Expert Roundtable: Church Sound Trends

Six experts weigh in on what matters in house-of-worship audio systems. 7/01/2008 8:00 AM Eastern

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.

Houses of Worship's Audio Tripwire: Acoustics

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish, in Washington, D.C

At St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish, in Washington, D.C., Clayton Acoustics Group used a DSP-based level-delay mixing matrix to synchronize amplified sound of talkers' voices with the natural sound.

Technology continues to go to church; this edition of the expert roundtable finds that even the recession isn't holding it back. This month's roundtable participants are Ian Budd, CEO of ICB Audio & Video Equipment in Cincinnati; Val Dempsey, president of Communications & Entertainment in Atlanta; Tim Carlson, executive vice president at AMT Systems in Santa Clarita, Calif.; Bill Thrasher, president of Thrasher Design Group in Kennesaw, Ga.; John Westra, president of Audio Design Specialists in Madison, Wis.; and Michael Dewees, president of Acoustical Audio Designs in Jeffersonville, Ind.

SVC: First, a broad question: What are the key areas of AV system design for houses of worship, and have they changed in the last year or so?

Budd: Sound systems are tending more and more towards line arrays. Video projectors are getting brighter, permitting better visibility in brightly lit houses of worship. And theatrical lighting systems are on the cusp of LED technology.

Dempsey: Presentation, video, control systems, digital DSPs, recording systems, and software have all had an impact on most churches and have made great advances in recent years.

Carlson: I definitely think that houses of worship have become savvier in terms of technology in worship. Line arrays offer better sound more effectively and efficiently. But I think the biggest change has been in video and production lighting. Churches now want full production value. Just good sound is no longer enough.

Thrasher: Audio, video, and production lighting, but also architectural acoustics, architectural lighting, and staging.

Westra: The most critical factor is designing the space itself properly to receive the AV systems. Necessary details include an acoustical environment appropriate for the style of worship, geometry appropriate for placement and viewing of projection screens, … and a catwalk geometry appropriate for stage lighting. These details have been necessary for many years, but churches are getting more receptive to them.

Dewees: Network design and integration, HD video, and digital snakes to name a few issues that now get discussed when looking at each design.

What are the major technological trends in house-of-worship installations these days? What's changed and why and how?

Budd: Digital mixing consoles are becoming more accepted. Control systems are being utilized more and more as a tool to integrate the AV technologies.

Dempsey: Steerable line arrays have impacted sound systems; digital signage; and video, broadcast, and media recording. One of the biggest impacts is probably due to computer technology.

Westra: HD video is one, as a result of a universal format change. Also, we see fewer churches building extremely large auditoria, choosing instead to build multiple smaller auditoria, requiring them to be linked for audio and video. Simultaneous services may start with independent music programs but then be linked for the sermon.

Dewees: Without question, the expectations for audio quality have increased dramatically. A few years ago, the majority of churches were happy if speech could be understood and music was barely over background level. Now everyone expects high-quality music reproduction at high volume. There is also a big push on the overall presentation. Many churches are looking to create more entertainment-based services. It isn't enough to just stand up and preach the message these days. You need to add some dramatic content and increase the entertainment value if you expect to attract and keep a new generation of people.

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.

Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta

At the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, Clayton Acoustics Group implemented a CobraNet-distributed Peavey MediaMatrix Nion DSP system for mixing and routing.

Has the credit crunch affected the technology or construction budgets at houses of worship?

Dempsey: Smaller churches are affected more than those with large congregations. We are seeing retrofits as much or more than new construction.

Carlson: We haven't seen the economy affecting HOW technology budgets. If anything, budgets continue to go up. People are looking for production values, and they've been able to get them as some technologies — like projectors — get better as their prices decrease, allowing them to spend more money on switchers and cameras.

Thrasher: There is an effect being felt. New facilities projects are being put on indefinite hold due to uncertainty about the economy, the [presidential] election cycle, oil/gas prices, and so on.

