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 sing right.
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 it.
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
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.
Band and Choir
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 were located.
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 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.
A Happy, Inconspicuous
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.