How Not to Make A Church Sound Bad
Here are the most common mistakes found in over 1200 churches. I have worked on just over 800 churches and visited over 4 hundred other churches in my travels. I have recorded successes and the errors churches have made with their sound systems, acoustics, new churches and church renovations. This list is just some of the most popular ones. These over the top statements are intended to be just Red Flag warnings to let you know if your church is heading into the right direction. This list is not going to tell you how to fix or live with them. For that you need expert help or you will have to do a lot or research to come up with your own solutions. If your sound system designer who should be an "expert" doesn't respond to these red flags, then don't be surprised if you new sound system, acoustics or new church doesn't sound good.
The values presented here are those experienced by the Author and as described to him by Architects, builders and trades men. Other experts may express this issue in other ways. These are not hard and fast rules but if you are not sure and you have any of these issues, then get help.
Before Building a Church
- Do not design a church that is Square, Oval, Round or as an Octagon.
- These are very expensive rooms to fix and difficult spaces to repair when compared with a rectangle room.
- While you can make these room very useable and comfortable to live with, they just don't sound as good as a well designed Rectangle no matter how much you spend on it. When you ask most people where they had their best worship experiences, 8 time out of 10, the people I have interviewed will recall what they experienced in a rectangle room. (Ok, in a few churches it was 6 out of 10. Either way, the rectangle is the most popular room shape that the average church member remembers as being their best worship experiences)
- Do not design a church with parallel walls without any diffusion on them.
- Do not design the roof to be low over the audience, and high over the pulpit. Think of a trumpet or sound wave.
- Do not build a church with a roof less 24 feet. (Even if your church is only for 200 people, a low ceiling does not allow for good chorusing of congregational singing. The lower the roof, the harder it is to get good congregational singing from the audience.)
- Do not add domes and concave walls in the worship section of a church. They will have to be acoustical cancelled later and the fix usually doesn't look good. Unfortunately, many churches with such features don't carry on with making any fixes and just put up with the problem.
- Do not accept new walls that are less the 2" x 6" inside the worship space. 2 x 8's are better. Every wall inside a church must be insulated. I have had churches complain about privacy issues in offices, restrooms and Fellowship halls. Can you imagine a pastor consulting someone in their office and 60 feet away people can here the conversations in the restrooms. Or every time a toilet is flushed in the main restrooms on the other side of the building it can be heard by everyone on the stage including the sound system (no the plumbing did not go under the sanctuary, this was a direct sound that traveled through the hollow walls.)Or those churches with large hollow cavities that are more that 25 ft tall and the wall moves in and out enough to add a full second or reverberant noise.
- Should not build a fan shaped room that is greater than 160 degrees.
- Should not have the Organ console and Piano further that 20 feet apart and at least 12 feet apart. This also depends on the size of the church. Either way, they should always be reasonable close. One thing that seems to work is having the organ speakers/pipes and the choir equal distance to the organ console. When the organist is too close to the choir and/or the piano, they will hear the choir as being very loud from their position. The choir can be so loud that the organist can't hear the organ over the choir. As a result, the organist will play the organ louder. Unfortunately, this means the organ is drowning out the choir.
- If your planning for a choir and choir loft, do not build bulkheads over the front of an altar or chancel area unless you are purposely building a theatrical type stage for productions.
- Should not put speakers in bulkheads.
- Do not design a deep proscenium arch or an arch in front of the choir unless your willing to make an investment in acoustical features to make up for the difference.
- Do not make foyers as hard as possible. It can add to the RT60 of the room when the doors are open and people in the foyer whispering can be disturbing people in the back 5 to 6 rows during worship.
- Do not drywall with less that 5/8th on 12 inch centers in the worship space and
- Do not drywall without adding insulation that is compressed at least 20% within the worship space. While compressing insulation is normally not a good thing, it is more important for walls not to vibrate during worship. Many times I have had "insulated" walls vibrate enough that when you put your hand on them some of the feedback in the sound system stops during musical performances. The heavier and denser the walls, the better. Foam insulation works fine too. (This is not for sound proofing. For that you have to include other considerations.)
