Why is church Sound So Confusing?
by Joseph De Buglio
As published in Professional Sound and Communications and The Baptist magazines
Where does anyone learn about church sound and acoustics?
There is no place where you can take a credited course on church sound(audio) or church acoustics. Education on the subject is non existent. Education comes from word of mouth, apprenticeships or from newsletters like this one.
There is little written information on the subject and many people have been brain washed into believing many myths about church audio and acoustics. People seemed convinced that it only takes a couple of speakers, some wire and a mixer /amplifier, hook it all up and you will hear and understand everything that is said. What can be further from the truth. Yet, did you know that the church community led the way in the sound reinforcement in the late 1940's and early 50's? Did you know that the work done in the 50's are the sound system standards that all high quality sound systems use today?
So what happened?
Why don't most churches have a good sound system or good acoustics?
As a church member, wasn't my money being invested for that purpose in a new church?
Do these poor quality sound systems affect church attendance?
Why is it in some churches you feel like singing and in others you don't?
In the Beginning -1940's
Historically, before the 1940's, churches were constructed in remote places and designed so that the human voice could be projected without amplification. Many of our older churches still standing today did not need sound reinforcement because they were designed "properly" but, because of our Sunday shoppers, vacationers and tourists, (train, cars and airplanes) the human voice could no longer compete with outside noises. These churches were not sound proofed. It is for this reason most older churches have to invest in sound systems today.
When the age of sound reinforcement hit in the late 40's, builders of new churches suggested that they could save the church large sums of money by making a few changes. They suggested to copy existing building designs and cut all costs related to acoustics, acoustical materials and acoustical consulting and make up the rest with a proper sound system. This also allowed cheaper wall finishes and padded pews and carpets. At first the idea worked. They had good success because many of the church builders stuck to traditional building shapes. Building costs dropped considerably and very high quality sound systems were installed, often as high as 7% of the total cost of building the sanctuary.
What Architects were never told was that a sound system reinforces everything. If the room is designed acoustically correct in shape and surface materials, the properly designed sound system will work extremely well. If the room shape is poor or the wrong surface materials are used or if a wall is in the wrong place, the sound system will let you know that there is a problem regardless of the design of the sound system or the equipment you use. A sound system can not overcome poor acoustics and the laws of physics proves it.
History has also shown that in the late 50's, newer construction techniques and lower cost building materials would have lowered the cost of the older type of church including all of the acoustical work they once had. Instead, Architects began experimenting with "new" untested shapes at churches expense, often with poor results - even when a good sound system was used. Even today Architects don't have a clue as to what they are doing as far as acoustics goes. What is refreshing is that some of them are admitting it finally.
The Decade of Chaos
In the mid to late 1950's, two events happened at the same time -- the introduction of Rock and Roll and Cheaper "Professional Commercial Electronics". The Rock and Roll era needed portable sound for one night stands. Through TV, Concerts and Shows, everyone was exposed to the "portable PA System." We often saw it and we still do, place speakers to the left and right side of the stage -like a bad habit. This was a major compromise and the average public had learned to put up with it. The mistake churches made was using this very poor layout as an example. (Note* Many religious groups cited Rock and Roll for corrupting the youth of our society. I wonder if these people realized how Rock and Roll was going to impact the church internally -even today?) (Fact, Most churches do not have dead spots. It is the design of the sound system that creates them.)
Cheaper Professional Commercial electronics was also another major miscue for the church community. This new and cheaper equipment was never meant to be used in churches in spite of the advertisements. Most of it was meant for hotels, airports and clubs where people are on the move and they only have to listen to sounds for brief periods of time. Much of this equipment was (and still is) often called "Architectural Sound Equipment" and Architects were given this information for planning offices, malls and warehouses. When a church would ask an Architect how much do we need to spend on PA equipment, the Architect would get the PA book he was sent and budget $2,000.00 on sound equipment for a new million dollars 500 seat church . Now remember, before this, churches were spending up to 7% of the building cost in the early 50's.
By the early 60's, new church buildings were not suitable for lively congregational singing. Gone were the coral extravaganzas that made the hair on the back of the neck tingle with excitement and the thunder of the great swell of the 32 foot pipe Organ. Churches still wanted these things but by now they've been accustomed to spending a lot less and wanting something that costs much more.
