I can’t tell you how many time I have visited a church to look at a sound or presentation system that they are unhappy with only to hear the pastor say “We’ve only had this system a few years but it has never been right” After a few probing questions the answer is almost always the same; “We used a guy who was a friend of a member of the church.” Or “It was installed by our sound guy.” I’m sure there is the thought that the person was a really good fellow and would give them a great price but it did not work out as planned. So why is that?
In my experience, most “sound” guys are only sound mix engineers and not system designers. Maybe they run sound for the local band or even are the sound man at a local church, but, does that qualify them to design a system for a permanent installation? Let’s look at a couple of scenarios:
Sound guy for a band: This person may, in fact be really good at making his band sound great in the local restaurant but there are significant differences between that venue and a house of worship.
1. A restaurant venue is generally smaller than a church Sanctuary and most certainly has a lower flat ceiling.
Response: Most Sanctuaries are significantly larger than a restaurant dining area. In addition most Sanctuaries have vaulted or domed ceilings or if they are flat they are generally 2 or more stories high. Sound propagates very differently in a larger room than in a small space. Speaker placement becomes critical to even distribution and clarity of sound to each seat. A very different loudspeaker is required and must be matched to the dimensional characteristics of the space where it is to be used. Most certainly all speakers are not created equal.
2. The audience for a band concert is likely to be talking to others they are dining with and the music becomes only ambiance or background entertainment.
Response: When we are dining out our attention is primarily on the persons we are with and the conversation going on around us. When in a church service or other spoken word event the attention is focused on the person speaking. In the restaurant there is no real need to understand or really comprehend the content of what is going through the sound system in contrast to the need to comprehend every word coming through the sound system in a house of worship. It therefore becomes critical that the sound arriving at the listener’s ear be clear, orientated such that it appears that the sound is coming from the person speaking and not from somewhere in the room and that the sound arrives only once to the listener at an audible level. Room acoustics, speaker design and placement enter significantly into the design equation if we intend to have clean, clear sound.
3. Most likely the same people will not be back within a week to hear the same band in the same location.
Response: Attendees of a house of worship generally attend week after week and, more often than not sit is a similar place in the room. If the reinforcement system is hard to listen to for the reasons listed above they will start to complain and after a while may even stop attending the services. Proper design and implementation is very important in maintaining the attention of the attendees.
3. Very little of a band the event is spoken word.
Response: In a typical worship service or lecture, at least 50% of the event is spoken word. In our restaurant example, such a small amount of the event is speaking that the listener may be willing to strain to understand for a few sentences but if the speaking goes on for a time and it is difficult to understand the words the listener will fatigue from the required effort and either tune out or leave altogether. Again, proper attention to the acoustics of the space and the design of the speaker system is critical to the success of a sound reinforcement system.
Sound guy for the church or some other church: This person may have experience setting up sound week after week when the church was a startup and was asked to do the install for the new building. So he really should be able to design a permanent system, right? Or maybe the sound guy has been in the church for many years and has faithfully shown up week after week without pay, contributing to the ministry of the church with his time. Of course we have to let him do the design and installation of the new sound system, it would not be right otherwise.
I’m not going to repeat all of the items above because they mostly apply here as well. While the sound guy is dedicated and a friend of everybody in the church does not mean he has any knowledge of acoustics of a given type of space and such things as RT60 or %ALCONS or a significant number of other criteria that must be considered in planning speaker choice and location. And even if he understand the meaning has he ever really had to deal with these issues in different venues each with their own anomalies.
So what is a church or pastor or leader to do? First, be sure that you consult with a company that does have experience in designing larger spaces and most specifically performance spaces. If possible visit several facilities with similar characteristics and needs as are found in the project you are developing.
Except for the smallest of performance spaces, an EASE study (click here for more information) must be completed. In this study the coverage patterns of the speakers will be made clear and the acoustic characteristics of the space can be quantified. Do not buy a system without it!
Just because someone can hook up a stereo system and make it work or can set up a system for the Friday night band gig does not mean they have the knowledge to implement a successful performance system in a large room or performance facility.
Jim Murphy, Owner, Sound Concepts LLC © May not be reprinted without permission.
For another perspective on this issue here is a resource with a slightly different take on the issue: Why Churches Buy Three Sound Systems, and How You Can Buy Only One