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Considerations When Selecting a Loudspeaker System for Your Church

Since the advent of the CD, high-quality sound is becoming more and more available to even the casual listener. Practically everybody has attended a live concert or event, and contemporary audiences expect that live sound be presented with the quality that they are accustomed to hearing: powerful, dynamic, full-range, intelligible and usually with some degree of production (reverb and other effects). If the presentation at church is anything less or different, the average church member is aware of it (often unconsciously) and perceives that something is wrong.

The sound system is the primary means of communicating with the congregation. As such, it should not be considered a luxury item: rather, it should be given at least equal consideration to other major items in the budgetary process. Budget realistically (don’t base price expectations on common consumer equipment), and remember the old adage – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You get what you pay for. Do research, ask questions, get second (and third) opinions, and visit other facilities (you also might want to check out auditoriums or performing arts centers). Involve professionals whenever and wherever possible during planning and construction, and be sure to get detailed documentation once the system is in place.

Visuals/Placement-How will the loudspeaker system blend with the environment?
Those big, black, ugly boxes can ruin the aesthetic of just about any environment. Can the speakers match the color scheme of the sanctuary? If hiding them is not an option, many manufacturers will offer color matching, or at least – a cabinet that can be painted.

Will they interfere with important sight lines? If the system is a retrofit or the architect did not consider integrating a loudspeaker system, sometimes the speakers can visibly obstruct a cross or a cherished item saved from the church’s original structure, such as a stained glass window. Or, possibly, the best placement from a coverage point of view is right in the sight lines of your video system. Plan carefully and consider all the visual implications of your system placement.

Get the right tool for the job! Don’t be fooled by equipment that only looks professional.
Considering the importance of the sound system, a church installation demands professional equipment. Professional equipment is built to function reliably under a variety of performance conditions, and uses more durable components. Non-professional equipment may not be warranted for professional or industrial use (and this application most definitely will be classified as professional use if you try to get warranty service). Why not use professional equipment? It works better, sounds better and lasts longer.

Maintain integrity and quality throughout the system
Make sure that all the other equipment used in the chain – mixers, mics, equalizers, effects and even cables – complement the loudspeaker system in terms of performance. A low-quality component can add noise and distortion or introduce other deleterious effects.

A.C. Power (This is very important for retrofits!)
Is there enough power for the system to run under the hardest anticipated use? Is it accessible? Traveling ensembles will often bring their own sound and lighting equipment, and sometimes they require significant power to run their gear. Make sure they can get to outlets without unduly long cable runs.

Even more importantly, is your AC system safe and properly grounded? Is the power clean and free from light dimmer noise? Does the power for the entire system come from the same service? (This is advisable to avoid ground loops and the resultant hum.) When using extension cords, be sure that they are heavy-gauge cables designed to handle the load you’re supplying. Light-gauge cords will not only compromise system performance, but can also pose a risk of fire.

Monitors- Other than the congregation, who else needs to hear?
Oops! We forgot about the choir, or the praise and worship team! They have to have the ability to hear themselves for pitch and time. Monitors also serve to let the choir and worship team know what’s going on during the service, and are important for cueing.
Quantities and placement are considerations here. Make sure that enough speakers are specified for adequate coverage, so that all who need to can hear. Don’t specify too few: the result can be poor coverage, excessive levels and noise leakage. Depending on the decor of the church, the monitors may need to be color-matched or camouflaged. What they need to reproduce may dictate the actual physical characteristics of the speakers, as well.

Volunteers-Who will operate and maintain the system?
Is your staff professionally trained and qualified, or is it comprised mostly of volunteers? It’s beneficial to have a system that is as foolproof and as bulletproof as possible to ensure easy operation, especially if the staff is mostly volunteers. Make sure that training by your vendor is included as an integral part of the system package.

Get a service contract or develop a solid relationship with your vendor, so that you can get repairs when you need them. Don’t rely on a well-meaning member of the congregation for maintenance.

Approach the service with a professional attitude: prepare a script or order of events with specific cues, and rehearse as much as possible. (Tip for Ministers of Music: include the audio crew as early as possible in planning for special events or production rehearsals. Ask for their creative input and solutions to any challenges.)

Who will install the system?
Always involve a professional. A contractor can ensure that proper components are used, and that any legally mandated safety requirements are satisfied. Improper components (for example, too small a wire gauge) can greatly compromise the performance of the system.
If the loudspeakers are to be suspended, make sure that the system is professionally rigged using parts that are rated for the load. In safety-related circumstances, liability can be an issue as well. In addition to skill, training and knowledge, qualified contractors will carry the proper insurance for any liability situations that may arise.

Proper equalization and alignment of loudspeaker system(s)
Although this may seem trivial, especially compared to some of the other topics we’ve discussed, the things that you can’t see often do the most damage to the behavior of a loudspeaker system. Acoustical aberrations, speaker interaction, and reflections off of wall surfaces can all drastically affect the performance of a system. The precise magnitude of these effects is only apparent under high-resolution measurement, and therefore most effectively corrected when high-resolution analysis is used. In fact, low to medium resolution analysis can often give false indications leading to misinterpreted readings or inaccurate corrective actions.

Make sure that the system is professionally aligned and equalized using a high-resolution measurement tool such as SIM System II. This can prove invaluable when setting delay times for fill systems, or adjusting the main system for optimal “imaging” (which is more important that one would think).

Program (What is the system supposed to do?)
Is the loudspeaker system just for speech, where maximum vocal intelligibility is the primary goal, or is music to be supported as well (in which case extended low frequency response and dynamic capability may be needed)? This should be determined very early on, and only after discussions with the Pastor, Minister of Music and, quite possibly, key members of the congregation. The answer to this question will dictate precisely what the key components of the system will be. Designing only for voice and then trying to use the system for music is a recipe for disappointment.

Listening Area (system coverage)
The ultimate goal of a loudspeaker system is to reproduce as accurately as possible whatever is being fed into it, and to distribute the sound as evenly as possible throughout the entire listening area.

Make sure the system covers the listening area and only the listening area. The speakers should have well-defined pattern control to keep sound off reflective surfaces such as walls or ceilings. Make sure that the system has the power available (check specifications on data sheets) to adequately cover the listening area.

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