I have never seen so much miss-information about any subject as I have about selecting a sound system. There are several pieces of information that you need to have before we begin.
A sound system’s main function should be to distribute sound or to amplify sound. Some systems do both, but most systems will be primarily one or the other type. We’ve all seen systems that are primary to distribute sound. They have many speakers in the ceilings. When we hear these systems we are often not even aware a sound system is in use. These systems work by having all of the listeners close to a speaker. We hear just as we would if we were close to the performer.
The systems that mostly amplify sound, work by generating lots of sound in one or two places, usually in front of the audience, so that even those in back can hear. These systems are usually at rock concerts, in parks etc.
Many storytellers I’ve talked to feel that you should buy a “Name Brand”. “This will tell your audience that you are professional and you take yourself seriously”. Instead I have always used Radio Shack equipment. Because, if anything breaks on the road your never more than a few miles from a new part. Another reason is that most “Name Brand” systems are designed for music which is more demanding on the sound system than voice.
No matter which way you chose to go, require the speakers to have at least one tweeter and one mid-range speaker. The tweeter will help tremendously with the understandably of your voice, especially with the “T” and “S’s”. The speakers should be placed in a position where everyone in the audience can see one, not you what them to look at them, but if they can see them they will be able to hear much better. I try to place the speakers above their heads on a table, a stage, or a speaker stand. Do not cover the speakers with anything. One set up we used, the speaker was on the floor behind a curtain. The curtain muffled the higher frequencies, The “S’s” and the “T” sounds, making speech more difficult to understand. Placing the speakers on the floor caused the sound to be blocked by the first row or two of the audience. The rows further back could only hear the sound that bounced off of the ceiling or made it through the people in front of them.
It is generally accepted that speech can be transmitted with a frequency response from 300 to 3000 HZ. But if you do this, it sounds like a CB radio or worse. My only point in mentioning this is that unless you are going to be doing music with your storytelling, almost any amplifier will have a wide enough frequency response. I use a PA amplifier and it has served me quite well.
If you are performing outside, you can not have too much power to cover the audience. The lack of walls, the grass, trees, bushes … all positively eat sound. Here I believe the rock bands have the right idea, the bigger the better. But inside, it is not the same at all. If you put the speakers above the heads of your audience, use two speakers, one 1/6th of the way across the front of the audience and the second at 5/6th the way across, and you stand in the middle, a 20 watt amplifier will cover a large gym with ease.
So there you have it, the minimum system. A 20 watt P.A. amplifier two speakers with built in tweeters, placed higher than the audiences heads, and far out towards the sides. That should serve you in almost every performance situation.