I will start with a confession. For most of my playing career my main instrument has been the bass guitar, most often my beloved 1976 Rickenbacker 4001. Although I love the low frequency “thump” I have to confess that I detest subwoofers with a passion.
Why do I hate subwoofers so much? Simply because I have been to far too many gigs where the sound has been ruined by the overpowering noise coming from the PAs’ subwoofers. A Bonnie Raitt gig sticks in my mind as being a particularly bad example – every time the bass drum was used or the bassist played a note all that could be heard was the “thump”. I understand why subs are used in big PA systems but, to me, when they’re too loud in relation to the rest of the PA components then I can show you a bad sound engineer.
It gets worse with local bands playing in pubs, bars and clubs. A 1000 Watt PA with the wattage split between the tops and the subs is not uncommon. In fact, lots of bands use far more than that. I was in a tribute band and our PA was about 2.5 kW. Absolutely unnecessary, stupidly expensive and a pain in the arse to carry, set up and dismantle. Plus, if we had turned it up the audience would have been deafened. A big PA is only ever needed for large venues and open air gigs. Add in the need for snakes, stage boxes, power amps and mixers in flight cases and you’re looking at long times for setting up and sound checking. Come the end of the night, you’re knackered but have to deal with myriad leads and heavy weights while the bar owner is making pointed hints about you buggering off pdq. Not fun. Did I mention that your performance has probably been swamped by “thump”?
Do not be lead astray by people talking about “headroom” and “distortion” – 99% of the time it is poorly informed advice.
Most jobbing musicians play in small venues for the most of the time. Back in the Seventies the backline amps did the hard work for the instruments while the PA carried the vocal amplification. Typically, a PA was 100-150 Watts and the backline used amps of 50-100 watts. Most people in the audience used to moan about the volume when the band turned up!
My current band decided to keep things simple and light. I use a 100 Roland bass combo, the guitarist uses a venerable Fender Princeton (all 15 watts of it) with a bi amped Marshall Mercury or Gretch amp (both 5 watts) while the keyboard player uses a 100W bass amp. The drummer hits his drums! At larger indoor gigs we do mike the bass drum and snare plus the guitar – never needed to do anything else at an inside gig.
So, what’s the PA we use? Most of the time it is a 1970s H&H 150W mixer amp with matching speakers. For the larger venues we use a Yamaha Stagepas 300 with a submix for the drums. The speakers for both systems are full range – we once even put the whole band through the Stagepas. What’s the band sound like? Loud enough, clean vocals, clear instruments, good sound mix with full tonal range. And the gear is light, easy to set up and tear down. From arrival, we can be playing within 30 minutes, sound check and all.
I’d conclude with this. Large PAs and subs are needed sometimes and they work great if you keep the subs down in volume. For day to day gigging it’s possible to use a simple, small PA and get a great sound. The smaller PA won’t break your wallet, or your back, and set up / tear down is a breeze. Think about it!