Putting Acoustics into Perspective
At houses of worship, people are coming primarily to hear the sermon. If they can't hear it, the service is a failure. An interview with a veteran acoustician, Frederick Ampel, Ph.D.
“Acoustics is physics. It doesn’t change EVER,” says Frederick Ampel, president and principal of Technology Visions Analytics in Overland Park, Kan. And acoustics is also a major problem for most houses of worship, from either the design or operational standpoints, because, as Ampel states, “For any faith, delivering ‘the Word,’ the message, is the only thing that matters. It’s on a level above everything else.”Church Designer sought to learn more. If the goal of worship spaces is to serve as channels through which people hear the Word of God, it’s crucial that these spaces deliver true intelligibility—that those sitting in any seat can hear the message. Here, Ampel provides details on the field of acoustics that can help any architect or designer have a better shot at designing a space capable of delivering the spoken word.Our editorial department comes across so many case studies on intelligibility in churches and the lack thereof. It seems like everybody knows the problem but it just keeps repeating itself.AMPEL: The majority of people who seek to do acoustic work report that they get complaints about intelligibility. People complain, ‘I can’t hear what’s being said.’ Many houses of worship are looking to resolve these issues from a do-it-yourself (DIY) standpoint. People can’t understand the sermon and so the church staff tries to improve its sound system, which is probably the wrong choice of where to start. But they haven’t thought it through. What they first need to find out is this: What is the problem?Beyond the DIY approach, what other approaches do churches and their designers mistakenly gravitate toward? And what is actually needed from a professional such as yourself to help churches solve their intelligibility troubles?AMPLE: To find the answer to a space’s acoustic problems requires several valid approaches, oftentimes with varying degrees of difficulty or levels of success. Some may call an acoustic materials manufacturer, and most of them come with free advice. That may or may not work. Primarily because it’s missing something. What is really needed is specific, actual data from that space. That’s where people like me come into the equation. We must measure the room and collect enough data to determine what’s going on. It’s actually way less expensive to work with someone who understands acoustics in the first place. Is this a job then for architects—to make sure that acousticians are called in at the beginning of a project or renovation?AMPEL: Yes. But sometimes architects envision a building, and they may not think about its use. So I encourage architects to think of more than the beautiful new organ and the stained glass and so forth, and to think about the space and what it will sound like when they put the roof on it. It seems that, largely, architects are not trained to think about that. But that little extra step, just an extra day of time, to bring in someone who understands acoustics—that can mean the difference between success or failure for a worship space. What do you tell your church clients then, and how do you work with architects to make sure that the little extra steps are built in at the design stages of a project?AMPEL: I tell my clients to consider these four important questions: 1. What are your problems? 2. How does that relate to worship style? 3. Which of them are related to acoustics and how do we address them?4. What kinds of options are available to them, and what problems could these options help to solve?And now I must offer a cautionary word: A poorly chosen acoustic treatment can make things worse. Everybody is on a budget and looking for what they can do themselves. People automatically assume that it’s very expensive to hire an acoustician. If you’re building a cathedral, sure. But a 500-seat church? That’s a few days’ worth of time, it’s not a gigantic amount of money. And it’s time used properly that can save more money than it costs.You end up with a space that delivers the vision, whatever it is for a given house of worship. Every organization has a picture of what they want a building project to be. But I encourage architects and other designers to never let their clients forget the ultimate goal: delivering the spoken word in a way that’s accurate and understandable.And then there are secondary questions, such as will there be elderly people in attendance that may require a system that works with hearing aids, for example.What final words of wisdom do you have to offer on the topic of church design and acoustics?AMPEL: My goal on this topic is to make sure that the service works. Period. Whether it’s rock ‘n roll with a 100-voice choir and a full-scale praise band to an Orthodox Jewish temple where the spoken word is the core of the worship service. In any case, the goal is and should always be the same: understanding the spoken word. You need to understand the big picture first, and then go at the little things. As effective designers, architects have to first comprehend the problem; you can learn everything you need to know by asking the right questions. And then you can advise clients to spend their money in the right way on the right things. [Editor's note: Dr. Ampel may be reached here -- Technologyvisionsanalytics@gmail.com.]
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