Street Music 101 – Rolling with Amplification – How It’s Done

shortlink here: http://wp.me/pbr9G-3SR

mnemonic link here:  http://urlet.com/trials.tricky

I started off the summer wanting to upgrade my simple street music rig to be amplified, battery powered and portable, since I don’t have a car.  I wanted to switch to all amplified acoustic even on the streets since I had migrated to playing lots of club gigs in an amplified context, and I just wanted to do the same show on the street that I did in the clubs onstage.   So I started searching for solutions.

At the time I was just carrying my simple acoustic rig, a guitar, a tuner and a bucket to sit on.

My first try was to use an old Roland Microcube that I had picked up at a pawn shop back in 2008.   I first started using the microcube out in the Plaza here last spring, and in a few of the other Old Town acoustic sweet spots.  (Old Town Eureka is blessed with a few GREAT acoustic music venues.   I think its to do with the old buildings reflecting sound somehow, and perhaps just the right scale but I speculate.)

Well it is plain the the Roland is underpowered for the task of producing amplified vocal/guitar mixes outdoors.  Not that it isn’t loud enough, it is.  It really is a remarkable little amp.   Great if you are busking playing lead riffs because distortion is distortion right?   So you can crank these little amps but when you do vocals and acoustic guitars start to become distorted, shrill and thin.  Its partly because of the tiny 6 in speaker, but its also just 3 watts of power.

With these little amps there are a few things you can do though, and you can make your sound pretty decent.

First of all, use a mixer or preamp in front of the Microcube.   If you dial in just enough preamp to push the little Roland a little harder from the front end, you can get a much louder and less distorted sound out of it.   I would say if you are a singer/guitarist a mixer of some kind is essential to overcome the mic/instrument impedence differential.   That’s where the problem lies because it is hard to find a battery powered mixer that will work.      Rolls makes one for about $75.   Behringer makes one (1002b) but it has 5 mic inputs it is too big really for most busking applications and it costs about $125.    What made this possible to work for me was the Zoom A3 that I have reviewed here because it is essentially a two channel mic/guitar mixer with effects that is battery powered.   So I use the Zoom for a preamp pushed into the microcube and the sound is much improved.

Then the other thing you can do, and this is true of other small low power small speaker amps is that you can find a feature of the outdoor environment and use it for a horn.   For instance I often use the inside corner of a wall or some buildings and aim the little Roland backwards (away from the audience) and angled upwards towards the sky and building corners, to get the music in the air.  The stone or brick corner “horn” seems to add sympathetic bass to the content, and smooths out the harshness of the little speakers.   Listeners have the sensation of hearing your acoustic voice and guitar followed quite quickly by an echo from the horn, a little distorted still because it is still a tiny speaker, but people seem to process distortion differently in echoes than in direct sound.  It is almost as if we humans expect a little distortion in echoes.   People seem to find it a pleasant effecd, it is almost magic.    So give it a try.   Roland cubes, don’t forget the Peavey Solo it is 10 watts battery powered you can find them used for about 50 bucks.

Then there are a few battery PAs that you can use.   They are much more powerful than the Roland,  I use the AN Mini which cost about 180 dollars US.   Now it doesn’t have any effects, but it is a real 30 watt amp and it runs on 10 AA batteries, and I use rechargeables.  Since I use the Zoom A3 with the AN Mini as well all the effects I need are in the pedal.  This is actually  a pretty powerful rig and very portable.   But since the speaker here is also small, it is best to use these PAs the same way as the cube, that is aimed back and upwards towards a stone corner.

Roland makes a couple of battery PAs but both of them are overpriced and underpowered.   Roland makes great products but this line needs to be updated they have not kept pace with tech on battery powered gear.  The whole C ube line is underpowered now and out of date.

If you google for “battery pa” or “portable pa” you can find a few other options of small battery pas.   Samson makes one,  And there are a few that are very expensive.  Sampson XP40i is 40 watts and runs about $249 street http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/XP40i/.   I haven’t heard  one but based on my experience this summer, it might just stomp all over one of the Rolands.  Prob not as quality built as a Roland, and no effects, but prob quite a bit louder.   The Cubes are only 3 or 4 watts and the AC is only 2 x 15 watts.    The 30 watt AN Mini is much louder than the Cubes.   I might have gone with the Samson instead of the AN Mini but the price was the difference for me.  $249 as opposed to 175, plus the AN mini uses AA batteries which is a plus for me, since I have rechargeables already.  .   The Samson uses a proprietary battery pack.  Samson makes a wireless version also the XP40iw for about 50 bucks more.    The Samsons do have a mini mixer built in, with one XLR input and one 1/4 in instrument input, while the AN Mini has only one quarter in input.   So the price difference is mostly the mixer and the mic preamp I suppose.  The Samson will most likely have the same small speaker problem that the cubes and the an-mini have, some harshness.  Use a corner for a horn with the Samson too if you need to.