Westra: We have had one case where a church project was delayed because of the current financial situation. Budgets are always a problem these days with new construction for a variety of reasons. Typical examples are churches [being] forced to pay for affiliated highway improvements; code writers and inspectors demanding facilities that wouldn't ignite even if drenched in napalm; and recently, huge increases in the cost of steel. Most of our clients place a high priority on the media, so they are most likely to cut back on other parts of the building such as less costly ceiling tiles in corridors and offices, etc. Budgets are less of a concern for retrofits, but retrofits are only about 10 percent of our work.

Dewees: Overall, the budgets are growing — so if credit is having an effect, it is masked by the increased spending for AV. Although I have seen several churches decide not to build new but just renovate due to economic concerns.

What are the things that worship facilities tend to do wrong when it comes to AV systems? Do expectations always exceed budgets?

Budd: The most significant problems tend to be placing priority on factors other than the AV and then making the AV fit that package. Examples are locating speakers or screens based upon aesthetic values rather than performance values or locating mixing positions to be out of the way rather than where the sound engineer can hear what is going on.

Dempsey: Not understanding the technology and what is available as it relates to the needs of the church. Not working with the right consultant or design build firm. The dream wish list is almost always value-engineered.

Carlson: They don't get AV designers into the picture early enough in the project. We find that [architects] design for aesthetics, not necessarily for the fact that a house of worship is about communication and fellowship. The design is permanent, and if they're not building rooms that are conducive to sound and video, they'll have a problem that can last as long as the building does.

Thrasher: Regarding budgets, most often yes, occasionally not. Most church administrators, architects, construction managers, [and] owners' representatives have no real idea what any of this stuff costs; they just want it. And they often don't care at all about life expectancy, just that it works acceptably on the opening day. They have little understanding for the long-term operations of the facility.

Westra: We find several primary problems: They don't hire the acoustician until the architect has already gone too far to recover properly. Church staff or media team members with just enough knowledge to be dangerous: They know all of the terms currently in vogue, but don't have a real understanding of any of them. The influence of the IT industry: Too many clients are disposed to want products that they can control with their computers, which is a guarantee that system settings will be tampered with by people that know how to move their mouse but have no real understanding of why they are moving it. Also, a trend toward self-amplified loudspeaker systems, pushed by the manufacturers. The alleged rationale is a savings on loudspeaker cable or an enhanced damping factor for bass drivers. The savings is a myth, as it costs far more to have an electrical contractor put in the AC power circuitry and conduit to the loudspeaker locations than would ever be saved in cable or cable installation.

Dewees: What I see on the more advanced systems is underestimation of the level of technical expertise required to operate the system. Some churches still believe they can get a totally volunteer staff to operate the AV equipment. Most church committees do have higher expectations than their budgets allow for. This has improved in recent years, but even with budgets in the six-figure range, the expectations are often unrealistic.

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.

Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Ga.

Clayton Acoustics Group specified two steerable line-array loudspeakers to cover the nave and transepts at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Ga.

The megachurch trend continues to be strong. What are the challenges for integration in these cases? Is it just a matter of scale, or do very large houses of worship have issues specific to them?

Budd: Scale is an issue. Larger churches also tend to have more people involved with the process, and unless there is a clear-cut structure of responsibility, designing and installing an AV system can sometimes be affected by internal politics.

Dempsey: Lighting for video production and broadcast. Electrical systems that are properly isolated and grounded. Sound systems that can handle concert-level audio while still being able to deliver the spoken word.

Carlson: I don't see a difference between megachurches and medium-sized churches in terms of issues; they just have a different dollar value. I've found that once you reach a certain size, the church will likely have personnel on staff that can act as a bridge between the pastors and the volunteers who work with the technology. As a result, the larger churches tend to be more open about their technology and go after higher production values. They're not as rigid as churches that have less experience with systems, which tend to put their [loud]speakers behind grille cloths and walls.

