5 Battery-Powered Amplifier Solutions for Busking Musicians

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If you are a singer/songwriter/musician who has been itching to get back out in public to perform in the warm weather, the most flexible solution for busking in public spaces is a battery-powered guitar amplifier that will provide hours of dependable play time and can handle the kind of punishment the street can dish out. Bringing your words and music to your town’s culture-craving citizens could be just the ticket, not only for expanding your songwriting and performing parameters, but also for increasing your fan base and gaining some recognition.

In the old days, when ambient noise registered fewer decibels in public (and before portable PA systems and amplifiers), street musicians could be heard when they played acoustically, within a certain radius. Today, in a noisier world, contemporary musicians have the ability to widen that radius with the addition to their act of a portable, battery-powered amplifier that offers inputs for guitars, keyboards, and microphones.

Grand Old Tradition

Even though the term “busking” used to describe street performance wasn’t coined until the 1860s, in Great Britain, the tradition dates back to at least the 11th Century, in Russia, according to Wikipedia, so take this factoid with a grain of salt. It is the grand old tradition of performing for gratuities. Some buskers provide a box into which listeners can drop donations during a performance, others will pass a hat around after a performance or just leave their instrument case open in front of them on the ground.

“… Busking is a very humble and brave act that takes courage to do well. It's also about the energy of music being alive outside in a city...” —from an interview with Ketch Secor, by Jedd Ferris (25 September 2008); Catching Up With...Old Crow Medicine Show

Busking does take courage, but it can also connect you with the public in a way no type of advertising could achieve. Think of it as “live” advertising. You are face-to-face with passersby in the open air, a marketplace, a transportation hub, a park. Unlike advertising, for which you have to pay, busking can provide you with some extra revenue while providing some publicity. Do you have copies of a CD of your original music? This is a good opportunity to engage in such commerce, distribute your music, and expand into new fan territory.

Please note that in the United States, constitutional laws ensuring the protection of artistic free speech also extend to the practice of busking, so you can get out there and perform with some impunity. However, it is always a good idea to check with local law enforcement, chambers of commerce, or the local courthouse to learn the rules of the municipality, and whether you need to apply for a permit that will allow you to perform in public without legal consequences.

Have Batteries, Will Play and Sing

So, once you have worked up the gumption to bring your live music to the masses, have learned about the local laws regarding public performance, and have acquired the appropriate permit, if necessary, it’s time to think about a battery-powered amplifier that will best serve your needs. Here are five that we think will rock the house—or the local train station.

Let’s start with a popular model, and an original: the Roland CUBE Street Battery-Powered Stereo Amplifier. This amplifier was designed specifically for the peripatetic musician. It is compact at 16.3 x 9.8 x 11.6" (41.5 x 25 x 29.5cm) and a lightweight 11.8 lb (5.2kg) for an amp featuring two high-performance neodymium speakers that ensure high-volume output for a total of 5 watts. It features a 1/4" phone jack and XLR-1/4" TRS phone jack, so you have inputs for guitar and microphone. An onboard digital tuner helps you stay in key.

The Roland CUBE Street’s rugged metal grille protects two 6.5" (16cm) speakers (left). Top control panel (right). Reinforced edges and corners absorb shocks.

The CUBE Street also offers eight of Roland’s celebrated COSM amp models that will modify tone to your taste, as well as gain, chorus, flanger, phaser, and tremolo for its guitar/instrument channel and delay and reverb for its selectable mic/line channel. Equalization is featured for both channels. An optional foot switch, such as the BOSS FS-5L, lets you switch between clean and effects, and the 3.5mm stereo AUX IN allows you to play recorded music from your phone or other music player between sets, when you need to take a break and hydrate. A versatile, tough, and utilitarian amp, the CUBE Street can be powered with a DC 9V battery, 6 AA batteries (promising 15 hours of play time), or on A/C power with the included AC adapter. The stereo headphone output lets you practice silently when inspiration hits in the wee small hours of the morning.

Boss FS-5L - Latch-Type Footswitch

Stepping It Up

Some guitarists say that in this world, “Louder is better.” If you wish to step up your street gig game, the Roland CUBE Street EX Battery-Powered Amplifier offers a performance upgrade from the original CUBE Street. You will experience greater projection from the increase to 50 watts of power, and the dual stereo speaker system features woofers and tweeters and provides louder, more powerful sound for expanding your audio reach. An increase from two to four independent channels over the CUBE Street gives you more flexibility for connecting different instruments, microphones, and other audio input devices. Each channel has its own volume and effects controls.

