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Traditional vs. Contemporary Services: Intelligibility of Spoken Word Key for Either

Accurate sound is the one thing that relaxes our inner ear and brain enough to concentrate and assist our ability to comprehend.

I have always thought that the “end result” is what all productions should aim for, whether it be a church service, opera or a live theater event.

When we are distracted by unwanted sound, we tend to become disoriented, disconnected, and not in the moment.

We all wait for that kernel of truth, or final act, to cause alignment in our hearts and minds, through our ears and eyes. It’s like the feeling you get listening to a Gregorian chant inside of a large church.

We lend ourselves to the moment, we give in and we are aligned. This is what linear, natural sound does to humans, when it is captured accurately. Like art and science converging in our hearts.

Sound is invisible, and therefore hard to explain and market properly. We are the ultimate decision-makers, when it comes to what “sounds right.”

To me, the “end result” in a church event should be about the message, the ability to stop time for the congregation, just enough to reflect on their faith, family and how they are dealing with this world that we all live in.

It takes extreme intelligibility of voice and instrument to cut through, and calm us down long enough, to go inward and listen.

When we are distracted by unwanted sound, we tend to become disoriented, disconnected, and not in the moment. This is because the ears and brain are hard-wired to adjust to what is not “understood.

Regarding intelligibility, it does not matter which form of service you choose to attend, be it traditional or contemporary. The main thing they both need in-common is intelligibility of the spoken word, as well as articulation between multiple musical instruments.

In other words — accurate sound is the one thing that relaxes our inner ear and brain enough to concentrate and assist our ability to comprehend.

For me, I can get this information from either a genuine “old school” sermon from a pastor or speaker. Or, I can feel the message through music and words, like a full band enveloping me with the good emotion, dynamics and spoken word.

As my coworker at DPA, Alan Johnson, has said, it can also come from a combination of both elements. Alan works mainly in the house of worship sector and brings great insight to this subject.

As he noted, “When I think of the differences between traditional and contemporary, or modern, worship, I think there is a fundamental philosophy difference that separates them.”

He continued, “In an altruistic sense, the modern worship style church aims to reach those unfamiliar with church, oftentimes having a high-production value to make the nonchurchgoer comfortable with a familiarity in lights, video, and oftentimes, top 40 radio hits.”

He added, “At the same time, the traditional worship style church values the ’ancient’ tradition that has worked for decades (or longer). They don’t concern themselves with what’s new, fancy, or flashy. There is no right or wrong in my opinion. There is no perfect solution.

In addition, he stated, “We all need to do what we feel called to do and what we are capable of doing. There is beauty in the tradition that is sometimes lost in the modern church, and conversely, there is excitement and invigoration oftentimes not present in the traditional. There is a slow, but growing insurgence of what I like to refer to as a ’neo liturgical’ church. One that values the beauty in the ancient, with the production value of the modern. Production value in this place doesn’t mean lights and IMAG and the like, but more modern worship songs and a ’score’ of sorts for the service.”

Technically speaking, dealing with multiple voices or instruments, and possibly coupled with not the best acoustic environments takes a special microphone.

For example, I like to state three attributes. If your microphone collection can have these, you will have a more accurate soundscape in-which to build your mix from. The last thing engineers need is to chase feedback and comb-filtering by constantly manipulating the sound with EQ and processing.

1. SPL (Sound Pressure Level) handling is very important. A drum set can average 119 dB but can range between 90 dB and 130 dB. I would want a microphone that can handle a minimum of 144 dB, and more like 159db, which would be even better.

More headroom adds to accuracy and reduces harmonic distortion, which usually occurs at the tipping point in a microphone. For example, if a microphone introduces harmonic distortion at 123 dB, and the drum set is peaking at 130 dB, we have unnatural distortion added to the capture. This could sound cool for certain target sounds, but in my opinion five to seven mics all distorting a bit, is a mess.

2. Transient response is very important to speech and all sound. It is what adds to the intelligibility of the source. For example, consonants in our words are at a lower volume level than the vowels.

What is lower in volume is actually what we need to clearly hear, in-order to understand each other. Reverberation can drown out the consonants in a large untreated church. We have been there asking, ‘What did he say…?’

A fast, transient response in a condenser microphone will move rapidly and get back to its default position, much quicker than with a dynamic microphone. All sound benefits from this attribute, whether a pastor is doing a sermon, or a contemporary rock band is playing at a full volume. Intelligibility of sound is what we are after.

3. Linearity is the microphones ability to reproduce all frequencies accurately. For example, if a microphone is pointed at a sound source, like a voice or guitar amp at the 0-degree axis (front of the mic), it should be at the most accurate regarding all frequencies. If that same microphone gets pointed at 45 degrees, or 90 degrees off axis, will the transparent sound we heard at 0 axis now be compromised?

The answer is not yes or no.

A lot of variables like the space in-which the source resides matters. Most importantly, though, does the microphone hear the world in a linear fashion in both the on and off axis? Some do, most do not.

Check your specs! If your mic does, the frequency response chart will look like this…

Frequency response chart

A frequency response chart for the DPA 4011A cardioid pencil condenser microphone.

Off axis chart

The off axis chart for the DPA 4011A cardioid pencil condenser microphone.

If your microphone does not show an off-axis chart, then it most likely cannot reproduce the off-axis uncolored. This will result in comb-filtering, phasing and chasing feedback issues all day long.

When our microphones possess this magic attribute, we can have multiple microphones on a production with little to no issues. This will give the engineer free EQ.

If we can count on the three attributes mentioned above, then we simply move the microphone to get the sweet-spot we desire, whether it be used during a contemporary service or a traditional one.

Similar to a piece of glass, when we look straight into it, it is clear. When we turn the glass, it typically distorts. If related to sound, a microphone with linearity all around will be clear glass, in the on and off axis.

All this, coupled with a technology called Core by DPA, allows for higher dynamic range, up to 14 dB, resulting in less harmonic distortion, and also an IP58 rating for extreme resistance to water and dust. In my opinion, the results are as close as I have heard to the way the world sounds to my ears.

Microphone chart

A look at dynamic range for a DPA microphone, with the Core technology.

Microphone chart

A look at harmonic distortion for a DPA microphone, with the Core technology.

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