There’s an old adage regarding church audio systems. A church will pay for it three times if it’s not careful—the initial buy and installation, the expense to hire someone to fix the faults of that initial system and, finally, the cost of the next audio system as the church grows.
“Most churches end up going through two or three sound systems,” says Tom Bensen, vice president of amplifier maker Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Powersoft Advanced Technologies LLC. “Sometimes they get it right, but most of the time they don’t. Churches should not be afraid to get expert advice. It may be more cost-effective in the long run to hire a qualified audio consultant.”
You don’t necessarily have to pay the price thrice, but church audio is vastly more complex than a couple of speakers and amps and microphones all linked together. Even with the best intentions and years of planning, perfection is impossible, especially since certain compromises will have to be made due to costs and how the system fits within its surroundings. Acoustics and the laws of physics play a role. Your curtains, ceiling and floor tiles, not to mention pews or chairs, will play a role. Training and the level of expertise available from weekend audio warriors in your congregation plays a huge role.
Despite the pitfalls and complexity, though, the good news is that quality, affordable equipment and systems are out there, and there are qualified experts to walk you through the process. Of course, engineers and designers and consultants will always tell you that you need to hire an engineer, designer and/or consultant, but so will church staffs who’ve gone through the process, even if the result was not completely ideal. References, word of mouth and the Internet can be instructive and assist in helping choose engineers, consultants and installers. Red flags: if a consultant gives you answers before checking out the facility and its existing acoustics or gives you options rather than a real answer, says Nick Colleran, a 30-year veteran sound engineer and designer and co-founder of Richmond, Va.-based Acoustics First.
“None of this can work without proper planning and design,” says John Fuqua, vice president of Pensacola, Fla.-based All Pro Sound. “Put the responsibility of bringing all of the components together and making them work in the hands of a qualified professional. Whether you contact a consultant, design/build firm or systems integrator, be sure they are experienced and credible.”
Pieces of the Puzzle
The very first element of a “sound” church doesn’t involve any speaker or microphone, amplifier or console. It involves four walls and a ceiling and the acoustics therein.
“One of the biggest components with the sound system is the room,” says Dan Craik, house of worship marketing manager with Yamaha Commercial Audio Systems Inc. based in Buena Park, Calif.
Colleran adds, “No system components are going to overcome the room. If you fix the acoustics first, everything else works better or you can buy less or buy better.”
Sanctuaries and auditoriums that host both contemporary and traditional services can complicate acoustic matters, though. Many church sanctuaries may have wonderful acoustics, but they weren’t designed for the instruments frequently involved in contemporary services—electric guitar and bass, drums, etc.
One-second reverberation is ideal, Colleran says, but budget constraints may not allow for the level of acoustical treatment required to achieve it. Still, half the acoustical material can reduce reverberation by two-thirds, he reports—not ideal but an adequate compromise.
With contemporary worship, controlling instrument-volume and balancing the musician’s needs are critical aspects as well. The band doesn’t hear what the audience hears and, in terms of sound levels, bass wavelengths take longer to fully form. Training, again, is crucial, but Craik also suggests removing amplifiers from the stage and using in-ear monitors.
Usually, drum volume is set, followed by bass and then guitar. Electronic drums are a great way to control volume, but they’re not particularly popular with drummers, Craik says. If possible, employ double-sided plastic shields or even a fully enclosed drum shield.
In-ear monitors are great for controlling feedback—and good for the bands’ hearing—but can leave the musicians feeling a little disconnected, says John Born, market development specialist with Niles, Ill.-based microphone maker Shure Inc. When this happens, musicians may feel compelled to remove an in-ear monitor, which can create more problems than it solves and cause hearing problems. Born suggests using ambient microphones pointing toward the audience and paired down stage at the center of the platform and mixing the mics in to the in-ear feed—but not the PA system.
The staff and congregation of Atlanta’s Northside United Methodist Church worked for more than three years on the capital-raising campaign and planning and design of the church’s Faith & Arts Center, a multi-purpose facility used for contemporary worship, drama, Wednesday night services and various small groups. With contemporary worship serving as its central focus, the Faith & Arts Center’s audio system is designed to meet those needs.
Yamaha’s M7CL digital console is the backbone of the system, which also includes Shure ULX microphones, JBL speakers with amplifiers within the speakers, Aviom in-ear monitors and a Yamaha DME digital mixing engine. The Faith & Arts Center also has a secondary sound system that’s intended for small groups and services that may only need one mic or sound for an acoustic guitar or iPod.
The digital console creates a foundation for every service, says Chuck Bell, director of contemporary worship at Northside UMC, where analog systems involved reinventing the wheel every Sunday. Some services may involve 40 inputs, and the digital console can handle the load and then some. Programmed presets ease the set-up process for every service. The complex system does require a great deal of training and involves a learning curve, especially for those accustomed to running an analog board, according to Bell. “The digital music console was a bit of a lifesaver,” Bell says.
While Bell and church Technical Director Allen Morrison are happy with the system, overall, the entire process presented its share of challenges, including completion of the audio system’s installation the day before Easter, a month behind schedule. Communication between the church, installer and designer is imperative, and the church has to have a single meticulous, organized person or small committee that can ask the right questions and guide the process. With new facilities, the kind that a church may build once every 30 years, the complexity and paperwork can be overwhelming. Different committees involved in design and construction of these facilities need to communicate as well. The audio people need to talk to the people picking out flooring and drapes. The types of seating and curtains affect the room’s acoustics and sound.
“It’s a matter of churches being aware that there are more aspects to audio/video than equipment,” Bell says. “We’re still learning every single day with this system. It’s an ongoing process, even with a digital console.”
You can’t really overestimate the importance of training, either, Morrison points out. Manufacturers and installers and all the information they provide are essential to training both the church’s professional staff and “weekend warriors,” but they can’t be there for every service to mix a 16-piece band or run those 40 inputs for a big holiday service. Northside UMC brought in an extra consultant to help with training, too.
“You get better sound and quality, but it takes a lot of training and practice to run it efficiently and effectively,” Morrison says. “There’s so much you can do with a great system, but only if your audio guys are properly trained.”
Limited budgets—but with an eye toward growth—and worship space that may serve other uses during the week call for durability and scalability.
Durability is certainly the key component with leased space or mobile churches, and the three primary components are a good mixer, stable PA and reliable microphones, Born says. You’ve got big problems if you discover that something isn’t working at 8 a.m. Sunday.
“That’s where you definitely don’t want to skimp because you don’t have time,” Born says. “Look at the things you absolutely must have working every weekend.”
Though it’s his job to tout mics, especially Shure mics, Born made a valid point in the importance of quality microphones since the mic is essentially the first input—low-quality mics render the quality of every other piece of the audio system irrelevant.
As churches grow, scalability—the ability to upgrade and add components and features with relative ease—becomes increasingly important, and many systems, such as Powersoft’s K series of amplifiers and Yamaha digital consoles, make it as easy as switching out a chip, software or upgrade card.
“By investing properly in the right baseline technology, as needs change, you’re able to accommodate that change without altering the basic infrastructure,” Bensen says.