The powerful, versatile battery-powered Roland CUBE Street EX (left) and its top control panel (right).

A switchable mic/instrument channel, with XLR-1/4" input, offers an equalizer along with reverb. The mic/guitar channel, also providing an XLR-1/4" input, offers an equalizer, as well as chorus, delay, and reverb effects. Roland’s COSM settings for this channel include Acoustic Sim, Clean, Crunch, Lead, and E-Guitar settings, and a pre-amp for acoustic guitar promises clean, natural sound for your favorite axe. Mono or stereo line in lets you connect a keyboard or other input device, and an AUX IN will play your recorded music during breaks and, with iCUBE Link, you can record your performance. An optional BOSS foot switch can be connected for switching between clean and effects in both channels, and with the 1/4" line out jacks you can connect to an external sound system when you’re using the CUBE Street EX as a stage monitor. Using the stereo link jacks, it’s easy to connect a second CUBE Street EX for greater range of your sound. Schlepping that much gear to your street gig? Get yourself a sturdy equipment cart.

The CUBE Street EX also features a headphone output for your ears only, and a built-in digital tuner so your guitar will sound sweet throughout your street session. As a step up from the CUBE Street, you get a power output switch, so you can switch from economy to normal to maximum—this will help conserve battery power when you notice you’re running low via the onboard battery check indicator. The power options for the CUBE Street EX are either the 120V AC, 60 Hz included 13 VDC power adapter, 8 AA LR6 alkaline batteries, or 8 AA HR6 rechargeable Ni-MH batteries. Each type of battery will offer different run times, also contingent on which power setting you use. A mounting hole allows you to mount the CUBE Street EX on an optional speaker stand and raise your amplifier high for unobstructed projection. The amplifier’s dimensions are 19.3 x 13.4 x 12.1" (490 x 341 x 305mm) and it weighs 16.4 lb (7.4kg).

Auray PA Lightweight Aluminum Speaker Stands and Bag Kit

Lighten Your Load

As a more compact, lighter alternative to the CUBE Street amplifiers, you might want to have a look at the VOX MINI3 G2 Modeling Guitar Amplifier. At 10.32 x 6.85 x 8.78" (262 x 174 x 223mm) and 6.61 lb (3.0kg) without batteries, the VOX MINI3 G2 is an even tidier package than the CUBE Street series. However, VOX has managed to pack some punch into this little street warrior, and it might work for smaller outdoor spaces or backed into a doorway or niche in the train station to take advantage of ambient acoustics.

The VOX MINI3 G2 Modeling Guitar Amplifier packs some punch for a compact, lightweight amplifier. Its clean lines (left) and simple top panel controls (right) make it a purist’s delight.

The VOX MINI3 G2 offers 11 amplifier models (BTQ CLEAN, BLACK 2x12, TWEED 4x10, AC15, AC30TB, UK ’70S, UK ’80S, UK ’90S, CALI METAL, US HIGAIN, LINE) based on VOX's proprietary Valvetronix modeling technology; VOX’s Bassilator circuit that allows for enhanced low-frequency response; and eight effects (compression, chorus, flanger, tremolo, delay/reverb—analog, tape echo, spring, and room). There is no equalizer, but you do have knobs for volume, gain, and tone. The built-in digital tuner will help you keep your guitar from going flat or sharp.

The MINI3 G2’s 5" speaker outputs a maximum of 3 watts. There are 1/4" inputs for a guitar and a microphone and a 3.5mm AUX IN for playing recorded music from an iPod, iPad, or other device on your breaks or if you like to jam along. A 3.5mm headphone output lets you play quietly in the dead of night as you prepare for the next day’s street performance. Six AA batteries will power this busker’s lil’ buddy for +/- 10 hours (and do you really want to be standing around in Union Station playing and singing for that long?) and an AC adapter is in the box. A handy carrying strap is included so you can sling this convenient amp right over your shoulder for transport.

Amplify Your Options

Looking for a little more juice and fuller sound to accompany your solo performance? Take a peek at the VOX MINI5 Rhythm Modeling Guitar Amplifier. Available in black, classic, or ivory cabinets, and slightly larger than the MINI3, at 10.59 x 7.05 x 10.51" (269 x 179 x 267mm), and a wee bit heavier, at 7.72 lb (3.5kg)—but still eminently portable—the VOX MINI5’s 6.5" (16.5cm) speaker outputs 5 watts of extremely customizable sound, with 1/4" inputs for microphone, guitar, or keyboard. Again, there is no equalizer, but there are knobs for volume, tone, and gain.