- Exceed local Commercial building codes. The cost difference between a great building and a poor building is often less than 15%. Building codes are a minimum standard for short term construction (it is almost as if they are meant to last only 30 years or less. What is it now, 50 to 70% of the churches built in 1910 are still standing today. Will your church last 100 years? That should be the standard.)Many churches that do follow the minimum building codes find themselves making major building repairs before their mortgage is paid off and they often have to rewrite their mortgage or get a mortgage to do the repairs. Churches that exceed building codes often put off major building repairs by as much as 30 to 40 years. (To bad that the building code does not have a sub section that can address specific needs church have that no other institution has.)
- Do not rely just on Computer CAD simulations for worship space designs. They can be easily fudged. When building a new church, visit local churches built in the last 15 years to create your wish list. Interview the church secretary, caretaker and the deacon/elder responsible for property management. Visit the minister last. Visit and interview former churches your Architect built 3 to 5 years ago. Check out their older buildings and document the good and bad points. I find it interesting that when you get all of the good things a committee liked from a dozen or so churches they visited at random, most times they wind up designing a rectangle shell to get all of those good feature into one worship space.
- Do not have more than one electrical panel supplying electricity for the sound system.
- Do not put your HVAC system on the roof over the worship space.
- Do not put your HVAC system directly attached to the worship space. Use a canvas boot on either side of walls to break the connection between the HVAC and building.
- Do not put your HVAC heaters and chillers systems inside your worship space. (I have come across over a dozen churches less that 10 years old that have HVAC system total contained within the sanctuary. In two churches, they have 6 to 8 units with their own thermostats. As the sun light through the windows move across the room on sunny days, you can hear each HVAC unit cycle of and on creating pockets of hot and cold air with a difference of 5 to 10 degrees "F" within steps of each other. The temp changes were enough that during one worship service, you could see people putting on and removing jackets and sweaters during the worship service like the wave at a football game.
- Do not have an air return system that has a duct less than 20 feet long to the main unit. (Some churches that have done this turn off the HVAC system whenever the minister starts the sermon. In some of them they have a switch at the sound booth and pulpit to turn the HVAC system off and on.)
- Do not have the air return next to the soundman.
- Air returns should be twice the size of the supply lines. (Doing that has reduced the noise in the worship space and helped to keep the room temperature more stable. It often allows the HVAC system to be more responsive to drastic room changes.)
- All HVAC and mechanical air movement units should be spring mounted - not rubber mounted. This also applies to any unit outside of the church or for units and church roofs and when within the building.
- Do not accept the RT60 measurements at just 1K (1000 hertz.) RT60 should be over a range from 200 hertz to 5000 hertz minimum. Most churches that have problems have frequency responses that look like a playground slide. The RT60 in the bass and mids are too long - 1.7 to 5 seconds - and frequencies over 2K are less than 1.4 seconds.
- Large and flat walls at the back of the worship space will most often create strong echo problems when they are further that 64 ft from the pulpit. They usually challenge speech and have awful musically effects which also challenge their timing techniques.
- Do not allow the air handling system to be louder that NC 25 or NC 30. Better yet. Any noise over 40dB at any frequency is a problem. (This is important for many people over 45 years of age. You should have a signal to noise ratio of 20 to 25dB for people up to 30% hearing lose in one or both ears or people using hearing aids and can have normal one on one conversations in the worship space at around 10ft. For younger people (under 45 years old)in a church setting a signal to noise ratio of 15dB is OK.)
- Any kind of mechanical noise above 40dB flat is problematic for the 20 to 40% of our population that have some kind of hearing problem.
- If your church has to pre-cool the church with the air-conditioner 2 hours before people come to Sunday School and 3 to 4 hours before worship, the system is not adequate or the church is not insulated properly or both or the system was not designed properly.
- If the chiller of your church air conditioner does not cycle off 15 to 30 minutes after worship is over and the sanctuary empties out- chances are your air system is undersized, or your church is not properly insulated. In general it takes about 1 ton for every 500 square ft of floor space to move enough air to control room temperatures with ducts large enough to not exceed an air flow velocity of 400 CFM. In general, when the air velocity exceed 400 CFM's it usually introduces noise at the registers. (This applies to rooms with R32 insulation on walls and ceiling and with a Vapor Barrier.)
- Do not accept a lighting system that has a maximum foot candle of 35 for seating and 70 for stage area. The minimum foot candles should be 60 foot candles for the seating areas and 140 foot candles for the stage area. The higher stage lighting allows for better lip reading up to 100 ft from the stage and the higher audience lighting is easier reading of bibles, bulletins and Hymnals - for churches that still use these worship assets.
