Though a seemingly straightforward term (intelligible basically means one can hear the spoken word or music clearly), it is difficult to achieve and implies a serious undertaking in planning and design prior to reaching the goal.
The challenges are all that much greater in a re-design or retrofit than they are for a newly designed building due to the necessity of overcoming acoustical problems in a pre-existing structure. Whether it is a re-design of an existing church or an entirely new construction, it is vital to meet with a fully trained and competent acoustician before aesthetics and mechanical device locations are finalized.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that the Church is not only looking for an audio system, but buying an audio system that will fit into a certain space. That space is just as important as, if not more than, the audio equipment. Only when all parties clearly understand this should the planning process can continue.
The first thing to do before going forward with an actual sound system design is to look at the acoustics of the Church. Find a qualified acoustician or an architect who works with an acoustician. This is critical, and some architects are not fully aware of this importance. A lack of understanding regarding the value of audio intelligibility in the modern worship service that includes music as well as spoken word, not to mention the numerous other activities in a church that require audio support, can lead to insurmountable problems.
When a church originally hires an architect for the first planning meeting on the shape of the building, etc., the architect submits a budget that describes the amount per square foot the conceptual design will cost. At this first meeting, the church planners must tell the architects that they need the involvement of acousticians and audio experts in the earliest phases of design. This will allow a more accurate budget from the onset and might avoid unpleasant surprises further down the line.
Also, make sure representatives of the Church become well acquainted with the acousticians involved during the design process so that all the concerns in the minds of the planning committee are covered from the beginning. For example, the pastor or priest may have certain ideas while the choir director embraces entirely different concerns. The person in charge of other activities at the church may have still another set of priorities.
Because of this diversity of needs, in the initial stages, the Church may wish to have some input regarding the acoustician and audio consultants that the architects hire. Some well-intentioned architects may attempt to save money by designing acoustics themselves, even though they may or may not be aware of the salient issues in acoustical design. Sometimes there are conflicts in space design between aesthetic desires and acoustic principles. A good team of architect/acoustician/audio consultant can resolve these issues. Bear in mind, though, that the greatest audio system on earth will not sound great if the acoustics are bad.
It is, therefore, important to understand what demands will be made of the facility. Acoustics must be accommodated; one can always change the audio gear. This is not to imply that the audio gear is unimportant. It is, and Churches must take care to consider the recommendations of audio consultants when purchasing the system. However, changing wall angles and materials after construction is costly and painstaking whereas retrofitting audio gear is easier to do.
One of the most overlooked issues, and the cause of much consternation when a building is designed without the consultation of an acoustician, is the placement of HVAC systems and their diffusers. Once an architect designs them into a building, they are difficult to move. For example, if diffusers are placed in close proximity to the choir and contribute serious mechanical noise, they can significantly impair not only the intelligibility of the choir, but indeed, audibility. In layman’s terms, it will ruin “the sound”. The basic message is to employ an acoustician early in the design process. This allows the audio system designer to do his work more efficiently as well.
In addition to planning for the present needs within the Church, it is also very important to consider the future needs of the building. In our experience, once we have our first meeting with the pastor and the planning staff (choir director, etc.), we ask them to describe their vision for the future. This does not mean only the near future, when the project is complete, it means a few years down the road. It is useful to think about this now. For example, conduits for power, speakers and microphones for a perceived future use might be installed now with greater ease at considerably less expense.
A case in point: in the future will you be conducting outdoor services or any other activity outside? If so, power outlets, conduits and other audio connections can be built into the original design at minimal cost. To do all of this after the project has been completed could mean tearing into walls and spending much on labor. Many people do not even consider this as a possibility. A good acoustician working with an experienced audio system designer during the early stages can help with all of this provided that it has been considered in advance. Think beyond next Sunday’s service to future uses. Find out what is now being planned and then think how this project might open possibilities in the future.
Audio professionals should have a clear understanding of the goals, dreams, ideas, and even personalities of all the people involved so that they can pose questions regarding speakers, amplifiers and whatever else they might need. This is the best way for them to recommend an approach to the specifics of the audio system itself.
Finally, it is important that the audio and acoustics professionals be intimately involved with the project. I recommend that they attend several services at the Church in question and sit in the middle of the Church, paying attention to everything around them. They must bear in mind the acoustics and the sound system to which the congregation is presently accustomed, so as not to create a new environment that is inappropriate. They must see the space as a vital environment, of great importance to the congregation, and not violate it with a system that calls too much attention to itself. Such attention to detail cannot easily be learned from a book or a computer screen, but must be developed as a trust between all parties in order to insure a lasting treasure for years to come.