The years of Confusion
During the 70's some churches did try to build the old style type of church with dismal results. Architects as a community had not been building churches with good acoustics for over 30 years. They had forgotten the knowledge and it's importance. There was and is no more proper Acoustical guidance except for a few people who are very busy fixing new Architectural mistakes.
In the 80's a new wave of churches sprung up. It is often referred to as the packaged church. These builders provide one stop shopping. They will hire everyone for you or they employ all the services direct from the Architect and engineers to the painters and landscapers. Packaged churches have become very popular. For a modest cost, a high quality, inexpensive, budget church was built. This has meant that almost any congregation could afford to have a new church building or expand at will. These churches are designed strictly as a meeting hall and they most often do not reflect or meet a congregations worship needs. Some Ministers have described these packaged churches as warehouses or funeral parlors.
(** Fact *** The word "Basilica" means a building designed for public gathering place, town hall, justice court, farmer's market etc. It does not mean a building design to worship God in.)
Most of these "houses of worship" do not have any investment into acoustics and most owners of these churches complain bitterly about how poor the church sounds. Hearing speech loud enough near the front without a PA is often impossible and investing in an expensive organ is pointless. Although acoustical guidance is non existent, the Builder and Architect will always say, "The acoustics will be very good." In some instances, the building design is so poor that any sound system at any price will not make the church suitable for comfortable listening. Only structural changes will make a difference. This kind of solution is occurring all to often.
Evidence shows that the packaged church is often rushed, built on price, not often meeting a congregations (Spiritual) needs. With a lower long term attendance in these packaged sanctuaries or new churches without acoustical guidance, shouldn't we include the cost of empty seats into the total cost of a church?
The good news is, is that a packaged church, with a few alterations could be the house of worship many of us want and remember. Often a higher ceiling, double layers of drywall in the right places, a sloped wall or different carpet could make a world of difference. Acoustical guidance is available, but you can not get it from an Architect any more. In Fact if you asked an Architect to hire an "Acoustical Expert", chances are, the Architects will hire a company that does 90% of its work for Government Projects or industrial noise control. Today, the average Architect will design 1 to 4 churches in their life time. How can they possibly design a new church without proper Acoustical guidance?
Statistics have shown that acoustical consultation and the follow through recommendations that are implemented costs less during construction than the costs of repairs after the fact. Doesn't two thousand dollars in extra block work on a supporting wall during construction sound like better planning than removing the wall and rebuilding it three weeks after the church opens the doors? Often, that is all it takes.
An Acoustical and Audio expert who specializes in churches spends a great deal of their time fixing other peoples mistakes. Logic says that churches should hire their acoustical expert and Graphic artist before an Architect is hired and before the design of the church is chosen. This has saved churches a lot of engineering fees, even for a packaged church that has seating for only 240 people.
Acoustical experts are specialists in what they do. They are often willing to take full responsibility of the performance of the room and the full design and performance of the sound system. House painters don't paint family portraits very well, but they do often use the same equipment and tools that Artists use. Church acoustics require the aid of Artists (Acoustical Experts who specialize in churches), not painters (Architects and noise control acoustical experts). The same applies equally to the Sound System designs too.
This chain of events over the past 50 years has caused massive confusion and havoc in the church community in many ways. Most of these poor buildings and bad sound systems (estimated to be around 80 to 90% ) have a physiological effect on people. Many older people who have some hearing loss but they can have normal conversation with anyone 3 feet away, often can not hear well in churches 50 years old or newer. As a result, these people will do one of three things. Some will come even if they are deaf. (These are the highly praised faithful.) Some will come if you provide a hearing impaired system for them or they will attend another church. (These are the ones who want to practice their faith.) Others who don't really need hearing assistance will stay home because they say that the sound on the TV is clearer. (These are the one who are seeking faith) This age group starts at 40 years of age and up. In some communities, this group of people can be up to 20%. Hearing speech, the organ, the choir, the piano and the congregation singing affect us all.
