HIS Systems - Church Sound Standards

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Setting Minimum Standards all Churches and Denominations Can Use

If you read this, you will be one of the thousands of people who know about this standard. Remember, this is only a minimum standard. Some audio contractors, Architects and acoustical expert can do better - and we welcome that.

What does a Church Sound System and Acoustics standard mean?

Since the mid 1960's, churches have been sold all kinds of sound systems. In Canada and USA there are over 300,000 church sound system. Expect for a small number of churches, (about 2000 of them) all of the other churches have sound systems that were designed with no standards. Without a standard, a church can not always tell if they have the best they can have or is they were sold snake oil.

This is interesting as churches seem to have many standards about most things they do while using the bible as their road map. However, the bible seems to have been written is such a way that it can be applied to people with all kinds of personalities and dispositions. This makes Christianity unique and a wonderful way to live. Within the framework of Christianity, there are standards such as worship, hymns, communion, leadership and the organizing of groups of people. It is a common thread that all churches follow.

When you take a closer look at all of the different churches, styles of worship and so on, they are all very much the same. As one person said to me, "the only difference between most churches is about 5%." Think about it. This statement speaks volumes of truth. Almost all of the different churches do agree to about 95% of the scriptures. It's that last 5% that keeps most church groups miles apart. What I find interesting is that because of such a strict effort to follow as much of the scriptures as possible, we have so many different denominations. Therefore, one could say that a standard creates creativity and expands our culture and knowledge. Then again, you could say I'm out to lunch too.

However, a standard should not be used like a whip to keep people in line. Under those cases, I would suggest that the use of a standard can degrade or stifle growth and limit knowledge. Sort of like the medieval times in mans history. So what does this have to do with church sound? Plenty!

Privately Funded Research

What happens if you follow the design experience of a number of professional sound experts, test their sound systems, and chart their results. If average church was not average but unique, then these professional audio designers would design every church sound system as a one of a kind. Well, that is not what I discovered. I have tested over 200 sound systems designed by other professional church audio and acoustical experts. I have also designed or installed 300 other systems as a consultant or contractor. After about 30 systems, I started seeing a pattern. But before I could say that more churches should follow this pattern of system design and room performance, I had to test more churches. In all over 500 churches have been tested in one form or another and more churches are being tested all the time.

Part of testing a church also includes asking the people sitting in the pews what strengths and weaknesses they felt. True, it was often an emotional response, but these responses followed the pattern of the type of sound system and the acoustical condition the church had. 100 systems later, a clear pattern was forming. This pattern was for both the sound system and the acoustics of the church. All of this non scientific, personally funded R&D lead to writing what is now called The Highly Intelligible Sound System Standard or The HIS System Standard.

Can you have a church sound standard? Yes. It is possible to have a church sound standard that can be applied to at least 95% of the churches out there. Excepts are churches with low ceilings, architectural artwork that is in the way -( as some older churches where designed long before a sound system was invented.) and physical features that can not support certain speaker system designs. Since these standards are in fact universal, with a slight adjustment, you can have a standard for and of the three basic styles of worship. (This is highlighted in greater detail in the book.)

Having a standard for church sound has some real advantages.

First of all, it lets the whole church community know how good all church sound systems should perform. For example: It lets churches know that it is reasonable to expect a minimum of 90% intelligibility and nothing less which is what the average audience listen is comfortable with. At 88% people start complaining very strongly. At 90% the complaints drop to 2 to 5%. Usually those with profound hearing loss or those you have to speak much louder to while in a small office or living room. With extra money, you can increase that performance. However, that extra funded could be very high to get just an added 2 to 4%. Often, getting that extra performance will mean acoustical sweetening of the room.

A standard should also lead you to how you can accomplish such a system performance.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could walk into any church and hear speech and musical sounds as clearly as though the minister was standing only 4 feet in front of you. For 300 churches in southern Ontario Canada, that is the case. These systems and more have demonstrated that while there are differences in equipment, buildings and styles of worship, for the listener, that joyful experience can be enjoyed no matter where they go. What is also apparent, these system follow the same pattern or system design to get these results.