- Should not accept a sound system that scores less than 90% intelligibility in 96% of the seating area. (The old fashion Bell Labs oral speech test is a valid test for most churches under 1600 seating)
- Should not accept a room that score less than 92% intelligibility with the sound system turned off in the first 6 rows.
- Do not put the organ pipes or organ speakers over the choir's heads unless the console is far enough away for the organist to hear the choir and pipes at about the same level.
- Do not put Piano's in a pit or against a wall with carpet under it.
- Do not build a balcony with less that a 12 foot ceiling for the first 8 rows under it or 13 feet for 11 rows or 14 feet for 16 rows and so on. The higher the ceiling is under the balcony, the better the space is for singing, worship and hearing.
- Do not paint over acoustical materials until you are advised by an acoustical consultant who will take responsibility for the job. Paint has tremendous effect on room acoustics. Even if a wall material is soft or if you feel you need to paint the unpainted block, watch out. True, you can't hurt the brick but the acoustics can change so much that you may have to sand blast what was painted later. It has happened.
- Do not install wiring and amplifiers in or around the Organ loft or next to the relay switcher. The clicking sounds of the relays may be amplified through the sound system.
- Do not rely just on Computer CAD simulations to design your sound system. Check out the results of other projects from your designer and see if the results matches what the modeling predicted.
- Ask if the drawings are just for illustration purposes to better communicate the proposed project.
- Do not put the soundman's mixing desk outside of the main seating area of the worship space. In a well planned worship space, the sound person should be able mix from 80 to 90% of the main seating area positions.
- Putting the soundbooth in the middle of the back wall or back of the seating usually doesn't work well. Most churches find that they have better results when the mix position is not in the middle.
- Do not put the mixer in a room attached to the worship space - even if you have a super large window.
- Do not put the mixing desk against the back wall unless the areas is made acoustical transparent to any boundary effects.
- Do not put the mixer desk on the balcony (Unless your worship program uses less that 6 microphones in any worship service year round.)
- Keep the mixer desk on the main floor, off to one side is fine if the room is properly diffused.
What you have just read are the most common problems I have reported to churches. This list is from all of the churches that hired me since 1981 to the present - 2008 and these are the same problems I often find when visiting other churches in my travels around the world.
Any suggests made are just that - suggestions that should direct you to solutions you or your consultant or turnkey contractor should be heading. The suggestions are also there to let people know that there are ways to fix or make alternative plans to make the worship experience as meaningful as possible.
As a final note
The most common request as described by churches members from just about every denomination are the following:
These item cover the basic physical requirements to hear and sing in a large room. These requirements are universal. The design of any worship space or the repair of the worship space should start with meeting all of these goals first. Once these issues are solved, then issues that are specific to each worship style can be corrected as needed. For example:
- Good Intelligibility and Clear Speech
- Even sound coverage and no Deadspot throughout the room
- Good congregational singing
- A space that inspires people to sing
- Effortless congregational singing
- To hear and understand the choir
- For the choir to hear the pastor and song leaders
- For the choir to hear themselves
- For the choir to sound like a chorus, not individuals
- Effortless choral singing
- For the organ or praise team to not over power the audience or choir.
- For the drummer and bass player to not play so loud
- No feedback from the sound system
- To be able to hear children when on the stage. (Many parents get really upset if they can't hear their children when the children are at the altar/stage and are leading the worship - even if only saying one or two lines in a drama play or when singing to the congregation. What individual want and what families need are both very important and should be automatically part of any acoustical and sound system fix.)
- To make the HVAC system quieter
When a church has an echo problem try to fix it, they usually do solve the echo problem without much difficulty. However, after the echo is removed, the ability to understand speech remains poor or it gets worse. Sometime the congregational singing get worse too. By only fixing one problem at a time rather than looking for a single step to correct the whole picture, most churches wind up exchanging one set of problems for another. From my experience, fixing all of these problems in one step is key to a successful worship space and it will save a church a considerable amount of money.
By Joseph De Buglio
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. This article is written for churches who can not afford expert help or for people who are able to do the work, or those who enjoy DIY projects and who will never hire outside help. Churches are taught to be independent and to have a "Go it alone" philosophy. Some churches and individuals have this same attitude in everything that they do. Hopeful this information will be of some help no matter what you believe..
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JdB Sound Acoustics
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Original posted July 12, 1996
Updated March 2008
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