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Sound System Design: A Beginning Look

Work ‘backward’ (speakers and acoustics first, microphones last) as you consider your new sound system.

As I dive into the topic of sound system design, hopefully something here can help improve your new sound system as you go through the process.

I recognize that it would be impossible to cover the topic of ‘sound system design’ in one short magazine article, so I won’t bother trying.

Consider this just a piece of that process…

There once was a church that gathered its elder board to discuss a few areas that needed improvement. Topics ranged from restoring the stained glass windows or pipe organ, to upgrading its sound system. The pipe organ restoration project was presented, with a cost of more than $400,000.

As this example shows, pipe organs are expensive, but nonetheless, less than ten minutes of discussion on that topic ensued, and the project was then approved.

Next up, my proposal for a new sound system.

It was a small church and the sound system came in around $40,000, fully installed.

That proposal involved 45 minutes of discussion (and heated debate), before it ended up being denied. One comment from that discussion: “My friend does car audio, and he said he can do it for half this price.”

I was a lot younger and bit less gentle back then, so before I left, I asked a question I already knew the answer to: “Folks, I am curious, who on your worship team will be playing the newly restored pipe organ?”

An awkward pause followed.

Only for members from the board to blurt out some of the following comments:

“We don’t have anyone that can play pipe organ.”

“But we are a pipe organ church!”

“We have always been a pipe organ church. It’s what we are known for.”

“It is important that we have a working pipe organ!”

I had hoped my not-so-subtle question might cause someone to consider they just elevated the unplayable pipe organ, to above the quality of sound that the church’s congregation would actually hear.

To everyone considering a new sound system, consider this story and consider Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”

Therefore, when the elder board tells the church’s sound team that “It’s time for a new sound system!”, too often, the response from the sound team is, “Great! Hey, which sound board should we buy?”

Instead, I challenge you to flip your brain.

Start at the speakers and work backwards.

A good speaker system is the most important component of any church sound system.

Is the sound board important? Sure is! However, consider this: Church A has a great sound board, and poor speakers located in improper locations. Church B has high quality, properly deployed speakers, but their sound board is slightly more on the budget side. To the audience’s perspective, which church do you think is easier for the audience worship and for learning? Church B, of course, wins this one hands down.

Another way to think about this: Think about the last concert you went to. Was the sound good or bad?

Try this question: as you imagine yourself at any concert, can you imagine anyone saying, “Oh wow, this is good sound, I can tell they are using a soundboard from XYZ company.” Of course not.

Usually, when we go to a concert and hear good sound, we might go peek at the sound board, but we often attribute the quality of sound to the skill of the technician mixing the show. I guarantee you, any concert you have been to that had ‘good sound,’ also had good speakers and a well-trained technician.

The same is true in church.

Work ‘backward’ (speakers and acoustics first, microphones last) as you consider your new sound system.

A brief word on budgets and money. What we (the tech team) want vs. what the church actually needs, vs. what the elder board is actually willing to spend, never do quite line up, do they?

That’s OK, as long as we are willing to navigate that river. Check out this PDF of a Jim Brown article about why churches buy three sound systems.

A few ‘step 1’ style questions/considerations:

1)    Get some group input. Form a team. Ask questions first before we start recommending solutions.
2)    Should we design this system ourselves or look for professional help?
3)    Regardless of how you answer question 2, the first consideration of any church sound system should be the speakers. Any good integrator will start here.
4)    The goal is really very simple: provide good sound onto the listening audience. This consideration takes us back to:
5)    Where should speakers be located, in order to optimize sound on our listening audience? (usually this means two speakers on stands on the left and right of the room quickly becomes a bad idea.)
6)    How can we support the worship team? Often this means involving members from the worship community. Don’t overlook this step. They are a critical part of providing good sound to the audience. We want their input. We want to hear their concerns and desires. If they want to restore the pipe organ and use it in worship, let’s talk about that. Let’s get everyone on the same page (literally, use paper and pencil and then share your notes with everyone).
7)    What is our style? And how can the new sound system support this style? Example: Are we a Southern Baptist style, or perhaps we are more Hillsong style or perhaps we are more traditional hymn singing style. Each style will require a different sound system style.
8)    Don’t forget training!! Budget for it. Plan for it. When all that new shiny equipment arrives, the best thing we can do is to invest in our volunteers and teach them how to run the equipment confidently and well.

Designing a new sound system is political!

Yup, there it is, I said it.

Someone will get offended during this process, I guarantee it.

I speak from experience as the one who did the offending and later had to apologize for it.

Take your time.

Ask questions.

Find people that have ‘been-there-done-that.’

One final thought: Please remember, your church is not the first church to design a new sound system. It might feel that way to you and your team, but this has been done literally thousands of times.

If you read, learn and ask questions, you can have an awesome sound system which provides great sound to your church audience.

“Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” Go and make great sound.

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