Audio people tend to spend a lot of time talking about microphones and speaker systems, and that’s especially true in worship audio.
And I’m probably under selling “a lot.” It’s natural to discuss the tools of the trade, and that generally includes discussion around which PA sounds the best, and what subs rock the hardest. Or maybe you start at the beginning of the signal chain and spend lots of time discussing which kick mic gives you the most punch, whether you should over or under mic your cymbals, or single or double mic your guitar cabinets. From there, you may also discuss which vocal mics sound the best, as we all know your lead vocal should be clearly heard. I especially love when the conversation turns to speech intelligibility. “Man, you should hear how clear my pastor is—it’s like he’s talking directly to every person in the room!” Every conversation about mics and PAs starts there, right? In reality, these conversations hardly ever go there. I understand talking about speech intelligibility isn’t exciting, but for churches, over half of every service is a single person talking on stage. Perhaps there needs to be more conversation about getting such a huge portion of your services right. Audio Reinforcement Most audio professionals will agree that the two most important components of your system are the input, where sound is converted to signal, and the final output, where signal is converted back to what you hear. We’ll talk in a moment about how to get great sound at the input side, but none of this matters, if the output mechanism — your PA — doesn’t output quality sound. I’m going to spare everyone an article telling you what brand of speakers is the best for speech, or what PA approach is the only approach to make your room sound awesome. Instead, I’ll give you some fundamentals to ensure the 50% of your service that is 1-2 people delivering the greatest message we have is the best it could be. Acoustics Great sound, and especially great speech, starts with great acoustics. Listening to a single source of audio in a highly reverberant room can be highly exhausting. During the teaching portion of a church service especially over the course of 30-45 minutes—unintelligible audio is a waste of time for everyone involved, and an insult to the person who spends time preparing a message all week. Before the PA ever gets spec’d, make sure your room has a reasonable reverberation time (ideally under 1.5 seconds in the speech range) that works with speech, not against it. PA Coverage When speech is crucial, it’s critical to have a PA design that isn’t spraying sound all over the walls, which bounces back into the room and creates intelligibility challenges. This means line arrays aren’t the answers to all your problems. In a shorter room (up to 50 feet deep), using point source boxes will give you the most strategic coverage, maximizing consistent audio delivery to your seating areas and keeping sound off the walls. In a medium depth room (50-100 feet deep), some array-able loudspeakers may make sense, but so might those same point source boxes. The key again is paying attention to what is being covered, and not covered, so you minimize those unwanted reflections in the room. Once you get into long throw situations, line arrays are great options to provide full, even coverage and intelligibility over large areas. PA Properties When half of your service is speech reinforcement, it is great idea to audition prospective speaker systems with speech content before committing to the purchase. Many loudspeakers have their crossover in the vocal intelligibility range, and some of them don’t handle that transition as well as others. This can make speech sound harsh and uncomfortable. Other speakers simply lack the intelligibility needed for people to clearly hear the spoken word. Everyone likes to demo music on a PA system, but since speech is the most important deliverable every week, don’t forget to spend time listening to speech, too. Speaking Microphone The microphone your pastor uses is the most important microphone you own. That may sound extreme, but when half of your service is one person’s voice, it better be clear, natural, and easy to listen to. This can be especially challenging as typically this is the only microphone on at the time, so there is nowhere to hide audio flaws. If you have a tight budget—and who doesn’t—this isn’t the area to skimp on. The pastor’s mic, and the wireless system you likely run it through, should be the best system you own. What are the best options for speaking microphones? A lot depends on the needs and style of your main speaker and what their preferences are. But there are great quality options in every style of microphone: Handheld The best quality sound for spoken word will come from a handheld mic and proper mic technique. This will provide the highest gain before feedback and the fullest sound. But, only if the speaker uses proper microphone technique. For people who like to use their hands when they speak, this can be nearly impossible. Lavalier microphones (lapel) Lavalier mics free up the speaker’s hands to be more expressive but, having a high-quality mic and optimal mic placement (approximately one fist distance below their chin) is critical to getting great sound. If your speaker prefers a lavalier, I’d highly encourage you to buy the absolute best mic that you can and learn how to place it well. Otherwise, everyone will be listening to you fight feedback every week throughout the message. Headset microphones These can be the best solution for many speakers. Headset mics get the element close to the speaker’s mouth, much like good mic technique with a handheld does. That proximity to the mic is how you get great gain before feedback, and a full sound. One of the downsides with a lavalier mic is that as you turn your head to speak to the side, you turn away from the mic and sound level drops off. With a headset, as you turn your head, the mic follows, maintaining optimal proximity to your mouth. Wrap Up When more than half the service time is speech, investing in systems that enhance the message should be every church’s top priority. That’s not to say your audio reinforcement shouldn’t rock if you want it to, but it shouldn’t take priority over clarity of speech. Having a room with solid acoustics, a PA system that covers your room evenly, handles speech well, and microphones that represent your speaker’s voice clearly are the keys to successful audio.