If you have a good sanctuary and you have a high quality sound system, the only people who are left to complain about the sound are people you have to yell at while talking to them. Good Acoustics and Good Sound means that people with hearing aids will have little or no problem hearing in such a church.
Young people who have good hearing want better sound for a different reason. Every day they are exposed to HI FI, high quality car radios and so on. Young people spend all kinds of money on good sound and they get it too. When it comes to churches, we should make the same allowance for them. The facts are, if your church has a sound system that meets the needs of older people properly, it will also meet the needs of young people too and vice versa.
Churches need to re examine the purpose of the Sanctuary and think long term. How often do we hear of a church that is paid for in less than 15 years and the average age of the members is 30. Where are the older people in fast growing church? What will happen to the fast growing church as the young people get older? Will they leave as they do in many other churches? Young people can hear no matter what but once you pass 40, you need a better listening environment. Again it's all physics and physiology. If churches thought long term, they would invest more into their buildings and would most likely have a better return on their donations.
The Age of Hope
As far as information goes, there are several good books on Audio. The best book on sound reinforcement is called "The Complete Hand Book of Public Address Sound Systems". Although it was written in 1978, and it is out of circulation, it will not be out of date for a long time. Unfortunately, there are currently no books on church sound or church acoustics. Therefore much of the information from this book will require some interpretation.
Good Church sound and Acoustics can be had all the time and it comes for a price. Currently the HIS System (Highly Intelligible church Sound System) and other companies that install systems like the HIS System gives the church the highest performance and best RETURN ON INVESTMENT.
Young people often seek high quality sound and are always ready to pay for it. Elderly people often demonstrate their desire for better sound with a bequeath. Regrettably, this is how funding is arranged for many of the high quality sound systems installed today.
This confusion in church sound has lead to some very well known statements that have been proven repeatedly. One statement says "There is never enough money to do the job right in the first place but there is always enough money to do it four times". Another statement goes something like this.
The average Church buys four sound systems. The first sound system is often installed by the lowest bidder when that church is built and buys it's first system. The second system is often installed by the local "Expert", who is often a sincere, hard working and a well meaning church member who is an audio hobbyist with the books and with the purest of intentions, or from a local music or electronics store. The third sound system is often designed, engineered and installed by a professional audio company who does all types of sound systems, earning the title of "audio expert". The fourth and final system is the system that becomes the permanent system that will not be redesigned ever again. This system will last the life time of the church building and will have equipment upgrades as equipment fails due to age and wear. These final systems are designed and installed by a few who have a true understanding of a churches needs. These people go to great lengths to educate the members of the church before a proposal is even submitted.
(c) Copyright 1992 by JdB Sound, Acoustics Toronto Ontario Canada
Murphy's Laws Strikes Again
When in doubt mumble. When in trouble, mumble. In case of doubt, make it sound convincing. Why is it that whenever you set out to do something, something else must be done first? Every person should profit from their mistakes, but most of us profit by the mistakes of others.
A Famous Quote:
Common Sense and Nonsense
"It is unwise to pay too much, but it's worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money -that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, be-cause the thing you bought was incapable of doing the things it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot - it can't be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better."
... John Ruskin
"The Complete Hand Book of Public Address Sound Systems", F Alton Everest, Tab Books 1978.
Sound System Engineering, Don Davis, 1St & 2nd editions, SAMS, 1975 -1987.
Architectural Acoustics, David M Egan, McGraw Hill, 1988.
The Master Handbook of Acoustics, F Alton Everest, Tab Books, 1989.
Audio System Design and Installation, Phil Giddings, Howard W. Sams, 1990
Handbook for Sound Engineers, 2nd edition, Glen M. Ballou, ed. Howard W. Sams, 1991
Some statements and Specs have been blanked out under the understanding that it is part of the "intellectual Knowledge" guidelines and were not part of the original article. Such knowledge has value and can be purchased through investing in the book "
"Why Are Church Sound Systems and Church Acoustics So Confusing?"Info on a book on Church Sound System & Church Acoustics
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Copyright (c) 1996 JdB Sound, Acoustic Lab.
Copyright (c) 1996 JdB Sound, Acoustic Lab.