Can You Hear Me Now?

Sound is an often overlooked part of demonstrations. The focus tends to be on the visuals (placards, banners, puppets, etc) which are important for the media coverage but the energy and safety of the crowd can be determined by whether the audience can hear what the organizers are trying to say.  If you want people to attend follow-up events, they need to hear you announce them! Poor sound at a demo can kill retention of supporters especially if it is a recurring issue.

Recently I attended a demonstration. It began with the usual mulling around that precedes most demonstrations and then the crowd began to move out into the intersection whereupon the action began. It was a very powerful experience to be part of this very large group of people putting our stamp on commerce for the day by blocking traffic on one of the busiest traffic intersections in Canada.

After the event, however, when speeches began the power of the experience began to fade because the organizers had severely underestimated how many were going to participate in the action or overestimated the power of their sound system. Unless you were right up front, you had no chance of hearing the people addressing the crowd. The majority of the crowd was left to stamp their feet in hopes of staying warm. I’m sure those addressing the crowd had lots of great knowledge to impart upon the crowd but the crowd started to melt away.

Luckily, you can ensure that you have enough sound to keep your crowd’s energy up economically though you may have to do a bit of work. There are a number of different ways of handling sound and I’ll go through each one in turn:

The People’s Mic

This tactic of sound amplification gained popularity upon the rise of the Occupy movement in New York. It was developed because New York City bylaws did not allow the use of powered amplification systems. The idea is that the crowd surrounding the person speaking repeats everything the person speaking says and through the power of combined voices, the people farther back are able to hear more of the speaker than they would be able to naturally.

The biggest advantage of this tactic is that it only requires enthusiastic people and it can create a sense of collectivity since everyone is doing something in unison. It can also be very useful in instances where having megaphones or other amplification systems are not allowed (such as crashing a target’s press conference).

It has a limited scalability though in that using it for larger crowds takes a fair amount of coordination and it makes all speeches take much longer than otherwise.


Every activist organization has a squad of megaphones. They are very cheap and very portable.

But they have to be used properly! The thing about megaphones is that the speaker is so close to the microphone. That means two things: the gain on the microphone is set very low so the user has to yell in order to be properly projected and the speaker is very directional (in order to avoid feedback) so if you crowd is widespread, you need to move the megaphone in different directions and repeat yourself a few times. Getting the megaphone as high up as you can (over people’s heads) will increase it’s effectiveness which is why the high end megaphones have a microphone that is detachable from the body of the megaphone.

In Canada, at least, RadioShack (otherwise known as “The Source”) sells megaphones for about $150 (hint: they also have a very lenient return policy).

Megaphones will not be very useful for addressing a crowd larger than about 50 in anything other than chants.

As I said every activist organization has a set of these devices. They tend to be in various different states of disrepair though. The advantage of portability results in them getting damaged. The type that has a detachable microphone, while being the most versatile, seem the most prone to being damaged. They are also tend to be targets for seizure by police since people tend to leave them unattended.

Sound system with built in battery

A sound system with a battery built-in can be very useful for a demonstration. You probably don’t need more than a single speaker for groups as large as 100. The biggest factor is the size of your horn. Many sound systems rented these days have large bass tubes and speakers which is great for playing music, but for speeches what you really need is the largest horn you can afford. The horn will look like the speaker systems used in industrial settings or old war movies. A system with just a horn will conserve battery power for projecting voices rather than basses which are usually unnecessary for speeches.

Sound systems are surprisingly cheap to rent and affordable to buy if you’ll be doing a number of events. They reduce the issue found in megaphones by having the microphone separate of the speaker so the user doesn’t have to yell. And if the battery is built in, the system will retain some of it’s portability. Usually, they will also have a control panel so you can control the sound separate from the person using the microphone.

A system with a built in battery will be heavier and will not last as long as a system independently powered.

A solution for independently powered sound that is still mobile

The largest limiting factor for how loud you can go when picking sound systems is how much power you can get to the sound system while still being mobile. You can use a gas powered generator but they tend to be quite noisy and becomes another piece of machinery you have to move around.

