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The Pastor’s Guide to Acoustics

The Pastor’s Guide to Acoustics

Audio technology is of little use if you haven't considered acousticsfirst

Once upon a time there was a church. Its sanctuary, a modified theater, welcomed between 250-300 worshippers each week. Its praise and worship team favored dramatic productions, music and singing. The problem was, nobody in the congregation could hear what they were singing or saying or playing.

"The sound system must need replacing," thought the church leadership. Which was strange, since they hadn't scrimped on budget or quality when they installed it several years before for $150,000. But they bought a new one anyway, this time for $200,000.

And still, every Sunday, as the praise and worship team sang and spoke and played, no one in the congregation could hear what was going on.

"Perhaps," thought the church leadership, "we didn't buy the right system. Perhaps the equipment we bought is no good." They hired another audiovisual integrator, who designed another system. One that would cost $300,000.

Finally, someone woke up and made a phone call. "Perhaps," they said, "the reason no one can hear has nothing to do with the audio equipment at all."

As it turned out, they were right. The audio equipment was not to blame. The reason that nobody could hear what was taking place up on stage was the air conditioner's fault. It was so loud that it drowned everything else out. For $25,000, the church leadership had it repaired. And all of that singing and saying and playing? The congregation can finally hear it.

Russ Berger was the man the church called before investing $300,000 in yet more audio technology. As principal at the acoustical and architectural consulting firm Russ Berger Design Group in Addison, Texas, he recounts that, unfortunately, this is a common enough tale. (Pretty much everyone who works in acoustics has similar stories.) Churchesand many other facilitiesoften spend thousands, or as in this case, hundreds of thousands, trying to get good sound out of technology rather than considering the room acoustics first. What they usually, if not always, discover is that paying attention to acoustics at the outset of any new construction or renovation is less costly than doing it the other way aroundand their facilities wind up sounding better as a result.


"The main mistake that people make is not including acoustics in the budget in the first place," says Nick Colleran, principal of Acoustics First Corp., an acoustical products manufacturer based in Richmond, Va. "You cannot do value engineering and pull out the acoustics if sound is your business. I would say in all regards, in church, sound is part of what you do, because if you can't understand it, there is no point in being there."

For acousticians, churches present a unique set of competing requirements. Richard Schrag, another principal at Russ Berger Design Group, explains that the need to accommodate a wide range of sound sourcesthe spoken word, acoustic instruments, pipe organs and choral singing, for examplehas always made houses of worship an acoustical challenge. Today's contemporary churches have upped the ante: on top of all these traditional sources, there are now electronic instruments, percussion and pre-recorded elements thrown into the mix.

"As a result, the acoustics in the space have to find the best balance to address all of those competing interests," Schrag says. At the same time, he adds, churches now rely on sound reinforcement systems to handle all of these sources where previously, that was the job of the room's natural acoustics. "There has been a shift in how those sources and sounds interact with the room, as well as how that sound is transmitted to the congregation."


The shift in convention doesn't stop there. With an increasing number of congregations worshipping in non-traditional spaces, creating an acoustical environment that supports all of these elements becomes an even greater task. While that warehouse space down by the airport may seem like a good deal, it may not offer the structural support required for anybody to hear what's going on inside. And then there are your neighbors: Will your congregation be able to understand what your pastor is saying whenever an airplane takes off next door?

"The first thing to do is to look at the site," Schrag says, [and take all] activity at adjacent properties into consideration. Ask yourselves: Can you live with these issues? And if not, how much will it cost to resolve them?

Then there are internal noise sources to think about: remember how that air conditioning system wreaked havoc for the well-meaning leadership of the [first church we talked about in this article]? Well, what about when what's going on in the main sanctuary wreaks havoc for other areas of the facility, where, for example, youth ministries may be taking place?

This is where something called STCSound Transmission Class comes in, says Jay Perdue, president of Amarillo, Texas-based Perdue Acoustics, an acoustical treatment developer. There are two main categories of acoustics: Noise Reduction Coefficient, or NRC (which involves minimizing the noise sources that are inside an actual space), and STC. STC deals with how to minimize the noise coming out of a space and flowing into surrounding areas.

"STC has got to be taken care of during the construction of the building, or it either cannot be done, or it is going to be ridiculously expensive and difficult," Perdue says. "The reason for that is because STC involves things like choosing cinderblock filled with sand, or tilt-up concrete walls instead of sheetrock and stud walls, because you are trying to isolate the sound to that room, to that area. It has to do with that, and it has to do with separate air conditioning and heating systems, because you don't want the sound to be traveling down the duct work from one area to another."

While it's all well and good to have the luxury of addressing these issues at the beginning of a new construction project, what about if you're in an existing building where someone got the acoustics wrong? Can this be fixed?

The good news is, in most casesyes. "You can very often make a huge improvement to the acoustical environment by upgrading the finishes as well as, in some cases, the basic construction of the space," Schrag says. The bad news is, repairing the acoustics post-construction risks being costly.

Another thing to remember is that while the main "action" in any church takes place in the sanctuary, this isn't the only space to which acoustic principles apply. Ever been in a fellowship hall, church bookshop or café where it's difficult to hear the person who is standing three feet away from you? It's probably because of the acoustics.

As is the case for appropriately siting the facility itself, the locations of support spaces, such as offices, classrooms and rooms that are utilized for ministry, should be selected with care. "We all have problems that we are dealing with, and that's the mission of the church: to reach out and help people with their issues and their problems," Berger says. "There is a certain expectation for privacy that you have when you go in and pour your soul out to either a prayer group or a counselor, and so that consideration is important."


One way that acousticians improve the acoustical behavior of both new and existing spaces is through the application of various absorptive and diffusive treatments. "Diffusors" are hard surfaces that, as their name suggests, diffuse or scatter sound. "Absorbers," as their moniker explains, absorb it. Perdue Acoustics offers a number of treatments in various shapes and sizes, including wedges, convex panels and traditional flat panels.

At Acoustics First, designers have come up with a product that offers diffusion and absorption in one panel. The company also offers panels that can be painted without disturbing the acoustical qualities they provide. "But you have to follow the instructions and do it the right way; you can't seal it up with some kind of high-gloss, enameled finish, because then you have defeated it," Colleran warns. He adds that like most members of the construction industry today, acoustical treatments manufacturers also offer products made from sustainable materials.

At Russ Berger Design Group, acousticians make use of the SpaceCoupler, a system the firm developed in-house about 10 years ago. Comprised of a grid of cells, Berger relays that the SpaceCoupler performs like absorption for high-frequency sound, yet it doesn't actually absorb any sound. He explains that this system is especially useful over glass surfaces that are causing reflection issues. "A lot of contemporary churches today have large expanses of glass, and this product provides a way to mitigate the reflections from the P.A. system going back into key audience areas, but it doesn't stop natural light from coming through," he explains.

While no one expects pastorsor anyone else in the church, for that matterto be acoustical experts, they do have the power to enlist the help of those with the right knowledge, at the right time. What is the right time? Ask anyone in the industry, and they will tell you that acousticians should be working alongside the architect from the initial design phase of the construction project. "If they bring this expertise in early, the acoustical consultant can inform the architect's decisions about certain materials that they have always wanted to use: Can we use stone in this area? Can we use wood? Should this be hard? Should it be soft? What would happen if I moved this here and did that there?" Berger illustrates. However, he adds, when the acoustician is brought in too late, often all they can do is apply "Band-Aids and perfume" to a troublesome space.

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