A JOYFUL NOISE
Jan 1, 2003 12:00 PM, ALLAN SOIFER
The wordchurchoften evokes the thought of grand high-vaulted ceilings, great cathedrals, stone pillars, and so on. Worship halls of that genre may require hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of audio installation to correct acoustic deficiencies and address certain needs. This column focuses on the distinct aspects of evangelical Christian churches.
The use of numerous instruments, multivoice choirs, special choral groupings, and soloists may seem like show business to the uninitiated, but many churchgoers appreciate and depend on this type of praise and worship. Some of the groups represented as evangelicals are Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Churches of God, Assemblies of God, Charismatic Renewal churches, Word of Faith churches, and other nondenominational groups. Just a quick look at the number of Christian music CDs available tells the audio engineer that this is an area of professional concern. In their legitimate zeal to obey the injunction of scripture in the area of making “joyful noise,” evangelicals usually have a song leader or gifted minister of music who leads the congregation's singing. Usually, that individual is responsible for the church orchestra or band and the musical program in the church.
When doing business with those churches for the purchase and operation of audio and video equipment, don't presume that the client is thinking about sound and video equipment. With few exceptions, the preacher and the church board won't have the technical background specific to acoustics and audio that you have. Remember, they are not thinking about audio or visual per se; they just want to enjoy good sound reproduction and video.
One problem is that whoever leads the service tends to equate the sound heard on the platform with what is delivered to the audience in the sanctuary. Subtleties in the audio system's design and implementation must be handled carefully and without too much technical jargon. The smart contractor will address the following subjects when presenting system concepts to the committee. Being prepared will help the committee understand that you are experienced and have thought out a path in the design just for its needs.
STEREO OR MONO?
Now for my least favorite word in church audio: stereo. Delivering true stereo in a church environment can be difficult. For most conventional systems with average budgets, a small number of audience members will be in the correct seats to hear balanced stereo delivery, and installing multiple right/left clusters can be a financial and an acoustical burden. Keep the sanctuary covered with a mono blend of signals. There are advantages in the mixing process and routing signals for recording the services. With some creativity, and depending on the console, the recording can be mixed in stereo for broadcast or mailing to parishioners.
Microphones that accompany wireless systems are probably misused more than any other mics. A lavalier mic should be pinned with the appropriate manufacturer-supplied mount onto the speaker's necktie or equivalent area of clothing about three inches below the Adam's apple (or equivalent area for a woman). These mics are affected by the resonance of the human chest cavity, and the response will be messed up when placed too low. Don't copy what you see on television news or other broadcast applications by placing the mic on jackets or lapels. Television audio techs do not have to worry about feedback, and they can crank up the gain on those mics until satisfactory levels are achieved. Do that in a live sound environment like a church, and all you'll get is feedback, more feedback, and sour looks from all concerned.
If you're installing wireless mics for the first time or supplying them temporarily, check with local TV stations and other professional users for the frequencies that they use. A preservice test the day before will assure you that the chosen frequency is not in use by taxis, courier services, or pizza-delivery cars. If sufficient budget is available, use frequency-agile (tunable) UHF units for handheld and body-pack-type wireless mics and get lots of fresh batteries. Most manufacturers claim that their mics last at least eight hours on a fresh battery. That may or may not be so, but don't risk a church service on a 9V battery. Get lots of spares and install fresh ones just before the actual performance (after all rehearsals and practices). Use the not-quite-dead batteries for the next rehearsal.
As systems get bigger and louder, the assault on the human eardrum increases exponentially. Many evangelical churches are rapidly approaching concert levels. A good brickwall limiter is a must for every installation. Once set to a known calibrated point, it should be left alone. In the context of church audio, serious thought must be given to a locked box for the EQ and the limiter. With the help of a sound-pressure-level (SPL) meter, set the SPL level with the limiter engaged and just beginning to operate at a maximum level of 90 dB. Check with this same meter during actual services and make adjustments to keep the absolute loudest passages of music at no more than 90 dB, measuring on-axis at least one-third distance from the main speakers to the back of the room. If it's louder on a continual basis, you run the risk of incurring permanent hearing loss.
Budget permitting, individual channel limiters are nice to have. The bass guitar and bass drum tend to need them because of their extreme level excursions. If the preacher screams too often for emphasis or is prone to accidentally bumping or dropping the mic, a limiter could curb the runaway effect.
ASSISTIVE LISTENING SYSTEMS
Though churches are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act because they are private institutions, many of them realize the need for assistive listening systems for their older members (see “Technology Showcase: Assistive Listening Systems” on p. 68). Churches are among the largest consumers of this kind of technology. A knowledgeable contractor should design and install whatever type of assistive listening system that the church elects to use after it is informed about the options.
FM transmitters and infrared transmission systems are the most popular, with receivers and earphones offered in styles to suit people's needs. Some churches have the older-style inductive loop hardwired into the facility. The important point is that the tonal balance and loudness level of the main system must never be judged and controlled at the whim of someone who needs a hearing aid or some other auditory assist device. It is shocking how many churches allow comments from the hearing-assisted members of the congregation to influence basic volume and tone settings of the main house system. To preserve the hearing of unaffected listeners, someone with average ears should be the judge of the sound level.
Many churches are beginning to realize the need for properly installed and operated professional sound equipment. If you are privileged to get a consulting gig with a church or are asked to record music performed within a house of worship, this is your golden opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism. An honest, frank, courteous, and reasonable approach to the job (and the invoice rendered) will go a long way toward ensuring repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.
Don't let personal religious feelings get in the way of your job. Develop an appreciation for how evangelical churches choose to operate, and you'll make lots of friends and have a ball to boot.
Allan Soifer is a veteran of the audio wars. He lurks and works in eastern Ontario, Canada, and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.