If you notice in this partial detailing of the HIS System, it is not based on equipment. Rather, it is based on design. As a design, it does limit the equipment that goes into a church sound system. Just as you wouldn't use a bicycle wheel on a car, there are certain audio products that should not be used in a church sound system, even though the manufacturer and many audio companies claims it does.

This pattern was also found in church acoustics too. As a standard, it can also help Architects to create new church designs to meet the HIS System standard. Recently, I asked an Architect why so many churches looked the same and sounded awful. He said something like this. - "Current church designs are based on existing successful churches." If that is true, then all church should sound great. But this has not been the case.

Imagine, of the 500 plus churches that I have tested, only about 20 of them sounded really good and pleasing to church members. Most of them were very different in shape and size. Every other church failed to meet the needs of it's church members, regardless of the sound system used. (Styles of worship were accounted for)

The facts far out way any statement any Architect can claim to explain the results. In North America, there are over 400,000 churches. Of that many church, less than .8% or about 3,200 of them are happy with the results. What many Architects want you to believe, is that the other 396,800 church buildings that fail to meet the acoustical needs of a typical church are based on the designs of 3,200 churches. This does not speak very highly of Architects. To me, it means that - according to Architects, acoustical successes are as predictable as spinning a wheel at a gambling table. This is not true as some have tried to use such terms on me.

For how long should the church community put up with building churches that sound bad? If acoustical standards were adopted by church groups and denominations, what do you think would happen? Churches don't have to follow the HIS System standard as such. They can write their own to suite their style of worship. For now, until the church community does decide to do so this, the HIS System is the first attempt at such a task.

It has been our task to write such a standard. Not from the audio and acoustical experts point of view, but from the churches point of view. It has be our hope that is has been written in such a way that it encourages creativity. By churches giving specific acoustical goals to Architects and acoustical experts, it forces them to rethink their approach to church acoustics. Furthermore, we encourage churches to make the acceptance of their new sanctuary conditional on the performance of the space. A church should be able to use their house of worship without compromise, whether it is new or old.

If your church is changing it's current sound system or is building a new church, then you should adopt this standard, or check with your denomination to see if this standard meets your needs. If it doesn't, write one that does. Then design your church sound system or sanctuary to meet such a goal. Make the goal conditional in your purchase contract.

Meeting the HIS System Standard in not hard to do. It is simple enough that any church can reach it and any audio contractor to meet as well. Remember also that this standard is a minimum requirement your church needs. The HIS System Standard was also written so that any church can afford a sound system. While there are many church sound experts who can design better systems at a higher price, this standard was also written for churches who have church members who want the challenge of installing the sound system themselves. It is our hope that the information provided below will help you church get the sound system they need, not what someone wants to sell you.

Is the HIS System Standard Perfect? No
Is the HIS System Standard absolute? No
Is the HIS System supported by the secular community such AES, NSCA or other professional organizations? Not yet.

All that I can attest to, is to the 500 plus churches that I have tested, the 300 plus churches that passed the HIS System Test is- for now - a bench mark that all other sound system should be able to meet or be designed to. Until a standard written by the church community itself is published, it seem that this standard is a good place to start. Afterall, groups like NSCA have been dicsussing sound system standard that would include churches for over 30 years. Soon the US government will be making the ADA (The Disability Act) so wide in it's scope that they may make it force churches to adopt government regulated sound systems and acoustical standands.(Currently the US government claims that churches are exempt of the ADA laws under the separation of the church and state laws.) Such reguations could be adpoted in other countries too. The sooner the church community writes their own Church Sound Standards, the less the government will be imposed their regulations. And Yes, the HIS System a ADA friendly.

If your church sound system performs as good or better than these standards, please let us know about it. If you have any comments or suggestions about the Standard, Send us an email to jdb@jdbsound.com

Typical Church Sound System
(Every Central Cluster can be installed so that it cosmetically compliments the design of the church.
Please note the Choir monitor hidden behind the main speaker cluster.)

