Most churches go to great lengths to ensure that their sanctuary offers just the right environment for worship, from architecture and finish materials to lighting and acoustics, from comfortable seating and air conditioning to efficient traffic flow and media presentation. The same care should be taken with the spaces that support the church’s on-site audio and video recording and production capabilities. The process of creating an appropriate technical environment requires preparation, planning, and careful consideration, long before the first piece of equipment is selected or the first cable is run.
All too often, however, decisions about the physical space devoted to technical functions are made too late in the process, or left entirely to chance. That’s how you end up with an editing room upstairs next to the nursery in a converted broom closet with exposed sprinkler pipes, inadequate air conditioning, and no means of connecting to the sanctuary’s audio and video systems.
These days, equipment is more affordable than ever, putting very sophisticated technology in reach of more churches. Besides, for many church A/V professionals, it’s a lot more fun to research electronic gear and shop for system components than to develop the production spaces in which that equipment will operate. It’s tempting to think, “There’s got to be a magic piece of gear that will fix all my production problems.”
Unfortunately, it’s possible to assemble an equipment complement that has capabilities far beyond what can be achieved in the environment it occupies. You won’t be able to hear that 95 dB of audio dynamic range in your recording console if it’s in a room where the difference between your loudest playback level and your background noise floor is more like 60 dB.
One starting point in creating technical facilities is to recognize that they are fundamentally different than other parts of the church, with specialized functions and unique requirements. You can’t treat a recording studio or video edit room like just another office or classroom. But what makes these rooms so important to the end result?
For audio work, the floor area, height, geometry, and finishes of a room all affect the interior acoustical environment. A room’s volume determines the ability to accurately reproduce low-frequency sound inside it. No amount of acoustical magic can overcome the inherent limitations of a ceiling that’s too low. It’s also essential to provide adequate sound isolation, both to keep extraneous noise from hampering your ability to make critical audio decisions, and to keep your playback levels from disturbing the spaces around you.
Acoustical requirements extend to noise and vibration control as well, particularly from the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Any time production work involves listening to audio program, the room should be quiet enough to allow you to determine whether something you hear is actually in your recording rather than just part of the room noise, and quiet enough to keep you from missing problems in the audio that are masked by rumble from a supply fan or airflow through a diffuser overhead.
For video production, the room’s lighting should give you adequate illumination of the control surfaces and work areas without creating glare from the monitor systems or affecting the color rendition of the video display. The room design is also influenced by the types of imaging systems that will be used, as well as sightlines to the program display that will satisfy all the decision-makers.
Regardless of the type of production work, operator comfort has a direct bearing on productivity and creativity. Ideally, a room should provide sufficient physical space for the occupants, appropriate temperature and humidity, easy and efficient workflow, and uncomplicated communication among the people in the room and others that support the production efforts.
For these spaces to work properly, they place special demands on the behind-the-scenes infrastructure, too. Adequate, clean, 24/7 electrical power; year-round cooling; and access to wire management systems for the electronic cabling are all essential.
Beyond the concerns for the type of environment that exists within the technical production spaces, it’s also important to consider their relationship to other portions of the facility. If other large spaces within the church are used for recording audio or video, their proximity to the control spaces will be an important issue. Accessibility to exterior doors and parking may be a critical factor when dealing with staging and load-in for musical instruments or technical equipment.
Knowing that the physical spaces that you create for technical work will be crucial to its success, how can you determine what type of rooms are appropriate for your particular production needs? As with any design process, the first step is to map out what you want the new space to be or do.
Typically, this starts with a review of the ways in which audio and video program can help realize the church’s goals. Often, technical services not only support existing ministries, but also enable the church to expand into new avenues of outreach. Audio and video can be used to enhance existing services – providing pre-recorded music elements for a praise band, for example – as well as being an integral component of seasonal events and special programs. Technical production may be used to develop support materials – such as tapes for shut-ins or choir recordings – or may be the primary conduit for a broadcast ministry via television, radio, or the Internet. There may be significant production work in the duplication and distribution of support content.
Programming sessions with your design team can help investigate these issues. Do you want to record exclusively in the sanctuary, or are there other spaces within the facility that will lend themselves to production work? Should the technical spaces include a dedicated recording studio or video stage, or can rooms designed for those purposes also double as rehearsal or conferencing areas? Will your source material just be a split off the house system, or will you capture music or video elements as part of pre-production? What are your stand-alone production needs? Do you have aspirations to support local community work or commercial recording projects?
From there, the specifics of your technical operations will inform the design of each room. How many people will be involved? What are their roles – what do each of them need to see and hear and do? How do they interact or move through the space – what equipment do they control – what materials do they touch?
Eventually, working with design professionals – architects, engineers, studio designers, acousticians, integrators – and others within the church, the details of each room’s function and special prerequisites can be outlined. A solid foundation of goals and requirements will enable you to start making appropriate decisions about the actual architecture and design elements that you wish to include.
New technical spaces can be created by the renovation or redesign of an existing facility, or from new construction, whether as part of a completely new facility or a building addition. Each of these project types brings with it a unique set of challenges.
Often, one of the most difficult aspects of renovating space within an existing facility is looking past what’s there now to envision its future potential. Thinking “outside the box” can be hampered by your own familiarity with ongoing operations, and you might miss opportunities for using spaces in new ways or rearranging more than one space to gain overall improvements. This may be an instance where some fresh ideas from someone outside your immediate staff can really help.
What are some of the signs that it might be time for a renovation? Most likely, the space will tell you. Perhaps your existing production spaces were an afterthought in the original planning, or the church may have added technology components after the building was complete. Maybe you have outgrown existing rooms that were only designed to handle light editing and duplication, but now are being asked to support a much wider range of production activities.
If the project involves new construction, you will likely have significantly more latitude in designing a space that is tailored to your specific needs and budget. Identifying a suitable location early in the process can save a tremendous amount of money and time in construction, and can lead to a facility that performs better, works more efficiently, and produces higher-quality results. Also, a building addition may allow the technical spaces to operate independently from other functions in the church when appropriate.
Whichever path you take in creating new technical spaces, there will be myriad details to address, and the process will involve a series of choices and compromises in reconciling the issues of space, budget, function, quality, and schedule. There isn’t just one way of creating the right space – the goal is to make the appropriate choices along the way.
Ideally, the design should be as future-proof as possible, creating spaces that can grow with you and adapt to your changing needs. You’re always going to be updating and upgrading your equipment, so you want to make those inevitable changes as easy as possible.
If you’re able to give your technical spaces the kind of attention they deserve, you’ll end up paying less for a much better space, rather than continually throwing money at a makeshift facility that was never really designed to serve its intended function. If your technical recording and production facilities are crafted as carefully as your sanctuary, they can be a vital component in your ministry and an invaluable asset to the life of the church.