the call from a church goes something like this: Hi, well, I’m
from the building committee and we built out church last year and
ran way over budget. We spent the acoustic budget on the drain field.
We were wondering how much it would cost to fix the sound in our
church? Oh we already have expensive speakers, it’s just that
we can’t understand what’s being said.
Or sometimes it sounds something like:
Hi, we are a small church and don’t have any money. We
hoped you could help us. We can’t understand the pastor. We
know you fix lots of churches and we were thinking you might be
willing to give us a little advice. Oh, we’re very handy and
we plan to make everything ourselves.
And then there is always the: Hi.
I’m with the music committee. We are in an historic church
and the building committee won’t let us do anything. Can you
help us convince them we need to do something about the choir? We
have microphones and monitors strung all over and we still can’t
Here’s another one: Hi, I’m
from the praise band. We spent all our money on speakers and a new
mixer and the band still doesn’t sound good. Now what?
Usually, working with churches is pretty
hard. But one day I got the dream call. It went something like this:
Hi. We had some vandals start a fire and our church was smoke
damaged. It was covered by insurance and the entire inside of the
church needs to be removed and resurfaced. We figure we can use
this money to do the acoustic job we always needed, and still get
the painting done. So what do we do?
There is nothing better than the opportunity
to start a project off with a blank canvas and a blank check.
I walked in and saw that the church
had a large square floor plan, with the platform centered along
one wall. It had a high flat ceiling with deep glulam beams to span
the width. The 4 corners were each cut off and a door was set in
each diagonal. Carpets were pulled and the walls and varnished wood
ceiling had been washed. The side room had a folding door and was
used for additional seating. That’s where the fire was and
the opening had been walled off. That part of the building was torn
down and replaced by a kitchen/fellowship hall. The fire had been
started in the newspaper collection bin outside. No they didn’t
catch whoever did it.
The music minister greeted me and we
talked about how music was used in the service. They had a praise
band and a traditional choir and sometimes even, they made music
together. They also had a soloist who led in song and prayer. Projectors
lit the diagonal walls on either side of the platform, with the
words of the song and other images.
The sound was being run from a bench
at the back of the church, under the spot deck. Problem with the
sound is that they couldn’t hear what the congregation heard
so they always had to get up, walk down the aisle and then guess
at an adjustment. And as well, congregational singing was very important.
Then I met the minister. A great guy
and his daughter was the very talented and energetic soloist. His
goal was that the music ministry work and of course that his talks
would be well heard in all parts of the church. He had a big voice,
and probably didn’t need any sound system, but used one anyway.
The current sound system was a giant,
3 bay custom system, dating back to the late 70s, beautiful wood,
about 6’ deep and 8’ wide. It was bolted to the face
of the beam that ran right across the front of the platform. They
thought the system never sounded right and that they wanted to replace
A sound contractor was also involved
with the project. He naturally wanted to run lots of mic and speaker
cables, hang lots of white speakers, mains, monitors and fill speakers
and hang lots of microphones. He wanted to snake all this together
and into the brand new board at the back of the hall. And he did
do all of that.
tools are sound absorption and sound reflection."
As for me, I was working on acoustics.
My job was two fold. One was to make sure everyone who was performing
in the church would find themselves performing in a space that was
not only suitable to their performance but one that complimented
it. Secondly, that everyone who was not performing was able to cleanly
hear the performing members.
In a way the sound contractor and I
had sort of the same job description but we went about our work
in very different ways. We both managed sound but the sound contractor
managed sound by collecting it using mics and recreating it using
loud speakers. I manage the sound once the sound has been launched
into the air, it is my job to see to it that airborne sound behaves
properly. My tools are sound absorption and sound reflection.
and Choir Location
minister gave his blessing and left. I went to work with the music
minister and a few musicians. The first question was about the location
of the band and the choir. The band was scattered across the stage
and the choir was on carpet risers centered at the back of the platform,
below the cross and in front of the baptismal. The modesty railing
was removed in the 80s and the platform was strewn with mic cables,
water bottles, back packs, guitar cases, music and lots of big black
angled up monitor boxes. Worship has changed so much over the years,
this ministry platform didn’t really look much like a church
I asked about all the mess, if that
was agreeable, and no one liked it but also, no one much paid any
attention to it, it’s just how things are these days. I asked
about the modesty railing and well, it got pulled, somewhere along
the line, trying to open up the space between the ministry and the
congregation. I asked if I could sketch out on the floor an arrangement
I had found to be useful sometimes when it came to platform organization.