Setting a Standard

The HIS System Standard has been based on the following:

  • 1. Each standard must be applicable to over 90% of the churches within the church community
  • 2. To have a foundation of a sound system to build upon for future growth
  • 3. The system should have all of the basic features designed into the system, ready to provide sound for all of the most common church events from worship to weddings, to funerals to concerts to drama.
  • 4. It must use combinations of equipment, microphones and speakers relatively noise free when inserted into the system.
  • 5. The combinations of products have to be affordable. The target cost of an entry-level sound system should be about $35.00 to $45.00 per seat installed.
  • 6. It must satisfy people with average hearing lose and benefit those with hearing aid. It shall be understood that a hearing assist system is needed for those whom you have to raise your voice to in normal conversation.
  • 7. Easy to operate with the least amount of instruction.
  • 8. Have enough gain so that a person can stand in a comfortable position. This generally required a micing distance of 18 inches.
  • 9. To work within generally accept guidelines of coverage, intelligibility and performance standards, not yet made official by any secular professional body.
The HIS System also require certain acoustical consideration. People have been trying many sound system designed to avoid dealing with the acoustics of a space. The records show more failures than successes. Until recently, many people thought that an audio system could sidestep the laws of physics. This is no longer the case. Here are the acoustical conditions that limits the performance of a sound system.
  • 1. The room has to be free of echo's.
  • 2. The room has to be free of flutter echo's
  • 3. The RT60 should not exceed - on average 2.2 seconds
  • 4. The RT60 should not be less than 1.3 seconds.
  • 5. There should be no standing waves from any angle. That is from side to side, front to back and floor to ceiling.
  • 6. The NC of the room shall be below 40dB
It is generally understood that each violation of these acoustical conditions will limit the performance of the sound system in proportion to how serious the acoustical problem are.

The following is a partial description of the performance criteria as outlined in the Book Why are Church Sound Systems and Acoustics So Confusing?

1. Average working distance from a regular dynamic microphone (such as a Shure SM58 or better) before feedback -18 inches. (In a room with NC 40 or lower)

2. Maximum working distance from a regular dynamic microphone (such as a Shure SM58 or better) before feedback - 30 inches (In a room with NC 40 or lower)

3. Average sound pressure coverage within the seating area +/- 3dB

4. Intelligibility score +/- 2% of 92% in all seats. (A Computer should be used for this or you can use the oral speech test.)

5. When eyes are closed, turn your head to the source of the amplified sound. When you open your eyes, you should be looking at the person speaking or in their direction from any location within the sanctuary.

6. At 18 inches from the mic, have enough sound pressure level (SPL) to be around 25dB above the room noise or to have an average SPL of 66dB in all of the seating. (The NC of the church has to be below 45dB to reach this goal)

7. To have a sound system that does not increase the reverberation time of the room.

8. To have a sound system that does not degrade the performance of the Organ or competes with congregational singing when a microphone is left on.

9. To have a sound system in which the sound operator can quickly change the controls without people in the audience noticing the changes.

10. Have a sound system that is stable with 3 mics open and micing at 12 to 16 inches without feedback.

11. To have a sound system that will not introduce a signal or noise when using the maximum mic gain for a single open microphone. (that means no hissssss or radio stations)

11a. To have a sound system that will not introduce a signal or noise when using 4 mic open and micing at 12 to 16 inches without feedback. (that also means no mixer hissssss)

12. Have enough SPL in the sound system and without distortion so that a person can be heard clearly when needing to speak to the audience during congregational singing.

13. To place the speaker system in the "sweetspot" of a sanctuary to achieve the highest level of intelligibility and best coverage.

14. All microphone lines shall be balanced type II (Two conductors, a ground wire and tin foil shield) using a 3 pin connector. All lines shall be wired - Pin 1 ground, Pin 2 Hot signal or positive signal (Red or White wire), Pin 3 cold or negative signal (Black).

15. All microphone lines shall continuous from the platform to the mixer position without any breaks. (DO NOT use multi pair cable or snakes that are not individually jacketed)

Needs and Wants

Next is filling the needs of the basic church system.

