How Not to Make A Church Sound Bad

Here are the most common mistakes found in over 1200 churches. 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" who doesn't respond to these red flags, don't be surprised if you new sound system, acoustics or new church doesn't perform as promised or expected.

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 these issues 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
1. What is the best sanctuary room design with acoustical planning/Features/panels….?
1.1. The Rectangle
2. What is the worst acoustic room design without acoustical planning?
2.1. The Rectangle.
2.2. All other room shapes are just as bad without acoustical planning.
3. What is the best room shape without acoustical planning?
3.1. None that I know of.
4. Do not design a church that is Square, Oval, Round, 5 sided, 6 sided, 7 sided or as an Octagon. (Well, you shouldn't)
4.1. A room is by default designed to store energy
4.2. All flat walls act as amplifiers
4.3. Walls do not have to be parallel to store bass energy.
4.4. All corners in a room store and reflect bass energy back into a room
4.5. This includes the corners where two walls meet. Where a wall and ceiling meet. Where a wall and floor meet.
5. What room shape costs the least for great performance as a worship space and for the sound system?
5.1. The rectangle.
5.2. All other room shape cost more to make them acoustical friendly for worship.
6. Does this mean any room shape can be made to have a great level of performance?
6.1. Yes.
6.2. You can make any room shape acoustical friendly but you cannot make other room shapes perform and sound as good as a rectangle.
6.3. Each room shape has its own character of sound much like musical instruments.
  1. The way a room is finished determine it's performance.
  2. The materials that a room is finished in termines the tone.
  3. This is just like building a musical insturment.
6.4. You can grade room shapes like the instruments of an orchestra
6.5. Instrument ranking starts with the most important instrument is the
6.5.1. 1st String Violin Violins Violas Cellos Bass Harp
6.5.2. Trombone – Leader of the Brass Trumpets Cornets Trombones Tuba French Horns
6.5.3. Oboe/ Leader of the woodwinds Clarinets…. Sax…. Flutes… Oboes… Bassoons…
6.5.4. Percussion Timpani Bells Complete drum kits Glockenspiel…..
6.5.5. Keyboards Piano Celesta Pipe Organ
6.6. When you have tested and listened to as many churches as I have, they all have their own unique sound that is associated with the room shape.
7. Churches should be aware of the sound each room shape makes and decide which shape they want based on sound, not on what fancies the eye of the Architect.
7.1. The Rectangle is the cheapest room to make it sound great in the design stage.
7.2. The Rectangle is the cheapest room to fix it later if not included in the original room design.

8. The following is how rooms sound whether they are acoustical correct or not.
8.1. Rectangle rooms sound like strings
8.2. Fan shaped rooms tend to sound bassy and brassy.
8.3. Square and octagon rooms tend to sound sharp like flutes and Clarinets.
8.4. Oval or half round rooms tend to sound like French Horns or Trumpets.
8.5. Rooms with odd number of walls tend to sound sharp like percussion instruments.
9. Each room shape has its own sound and requires very specific remedies to fix them or prepares them for construction.

10. The materials from which a room is made from changes how strong those characteristic are.

11. *** This is my own way of classifying a worship space and it is not supported by any organization. But then, there are not too many individual people who have measured and tested as many churches to recognize the differences.

12. What does it mean – that a “Room is Hostile?”
12.1. A hostile room is a room that forces you into compromises.
12.2. It is a room the forces you to buy expensive sound equipment, elaborate speaker systems and extravagant monitor system.
12.3. It is what forces drummers into cages and worship performers into wires coming out of their ears.
12.4. It is what forces people to have to keep microphones within inches of their mouths at all times which also blocks the view of a person’s mouth. (This is a serious issue for people in the early stages of mild hearing lose who have learned to lip read.)
12.5. It is what discourages congregational singing.
12.6. It is what has driven many choirs out of worship.
12.7. It is a room that when you talk from the front of the church and whether you talk with or without a mic, you want to lower your voice because you hear yourself so loud and hope that the sound system is doing all the work.
13. What does it mean – that a “Room is acoustical friendly?”

13.1. It means that it doesn’t have any of the problems found in a hostile room
13.2. It means no need to experiment with sound equipment
13.3. It means you can invest in better equipment because you don’t have to buy as much of it.
13.4. It means a better worship experience for everyone from the pastor, music leaders, performers and the most important people of all, the audience.
13.5. It means first time visitors will most likely come back for future events
14. Do not design a church with parallel walls without any features on them.

15. Do not design the roof to be low over the audience, and high over the pulpit. Think of a trumpet or sound wave.

16. 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.)

