As more churches employ multisite strategies, choosing (and reusing) audio systems becomes more complex.
The multisite trend for churches continues to gain traction. According to statistics from Portable Church Industries of Troy, Mich., the vast majority of the 100 largest churches in the United States are now multisite, with the trend extending to smaller churches. In 2014, a cross-denominational study of multisite churches by Dallas-based Leadership Network concluded that there were 8,000 multisite churches across America.
It’s a complex proposition, but one of the key areas for this is in the audio systems choices that multisite churches make. If sound systems are a strategic decision in any event, choosing them for multiple locations presents a number of tactical inflection points; for instance, staying with the same brands and models of components helps tremendously with operator training across all locations and provides churches with leverage with manufacturers for support and discounted pricing. But not every location will have the same sonic, acoustical or infrastructural requirements, and churches may have to invest in disparate brands and models to accommodate different physical spaces.
Sloan Creek, newest satellite campus of Chase Oaks Church, Fairview, TX
Multisite locations present an opportunity to extend the usable lifespans of audio system components. David Ellis, president of Ellis Pro Media in Renton, Wash., says new satellite locations tend to be smaller and are often good candidates to use older components from the main church’s systems. In addition to being an opportunity to upgrade the systems there, moving existing audio equipment from one church to the next can greatly enhance the ROI on that equipment: installed in a new location, that equipment is almost always worth more operationally than it would have been as a trade-in.
“The question churches have to ask themselves before doing this is, are the new locations going to be church plants or are they going to be on the same scale as the original location?” Ellis asks. “If the new church is expected to be on par with the main church, you’ll want a sound system that’s also on the same level. Shuffling older equipment into it might work against that intention. But a smaller location may be able to use older systems without taking away from the overall effect and message.”
Christ’s Church of the Valley, Phoenix, AZ
This cascading strategy argues for deciding on a brand and staying with it, since manufacturers will be more inclined to provide support and discounts—and volunteer operators will be more familiar with work surfaces, functionality and maintenance. Front-of-house and monitor consoles are the easiest to move from place to place; the adaptability of speaker systems will be more dependent on the nature of the new locations. For instance, point-source system components designed for long throws in large buildings with few reflective surfaces won’t fare as well in smaller, reverberant environments, where steerable-beam technologies are better suited.
Ellis points to New Life Church in Renton as an example of a church that changed strategies: they had been treating new locations more like start-ups but found that if the experience between the main and satellite locations varied too much, it diluted their brand. So they switched to creating new locations that emulated the look and sound of the main church.
“Whether it’s the equipment brands and the models, or the feel of the church itself, you always want to go for as much consistency as you can,” he says. “You just need to decide where to put the emphasis before you make a move, because it affects everything down the line.”
Audibly Tying Together Locations
SAME, YET DIFFERENT / Christ’s Church of the Valley in Phoenix has six satellite locations that strive for synchronization in equipment. However, size, scale, reflective surfaces and more influence the choice of gear for each venue. Shown here, L-Acoustics' loudspeakers, image courtesy of Aaron Wallace.
Highly consistent audio system components from location to location can help maintain the cinematic “suspension of disbelief” effect that underlies both going to the movies and going to churches with sophisticated AV systems. Nick Dressler, national sales manager for Clearwing in Phoenix, says two area houses of worship he’s worked with are taking that approach with sound systems. Christ's Church of the Valley (CCV) has six satellite locations around Phoenix in addition to its main church, and while they also have a broadcast-quality Evertz transport system for their live media, they tend to rely on a Riedel Rocknet network to send feeds from Saturday evening services to the broadcast studio and then on to the satellite locations’ AJA Ki Pro portable file-based HD/SD recorder/players for playback at Sunday services.
The services at all seven churches try for synchronization, and often achieve it, setting the stage for when they do use live streaming as their main M.O. But in any event, their audio sounds consistent between all of the locations because of consistent equipment: all of the locations have Avid consoles—they range from Venue Profile desks to SE48 and S6L consoles, depending upon the needs of each location—and most also have L-Acoustics PA systems, using either Kiva or Kara boxes, again depending on the coverage requirements of each church location. The few locations with other systems—the main church, for instance—are in the process of planning system upgrades to L-Acoustics in order to have complete consistency across the church brand.
Dream City Church became a multisite when it changed from the Phoenix First Assembly of God. It has roughly similar live- and offline-streaming capabilities to those of CCV, and it uses Meyer PA components and Allen & Heath D-Live S7000 and S3000 model FOH consoles in all three locations for the same reasons.
Dressler says it’s a good strategy, likening it to how Disney creates consistent experiences across their theme parks. “No matter which location you attend, you’re going to get the same look and feel at each church,” he says. “The AV staffs are cross-trained, so they can operate the equipment in any of the locations at any time; the musicians are different at each location, [but] they’re playing the same music at the same times—they even all rehearse [at each location] on Thursday nights. It’s all about providing a completely consistent experience everywhere. You know what the system can do and how they perform at every location.” Sound In Portable Spaces
Portable churches—Portable Church Industries’ data shows that 52% of multisite campuses launch in rented spaces—might benefit from the same synergies, although the growing number of choices in the small portable PA category, as well as declining prices as competition grows, means multisite portables often have disparate brands and models. Dressler says that’s not really a problem. “What they’re doing in the long run is saving their money for when they get their first permanent church location,” he says. “Then they can start considering their sound-system strategies going forward.”
While the system may be the focus for sound, the environment that the system is in needs to be part of the equation, as well. Steve Reed, senior consultant at AV consultancy Idibri, notes that many satellite church locations are in former commercial buildings (adaptive reuse); Reed himself has worked on a number that are in what were once large supermarkets. These big box-type locations might offer lots of space and affordable rents, but they may also come with acoustical issues, often in the form of HVAC systems whose noise levels were acceptable in their earlier incarnations but work against music and speech intelligibility.
“We look first for ways to reduce or mitigate the noise from the HVAC systems, before suggesting that they replace the system entirely,” says Reed. Tactics for this include adding silencers to ductwork and isolating the noisiest elements of the machinery with shock mounts on the roof. But while worship activities inside create the need for a lower noise floor, the presence of hundreds of people and theatrical lighting can generate more heat than the HVAC system was originally intended to handle. Sometimes adding a dropped ceiling inside can mitigate that kind of noise, but, says Reed, churches are often faced with little choice other than to move or replace the HAVC system.
Then there are acoustical problems inherent in industrial-type spaces, such as metal roofs that amplify noise from rain or hail. These same lightweight roofs are often part of a less robust structural nature that won’t support the hang points needed for PA and other AVL components. Ideally, he says, these considerations are part of the research done before committing to a lease or rental agreement.
Research suggests that multisite churches will continue to proliferate. As audio systems manufacturers also continue to target the HOW sector as a stand-alone market, worship pastors and others involved in church AV will find they have more choices than ever before. All the more reason to decide strategically, early on, about how best to equip their satellites.
[Editor's note: This story was originally published in March 2017.]