Sound Advice on Specifying Loudspeakers
Experts share best practices to help steer church clients toward the right speakers.
To say the loudspeaker is a fundamental part of a church’s audio system is an understatement—the loudspeaker [can] make or break the sound in a room. Therefore, selecting the right speakers for a church is a decision with major consequences, but it’s not an easy job. Today’s manufacturers offer hundreds and thousands of options, and myriad factors influence how sound will behave in any given space.So Church Designer went to the experts and asked: “What should specifiers keep in mind when selecting loudspeakers?” Justin Hames, director of engineering/modeling with Wave in Harrisburg, N.C.; Bruce Borgerson, freelance audio consultant and head of audio for First United Methodist Church of Ashland, Ore.; and Leo Gunther, owner of Orland, Calif.’s Leo Gunther Enterprises and ProAudioBlowouts.com responded with a blend of useful tips and advice. Our experts emphasized that the space and the speakers must work well together. “Architecture and acoustics are the first factors to consider [because] they determine how the loudspeakers will behave in a space,” says Borgerson. According to Hames, Borgerson and Gunther, before ever considering a purchase, a thorough study of the room—its size, shape and surfaces—must be conducted. Then the knowledge gained can inform speaker selection. They also warn against simply choosing what other churches use or whatever is newest or popular at the time. “Even if it’s a fantastic loudspeaker … just because it works for church ABC in situation XYZ doesn’t mean it will work for you,” Borgerson notes. “Since line arrays are all the rage, church AVL designers might need to do some arm-twisting when other solutions are more appropriate,” he adds. As alternatives to line array, he recommends newer point-source innovations like Fulcrum Acoustics’ TQ Install coaxial systems or Yamaha’s DSR Series active loudspeakers with integrated multiband dynamic processing. Select forworship styleIn addition to its space, the church’s worship style is another integral factor in loudspeaker selection. Certainly contemporary worship requires consideration that acoustic doesn’t, and vice versa, but even within contemporary styles the use of different instruments may point to a different speaker. “[For] acoustic worship think minimalistic. You’re just trying to augment enough to reach comfortable, foreground music levels,” says Gunther. “Be very careful not to buy too much of a speaker—a guitar and voice don’t need a rock ‘n’ roll speaker.” He recommends speakers with a minimum amount of DSP from Funktion-One and Danley Sound Labs. But for the church with a large band and contemporary worship, think the opposite of minimal. According to Borgerson, this musical style needs speaker systems with a lot of power, serious bandwidth—especially for deep bass—and sufficient headroom to avoid sound distortion. And for the traditional worship space where visual aesthetics are critical, digital beam steering column arrays are a great option. Borgerson points to Meyer Sound’s premium CAL series, or the Iconyx series from Renkus-Heinz. Select for church size Smaller, start-up or portable churches face a different challenge in selecting the proper loudspeaker: finding an affordable and/or adaptable option that still offers quality. In this category, Gunther suggests the RCF ART 312A, a 12-inch cabinet, for its portability and performance, or the FBT Jolly 8BA.Borgerson adds that fixed curvature array systems like QSC’s KLA Active Line Array and JBL’s VRX900 Series are ideal for these applications. “They’re a quick and easy way to adjust for varying vertical coverage,” he says. Selecting the speakerOnce situational factors such as acoustics and musical style are understood, the “problems” will become clear, as will speakers that offer solutions. “Don’t settle for a generic solution,” says Gunther. “Manufacturers with thousands of models are solving specific problems. Start there.”While every church will have a unique set of needs, any good loudspeaker should be equipped with a few standard characteristics, including uniformity of coverage—the output of sound should be the same in the balcony as it is below—and consistent response. “The primary criteria we look for is linear response. We don’t want the speaker to affect the sound of the content, we want the speaker to simply amplify the inputs,” says Hames. Avoid the temptation of buying a loudspeaker that attempts to mask bad acoustics—it may ultimately be unreliable. “Some speakers have certain ‘curves’ designed into them, which may sound fine when listening to music, but do not work well for spoken word or live bands,” says Hames.Gunther agrees: “Don’t rely on digital modification of bad sound—get a speaker that puts out good sound organically.” It’s prudent to expect a high level of intelligibility, too, shares Hames. “We need a loudspeaker system that will provide adequate volume, but will not provide any unnecessary wash onto walls or ceilings of the room—and we want the coverage to stay focused into the audience seating areas.” “Between about 1 kHz and 4 kHz is where the critical consonant sounds are formed,” says Borgerson. “Avoid loudspeakers that have dips in response in this region, and it's preferable to avoid having a crossover point between drivers in this frequency range.”Borgerson also suggests checking the polar patterns—or better yet, using an acoustical prediction program—to make sure the dispersion pattern won’t leave any coverage gaps in that particular frequency range when placed in the auditorium. The most reliable way to ensure any loudspeaker is checking all those boxes is to have it modeled in the space it will serve, but experience and due diligence also go a long way. “Work with someone who is experienced and focused on solutions. It’s not all about the equipment, it’s about the optimization in the room,” says Gunther. For smaller churches and solo integrators, if the budget doesn’t allow for the hiring of a consultant, Gunther recommends working with a manufacturer that is solution-oriented and examines the room’s acoustic problems before pushing a specific product. And lastly, be sure to thoroughly understand the client’s current and future needs. “Most of the renovation projects we do are projects where the initial designers did not understand the mission of the client, and only knew gear,” says Hames.[Editor's note: The piece was originally posted in May 2017.]
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