I started by centering the pulpit and
putting a few guest chairs behind. Then I took a bunch of tables
and tipped them on their side, using the opened up legs to support
them on their long edge. Set back from the front of the platform
by about 10 feet, I created two fenced off spaces, symmetrical on
the platform, one on the left and one on the right. Up the middle
and behind the pulpit, between these two spaces, was a path bordered
by a low railing on each side. It led right up to the baptismal
and the cross. The praise band gear was moved to the right of the
pulpit, and the choir risers were moved to the left of the pulpit.
The piano was placed in front of the modesty railing in front of
the band. The lid was up and directed clear sound to the band. The
pianist had a clear line of sight not only to the band, but to the
choir and to the front center area where the song leader and pastor
I explained that the praise band actually
needs to play in a recording studio and the choir actually needs
to sing in a choir loft. But here they were on top each other on
a carpeted platform in a giant sheetrock box. We just have to give
each performing group their proper place, space and sound. The inside
of the praise band space would be treated with alternating acoustic
surfaces, mainly. The inside of the choir space would be treated
with sound reflecting surfaces. Carpet would be used in the praise
band area and a polished wood floor would be used in the choir area.
An amplified band cannot play in a sound
reflecting space. An acoustic choir cannot sing is a sound absorbed
space. Each needs its own acoustic space. Granted, these spaces
are only half spaces, as the upper half of each space expands out
into the whole volume of the church. But even a half a proper space
is oh so much better than no proper space.
The first 4 or 5’ of the side
and back walls where the praise band is located as well as the inside
surface of the surrounding modesty railing would be covered with
an alternating pattern of 2” thick sound panels, 6”
wide vertical strips of sound panel alternating with painted sheetrock.
This greatly softens and diffuses the lower wall reflections all
around the band. Microphones no longer are being hammered by sound
reflections from the floor monitors, off the wall behind and back
into the mic. The sound engineer discovers the mics have lots more
gain before feedback. The talent doesn’t have to “eat”
the mics to sound good and loud. The congregation gets to see happy
smiling mouths singing instead of singers with big black wind balls
for a mouth.
congregation no longer sees cables, monitors, water bottles, sheet
music, and guitar cases. They just see people from the knees up,
looking sharp and happy. The view of the praise band is at last,
clean and organized. And something else happens. In the old days,
if you asked the sound engineer sitting in the back of the church
what the mains, the bug speakers up front, were set at, he’s
smile a little and tell you that the mains were turned off. Here
we had these giant, expensive house speakers, turned off. Why? Because
there was so much noise on the platform, band noise, that the band
monitors had to be turned up pretty loud, so loud that the sound
from the monitors expanded backwards, right off the front of the
platform and into the congregation. What didn’t expand backwards,
shot past the musicians and bounced off the front wall of the church
and then back across the platform and finally into the congregation.
The monitor sound from the platform was so loud, that the big house
main speakers weren’t needed.
now the modesty railing is acoustically lined. Also the lower part
of the front wall, behind the band is also acoustically lined. The
sound from the stage monitors is absorbed and before it can get
into the congregation. And yet the monitor sound is still plenty
loud for the band. Something else happened. Because the band is
closer together and located inside the lower half of a recording
studio, acoustically speaking, they can hear each other playing.
They don’t need the monitors as much and they turn their thumbs
down at the engineer in back who is setting up the monitor mix.
The monitor level is turned down, and the congregation hears even
less. And when the monitor levels are turned down, there is even
more gain before feedback and that means even more dynamic range
or stepback from the mic for the talent.
While the praise band is singing praises
because of their acoustically tricked out modesty railing, the choir
is warming up. The choir space has been stripped of all carpet and
all soft chairs. It’s a wood floor, wood risers, wood chairs
and wood all around the choir, both on the back of the modesty raining
and on the lower walls to the back and side of the choir. This wood
has the same relief pattern and coloring as the praise band. A raised
6” wide piece of wood alternates with 6” wide wall spaces.
Because the coloring is the same on both sides, a sense of whole
and symmetry is visually developed, even though the actual material
making the 6” wide, 2” deep vertical strips is very
different. In the choir area this wood relief pattern helps to scatter
the choir sound so that the members hear each other better.
A choir cannot hold a tune outdoors
on a grassy knoll. A choir loft is a special room invented to get
choirs to sound great. It is an ancient invention and something
that old is not to be toyed with. Sound contractors like to hang
lots of microphones and place lots of self powered monitor speakers
and a choir mix console, with lots of cords running all over the
place. The acoustic engineer can do the same thing acoustically,
if the building committee allows even half a choir loft to be built
on the platform. The hard and sound scattering surfaces that surround
the choir cause part of their sound to be reflected and to reverberate
right around the members of the choir. Because they can hear themselves
and each other they can quickly get in tune, in tempo and on time.