The VOX MINI5 Rhythm Modeling Guitar Amplifier in its unusual ivory cabinet (left), and the top control panels on the black cabinet (right)

This amplifier offers 11 different amp models, like the VOX MINI3, based on VOX’s Valvetronix modeling technology. The built-in effects—compressor, chorus, flanger, tremolo, analog delay, tape echo, spring reverb, and room reverb—let you customize your sound even further, with distorted or clean tones. Like the MINI3, it features the VOX Bassilator circuit, which enhances low-frequency response. The VOX MINI5 also packs 10 basic rhythm-pattern genres that can be tweaked to create 99 different types with which you can play along, whose level and tempo are completely adjustable, from Pop and Rock to Latin, Jazz, Dance, Metal, and more. It’s like having a band at your fingertips with complete control and no ego trips!

The onboard digital tuner keeps you in tune, and a selectable power switch (just below the volume knob) adjusts power from 5 to 1.5 to 0.1 watts, for those home practice sessions where you want crunch but not too much volume. Prefer zero volume for late-night practicing? There’s a 3.5mm headphone input so only you can hear your sounds. On the street, the 3.5mm AUX IN for your music player will allow you to pump out some tunes while you sort out your tip jar, or you can jam along. Six AA batteries should theoretically give you a range of play time from 12 to 19.5 hours, depending on which power setting you use. Obviously, the higher the wattage, the shorter the play time will be. The included AC adapter will let you plug in and play until your fingertips bleed, should you so choose. Should you rock out too raucously, the MINI5’s carrying strap will help you clear out quickly when you notice the police walking toward you on the subway platform.

Lap of Luxury

For those of you who have champagne tastes and a champagne budget, the “luxury” model AER Compact Mobile 60W 2-Channel Acoustic Guitar Combo Amplifier offers a lot of power and connectivity in a small package (jazz players love this maker’s clean-sounding AC-powered amplifiers). This unit will drive 60W of amplification through its 8" twin-cone speaker. The two-channel, battery-powered combo is tailor made for singer-guitarists who play outdoors or anywhere an AC power outlet isn’t available.

The onboard effects available to you include two types of reverb; delay; and chorus; the level knob controls the dry/wet signal ratio. The amplifier also offers phantom power for microphones that require it.

The AER Compact Mobile 60W 2-Channel Acoustic Guitar Combo Amplifier

The AER Compact Mobile 60W 2-Channel Acoustic Guitar Combo Amplifier is powered by two rechargeable batteries that give you approximately 4 hours of play time, or up to 8 hours at low volumes. Note that recharging will take all night long, according to AER, or about 8 to 14 hours—a tradeoff for those mighty 60 watts of output. While it’s recharging, you can practice those new tunes to add to your set. You do get charging and low-battery indicators (which will shut it down before deep discharge occurs) to let you know when it’s time to bow to your audience and bring it all back home.

This amplifier crushes it with inputs and outputs. In terms of inputs, you get two 1/4" mono instrument, one XLR mono mic level, one 1/4" mono effects return, one 1/4" stereo footswitch, and two RCA mono line level.

In case you want to use outboard gear, for outputs you will enjoy one 1/4" mono line level, one 1/4" mono effects send, one 1/4" stereo headphone, one 1/4" mono tuner, and one XLR mono DI.

Channels 1 and 2 offer bass, mid, and treble adjustments, so you can fine-tune guitar and mic output. With the two RCA inputs, you can take a break and play your recorded tunes from a CD or MP3 player. The other connections give you the ability to use headphones, digital tuner, footswitch, and an effects loop, should you be one of those acoustic guitarists who loves pedals. Send your signal through a DI to a mixer, interface, or PA with the XLR output. A handy clip indicator lets you know when your signal might be overpowering the amp.

The mighty little solid-state AER Compact Mobile 60W amplifier measures 12.6 x 12.8 x 11.1" (320.0 x 326.0 x 282.0mm) and weighs 28.66 lb (13 kg), so you may wish to transport it with a small equipment cart or folding hand truck. Don’t forget the bungee cords.

MultiCart MHT Mini Hand Truck with Extended Nose

Have you been out busking yet this year? How have your street gigs been going? What kind of gear have you been using to play in public? Are any of these amplifiers appealing to you in terms of size, function, and options? Chime in just below, in the Comments section.

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