Building a new facility? Planning a major renovation? The first call you should make is to an architect, right? It makes sense—theoretically, at least—but if you’re operating a church, chances are you want your congregation to actually be able to hear your message. And as an ever-growing number of houses of worship incorporate a more contemporary style into their services, quality of sound becomes increasingly important.
As is the case with any project, those involved in construction and/or remodeling should begin by defining their goals. For most churches, the primary concern is ensuring that the content being delivered to the congregation is clear and intelligible. “If that’s the goal, the next step is to accurately assess the acoustic content of the worship space,” says John Storyk, principal at Walters-Storyk Design Group (WSDG), an architectural and acoustic design firm based in Highland, N.Y., and with global offices in Europe and South America. In churches that employ traditional worship, achieving this isn’t as complex as, say, in facilities whose services combine spoken word and contemporary music. “The goal there is much more complicated, because now we must deliver clear and precise spoken word, but we also want concertstyle music.”
The combination of the two objectives is achieved in two ways: the implementation of an optimized acoustical design, as well as the integration of electro-acoustical solutions such as a sound system, a reinforcement system and, in some cases, an enhancement system that changes the acoustical properties of the space in order to make it more reverberant. Regardless of the specificities of the sanctuary itself, however, it’s paramount that the right experts are involved in the project up front, long before ground is broken. Storyk uses this metaphor: “You would never design a skyscraper without calling the elevator consultant. The elevator design often drives the entire design. This lesson also applies to critical listening spaces such as churches and worship centers. Make sure you’ve got an acoustician on board right from the beginning.” The same can be said for acoustics and sound—and treating either as an afterthought usually produces disheartening results, as well as wasted funds.
“If you don’t get the acoustics correct to start with, you will generally go through several sound systems before you understand that you need to fix the acoustics,” confirms Nick Colleran, principal at Acoustics First Corp. in Richmond, Va. “There are not many bad sound systems anymore, however, if the geometry of the room is not reasonable, some of the sound will cancel, and some of it will get louder.” If you don’t address the acoustics but install a high-power audio system, you will achieve a louder sound, but you won’t be able to understand the content.
Envisioning the unseen
One reason that many facilities fail to consider acoustics is that acoustics are invisible, and it’s difficult to invest in something that you can’t see. Storyk notes that recent breakthroughs in prediction software, or auralization tools, such as those offered by CATT (www.catt.se) and Odeon (www.odeon.dk), have made it easier for both acousticians and church leadership to “visualize” and hear how an acoustical design will perform. “There is no doubt that this universe of auralization, or real-time listening prediction, is here to stay,” he says. “It allows the architect, designer, acoustical consultant and the client to all get their hands dirty at the same time and make valuable decisions.”
As more players enter the market, acoustical treatments are decreasing in price, and improving in quality. Colleran notes that these days more facilities are opting to print artwork on acoustical panels. “We’ve started printing on new fabric that is acoustically transparent,” he explains, citing his company’s product, Tone Tiles. “It looks just like a standard acoustical material—the same sort of thing that we have had on the existing panels for the past 15 years. It’s just designed to be easier to print, and it doesn’t affect the acoustics.”
When it comes to advancements in audio technology, Storyk points to low frequency control. Churches can create a great deal of low frequency energy, and with the increase of full-frequency content—popular music—controlling the low frequency in these spaces can become more and more complex. “There have been many improvements in relatively thin low-frequency control devices that can be easily, and relatively economically, installed,” Storyk says. And he adds that this technology is often referred to as bass control, or bass traps.
Electro-acoustic enhancement is another area of interest. “Sometimes we need spaces to sound acoustically larger than they actually are,” Storyk explains. “You might design a space to work very well in the speech domain, but then during an organ recital—particularly if there is a big organ—you need that space to sound bigger. Not louder, but bigger, or more enhanced.” He notes that electro-acoustic enhancement technology has improved greatly over the last decade.
Due to the physical configuration of many churches, line array loudspeaker systems are a popular solution, especially since they are decreasing in size. “We can have pencil-thin, sixfoot speakers that are extremely unobtrusive, but [that] behave in a way that is much more conducive to musical performances, thanks to bass control and digital signal processing (DSP),” Storyk says. This is extremely valuable in situations where there is limited geometry to work with, or historical requirements that don’t allow for large speaker arrays. Both audio console and processing technology continues to be smaller, cheaper and better, with pretty much everything being digitally controlled. “Very few people can really hear the difference between high-end digital and analog anymore, so there is little reason not to take advantage of digital technology. It gives the sound mixers multiple settings and quick-changing capabilities,” Storyk adds.
Start strong, end strong
While both technological advancements and decreasing prices are encouraging for church leaders concerned with good financial stewardship, the most responsible thing a church can do is to enlist the right people from the outset of a project that includes audio and acoustics components. “Pastors, building committees, facility directors, and whoever else is involved during a church installation project, needs to consider their prime consultants and designers as a fully integrated design team,” Storyk says. “Don’t divide them up. Don’t put them at a disadvantage where they are late before they even start. Bring them early on, right at the beginning of a project, so that potential problems can be addressed before construction rather than corrected afterward.”