Church Sound Systems – how to get it right

Why Churches Buy Three Sound Systems, and How You Can Buy Only One.

There’s a saying among the better sound contractors that they want to sell a church their LAST sound system. That’s because, strange as it seems, most churches are so afraid of buying sound systems that they do it three or four times before they finally end up with one that works well enough to meet their needs!
The first is purchased when they build the church, and the architect says he’ll design it. What really happens is that he passes the work along to a sound contractor, usually the new kid on the block who’s trying to get his foot in the door by doing the designs for free. He prints up a list of whatever equipment he has the best deals on (and which his competitors aren’t franchised for), and sends it along as a specification.
The system goes out to bid. Often our hero is the low bidder, but nearly as often someone who knows as little about things as he does proposes a different system that’s cheaper. And since there’s no knowledgeable authority to decide which is the better deal, the lower cost system often wins. No matter — neither system is likely to meet the church’s needs anyway, and most are replaced in a year or two.
Why are these first systems replaced? Some of the most common problems are feedback (howling), poor speech intelligibility and muddy music caused by too much reverberation, the system can’t be heard on the platform, dead spots, hot spots, and just plain unpleasant sound quality. And so we move on to system number two.
There are several variations on system number two. Often, members of the praise and worship team make exploratory visits to their friendly musical instrument and recording equipment store, where everyone either is, has been, or knows someone who is or has been a roadie for a band. And all of those folks know how to put together a sound system — after all, they did it every night for their bar band, and got paid for it! Add to that the fact that they’re on commission, selling all kinds of sound equipment designed to be used in bar bands. And gee whiz, isn’t a church system just like a bigger bar band system? So we have another designer who doesn’t know much of anything about sound systems for churches, but he’s selling his equipment.
A second common variation on system number two starts out with someone in the congregation who is either a sound contractor or knows someone who is a sound contractor. And because he’s a friend, or a friend of a friend, he’s asked to design the next system. Maybe he’s actually qualified to do it, but more often his specialty is paging systems for offices and factories, or touring systems for rock bands. So here’s another designer who doesn’t know enough to get the design right.
Other common variations on the theme are electronics engineers from industry who head down to the local Radio Shack or music store, and stereo enthusiasts who think everything will be fine if they just install the latest monster cables, and super exotic amplifiers, loudspeakers, and microphones.
So this second time around, the designer is chosen because he’s someone’s friend, but still not because of any proven ability to put together a good church sound system. System number two is purchased and installed, and rarely works any better than the first. But it’s now a couple of years later, twice as much money was spent as planned, and attendance is sagging because of the poor sound. The pastor still has poor communication with the congregation, and the praise and worship team sounds more like noise than inspiration.
Desperate measures are called for. If they’re lucky, the church comes to the realization at this point that they’d better find someone who really knows what they’re doing, a proven expert with a track record. That someone is an acoustic consultant who specializes in sound system design for churches and performance spaces. Someone who understands how loudspeaker systems interact with large rooms, why feedback happens and how to
prevent it, how to get good sound and equal loudness to everyone in the congregation and on the platform, how to prevent music from turning to mush, how to prevent hums and buzzes from happening, and all of the myriad other things which can go wrong in a big room. Someone who insists on coming in to meet with the pastor, leaders of the praise and worship and technical teams, study the worship space, and measure its acoustics. Someone who will have to be paid to design the system because they don’t work on a commission or markup from the sale of the system.

Why Does All This Have to Be So Complicated?

After all, isn’t all we’re talking about nothing more than a simple PA system? Why can’t the church just buy a mixer and some loudspeakers at Radio Shack (or a music store) and hang them on the wall? That’s what they did in the smaller church they just moved out of, and it worked fine!
There are several major reasons. First, as the size of the worship space gets larger, the demands placed on the sound system grow exponentially. In a small space, the choir and praise band are much less likely to need amplification to carry to the congregation, and there is rarely enough reverberation to make it hard to understand the spoken word. The church I grew up in never had a sound system, and we could hear the preacher just fine! But its seating capacity was only a few hundred.
The larger the space, the more reverberation there will be to muddle both the spoken word and the praise band. Echoes from rear walls, balcony faces, side walls, and ceilings can make things even worse. It takes very skillful sound system design to overcome these problems. It can be done, and done well, but it isn’t easy. Sound must be very carefully controlled, focused only on listeners with as little as possible spilling onto walls and ceilings. This takes the right type of loudspeakers in the right place and very carefully aiming. Loudspeakers designed for bar bands or for touring sound are rarely the right choice here.
Second, the role of sound and amplification has become much more central to praise and worship. Music is used to inspire, to lift the spirit, and to bring the unchurched into the fold. Choirs which used to sing with only a piano or organ are now accompanied in many churches by by a rhythm section. In churches which incorporate a contemporary style of worship, the sound system must be able to make the choir much louder to balance with drums and electronic instruments, and the various musicians must be able to hear each other well to play together. Again, careful control of the sound is critical if this is to be accomplished without feedback.
The acoustic design of the worship space is fundamentally important to both of these concerns, and many churches are designed with no competent acoustic advice. Often, there is so much reverberation in a church that the praise band has turned to mush before the sound system is even turned on. Careful sound system design and enough money CAN provide good speech intelligibility in almost any space. But there is NOTHING that can be done with a sound system to improve the sound of the praise band in a bad acoustic environment beyond overpowering it with carefully focused energy. By this time everything is far too loud for comfort, and often so loud that it both drives people away and causes permanent hearing loss! Certainly not a Christian thing to be doing to anyone!

Read more … Part 2.  The Role of a Consultant

by Jim Brown AUDIO SYSTEMS GROUP, INC. 4875 N Ravenswood Ave Chicago, IL 60640 773/728-0565 jim@audiosystemsgroup.com