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I'm an amateur musician who knows very little about audio equipment, but I'd like to start learning and have my own basic setup so as not to rely completely on the equipment at venues (sometimes they have terrible microphones and so on).

I've been searching online for a setup that will boost my singing vocals for situations such as small gigs at small cafes, or street busking. I'd like to have a "warm" tone to match my jazz-influenced style and mid-to-high vocal range. I'm thinking of this setup:
- portable mini amp (budget: around $100)
- portable/compact preamp/mixer (budget: below $100)
- dynamic microphone or low-noise condenser microphone (budget: below $200)

The portable mini amps I'm looking at:
- Vox Mini 3
- Roland Mobile Cube
- Orange Amplifiers Micro Crush PiX 3 Watt 9-Volt Mini Amp
- Danelectro N10B Honey Tone Mini Amp

The preamps/mixers I'm looking at:
- Mackie 402-VLZ4 4 Channel Mixer
- Peavey PV6 Mixing Console
- Behringer 302USB Premium 5-Input Mixer with XENYX Mic Preamp and USB/Audio Interface
- ART Tube MP Microphone Preamp

The microphones I'm looking at:
- Shure 55SH Series II Iconic Unidyne Vocal Microphone
- Electro Voice ND767A
- MXL V87 or V89 Low-Noise Condenser Microphone
- Audio-Technica AT2035 Large Diaphragm Studio Condenser Microphone
- Nady PCM-200 Professional Classic Dynamic Microphone, Cardioid

Apparenty it's possible to hook up the microphone directly to the portable amp, but I was wondering whether it would also be worth it to get a preamp?
Would it significantly improve the sound of the portable amp?
If I perform at a venue that has its own sound system / amps / speakers, would I have more control over my own sound by bringing my own microphone and preamp for it?
If I get the mixer which has 5 inputs, could I then plug both a microphone and a guitar into that, and then connect the mixer to the portable amp?
Did I budget correctly by allocating a higher budget to the microphone (as it is the closest to the source, my voice)? Should the preamp/mixer also have a higher budget? (Although, among the more expensive ones, there don't seem to be any compact options.)

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Hi Feanne - this is actually a perfect fit for Audio and Video Production but a bit of an edge case here. Mind if I migrate it over? –  Rory Alsop Aug 20 '13 at 13:05
    
@DrMayhem Right, thanks, please do! I've set up an account there just now so there shouldn't be any problems migrating this question. –  Feanne Aug 20 '13 at 15:42
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migrated from video.stackexchange.com Feb 13 at 14:18

This question came from our site for engineers, producers, editors, and enthusiasts spanning the fields of video, and media creation.

3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

While your plan to spend most on the microphone may actually be a good idea (you'll be able to use that microphone also at venues with a proper PA), this is not benefitial for your portable mini-amp setup. Pretty much all professional microphones (even some models for 30$) have a reasonably linear response if compared to any speaker available for 200$, so no matter how you distribute your budget the speaker will probably have the strongest influence on the sound you get.

Particularly, such guitar practise amps, like AJ Henderson says, are by no means designed for amplifying voice. They do in fact deliberately alter the sound so it will be distorted even at low volumes, because that's desired for rock guitar – but almost never for vocals; certainly not for a smooth warm jazzy sound, instead you'd get something between ancient radio lo-fi sound and heavy metal growl. I don't think you want that!

I therefore recommend you watch out for an affordable active PA Box first. The cheapest you can go for it to sound anything useful are models like the Behringer B208D. To get a decent sound you'll probably need to spend rather more than 200$ here, for instance with the Mackie SRM350 V2. When the speaker is active, you don't need a power amp, so I wouldn't buy a passive box.

Microphone/Preamp/Mixer, as I said, will have rather less influence on the sound.