Thrasher: Finding general contractors, electrical contractors, and specialty contractors that have actually worked on a large similarly complex projects like a performing arts center, another large HOW, or a convention center — or any large project that requires a great deal of coordination and careful scheduling. They are just used to flying by the seat of their pants, and on any large project, that is certain trouble.

Westra: The biggest challenge with very large spaces is getting the client to make the structure high enough to allow for full-height catwalks integrated with a proper ceiling. Access to lighting fixtures in large spaces is not practical without a complement of catwalks, and the tops of the catwalks should be below the bottom chords of the trusses. The media systems are largely a matter of scale until they get so big that supplementary video screens are needed.

In audio, where is the technology emphasis being placed these days: loudspeakers, loudspeaker management, processing, etc.? Which products are the most popular and why?

Budd: [Loud]speakers, the audio matrix/processor, and the digital mixing console. Each of these areas has seen changes over the past few years and will continue to do so. Again, the concept of line arrays is very popular at this time. The line array is not always the correct solution, and in some cases, it is difficult to explain that to the congregation since the line array is currently such a popular concept.

Dempsey: DSP [digital signal processors], line arrays, and digital consoles and snakes. Control and storing of multiple setups for different uses.

Carlson: Right now where HOWs are starting to spend money is on digital mixing consoles. Yamaha in particular has a huge family of consoles that spans the needs from large to small. There are also a lot of [loud]speaker options out there now, but from our perspective, the biggest growth area is in consoles.

Westra: To us, the fundamental issue is the loudspeaker/room interface. This factor has the greatest influence upon the sound quality, and [it] is the most difficult to upgrade later. You can always upgrade to a large mixer or add accessories in the future when additional funds become available.

Dewees: DSP has become the standard for almost all systems. I can't remember the last analog EQ and crossover we installed. We also have put a big emphasis on acoustics and computer modeling to help take some of the surprises out of the final outcome and eliminate problems before they happen. The industry has done quite a bit to make the line array a prominent buzzword. Many of our clients ask if a line array would work for them before we even start the design. I haven't had end users get this specific about a product since the [Shure] SM58.

Can you identify a particular systems challenge and how you resolved it?

Budd: Our most significant problem on an installation has resulted from differing expectations between church members. We try to be really careful with our paperwork to make sure there is good agreement on what will constitute the finished product. However, as often happens, when church personnel change during the installation or someone different from the ultimate end user signed off the paperwork, we can end up with expectations not being met. Solving such an issue requires good communication and a willingness to work with the customer. Even though the problem was not ours, it was important for us to be part of the solution.

Dempsey: Aesthetics is a big one. Budgets another. Reverberation and the right [loud]speaker application. Some churches key in on line arrays, and that is not always the right solution.

Carlson: At the Bel Air Presbyterian Church [in Los Angeles], they wanted a multi-use room that would have multiple stage locations and control locations within it. They wanted the ability to re-orient the room quickly for a variety of uses. We used a combination of CobraNet and EtherSound [an open standard for networking digital audio that's fully compliant with the Ethernet standard IEEE 802.3] and portable racks that let them plug into three possible wall panels that let them choose where they wanted the mixing position to be for each use.

Westra: We don't really have design hurdles. The problems occur later, during construction, when you find that other trades have deviated from the plans. Electrical contractors frequency put in the wrong conduits or route them to the wrong boxes. HVAC contractors put ducts wherever they want them, despite what the plans specify — getting in the way of suspension for loudspeaker systems, ceiling clouds, catwalks, etc. Equally bad are the contractors putting in the sprinkler systems.

Dewees: I believe this industry will rely more and more on networked technologies. From signal distribution to system monitoring and control, eventually every aspect of the AV system will somehow be tied to a network. Not all new technologies are going to be successful or the right choice for everyone. It will be your responsibility to work with a contractor and make the right decisions. A good basic knowledge and understanding will help that process greatly.

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.

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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