Audio system design for a church client can be a different animal all its own. Here's what designers need to know to get it right.
I recently received a shirt that said "And God said, 'Let there be light,' because the audio was already working." As a sound engineer, I love that saying, but the reality is that in many churches today, the sound system isn't working well. It's inconsistent, prone to feedback, or underpowered just to name a few issues. Most of the time it all leads back to the system design and what happens in that process, which means many of these issues could have been avoided.
I have been a church technical director for most of my adult life. However, in various seasons, I also toured with and mixed for Christian bands that primarily performed in churches. I also worked for an AVL design/build integrator. All of these experiences have had me living my life in front of PA systems. When I was an integrator I learned an industry saying, "Every church buys three sound systems over its life. The first one is wrong for the room, the second is a band-aid to the first and, finally, they rip the whole thing out and start over." Each time spending more and more money.
I have a passion for the church as well as good audio and I want to share with you some key areas to focus on when designing an audio system, from my point of view. As well as my own thoughts, I had the pleasure of talking with some industry experts to glean their insights into the process.Performance space vs. worship space
As a starting point, it's a good use of time to discuss how the church is different from other performance spaces. Opposed to a performing arts center where the interaction is one way, from the stage to the audience, in the church, it can be more of a two-way street, with the audience having more participation. That line is being blurred more and more as modern churches become akin to performing arts centers, but this participation aspect really requires more focus than I am seeing it given (we'll discuss that later in this article.)
Among the industry people I spoke with, I asked each of them what their first step is when talking to a client about their design needs. They unanimously all agreed that the main focus is understanding the client. Neal Watson, director of AVL Integration for CTS in Brentwood, Tenn., (my former employer) understands that, "There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to audio systems. While we borrow ideas and concepts from previous designs, each one requires a unique approach," he notes. With each room comes different challenges. The key here is learning about the client and their DNA.
"I get that some products are more profitable than others, but a good consultant or integrator will ultimately help the church make the hard calls when it comes time to match dreams with the budget."
—Jeff Vanderkooi, Audio Lead, House Right Production, Lexington, KY
Jeff Vanderkooi, House Right Production
Jeff Vanderkooi, audio lead for House Right Production in Lexington, Ky., also reinforces the importance of learning a church's DNA. He summed up an experience I have lived through in saying, "I've met enough churches that build a new building and the architect brings in an AV company that has no idea what the church is trying to do." This was me when I was on-staff at a church, working with an architect. The architectural team was trying to convince us to use its in-house AVL designers. The plan they came up with for the campus we were building made me question if they had even stepped inside our church. The main point of contention was their hard push that we could do away with the "sound booth" in the room and that the engineer could sit anywhere and mix from an iPad. While that may work for conference rooms, a church with our production level was not going to thrive with that. B-u-d-g-e-t rules
Part of understanding church DNA is also understanding church budget. Vanderkooi says, "Whether they are a church of a couple 100 or tens of thousands, they still have a budget; that doesn't change. I can't have a one-solution-fits-all mentality because not every church has the budget or the appreciation for high-end brands. There are lots of great products out there and any time spent in church tech groups on Facebook will show you there are all kinds of budgets. It's very important for designers to stay current on the latest technology and what is happening in the industry. I get that some products are more profitable than others, but a good consultant or integrator will ultimately help the church make the hard calls when it comes time to match dreams with the budget."
Vance Breshears, Idibri
Vance Breshears, director of Idibri in San Diego, notes, "We try to set criteria in the beginning and learn their expectations. Then managing those expectations is the hard part. We can design whatever they want, but can it meet their expectations and their budget? There is usually a conflict between the two."
Often when churches call me, they have already had an initial meeting with a company and are now dreaming of big bad line array systems because they saw it at a concert or another church. The thing is, not every church needs line array speakers. But, I know there are companies out there that will gladly sell them one. As Vanderkooi comments, "When companies do not understand the church world they will often oversell them on gear they don't need. Churches rely heavily on the volunteer component; you can't overcomplicate the systems to a point that a layperson can't get involved.
The audio design is not just all about equipment either. The audio system cannot be complete without a look at acoustics. "Acoustics [plays] a big portion in a design, it's not just about speakers and amps," says Watson. "I have worked with so many churches that forgo acoustics in a budget to make room for more or better equipment. This is almost always met with regret."
"In a worship setting, when working on acoustics, we focus on getting the congregational voices back into the congregation. Too much reverberation and it's just a muddy-sounding experience. You want to manage the early reflections so that the congregation's voice energy reflects back to them. Think of it like singing in the shower vs. singing in a closet," Breshears says. Takeaways for sound design
My big takeaway from talking with these guys is this: knowing your audience is key to any design. You can't assume that what worked for your previous client will copy and paste over to the next one. Things learned and concepts obviously translate, but each church does things a little bit differently. Some churches need extra bass cabinets, while more traditional settings may not require any. Helping your client understand what they want before ever sitting down to design a system may be the most important part.
The second takeaway? Don't forget the acoustics. It's as much of the design as the speakers. Spraying audio where it doesn't belong just creates audio chaos and reduces the intelligibility of the system. As Breshears puts it, "It's easy to get even coverage, but getting a consistent tonal response is the key. If it sounds one way at the mixing location and different at various seats in the congregation, without even tonal response the mix engineer doesn't have a reference of who to mix for."
If it's true that the typical church buys three sound systems in its life, I hope you can help them with the final one. Happy designing.