The following article was first written by Joseph De Buglio in 1988 and published in 1991 for Your Church Magazine. It has been Updated Jan. 1996 and April 2008.
In the world of Church Acoustics, almost every house of worship has to be able to perform for many complex events during a worship service.
First and primary, a house of worship must be a place where you can hear the spoken word without fatigue or stress. (Fatigue and stress is when you are spending most of your time trying to hear rather than understanding what was said and seeing a person talk in one location but their voice sounds are coming from another. Stress is also caused from background noises such as air handling systems.) Therefore, you could say that a house of worship must perform like a lecture hall.
Equally important, the second function of a house of worship is congregational singing. This is when the churches should sound like cathedrals. It is when 10 people should sound like 30 and 30 people should sound like 100 people. Therefore you could also say that for congregational singing a house of worship must perform like being on stage of a great concert hall. Please note that this is for people in the pews , not on a stage or altar areas.
The third function of a house of worship in choral singing. This is when volunteers from the congregation sing selected songs in preparation for the coming sermon. Once again the choir loft needs to sound like being on stage of a great symphony hall.
The fourth function of a house of worship has many element. It is for special music and drama events. This music can be a soloist, a Gospel group, an instrumental group, a church orchestra playing to a small group of singers or a piano or organ solo. There is also a growing number of churches that amplify the voices of a worship team to help with leading or supporting congregational singing. For some churches, special music changes every week. This is when a house of worship has to perform like a live recording studio.
The fifth function of a house of worship is for solemn events such as, funeral and weddings. These events that require unique attention. For some churches, in a given week there can be all of these events. For a funeral, most people expect the house of worship to be dignified and ceremonial. For a wedding, the house of worship should be serious, happy and cheerful.
The sixth function that is becoming more common in many churches is for public events. Such events can mean anything from Gospel concerts, music recitals to community events such as blood donor clincs, AA meeting or Alpha meetings and so on....
All of this has been said to point out one thing. A house of worship in any denomination is more complex than any secular institution of it's size. Therefore, the acoustical needs of a church are unique to churches and only churches or "Houses Of Worship".
Did you know that there are over 400,000 churches in North America and there are no documented standards of any kind that determines how a house of worship should perform? To the best of my sources, this is true. Therefore, how can any Architect (who typically had only 5 to 8 hours of acoustical training) begin to fathom what kind of acoustics a church needs or wants? Because of this dilemma, "many experts" in the sound business have becomes sharks in offering high priced Band-Aids. For most churches, these expensive problems could have been avoided as the church was being built - often by just doing something that is free and simply such as changing the way a wall is built.
Why is this such a big deal? Many churches have acoustical problems and the problems are serious. Of over 500 churches checked at random, 6 of them had good acoustics and 2 of them had great acoustics and excellent sight lines which matched the style of worship that church practices. Approximately 1% of our churches in all denominations have good acoustics. Is this normal? Don't people want to hear, enjoy all parts of Sunday worship and participate? Should we use terms like chronic, terminal or epidemic to describe the listening conditions in our church communities?
Although many people are familiar with the line, "faith comes from hearing" (Romans 10:17), how many of you are familiar with the context of that part of scriptures? In the NIV, Romans 10:14-18 there are 10 references to hearing or communicating the spoken work. To drive this point a little further, ask yourself this question. When was the last time you meet someone who was converted to Christianity because of something they saw. Just because people hear sounds when the minister speaks, it doesn't mean you can understand the message.
It is amazing that in spit of all of our wonderful technology, hearing in the pews must rely on laws and principals discovered over 4000 years ago by the builders of Solomon's Temple. These laws were also used by Jesus at the sermon on the mount and along the sea of Galilee. Today, the majority of Architects (including the "Christian architect" who were trained in the secular Architectural system,)keep design spaces that ignore all that is known about church acoustics and science. What is also frustrating, as an observer of many church communities it looks like the churches are just sitting back and watching their communities split and fragment. Poor sound and acoustics has played a big part in churches dividing and splitting. For some reason, churches seem oblivious to this tool of uniting or dividing people.