Gemini Play2go mobile pa  advertised as 50  watts , 8 in woofer, 1 in tweeter.  199 dollars, built in battery.  may be issues with European charging cord.

mipro ma100 or ma10

alesis transactive  25 w

qtx qr12pa

are a few more that I have found but I haven’t tried them.

Also consider the newer NUX MIGHTY 8, it is about 7 watts, roughly double the power of a Roland Cube, well its a virtual clone of a cube but noticeably more powerful, new for $130 street.    Or a Peavey Solo.   I don’t know if Peavey still makes the Solo (not to be confused the with the Solo Bandit 112) but it is a 15 watt portable amp sometimes called the Solo AE and it runs on AA batteries, at 10 watts output.  You can find them used for around 50 to 70 dollars.  Crate also makes a smaller 15 watt Crate Taxi, and used to make a battery bass amp the Crate Bus but they seem to be pretty rare and discontinued.

Although I had found some workable solutions to my quest to be battery powered on the street I wanted to give the best show possible so I obtained a Crate TX50D which is a battery powered 50 watt acoustic amp.   It sounds great, and I will give a full review soon.  If you are serious about playing on the street and you have $400 to spend, and you don’t want to mess with building your own rig as described below, then this is the way to go.   The Crate is the rig that many pro buskers and world traveling musicians use.  Its simple, you use it then plug it in to charge it.  You don’t need a mixer or a Zoom pedal, it has a mic channel (xlr and 1/4 jacks) and a guitar channel.  It feels like  a real 50 watt amp, you can feel your guitar and vocals “hit the back of the room” so to speak.  I have gigged all summer with a 30 watt amp in a club and its plenty loud with a mixer or Zoom pedal pushing it, so this 50 watt Crate with 10″ woofer sounds pretty good.  And with the Crate there is no need for mixer, preamp or pedal.  It just remains to be seen how durable the amp  and battery pak will be.

Once I had decided to produce the absolutely best sound I could do, then I pursued  a dual strategy.  I would buy a Crate or something equivalent (I would find the best available off the shelf solution) and I would also try to build a 12 volt battery powered system in parallel.   Well after some research I bought the Crate.  It is really the best solution I have found in off the shelf gear for portable battery busking or playing.  The little Roland acoustic amps cost the same as the Crate but they are no where near as powerful   The Roland is really a 2 x 15 watt stereo amp, not really “30 watts” as it is advertised.  The Street Cube has the same problem    All the other amp companies who make battery amps make tiny amps, the Peavey  Solo is the most powerful at 10 watts (15 when AC powered)  with the exeption of Traynor, who seems to make a 40 watt battery amp but its hard to find.  [ed  traynor tvm50 ]

Now on to 12 volt systems.  Yes you can do it and its pretty simple.   You know if you google for 12 volt battery guitar amps (or variances of such) you will find people that have tried inverter power, and they got stuck in the woods with a dead battery and never tried it again.  They were using auto batteries, which you can do if you keep your car running.   Otherwise you need a deep cycle battery.   As a matter of fact I know peeps have figured this out down in LA because this fall when I was out playing in Eureka Old Town with my battery rig I ran into a beautiful young woman from LA who had her own hand built 12 volt battery street rig, and we had the same components that I had assembled.  She had a wonderful voice, she was up here visiting her uncle and scouting locations for a music video shoot.   So this is no big secret.

Here’s what you need.   You need a 12 volt deep cycle battery.   Its the deep cycle that’s important, regular auto and truck batteries are not well suited for this task.   The good news is that these deep cycle batteries don’t cost so much.   I am using a 35 AH deep cycle battery for my first (proof of concept) rig and it cost me $65 US.   These kinds of batteries are widely used now in wheelchairs, electric carts and solar arrays so they are plentiful.  I am not sure right now how big  a battery I need.  I want to be able for myself to play 3 hour shows and then be able to reliably recharge my battery within the 24 hour cycle.  So my 35 AH (AH stands for Amp Hours, a measure of the storage capacity of the battery)  may be too big.   I am going to test a smaller battery in my next rig.   But the key is the 35 AH works fine.  Look for the newer tech like AGM or gel-cel batteries because they are seale, maintenance free and you can charge them indoors.

You need an inverter.   You will be looking (in the US) for a 12v DC to 120 V AC inverter.  You will want one with two AC outlets.  For my rig I wanted to get the best sound possible, so I decided on a pure sine wave inverter.   There are several kinds of inverters, the cheapest put out square waves, then there are modified sine wave inverters and pure sine wave inverters.   I bought a 600 watt pure sine inverter for about 150 dollars US.   Here again I may have overdone it.  I wanted to get it right on the first shot, and I did.  It sounds great.   Now for my next test rig again I will go a bit smaller.  Maybe a 400 watt modified sine inverter I think I can find for less than 50 bucks.  I think that maybe bigger inverter = more audio headroom but I could be wrong about this.  I an on a learning curve for sure.  The problem with cheap square wave inverters is that they can produce 60 cycle hum into your music.  But its not a given.  If you are assembling one of these rigs and you have a cheap inverter give it a try, it may work without excessive hum if you are lucky.

