An Apple iPod is priced at less than $100 for a basic model. The "name brand table radio" that some are convinced provides provides concert hall sound quality is priced at $350 and up. A simple portable CD player with headphones is priced at $20 and up.
What do all of these have in common besides being mass-produced consumer audio devices. By and large, each is only used by one listener at a time.
Now, what if I quoted a price of $56,000 on a new sound system for an 800-seat church? "Yikes!" is perhaps the most likely reply, followed by "Oh my goodness, that's triple the amount we have in the budget! It's time to go down to the local music store and wee what we can get on the cheap, and/or shop around for equipment deals online, and, well, we can get together a crew of volunteers to install all of this on a Saturday"
But what if I do some simple math showing that this price breaks down to just $70 per seat (listener)? It does—divide 800 into $56,000.
The issue that seems to come above most others when talking about a new sound system for a church: how much money will be needed to get the job done? We need to get our heads around this issue by understanding it in context.
In any correctly executed sound system design, four key pillars are intertwined, and if any of these four are not evenly matched, the structure is fundamentally flawed and won't stand the test of time.
The four key pillars:
In the real world, we understand that the fourth pillar—cost will almost always take a leading position in the discussion, no matter what any of us say. This makes it imperative to investigatea way of developing a sound system budget for your church that will bring logic to the process of attaining the first three pillars to the highest degree possible.
We start with three broad categories of worship styles that require sound systems:
- Traditional Services; Predominantly spoken word, with some non-electronic music, i.e., acoustic piano, solo vocals, choir.
- Contemporary Services; Spoken word, perhaps with more "dynamic, inspirational" speaking as well, drama/theatrical performance, and a much heavier emphasis on electronic and acoustic music.
- Transitional Services; As the name implies, loosely a combination of the first two styles.
Within these broad categories, the worship style drives sound system function and levels, while the worship space (the room's size, space and configuration) drives coverage, as well as levels.
And they all influence cost.
It's also vital to understand that experienced professional sound designers and contractors bring many valuable assets to the table, among them:
- numerous successful projects that can be referenced
- trade resources
- and the knowledge base of best industry practices
Don't let the dark specters of "mark-up" and "profit" cloud judgment; any project over $10,000 is serious enough to warrant professional advice and execution. These folks can be of true help in working out a cost structure that attains the first three pillars to your specific needs.
For any new system design, installation, programming, instruction and equipment that is supplied by a qualified consultant and contractor, we will receive a total cost estimate.
Returning to my earlier example for an 800-seat worship space hosting traditional services, a new system cost of $56,000 (thus a cost-per-seat of $70) is completely realistic to achieve expectations.
Start to Compromise
No matter how much we wish, within this given example, a number of less than $70 per seat for a quality system to adequately serve the stated needs will start to compromise function, coverage and level. There's also a finite cost-per-seat amount where the system simply will not fulfill any of the pillars.
This costing methodology is not a parlor trick or creative accounting. It should, if you do some simple math and get enough sources of like-scaled projects, allow you to understand and explain to others what the correct number is for your project.
The point here is to take brand names, emotion and minuscule details out of the equation. This method should allow you greater flexibility in evaluating proposed solutions, alternatives, as well as determining where you might be able to trim costs without too much compromise.
Every situation and system is difference, and this will impact cost, usually with it going up rather than down.
- Some facilities pay extreme attention to aesthetic issues.
- Existing facilities can present constraints that can drive up infrastructure costs.
- Smaller facilities don't necessarily translate into a smaller price tag. Much of the same design and install work, functionality, infrastructure and so on is of similar scale.
- Some facilities need specialized acoustical treatment or no system will perform as desired.
Let's move on. A quality system serving traditional services can easily present a base-line cost of around $100 per seat, and systems for contemporary services can cover in the $135-per-seat region. (And this is just for sound, not including other production elements like video and lighting.)
The first three basic pillars again explain the fourth (cost) of larger, more complex systems.
- Functions are expanded with complex routing, automatic/programmed scene changes, advanced signal processing, performer monitors, operator training, and more. Also, cabling, routing and termination are more complex, as are the documents to explain them.
- Coverage is even more complicated. And, additional considerations for coverage include structural, technical, aesthetic and safety issues - particularly related to suspending large loudspeakers.
- Levels are usually higher, along with wider bandwidth ("higher highs and lower lows") for realistic reproduction and reinforcement.
And with higher sound pressure level comes specialized equipment room construction, cabling raceways, cooling and power issues.
Are you surprised by the budget numbers? Perhaps intimidated or dismissive? Many have these initial reactionsuntil this information is referenced to their own circumstances.
Remember, we've already come to the conclusion that a properly done sound system is going to cost more than "one CD player per seat." But how much more? The important thing is perspective. Looking back, did a church have two of three iterations of sound systems that came in below $35 per seat? And be honest - where these successful in meeting desired function, coverage and level?
A point to ponder: two times $35 per seat does not equal $70 per seat!
Another example of cost per seat, and this one in the more literal sense: the seats themselves. You know, those infamous stacking plastic contoured chairs that cost "only" $40 apiece from a supply house?
What may seem like a large amount of money to some for a sound system (and it is!) might not even be enough to provide temporary seating. Most folks do not willingly sit through a service on the aforementioned plastic stacking chairs, but they will suffer week after week from bad sound that costs even less than their chairs!
The ultimate goes is successful execution of a project that has a higher purpose. The easier it is to understand the cost subject, the sooner everyone will be singing off the same page.
Tom Walter has worked in numerous aspects of professional audio for more than 35 years.