need to use with the unit?
Some portable units can be purchased with folding stands that allow you to get the speaker up at ear level instead of sitting on the ground.
Studio Monitor Audio Systems
Best For: Smaller music classrooms and practice rooms as well as applications where accurate sound reproduction is crucial such as in a recording studio.
While the traditional “boom box” style of audio system can still be used in small classrooms like this, their limited input and output capabilities do not offer much flexibility for adding microphones, an MP3 player, or.for hooking up a computer or external recording device. A very affordable and high quality solution to this problem is the growing use of powered studio monitor speakers together with a small tabletop mixer.
Studio monitors are designed to produce exact representations of recorded sounds without any acoustic changes such as reverb or added bass. Studio monitors can also be active or passive, with active monitors having a built in amplifier while passive monitors get their power from an external amplifier. Regardless of the type of monitor speakers you buy you will almost always need a small mixer to plug in your iPod, computer, tape deck, or CD player. That audio can then be routed out through the mixer to the speakers, allowing you to adjust the levels of each device independently via the mixer’s controls.
Questions To Ask:
Most buyers will find it easier to work with powered studio monitors versus having to purchase a separate amplifier. However, if the speakers are to be hung on a wall, having passive speakers hooked up to an external amplifier may be a better choice.
Some studio monitors come with built in inputs for iPods and other external sound sources. If you have only one or two audio sources to plug in you may be able to go with a unit such as the Samson StudioDock and skip the mixer altogether.
When purchasing a small mixer to go along with the monitors be sure to consider if you will require phantom power to drive any external condenser mics that you intend to use. Many mixers come with on board phantom power while others do not.
Look for paired speakers such as the Samson StudioDock 4i with iPod Dock or the M-Audio Studiophile AV40
An edited version of this article first appeared in the music technology section of Teaching Music magazine. A copy for personal or research use may be downloaded but no further use of this article is permitted without written permission from the National Association for Music Education.