You will need a charger.   Find a smart charger, your batteries will last  a lot longer.   Find one for less than 50 bucks.

You need a small amp that you will simply plug into the inverter.  If it is an acoustic amp or keyboard amp or small pa  with low impedance mic input(s) you are good to go.   If you are using a small bass amp or guitar amp (I like bass amps better for this usually)  then you will need to use a mixer or Zoom A3.   If you use a mixer you will mostly likely need to power it (since as I pointed out above battery mixers are not common) hence the usefulness of the 2nd AC outlet on the inverter.  Happily most inverters in this class do have two outlets, its  a detail though.

I like bass amps better because they are usually simpler and not full of effects that I don’t need (and do have to pay for.)   When you use a bass amp or guitar amp for vocals you usually have to roll off the bass and push the midrange a bit.   But that makes the guitar sound a bit thin so you have to adjust the guitar too.   But you can do it.  Of course I have EQ on the zoom pedal or mixer as well.  I am just saying that a bass or guitar amp is doable for this kind of act either on the street or in a small club if you use a small mixer and take the time to dial your sound in.  I want to sound as good on the street as I do in the clubs.  On the other hand, a few bass amps and guitars amps just sound crappy when used as a small pa, it has to do with how the circuitry or the cabinet and speakers are tuned.  Find another one, these kinds of old amps are plentiful and cheap.

So    12volt deep cycle battery  + inverter  + mixer + amp and you have a workable street rig.

Mine cost $65 for the battery, $150 for the inverter, and $60 for an old Peavey keyboard amp.   I don’t need the zoom pedal or mixer.  So this rig is loud, clear, portable battery operated, and    Toss in $25 for a pawn shop mic and stand and I roll for under $300.   And its modular.  If something breaks its replaceable off the shelf.

I bought a hand cart from Ace Hardware on sale for $15 and I bungee my rig to it and  I roll.

For my next test rig I will go to a smaller battery and a less expensive inverter, and I will see how it sounds.  I  will use the same mics and amp.  I may be able to shave $100 or more of the cost of the street rig.

Its true that some of these rig options will require a small mixer.   This week I bought a used alesis for 25 bucks which works or you can go up to things like the Zoom A3 which is $200 (but worth if if you can afford it).   If you must go really cheap without a mixer be patient and find the right keyboard amp.  You won’t need the mixer.  My current thinking is to find amps for this purpose at least 30 real watts up to maybe 50 watts, which I think is a good balance between clean sound power for acoustic guitar and vocals and power (battery) consumption.   I am going to test larger amps (a peavey KB100 or maybe a KB/A 60 if I can find one) and also a Peavey Bandit.   My current favorite is an old Peavey KB/A 30, which is bi-amped 30 watts into a 10 inch woofer and 7 watts into a tweeter.  It sounds great.  I don’t think you should go below 10 in woofers outside if you are a vocalist, unless you are going to play and sing really softly.   Probably 12 in will sound even better outside, that’s why I am going to try a Bandit.  Outdoors, you need to push some air with your speakers to sound good.  I did a farmers market last year outside with a 30 watt bass amp and the zoom pedal and it sounded great, in a block long outdoor venue.

You can do it too.

Remember get your music up into the air.  Music lives in the air and dies on the ground.

have a peaceful day,

Bill

update Well thanks to a wonderful musician named Heidi Joubert, I have learned about a new kind of battery amp (at least new for me) AER Compact Mobile CPM-AKKU http://www.musiciansfriend.com/amplifiers-effects/aer-compact-mobile-cpm-akku-acoustic-guitar-combo-amp they are spendy but do sound good on video. They are battery powered, 60 watts, twin 8 in speakers.  Basically  a high end battery powered acoustic amp.

update: I came across this video, this is an Aussie street musician and his rig is almost identical to mine, in concept. He is using a big Roland keyboard amp (I use a 40 watt keyboard amp) and a bigger battery than I do (he uses a 66 amp hour battery, but the bigger amplifier might require it) , and I have extended the handles of my dolly with two 6 foot lengths of 1.5″ pvc pipe so I can pull my rig rickshaw style down the sidewalk. Its a lot easier.🙂

Here’s some good advice from a busker:

http://www.harmonicatunes.com/busking.shtml

Here’s  an elegant approach to battery power sound:

http://wheeliebinsoundsystems.com/specifications

Here’s a link to the FlatMax Studios Karaoke Mixer, runs on 9v or 12 v battery direct.

http://www.amazon.com/Karaoke-Mixer-Microphone-Stereo-Output/dp/B00DKDG9RW/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

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