Sound vs Aesthetics
A churches appearance is import. Whether plain or ornate, acoustical features can be added at little or no cost to a church. Why does it seem that Architects are against anything that can add beauty to a worship space that also has the dual purpose of making a worship space to perform as it should. These days most churches are very plain on the inside. They show little creativity. Yet if an Architect was given a concept plan of a church with acoustical elements at the beginning of engineering, I believe that the result could be exciting.
If Aesthetics are really that important, then it should be such that people from all over the world would want to see it - just like at a museum. However, I don't often see people going to a museum to look at the same art work for an hour or two every week. So why not simply have a church that is both architecturally ornate and have excellent acoustics at the same time.
Chances are, you know of a church where people are spending most of their time trying to hear rather than understanding what was said and the average person in the pew is not even aware that there is a problem.
The core of solving the problem is rather simple. If each denomination were to write a performance specification for the acoustics and the audio system for their churches and make it conditional in the contract with your Architect, builder, or audio contractor, more churches would have better conditions for worship.
In the mean time, there are over 350,000 churches in the US and over 90% of them do not have adequate acoustics for reasonable hearing, congregational singing and music. What can churches do to solve their problem?
Before a church tries a solution, they must have a doctor, (acoustical consultant), come in and make the right diagnosis. But! How do you know if the consultant is doing his job? How is the layman suppose to understand the report? Here are a few key points to look for in an acoustical report.
Just as a speaker has a frequency response or signature, so does the acoustics of a room. Therefore, in the report, there should be a frequency response of the room from 20 hertz to 15,000 hertz which also shows the length of reverberation in 1/3rd octaves.
There should be a prediction of the frequency response of the room after the repairs are done.
The prediction should be conditional within the contract and the consultant (or the company that does design/build) should be held responsible, not the contractor.
Have the consultant show you how the measurements were taken so that when the consultant returns after the repairs are done, you will be able to see the results for your self.
Do not accept a measurement at 1K or an average reverb time to determine before and after results.
Depending on the shape of the room, (a.) side walls should be fixed to support speech. (b.) rear wall must be for the pastor and musicians(c.) front walls are for congregational singing and for the Praise and Worship bands/musicians.
Echo's should never be repaired with a flat surface system such as flat fiber board panels, tiles or carpet.
Never paint a church without knowing what you are doing. A $4,000 paint job can cost $100,000 to fix.
In the consulting report, you should be able to determine the RT60 at 100, 200, 400, 1000 and 2000 hertz. If you have an acoustical problem in the lower frequencies such as 100 or 200 hertz, the acoustical treatment must be designed to absorb those frequencies. Most churches already have problems between 130 hertz to 800 hertz.
If your consultant does not address or do all of these things, then hire another consultant. Unfortunately there is no Government medical plan that pays for these consultations so you better do an on site review of the consultant you are considering to hire.
The Following is from the book "Why is Church Sound So Confusing?" It is a simple performance spec. every church can use to follow.
RT60 for traditional and liturgical services should be __(It's in the Book!!)__ seconds from 170 hertz to 3000 hertz .+/-__ tenths of 1 second. You can increase the reverberation by __ tenths of a second if the church only does classical music programs. If the church plans to include contemporary music, shorten the time by __ tenth of a second more.
RT60 of ____ seconds from 170 hertz to 3000 hertz .__ tenths of 1 second for Evangelical and Protestant churches with light to medium music programs.
RT60 of ___ seconds from 170 hertz to 3000 hertz .___ tenths of 1 second for Charismatic and Pentecostal churches with a heavy modern music program.
There shall be no _________ walls.
Any wall further than ___ feet from a speaking position and larger than _____ square feet should have an object mounted on it for diffusion purposes. Or, the wall can be constructed into smaller walls which will reflect sound into other areas.
This spec. is measurable and not unreasonable. From blueprints, it can be determined if the room will perform properly. This spec. of performance should be made conditional in your contract with the architect or builder right from day one. This spec. will help the Architect to plan a room shape that will provide these condition. Doing it after the fact is already too late. Once an Architect submits the first set of drawings, the church will have spent thousand of dollar. To redraw a building can cost thousand more. An expense most churches are not ready to spent twice. Remember, this church is being custom made for you and you now have a detailed method of expressing your needs. If you have read this and you accept a new church that fails to meet your needs, not only do you lose, but all of the members of your church lose as well. The above section from the book is applicable to existing churches as well.
Part 2 After the fact methods of fixing room acoustics
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 "
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