17. The lower the roof, the less energy efficient it is.

18. Do not add domes and concave walls in the worship section of a church.
18.1. They will have to be acoustical cancelled later and the fix usually doesn't look good.
18.2. Unfortunately, many churches with such features don't carry on without making any fixes and just put up with the problem.
19. Do not accept new walls that are less the 2" x 6" studding on 12 inch centers inside the worship space.
19.1. 2 x 8's are better.
19.2. Every wall inside a church must be insulated.
19.3. I have had churches complain about privacy issues in offices, restrooms and Fellowship halls.
19.4. Can you imagine a pastor consulting someone in their office and 60 feet away people can here the conversations in the restrooms.
19.5. 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.)
20. 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.

21. Should not have the Organ console and Piano further that 20 feet apart and at least 12 feet apart.
21.1. This also depends on the size of the church.
21.2. Either way, they should always be reasonable close.
21.3. One thing that seems to work is having the organ speakers/pipes and the choir equal distance to the organ console.
21.4. 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.
21.5. The choir can be so loud that the organist can't hear the organ over the choir.
21.6. As a result, the organist will play the organ louder.
21.7. Unfortunately, this means the organ is drowning out the choir from the audience point of view.
21.8. This is also the reason having the console too close to the audience in not a good thing.
21.9. If the audience is to close to the console, the organist can't hear the organ and winds up suppressing the congregational singing.
22. If you’re 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.

23. You should not put speakers in bulkheads.

24. Do not design a deep proscenium arch or an arch in front of the choir unless you’re willing to make an investment in acoustical features to make up for the difference.

24.1. A proscenium arch will cut the acoustical output of a choir up to 12dB.

25. Do not make foyers as hard as possible.

25.1. 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.

26. Do not drywall with less than 5/8th on 12 inch centers in the worship space.

27. Do not drywall without adding insulation that is compressed at least 20% within the worship space.
27.1. While compressing insulation is normally not a good thing, it is more important for walls not to vibrate during worship.
27.2. Many times I have tested "insulated" walls that vibrated enough that when you put your hand on them some of the feedback in the sound system stops during musical performances.
27.3. The heavier and denser the walls, the better.
27.4. Foam insulation works fine too. (This is not for sound proofing. For that you have to include other considerations.)
28. Exceed local Commercial building codes.
28.1. The cost difference between a great building and a poor building is often less than 15%.
28.2. 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.
28.3. What is it now, 50 to 70% of the churches built in 1910 are still standing today.
28.4. Will your church last 100 years?
28.5. That should be the standard.
29. Many churches that do follow the minimum building codes find themselves making major building repairs before their mortgage is paid off.
29.1. They often have to rewrite their mortgage or get a mortgage to do the repairs.
30. 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.)

31. Do not rely just on Computer CAD simulations for worship space designs as an acoustical prediction.
31.1. They are usually fudged. (I know people don't want to hear that but it is true.)
32. When building a new church, visit local churches built in the last 15 years to create your wish list.
32.1. Interview the church secretary, caretaker and the deacon/elder responsible for property management.
32.2. Visit the minister last.
32.3. Visit and interview former churches your Architect built 3 to 5 years ago.
32.4. Check out their older buildings and document the good and bad points.
32.5. 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 those entire good feature into one worship space.
33. Do not have more than one electrical panel supplying electricity for the sound system.

34. Do not put your HVAC system on the roof over the worship space.

35. Do not put your HVAC system directly attached to the worship space.
35.1. Use a canvas boot on either side of walls to break the connection between the HVAC and building.
36. Do not put your HVAC heaters and chillers systems inside your worship space.
36.1. I have come across over a dozen churches less that 10 years old that have HVAC system total contained within the sanctuary.
36.2. In two churches, they have 6 to 8 units with their own thermostats.
36.2.1. 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.
36.2.2. 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.
37. Do not have the air return next to the soundman.

38. Air returns should be twice the size of the supply lines.
38.1. Doing that has reduced the noise in the worship space and helped to keep the room temperature more stable.
38.2. It often allows the HVAC system to be more responsive to drastic room changes.
39. All HVAC and mechanical air movement units should be spring mounted - not rubber mounted.
39.1. This also applies to any unit outside of the church or for units and church roofs and when within the building

Existing Churches

1. What is an ideal RT 60 for churches up to 1200 seating?
1.1. The ideal RT 60 should be between 1.4 to 1.8 seconds between 200 hertz to 2000 hertz average.
2. What is the ideal RT 60 for churches over 1200 seating?
2.1. The Ideal RT 60 should be between 1.4 to 2.2 seconds between 200 hertz to 2000 hertz average and depending on the style of worship.
2.1.1. To have longer RT60’s you need volume. When the volume of the room goes over 300,000 cubic ft, the RT60 can become longer as long as you have good signal to noise.
3. Do not allow the air handling system to be louder that NC 25 or NC 30.
3.1. Better yet. Any noise over 40dB at any frequency is a problem.
3.2. This is important for many people over 45 years of age.
3.3. You should have a signal to noise ratio of 20 to 25dB
3.4. Up to 30% of the population has hearing lose in one or both ears
3.5. Any kind of mechanical noise above 40dB flat is problematic for hearing aids in large spaces.
4. If your church has to pre-cool the church with the air-conditioning 2 hours or more before worship, the system is inadequate.