  1. Provide a minimum of 1 mic input for every 60 square feet of the pulpit/ platform/ alter area. This will ensure enough mic locations for the choir and all special events.

  2. Provide an amplifier that has a minimum of 1/2 watt per person. (See the book for more details.) (Some churches may require 2 to 8 time more power per person)
  3. Provide a tape player and / or CD player for playback of singing events.
  4. Provide a separate tape recorder for recording of services. (This prevents feedback loop which often destroy sound systems.) (Many churches use tape sales to funding other sound system expenses)
  5. Provide a Constant "Q" 1/3rd octave equalizer for every live mix. Mains, floor monitor, choir monitor....
  6. Provide the option for floor monitors without replacing the mixer.
  7. Provide the option for choir monitors without replacing the mixer.
  8. Provide the option for separate signals from the mixer for Tape Recording, Distributed System (Nursery, offices, washrooms...) Broadcast output for TV, cable or video, and Hearing Impaired Systems.
  9. Pre Fade Listening PFL is a must on all church sound system mixers.
  10. Mixer must provide 48 volt phantom power for condenser microphones which use an electric current to increase the performance of the microphone.
  11. Mixer, Amplifier and Equalizer should always be separate units. - No Exceptions.
  12. All component shall have electronically or transformered balanced inputs and output - No Exceptions.
  13. All Mixers shall have separate Left and Right (Live and Record) master output faders.

    Ammendment 1999

    One of the easiest ways to set up a mixer for live and recording mix in small and medium sized churches is to set up the mixer as "L" for Live and "R" for Record. This is a technique churches have been using from the early 60's to this day. It is like having two separate mixers in one.

    There are several reasons why this method is used in the HIS System Standard.

    1: It is the easiest method to see how your record mix and live mix is behaving. Since the record mix is coming off the main mix, your using the faders rather that knobs for visual queues. This is most helpful for casual sound operators or the custodian or usher who is suddenly thrown into mixing.

    2: It is the fastest way to teach someone how to record and mix the record mix using the faders, rather than the knobs of an auxiliary output.

    3: Instant 10dB boost to the tape mix when someone is not speaking loud enough. Generally, the mixer is set up so that you set the master output to -10 or 0dB - depending how the mixer is marked. If you need extra level to the tape when there is no more to give to the house mix for fear of feedback, then you just push the "R" control up and you have an extra 10 dB of signal. By using the slide fader, you have an instant visual queues as to where you are in the mix without looking at you tape level every 10 seconds.

    4: Additional 10dB boost with the channel control. Generally, the channel faders should be operating around -10dB or 0dB, depending on the markings. If after pushing the master "R" control is not enough, you can then push the channel control - as in the pulpit mic up 10dB. At the same time you also drop the house level 10dB to prevent feedback. That is a instant 20dB level boost to the tape mix when you need it. Because you are using the faders, you have an easy visual queue of where your mix is. When the next person with a strong voice comes back, you can then reset your channel to 0dB quickly. This is much easier than mixing the record mix from an Aux.

    5: Pan controls. The pan controls give you another easy way to control you tape mix. Say for example, you don't what the pastor voice on the tape mix during congregational singing. Let us also say he is singing off, but he is leading the congregational singing. By panning the pulpit mic and by passing the sub groups, you can cut or reduce the pastors voice from the tape mix by panning "L". Don't worry, you can do this while the pastor is singing. Just before he finished, you pan him back center.

    6: Likewise, say you forgot to setup an audience mic or you don't have extra mics, but some are not being using during congregational singing. You can then pan those mic hard "R" and boost the levels 20 dB with the channel and main "R" out. This way you can get good record levels for congregational singing.

    When I teach this method, it seems to be the best setup for most churches up to 32 channel mixers that have no TV or Radio programs and churches that are making less that 20 tapes a week. It is easy, simple to teach and the results speak for themselves.

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

Church Sound Network
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For questions or comments, our e-mail address is - jdb@jdbsound.com

Copyright © 1982-98
Originally written in 1982 and revised in 1986, 89, 91, 96, 99