By Jak Daragjati, as told to Dawn Allcot
As a practicing Catholic – born and raised – my family and I always make it a point to give the Lord one hour every Sabbath. Well, almost always. I am human. Being a parent who loves to travel, not to mention journey to see my competitive children play their sport of choice, I visit many churches in many states while trying to “Keep Holy the Sabbath.” Admittedly, it’s not always easy to be a nomad Catholic but, thanks to Google, I always find my way. Sometimes it feels like a chore. But then I get to experience some of the most magnificent architecture of the country’s finest churches, old and new, and the hard work is worth it. When you get to visit as many churches as I have – especially having the background I do in church sound – you start thinking: “It’s true that no two churches are created equal.” This is especially true when it comes to technology needs, including the audio systems.
When It Matters, It Matters
A lot of people in today’s world probably say, “Why does it matter?” “Who cares about a preacher yelling about a book supposedly inspired by a so-called God telling us how to live?” If these are your thoughts, you may be in the wrong place right now. Church sound doesn’t matter to everyone. But if you believe like I do – it matters a lot. And all across the U.S., from the streets of Brooklyn to southern small towns, there are plenty of people who believe the same. If you feel the way I do, this article is written for you. Especially if you make any of the decisions about the audio technology in your church. As you read this article, you’ll learn why audio quality is so important to the inspired word, and why it is important to realize that no two houses of worship are alike. A professional integrator can work with you to pinpoint what makes your church different and how to get the best sound quality during every part of your services.
1. The acoustics of every church is different.
Traveling the country and visiting different churches, it is striking how different the architecture is in each building. From older cathedrals to modern “big box” churches, each church has its own appeal for different reasons. Those same architectural characteristics that might take your breath away in a place like St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or help a newer church blend into a modern shopping center, also affect the acoustics within the church. The acoustic quality of a room may be described as “bright” or “reverberant,” meaning the sound bounces off the walls and may even echo. It may also be called “dead,” meaning the sound is absorbed into the surfaces. A church with lots of stained-glass windows, marble surfaces, and solid wood floors and pews will be very reverberant. This can be a positive thing for acoustical music, if it’s not taken to an extreme, or for sound that isn’t amplified. But it can make it hard to understand the spoken word during sermons. It can also be downright painful to the ears if a church is playing loud, amplified gospel music. Likewise, a room with carpeting, thick curtains, and acoustical ceiling tiles may sound “dead.” Sound will be muffled, making it hard to hear the pastor. A gospel band performing won’t sound lively or inspiring. We could write pages and pages about acoustics, but let’s leave it right now at this: A building’s architecture and construction materials will affect the sound. An experienced audio designer can help counteract any negative acoustic characteristics, while making the most of the church’s natural design to bring out the best sound quality. Making the right choices in speakers and processing equipment and hanging the speakers in the right places can help a church sound great even without traditional acoustical treatments, which many would consider as the solution to church sound problems.
2. The size of the church can change the audio technology requirements.
We spent a lot of time talking about acoustics just now. It’s also one of our main focuses when we design sound systems for churches. Again, this may not mean hanging acoustical treatments or installing acoustic tiles. A church may just require better speaker placement or new speakers to achieve superior sound. Just as the building materials and architecture can affect the sound requirements, so does the church’s size. You wouldn’t want to hang a concert-quality line array in a 150-seat chapel. And a small stereo system wouldn’t fill a 2,000-seat mega-church. Likewise, the size of the church will affect the need for a mixing board, the location of the mixer (front-of-house, back-of-house, or even in a separate monitor room), and monitors needed. Keep in mind: As with anything, the size of the church will also substantially change the church’s budget for a good quality sound system.
3. The type of worship will affect your church sound system needs.
Traditional Catholic churches often use a small sound system with two, four or six stereo speakers to amplify spoken word. Because there is no praise band, they don’t need an extensive concert sound system. Churches that do contemporary worship often need equipment to amplify a band. Sound quality must be comparable to what you’d hear in a top-quality venue. It’s not just the speakers that matter when designing church audio systems. Contemporary churches will need a mixer, monitors, in-ear monitors for the band, a collection of wired, wireless, and lapel mics, and processing gear. Keep in mind, even in churches where the focus is on the music, it’s imperative that the sound system performs at its best for spoken word. Contemporary churches may use music to inspire the congregation, but, as the Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word.” An integrator who has grown up in churches, still attends church, and understands the true importance of the Word will not sacrifice that sound quality and clarity.
It All Works Together
Many other factors also affect a church’s specific audio needs. Churches with older congregations may need higher quality assistive listening systems. Younger congregations may be more focused on the music. Many traditional churches today want to hide or disguise the speakers within the church’s architecture to preserve the look and feel of the building. Larger, modern churches may want a speaker array front and center to showcase how they embrace technology. A church’s features, including the architecture, design, the church’s goals, its congregation members and its style of worship all combine and interact to influence the church’s audio needs. None of these factors can be considered on its own, exclusive of the rest, if you want to get your money’s worth out of your church audio system. An expert church audio designer takes all these factors into consideration when specifying a sound system that will meet the needs of a church. If you’re shopping for church audio systems, don’t settle for cookie cutter designs.
No two churches are alike, and no two church sound systems should be exactly alike, either.