5. If you have to heat the church 2 or more hours before worship, the system in inadequate.

6. 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
6.1. or your church is not properly insulated.6.2. In general it takes about 1 ton for every 500 square ft of floor space. (This is just a guideline. There are many variable that can change this estimate.)
7. Duct airflow should not exceed a velocity of 400 CFM at the openings.
7.1. In general, when the air velocity exceed 400 CFM's it usually introduces noise at the registers.
8. Church Lighting System basics
8.1. The minimum foot candles should be 60 foot candles for the seating areas and 140 foot candles for the stage area.
8.2. 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.
9. 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)

10. Should not accept a room that score less than 92% intelligibility with the sound system turned off in the first 6 rows.

11. 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.

12. Do not put Piano's in a pit or against a wall with carpet under it.

13. Do not build a balcony with less than a 11 foot ceiling for the first 5 rows under it or
13.1. Thirteen feet for 9 rows under the balcony
13.2. Fifteen feet for 12 rows and so on.
13.3. The higher the ceiling is under the balcony, the better the space is for singing, worship and hearing.
14. Do not paint over acoustical materials until you are advised by an acoustical consultant
14.1. Painting often destroys the performance of most absorptive produce and texture walls.
14.2. Paint has tremendous effect on room acoustics.
14.3. 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.
14.4. Do not paint ceiling tiles. Have them cleaned.
15. Do not install wiring and amplifiers in or around the Organ loft or next to the relay switcher.
15.1. The clicking sounds of the relays may be amplified through the sound system.
16. Do not rely just on Computer CAD simulations to design your sound system.
16.1. Check out the results of other projects from your designer and see if the results matches what the modeling predicted.16.2. Ask if the drawings are just for illustration purposes to better communicate the proposed project.
17. Do not put the soundman's mixing desk outside of the main seating area of the worship space.
17.1. In a well planned worship space, the sound person should be able mix from anywhere in the main seating area positions.
18. Putting the sound booth in the middle of the back wall or back of the seating usually doesn't work well.
18.1. Most churches find that they have better results when the mix position is not in the middle.
19. Do not put the mixer in a room attached to the worship space - even if you have a super large window.

20. Do not put the mixing desk against the back wall unless the areas is made acoustical transparent to any boundary effects.

21. Do not put the mixer desk in the balcony unless you have serious security issues.

22. 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 reported by churches. This list is from all of the churches that hired me since 1981 to the present 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. 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:
  1. Good Intelligibility and Clear Speech
  2. Even sound coverage and no Deadspot throughout the room
  3. Good congregational singing
  4. A space that inspires people to sing
  5. Effortless congregational singing
  6. To hear and understand the choir
  7. For the choir to hear the pastor and song leaders
  8. For the choir to hear themselves
  9. For the choir to sound like a chorus, not individuals
  10. Effortless choral singing
  11. For the organ or praise team to not over power the audience or choir.
  12. For the drummer and bass player to not play so loud
  13. No feedback from the sound system
  14. 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.)
  15. To make the HVAC system quieter
These item cover the basic physical requirements to hear and sing in a large room. These requirements are universal.

In acoustics, planning the sound happens in layers.

Fixing acoustical problems also comes in layers. Many churches have acoustical problems that can be 3 to 8 levels deep. You can fix these layers one step at a time (very expensive way to go about solving acoustical issues) or have the room properly analyzed and solve the problems in one step.

For example:
When a church has an echo problem and tries to fix it, they usually do solve the echo problem without much difficulty. However, after the echo is removed and about 4 or 5 services later people start to notice that the ability to understand speech remains poor or has gotten worse. Sometime the congregational singing gets 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. This creates a black eye to our proffession and a lack of trust for those who know how to really fix the acoustics of a church. 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

JdB Sound Acoustics
63 Lockerbie Avenue, Toronto, Ontario Canada M9N 3A3

For questions or comments, our e-mail address is -

Original posted July 12, 1996
Updated 2011