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Expert Roundtable: Church Sound Trends

Jul 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley

Six experts weigh in on what matters in house-of-worship audio systems.

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Five years down the road, what is the house-of-worship system-design landscape going to look like? Why do you think so, and what practical things should HOW technical directors be doing to prepare for it?

Budd: Probably within the next five years, we might see some of the new wireless control and signal-transmission technologies coming into the affordable marketplace. This could have a significant impact on the church market. We expect to see increasing demands for functionality and system capability to appear as more church leaders and congregation members who are tech-savvy move into leadership positions and expect these capabilities to be an integral part of the house-of-worship environment.

Dempsey: In a word, digital. The pace that technology is moving will require an understanding of how the systems all work together or affect each other. Lighting for video and digital for audio, all controlled by computers. Becoming educated in computers and IT.

Carlson: A lot more video presentation and a lot more time spent dealing with graphics that are prepared before the service starts. There will always be advances in audio as costs come down, but the real changes will be in how video and computing can enhance communication.

Thrasher: Much more digital, many more channels, more toys, and more plug-ins. Lots more. But also the HOW technical directors need to become more realistic about the affordability and the life cycle of all the products. A large digital mixing console, like TV cameras, will need to be replaced every 10 years or so — and currently, few plan for replacement until the stuff is breaking down and there is a crisis. Getting church administrators and the finance committees to understand that high tech means spending money or putting money aside every year for the inevitable replacements is critical.

Westra: The physics involved won't allow for much real change over the next five years, at least with respect to audio. Video is going through a major change now with HD, so at least we won't have another format change within five years. As LED technology advances, we may see significant changes in lighting fixtures. Church technical directors should strive for greater education in science so that they can differentiate real advances from fads.

Steven Durr of Steven Durr Design

Steven Durr of Steven Durr Design in Nashville, Tenn.

Houses of Worship's Audio Tripwire: Acoustics

Acoustics has been the beauty and bane of houses of worship since the Gregorian chant made reverberation a positive quality. But managing sound in such reverberant spaces is challenging, even with modern technology. We asked three acoustician experts on the nuances of HOW-John Storyk of the Walters-Storyk Design Group (WSDG) in Highland, N.Y.; Steven Durr of Steven Durr Design in Nashville, Tenn.; and Dan Clayton of Clayton Acoustics Group (CAG) in Ossining, N.Y.-what the trends are in that realm.

SVC: What are the biggest challenges encountered in houses of worship in terms of acoustical issues?

Storyk: HOWs are essentially large theaters with very special performance needs. At one moment, they need very high intelligibility (typical of low-reverberant environments); at other times, they need to be very musical (traditionally requiring higher reverberant properties). In many instances, the dominant music type is electrified pop, which can place strains on the environment for acoustic clarity. As acousticians, we are often caught in between wanting reverberant spaces for musical naturalness and striving for the higher intelligibility associated with less reverberant acoustic solutions.

Durr: I am always amazed at the lack of attention paid to the mechanical system and the noise floor of the sanctuary. We are often asked to correct acoustic issues in HOWs, and more times than not, the mechanical system noise is the biggest problem. It is imperative a noise criterion be established in the early planning stages of any performance venue. The second most commonly encountered problem is a platform that was not designed for musical performances and resonates at bass frequencies, causing the all of the instruments to sound muddy and undefined.

Clayton: The fundamental challenge is understanding the worship space, its users, and the liturgical style(s) they practice. Both the natural room acoustics and sound system must fully be part of the architectural design; selection of materials and equipment must serve this goal exclusively. Of equal importance are the seemingly mundane tasks of sound isolation and HVAC noise and vibration control. Successful traditional worship spaces share highly valued qualities such as reverberance for liturgical music, ensemble for choral singing, responsiveness for congregational participation, clarity for intelligible speech, and low background noise for enhancement of all sounds.

Which techniques and technologies are effective at countering acoustical problems in HOW environments?

Storyk: We have two universes of acoustic issues: isolation and internal room performance. These generally represent two very distinct sets of issues. Contemporary churches, which are essentially large assembly/theater spaces, are becoming more and more quiet-in other words, desired NC [noise criteria] levels are getting lower and lower. We have seen church spaces with NC values as low as 20, and I am sure there are some that are even lower. This is very quiet and will of course require intensive HVAC design and detailed boundary [floor/wall/ceiling] construction, similar to studio isolation. Internal room analysis often becomes an exercise in desired RT60 [the measurement of time it takes reverb time to decay -60dB]-dead for improved intelligibility while still keeping the RT60 values high enough to ensure good music quality.

Durr: Detailed, in-depth discussions with the members of the church to manage their expectations, because most church projects are relocations to a new facility and the congregation has become accustomed to the sound and feel of the old location. Moving into a new sanctuary can be an unsettling experience if not handled properly. We evaluate the existing sanctuary from an acoustical standpoint and submit a questionnaire to the church with the intention of learning as much as we can both good and bad about their expectations for this new facility.

Clayton: Reverberance is a problem for amplified worship music, but [it] brings a chant-based liturgy or an Anglican choral service to life. Likewise, extensive use of sound-absorbing material can be a problem for pipe organ and choral music, but allows contemporary musicians the freedom to work effectively with amplified instruments and sophisticated production techniques. Establishing an effective and reliable communication path for each component of the message (speech, choir and organ, acoustic instruments, amplified ensembles) is critical to the success of the whole endeavor. For example, although amplified worship music in a reverberant cruciform building is a difficult proposition, it can be successful if the system is well designed and fine-tuned, if the musicians understand that the natural room acoustics are an extension of their instruments and amplifiers, and if the congregation accepts the inevitable sight-versus-sound compromise, which occurs when worship liturgies and music evolve faster than the buildings in which they are presented.

What was your most challenging HOW project, from an acoustical perspective, and how were the issues resolved?

Storyk: Crossroads Tabernacle, New York-keeping an existing concave ceiling dome (which had a very nasty set of harsh reflections) while simultaneously obtaining a successful balance between room intelligibility and musical reverberation. [The solution was] mid-frequency-absorption [material] sprayed onto the underside of the ceiling dome with a color additive [for aesthetic purposes].

Durr: Our biggest challenge is convincing churches not to run out and buy a digital console and a line array as both of these items are not suited for all venues. Line arrays do not reproduce the spoken word very well at all (When was the last time you understood any of the words at a concert?), and digital consoles are of no benefit that I can see to a church except that they give someone at the church job security. It is unbelievable how many churches are convinced if they had a line array and a digital console all of their problems would be solved. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Clayton: A good example of a project which required both high-quality speech reinforcement and high-quality amplification of contemporary worship music in a large reverberant building is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta. Hands-free automatic mixing and CAG's trademark “level-delay-EQ-matrix” mixing and routing design were implemented in a CobraNet-distributed Peavey [MediaMatrix] Nion DSP system. A Crestron touchscreen system allows limited access to presets and volume-level adjustments for clergy and other non-technical users. Full-range, high-output Intellivox DS1608 beam-shaping loudspeakers provide effective speech and music reinforcement for the nave, augmented by a custom under-pew subwoofer. Intellivox DS115 beam-shaping loudspeakers are used for the transepts and large chancel.
— D.D.

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