Let's take a few minutes and talk a little about sound system design.
Keep in mind that this is by no means a comprehensive article on the subject, but more of an overview to get our minds thinking about starting points.
To a large degree, your room and budget will eliminate many options for you, which is a good thing since there are thousands of options to choose from.
Over the years, I have designed and installed many audio/visual systems for churches, and at various other venues. One of the things that strikes me when meeting with people to talk about implementing a new system in their space, is they don't really know why they want a new system or what they are trying to accomplish with such an upgrade.
The normal logic is that what they are looking to replace is old, and it needs to be upgraded, to where the new system will sound great and make everything better.
Knowing that, some of the questions you should be asking yourself:
What do I not like about the current system?
What is the current system not doing well that I wish it would and I would like the new system to address?
How long do you think that a new system will be used, before it is likely to be replaced?
How do you think the space will be used in that time?
In general, if this is for your main sanctuary, you should be aiming for the update to last 10 years, to make it a worthwhile return of investment. You also must think about how your area of ministry will grow and change over the course of the next 10 years. This is where praying about these things and bringing them to God and seeking his guidance and direction is crucial.
Another aspect that one must take into account is, what is your budget, in other words what can you afford to spend?
It doesn't really matter if "Company A" makes a better speaker than "Company B," if you can't afford it. Having a budget is particularly helpful in determining what products to consider as part of this planned system upgrade.
For the rest of this piece, we are going to discuss audio speakers, as it relates to system design. More specifically, we are going to talk about point source boxes and line array systems, and why either might be best suited for your space.
Before we do that, though, you need to make sure that you are addressing the acoustic needs of your space, or else it really doesn't matter what you are putting in there.
Recently, I did a system design for a church that for the last 50 years had a pipe organ, piano and choir as the focal point for its music, and the space was designed with that in mind. So there was a huge—and I mean huge—RT60 time, because it was designed be a very lively room that a pipe organ and choir would sound great in. The church, though, had decided to transition to a very modern music ministry, with drums, bass, two electric guitars, an acoustic guitar, keyboards, loop, three vocals. In the interest of making such a drastic change, though, the room was terrible for that.
The first thing that needed to be done was to treat the room, so to help control it, to where their new music ministry would work in that environment. Without including that as part of the budget, the church would have wasted money in putting in a new system, because it would have proved to have been a poor match for the space otherwise. Yes, the speakers would have been a great product and their placement would have been good, but the sound would have just bounced around in the room and sounded terrible, if not for also including the acoustic treatment.
The next thing to discuss deals with mono and stereo systems. In general, I do not like mono systems and find very little use for them in what I do, but there are times when such a system can make a lot of sense. For instance, if you have a traditional church service in a smaller space, and your music is mostly choir driven, and the pulpit mic is what is primarily used, such an arrangement could be applicable.
In such a configuration, having a single speaker like a JBL CBT hung in the center is a great low-cost solution that will sound great and cover the space well. On the other hand, if you have a more modern praise band setup, with a lot of instruments and vocals that are Individually mic'd up, mono would not be a good option at all in your space. In a future article, we will be going more in depth pertaining to mixing in stereo and the reason behind it.
Now on to the two primary types of speakers that people choose from for such systems, point source and line array boxes. To a large degree, your room and budget will eliminate many options for you, which is a good thing since there are thousands of options to choose from.
For line array boxes, if you are looking to put a stereo line array in your room, there are few things you need to consider. The width, depth and height of the room are critical in determining what products will work for you. You might love the way "Company A's" line arrays sound, but if it's horizontal coverage is only 75 degrees and you have an extremely wide room, that is going to cause major coverage issues for you for most of your seating area. This can also happen the other way, if "Company B" also has a great sounding system, but it's horizontal coverage pattern is 120 degrees, and your room is not extremely wide. This might work great for the first couple of rows of seating, but after that, you are going to have major issues with frequencies both canceling out and doubling in different parts of the room.
Another factor that must go into consideration is ceiling heights, and how high you are able to hang your speakers. Almost every speaker manufacturer offers a line array calculator for you to use and figure out what speakers of theirs to use and where to place them in your room.
If you are looking a product that does not offer this, run away and do not use them.
The only exception to this is when companies use EASE Focus, instead of making their own line array calculator. This is a good solution, as long as the company has provided EASE Focus models for the product you are looking to purchase.
Knowing where your speakers should go is vital information, especially if where it needs to go turns out to be between your projector and screen or if you have lights in the way. Such things you must consider and deal with first.
Now if your ceiling is low, than a line array is not at all a good option. Look I get it, line arrays have been the flavor of the month for the past decade. Every concert you go to, that is what they have, pretty much it's every company's top-of-the-line product they offer. The large church in town has one and everyone thinks it sound great. But it all comes back to what is best for the room. At the same time, if your room has low ceilings, and is wide but shallow, a line array is a terrible choice for you.
Your goal should be to get good coverage throughout the room and a line array is not always the right tool for the job.
For a line array to work as a line array, you need height and many boxes to make the actual line in a line array. If the line array does not have enough height, it will just be loud up front and much quitter farther back. Also, if you don't have enough boxes to make an actual line array, the configuration really just acts like a series of point source boxes.
That being said, sometimes point source boxes are the perfect tool for the job. If you have a space that is wide and low ceilings and not very deep, a point source box will work great in that environment. They can also be a better tool when your congregation does not want to see an eight-foot line array hanging from the ceiling. When you have a space that is deeper, and your coverage is falling off, you can add delay speakers and cover a large space, just using point source boxes.
Like I said, this is by no means a complete comprehensive article on system design, or an in-depth evaluation of point source vs. line array.
My hope, though, is it got you thinking about your room and about what sort of questions to think through, before you start looking into possibly replacing your current sound system.