Condenser microphones are great, I quite prefer them to dynamic ones sound-wise in most applications. But again, they are much more fragile, typically more expensive, and somewhat more difficult to use correctly (what with phantom power etc.), so a dynamic mic is probably a better choice for you right now. You can't go wrong with the good old SM58, but there are now even cheaper models (mostly replicas of it) that are still usable. Not all though; at any rate you should make sure the output is properly balanced. In doubt, do get an SM58. What you definitely don't want is a studio microphone; particularly large-diaphragm condensers are extremely fragile and very sensitive to all kinds of disturbances.

If you only need to amplify your voice and no other instruments, you don't really need a mixer. Even then, a very minimal one might be good to have, since it also offers you a preamp (probably not good, but preamps only have a pretty subtle influence anyway) and a basic EQ, so you can at least very roughly tweak the sound towards your need. And sure, you can then plug in a guitar, too. Such micro-mixers are now widely available, taylored mostly at podcast applications. The Behringer Xenyx 502 you already have in mind is probably cheapest usable, and might in this case actually be completely fine; for a bit more flexibility there are models like the Samson MDR 624.

Concerning microphone cables – those have almost no influence on the sound at all, unless they're just faulty. Just get something long enough and reasonably durable, I've had good experience with the Cordial CCM series. You'll also need a cable from the mixer to the active speaker; a simple short guitar / patch cable should do the trick.(Usually, mixers have balanced outputs and active speakers a balanced input, so technically, you should use stereo cables here to surpress hum. But it shouldn't make any notable difference in your application.)

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Thanks for your feedback, I am now looking for a portable active speaker that can double as a monitor. The ones you mentioned are too heavy for me so I'm looking at the Behringer EuroLive B205D which has the input channels I need (2 microphones and 1 instrument), and it's compact (less than 10lbs). It has basic EQ controls I guess (individual levels). And maybe decent sound quality? Would it be okay for me to plug my microphones and instruments directly into that, or would it be better to put a preamp/mixer in between? –  Feanne Aug 21 '13 at 4:33
    
The B205D is certainly a good choice if you can't afford more, either price- or weight-wise. It probably even sounds quite well at low volumes in the close field – for small cafés perhaps enough. For the street, I wouldn't be so sure, it's probably not going to be really satisfying. But you can try it – those neodynium speakers do tend to yield quite surprising results for their size! Microphones can be plugged in directly; for instruments it depends – an acoustic guitar with built-in preamp will work fine, an e.g. violin with a passive piezo won't. –  leftaroundabout Aug 21 '13 at 9:25
    
Ok, thanks! @leftaroundabout Right now it would probably be used for an acoustic guitar or a bass, I'll check re. the built-in preamp. I've settled on getting a speaker so I posted a separate question about the B205D avp.stackexchange.com/questions/8783 and am currently looking for a good microphone to use with it. –  Feanne Aug 21 '13 at 9:33
    
Again, the microphone won't matter quite as much as the speaker, since the latter is going to be pretty much at the limits of its capabalities. Particularly with bass it'll have a lot of trouble; acoustic guitar should be ok. –  leftaroundabout Aug 21 '13 at 10:33
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Whilst condenser mics are great, they are not as robust as something like a Shure SM58, the industry standard for many years now.The Beta is even better.Drop one and shrug your shoulders. Drop a condenser and start to cry. A pre-amp. is a good move - you can tailor your eq. from the start.Also extra inputs for gtr., or backing tracks are useful. Behringer mixers are fine - I use 4 from time to time. This arrangement would then plug straight into the p.a. in any decent venue.

Try to find an amp. with the biggest speaker you can lug around - the tone quality is likely to be better.More watts tend to produce more volume, but this isn't necessarily the case.Make sure the battery-fed amp can be easily used on mains, should it be available.

$200 for the mic.,and $150 for the mixer sounds about right.If you were to plug straight into the amp., there would be a case for having a power amp. as the mixer does the job of the pre-amp.Also get decent cables - for both good sound and when they get walked on, tripped over etc.It's also worth getting a flightcase or similar to keep your gear safe in. Shopping bags don't look too professional !

