AV Acoustics: Collective Wisdom
Four experts, including Acoustical Design Collaborative's Neil Thompson Shade, offer their advice on working in four different environments.
Houses of Worship: The New Multipurpose Room
"Optimal acoustics are very denominational-specific in the house of worship market," says Neil Thompson Shade, president and principal consultant for the Acoustical Design Collaborative. During his nearly three-decade career, Shade has consulted on over 800 projects, including over 150 worship houses–Quaker meeting houses, Orthodox Jewish Temples, and every type of Judeo-Christian church.
Christian worship houses, in particular, often present two extremes in terms of sanctuary acoustics. They can be used for both contemporary and traditional, liturgical worship in the same space.
Contemporary worship generally employs a praise band, amplified sound, and large video systems to show lyrics or scripture to the congregation. "The service puts an emphasis on speech intelligibility so the environment is relatively nonreverberant," explains Shade. "Many contemporary worship spaces are large, seating 1,000-plus, and you are designing for a multimedia type of event, which can result in budgets of $1.0 million to $1.5 million for audiovisual systems and acoustical treatment.
"These spaces also have relatively lightweight building construction, similar to big box stores," he continues. "Therefore, mechanical systems and HVAC noise control become paramount because rooftop air handlers result in high levels of noise transmission. A solution is to move the units to grade level."
Contemporary worship spaces tend to use balconies to improve sight lines and to bring congregants closer to the stage, and that in itself can present issues. "The underbalcony can have a different acoustical environment than the floor seating," Shade says. "A solution is to use synthesized reverberation systems to improve the natural acoustical environment under the balcony. These systems can cost $50,000 to $100,000."
In traditional worship spaces, the emphasis is on liturgical music, with the worship space sometimes used for chamber music performances, organ recitals, or choral concerts. "The use can be split evenly between words and music," Shade says. "The challenge is that during a service there are sound sources from multiple locations in the space–from the choir, pastor, congregation participation, organ, and processionals. There is no fixed point of sound origination."
Traditional liturgical music sounds best in a more reverberant environment, but as in all AV projects, it's important to understand your audience: These days, the age group that attends traditional services is getting older. "These services need voice-reinforcement systems to maintain speech intelligibility. Loudspeaker selection and placement is a challenge since ornate architecture makes it difficult to blend in," he says. "Repositioning sound sources like the choir, organ, and reading stations so that a direct line-of-sight is maintained to the congregation can enhance direct sound propagation from these sources to the listener."