An alternative is to use a power inverter on a vehicle and power your system from that. And if you mount the sound system on the vehicle, you are all set. If the vehicle is a pickup truck, you also now have a platform for people to speak from that makes it easier for the crowd to see the person speaking. And vehicle engines are generally more quiet and less smelly than many generators.

Be careful to match the power inverter you use to the power required by the sound system you have. Many power inverters that are designed to go in the cigarette lighter of a car will not produce enough amps to power anything more than the smallest sound systems.

The trick is to use the larger sized power inverters and attach them straight to the battery of the vehicle. CanadianTire sells a 2000 W version and a 3000W version for $300 and $350 respectively and either will will likely give you enough power for your sound system. Then you need high amperage cables to connect the inverter to the car’s battery.  Buy the screw on kind and bolt them onto the battery during the action so they don’t slip off (using jumper cables risks having something slip off while you are moving and you probably won’t find cables that are rated for the amount of amperage we’re dealing with here anyway).

Be very careful! Do not turn on the inverter without having the engine of the vehicle on! You can drain your battery in as little as 5 min doing that and you won’t be able to start your vehicle then. Also make sure that the vehicle you are using has a strong enough engine to recharge the battery while driving.. A V6 should should be sufficient but if you want to be sure, ask a mechanic. I was surprised to find out my 2008 Taurus could generate enough juice for a 1700 watt system.

And finally, if you are renting a vehicle to do this, check to make sure you can access the plugs on the battery. Many car rental places (UHaul for example) bolt the battery in so you can’t get at it.

Larger systems

If you are expecting groups larger than one or two thousand, it’s time to hire an expert. You could probably rent enough gear to handle those larger numbers and do it yourself but given the cheap rates that professionals can get access to, you probably wouldn’t save yourself money. There are unionized sound companies that can handle any size project you need. Just watch that they are focused on delivering you value for money when it comes to speeches. Most sound jobs are for music which has different needs so they may not be used to focusing on delivering speeches.

Plan backups

This is a lesson I learned the hard way: sound systems fail; have a backup. I setup a sound system running off a vehicle for a demo in the middle of February. Any Canadian will tell you that it can get darn cold in February (this day it was -10 C). The engine of the car worked fine since I had driven it to the demo site. What I did not count on was that the amplifier was cold and in the middle of the demonstration, just as the International President of my union started speaking, it turned off.

And the megaphones had been used extensively to keep the crowd moving and warn. After a few minutes of fumbling while the crowd sat in the cold, we determined that we didn’t have any amplification. Luckily, the union president was very good at projecting his voice and was able to finish off his speech by just yelling.

Make sure your leaders know how to use the sound system or 

Why do labour leaders always sound like they are yelling when they give a speech?

If you have heard many labour leaders speak (especially if they are men), you will see that there is a school of speech giving that says “Yell, into that mic as loud as you can!”.  

There is some logic in this method, as I touched on in in the megaphone section: the louder you speak into a microphone, the louder a sound system can amplify your voice. So many people learn to give speeches by speaking particularly forcefully.

I think that this style forgets that there is more communicated by speeches than just the words you say. Emotion comes through as well and many who use this style end up sounding very angry. Which may well be appropriate given the circumstances facing working people today: just make sure it’s intentional.

So before people go on, talk with them about how to speak into the system that you are using. Often speeches are derailed because the person speaking fumbles the equipment and gets thrown off track by this distraction. You know that you've done a good job handling sound if no one even notices that it was there and your event went off without a hitch.

Where to get sound equipment?

If you live in southern Ontario, the best place to get sound equipment is Long & McQuaid. They are very professional in that they hire people who really know their stuff, test everything to make sure it’s in working order before it goes out the door, and their rates are very low. They do operate on a first-come-first-serve basis so you run a risk of not being able to get exactly what you want but I've not encountered that yet and I've rented from them dozens of times.

You will have to do a credit check before you can rent from them and you will need to have a credit card but they offer very economical insurance that covers you if the equipment gets damaged or even stolen (given that I've often walked out of their store with tens of thousands of dollars of their gear and only pay one or two dollars extra for the insurance, it’s a very good deal.

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