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Thank you for the feedback. Do you have any particular brand recommendations for the cables? I see high-end MXL mics using Mogami cables, but there may be more reasonably-priced alternatives? –  Feanne Aug 20 '13 at 12:21
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Your best bet is to get an SM58 for a microphone, it's the standard workhorse vocals mic, very durable and can easily be obtained for under the $200 price point. You're likely a bit off on the mixer and amp category though.

The little tiny toy amps you are talking about are not really designed for amplification. If you are in a small venue, running at max power (which would likely have horrible sound quality) you won't even be louder than conversation occurring 10 meters away. It simply isn't enough power to be practical for your purposes.

Those amps are called practice amps for exactly that reason, they are basically just designed to take an electric guitar or keyboard and make it equivalent to an acoustic guitar or a quiet drum kit. They aren't designed for performance, they are designed for practice.

For a mic cable, I personally like HOSA's but I normally use whatever isn't terribly expensive and gets good reviews. Don't spend too much on cables, particularly for balanced signals. Buy the cheapest that have good reviews based on quality rather than just value. Also, keep in mind that taking good care of your cables will do more for them than buying the best available. Learn to properly reverse wrap your cables by hand rather than wrapping them around your arm and they will thank you by lasting longer, coiling nicer and lying flatter on the ground.

The mixers you are looking at could do the job of EQing your voice and dealing with a balanced input, but really, your cheapest bet is probably going to be to go for a cheap hybrid system that embeds the mixer and amplifier together and then use standard speakers. Alternately, you could use one of those mixers you listed and a powered speaker. Either option would work, but the little battery powered amp isn't gonna do much for you.

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I did check out the SM58 because everyone recommends it, but it always seems to have a muddy/muffled sound which I dislike. I prefer the brighter sound of the 55SH. There may be some other dynamic mics with similar traits (I'm now also looking at the Electro Voice ND767A, Sennheiser E835S Performance Vocal Microphone, and Sennheiser E945 Supercardioid Dynamic Microphone) I will look up reverse wrap, thanks for the tip. For the hybrid system (mixer+amplifier) and speakers do you have any recommendations? –  Feanne Aug 21 '13 at 3:11
    
@Feanne: yes, the SM58 on it's own doesn't sound particularly exciting. I'm also not really a fan of this microphone. Yet I use it a lot live, because you can count on it, and it always gives you a usable sound. Other microphones may sound brighter and feel initially just better, but end up making your voice sound thin and unpleasing live. Of course, a good condenser mic will both sound nice and bright and still reproduce your voice faithfully and reliable, but again those are expensive and fragile. –  leftaroundabout Aug 21 '13 at 10:39
    
@Feanne - using a mixer with an EQ, you can fix that. The SM58 is a great mic for the price even in terms of tone, but the thing to realize about pro sound is that without EQing it, it will ALWAYS sound off funky in one way or another. It isn't a plug and play type of field. As far as recommendations, gear changes and what's good today won't be tomorrow, so I generally shy away from specific recommendations. Look on B&H or other reliable retailers and see the reviews for the options in your price range and decide accordingly. –  AJ Henderson Aug 21 '13 at 13:27
    
@AJHenderson: I don't think "always EQ everything" is good advice to give. Some engineers even say with a properly adjusted PA the SM58 without EQ is the perfect default live sound for any voice, and that something else must be wrong in the mix if the vocals need much EQing to sound good therein. –  leftaroundabout Aug 22 '13 at 9:25
    
@leftaroundabout - nothing is ever perfect for every voice. Voices have differences and need to be treated differently. You don't drive a Prius like you drive a Camero. The same goes for voices. You can always improve the sound of a mic with proper EQing, even if it might not always take much. I do agree it shouldn't have to be excessive on a well configured and good system though, and flat is always a good starting point from which to make adjustments, preferably with the room flattened already with a 31 band. –  AJ Henderson Aug 22 '13 at 13:13
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