Over the course of my career, I had the opportunity to operate many church sound systems, as well as to design, install and maintain them in a professional capacity.
Along the way, it will come as no surprise that a good many of the systems I came across seemed to violate laws of nature, physics, and in some cases, reality.
Here's an example.
A service call to fix a system in rural Georgia found me standing in the center aisle, trying (and alas, failing) to contain the horrified look of shock on my face. Mounted directly above the pulpit was a sheet of plywood with about 30 car stereo speakers screwed to it. The sound quality was slightly better than AM radio with the added bonus of a little more distortion.
Shortly after that, I was called to another church, and upon entering, discovered the system consisted of two Fender guitar amps hanging from coat hooks on the back wall. The folks at the church claimed it didn't get loud enough to cover 250 seats, and I was stumped as to why. That sound design must have looked so good on paper
I can go on and on, but instead, I asked for some anecdotes from the folks in the Church Sound Forum on ProSoundWeb. It produced quite a few responses, the "best" (that should probably be "worst") of which I share here.
"An enthusiastic member of the congregation built a couple of speakers (poorly, I might add) and mounted them on the front sidewalls to cover the front pews. No attention was paid to the polarity of the wiring, impedance on the system, or any technical details like that. To cap it off, this member was also partially deaf, with his hearing loss mostly in the higher registers. As a result, the system sounded horrible but to his ears, it was fine."
"The church installed four PA speakers in the ceiling pointed straight down at the floor in a 50- by 50-foot room with a 20-foot vaulted ceiling. Very poor coverage and a lot of trouble with feedback."
"The worst systems were a mix of DIY (do it yourself) or low-end contractor/music store. Almost none of the systems that were decent, that I've personally seen, were DIY."
"A church had 3-phase power coming into the building and split out to three old dimmer panels that had been converted into straight power panels. The church didn't tell us (or the electricians) that a DIY relay system had been installed in the 1980s. It was wired into another panel in another closet. All of the outputs from each of these breakers in the old dimmer went to this relay system.
"The pastor later informed us that he knew about the issue. There were similar issues in other places and he didn't tell us because he knew that it wasn't up to code. The whole campus was done that way by his brother 20-plus years ago.
Eight lighting fixtures, a DMX splitter, a Jands CL controller, two power amplifiers and a (Ashly) Protea DSP all fried."
"I once had the absolute pleasure of fighting the weirdest wireless dropouts and interference for hours while setting up six to eight units in a rural church. At some point, just short of losing my mind, a member mentioned that there'd been a radio station in the building before.
"A quick search of the attic space over the sanctuary revealed what looked like a million feet of old copper in random coils and piles (think of the snake pit scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark). I never would have guessed it was there or that it would respond like it did."
"Another church built a sound booth inside the peak of a 29-foot cathedral ceiling at the very back of a huge sanctuary. The mix position ended up nearly 125-feet from the stage. Forget how close to impossible it was to tune the system or mix from there. The big issue was a dude my size making 200 trips up those stairs."
And there were several other comments along these lines Seriously, folks. Unless you're well-trained and experienced, please leave this stuff to the professionals.
You can join the discussion and tell your own horror stories in the Church Sound Forum on ProSoundWeb.
Article courtesy of ProSoundWeb.com.
About the author: M. Erik Matlock, Senior Editor, ProSoundWeb
Erik worked in a wide range of roles in pro audio for more than 20 years in a dynamic career that encompasses system design and engineering in the live, install and recording markets. He also spent several years as a production staff member and team leader for the largest non-denominational church in central Georgia, and served as an author for several leading industry publications before joining the PSW team.