Most anyone loves to sing in the shower. The choir loves to sing
in even a half a choir loft. The other half lies open to the congregation,
where they not only hear the happy choir, but they also hear the
blended reverberant sound of the choir loft adding to the power
of the choir.
Now that the music ministry has been
realigned, set up and is running happy, it’s time to turn
the attention to another singing group, the congregation. Congregational
singing is also important, and the rules that govern choir singing,
also govern congregational singing. Let’s stop for a minute
and think about singing. Not pop singing, but church singing, it’s
singing about something very important, very dear to us. Singing
is but one step away from crying. We know that and can feel that.
And the best congregational singing leaves us in tears, half singing
and half crying. We know where this congregational singing is going,
straight to the heart. The acoustic engineer wants to help people
in the congregation lose themselves in song.
the congregational area is too “dead” which means it
has no acoustic reflections, and no reverberation, then people become
timid. It’s about loudness. If the singing around you is so
loud that you can barely hear yourself, you get real brave and sing
all the louder. Which raises the loudness for those around you,
and they sing all the louder and so on it spirals up. To lose one’s
self in song, means to lose one’s self consciousness, which
means to no longer feel that you are standing out in the crowd,
but that you feel you are lost in the crowd. Good acoustics can
help this to happen, and bad acoustics will keep it from happening.
Good congregational acoustics means
that the surfaces nearby are reflective. The floor is not carpet
and the seats are not cushioned. The surfaces near the congregation
are reflective. The lower half of the congregation area side walls
must be reflective, no sound panels on the lower side or back wall
of the congregational area. The ceiling above the congregation should
not be acoustic tile because this absorbs sound. It should be a
hard reflective surface, as in painted sheetrock, concrete, plaster
or wood. Beams in the ceiling are great if they run side to side,
because those overhead corners back scatter upward moving sound
right back into the congregation.
The congregation needs to be a loud
place. If you stand up in the middle of the congregational area
and make one loud hand clap, you should hear sound ricocheting between
the side walls, it’s called flutter echo. Of course the aisles
do need to be carpeted. This makes for sure footing and much less
clatter coming in and leaving. And if there are cushions, then flat
vinyl should be used, not fabric.
The lower half of the side and back
wall of the congregational area are left reflective. This is a great
place to locate glass windows with deep shrubbery outside to get
a sense of openness, keep the reflective walls and maintain privacy.
Because of the lower bare walls, the house sound system, any loudspeakers
directed towards the congregation must be located well above, in
the upper half of the volume of the room. This way the lower wall
reflections will simply bounce into and help to fill in sound in
the back parts of the seating area.
Today people do not like huge speakers
hanging up high above the pastor. They want small speakers, unobtrusive.
This goes well with something else. Split the sound system. Dedicate
the high central cluster speaker to the voices of the pastor, soloist
and prayer leader. Put a pair of large mains up high, one in each
of the two front corners of the hall for the band and any choir
mics. The house mix comes from these two speakers, and the house
mix is always mono, never stereo. This way the high central cluster
stays small because it is for voice only. The house mains are huge
because they are full music bandwidth, play louder and have more
There is something comforting about
having the pastor’s voice coming from the speaker directly
above the pastor. Our ear does not notice the height and the sound
seems to come directly from the pastor. Our listening is very sensitive
to sound coming from the left and right and if the pastor’s
voice came from the house mains, on either side, in the corners,
then the pastor would seem to be in one spot and the voice in another.
They would be split in location, and this is simply distracting.
We want the pastor’s message to be seamless.
speakers also need an acoustic environment. The upper half of the
front third of each side wall does need some blend of absorption
and reflection. The upper half of the entire back wall does need
the same pattern of acoustic improvement. If the ceiling is flat
and the floor under the speakers is not carpeted, the ceiling area
directly above each speaker will need acoustic conditioning. Any
portion of a ceiling beam that directly faces a loudspeaker, needs
to be acoustically conditioned. Note that the speaker side of a
beam may have acoustic panels but the congregation side of the same
beam will be bare and reflective. One side faces the speaker and
the other side faces the congregation. Each side helps to create
an appropriate acoustic space for some or another sound source.
Happy, Inconspicuous Ending
end of the story is that the ministry and music people believed
my show and tell story and everything was built exactly as specified.
And now, when you walk in for service, things look fine and they
sound fine. The band sounds fine and the choir sounds fine. The
pastor, soloist and prayer leaders sound fine and congregational
singing is just fine. In effect, nothing special seems to stand
The room is neither dead nor loud, or
otherwise unusual. In fact the whole experience appears seamless,
acoustically invisible. And yet, the church service as powerful
and engaging as it can be. Everyone hears and no one complains.
It takes a little getting used do, but the fact is that people don’t
seem to notice the sound…..in a good sounding church.