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The Biggest Instrument in Church

What do you think the biggest and loudest instrument in your church is? The piano? Maybe that really loud electric guitar? What about that acoustic drum kit? Nope. Can you guess?

Well, if you are a sound engineer, you probably can. It’s the sound system itself. This is an interesting concept, one which I thought I would explore in this article. The idea came to me, ironically, as I was thinking about pipe organs. Read on and find out a new way to think about your church’s audio system, and the person controlling it.

A New Instrument
Understandably, the large format concert-style sound system is a relative newcomer to the church environment. Sound systems, and the amplified instruments and microphones that made them necessary, have only come into their own during the last half of the 20th century. What began as home-made microphones, recorders, and loudspeakers have become carefully crafted and pristine devices, capable of delivering clear sound to huge audiences.

Churches began to adopt the technology for the amplification of the spoken word. Gradually, as contemporary music began to make inroads into worship services, more advanced sound system technology followed soon after. These days, most large churches have concert-quality audio systems being used in services on a weekly basis. However, the sound system is much more than simply a means for making sounds louder. Through the process of mixing, the sound system becomes an interpretive instrument.

The operator does not simply make various sounds louder, but can make artistic changes through the mixing process, and even add new sounds through effects devices and other types of equipment. In this respect, the sound system and the audio console through which all the sounds flow becomes not only a sound production instrument, but also an interpretive instrument. The sound console is perhaps the only instrument that functions not only generating sound, but by being able to change, interpret, and hopefully improve the sound of other musical instruments.

Heir to the Organ
Today’s biggest and perhaps most revolutionary musical instrument, the sound system, has a lot in common with another large, loud, and revolutionary worship instrument, the pipe organ. At one time, the pipe organ, like today’s sound systems, was the newest and most revolutionary instrument to make inroads into church worship music. The organ, predecessors of which had been used since roman times, began to make its way into church worship services in a big way during the middle ages.

A pipe organ consists of an arrangement of pipes through which air is blown to produce sound. It operates on the same principle as other wind instruments, such as flutes and reeds, only on a much larger and louder scale. The air flowing into the pipes is controlled by an organist, who plays a set of keyboards, foot pedals, and stops that admit air into the various ranks of pipes. These types of organs are still in use today in many traditional churches. It was, without a doubt, one of the loudest single musical instruments ever developed by mankind. It was also one of the most technologically advanced instruments ever developed.

The amazing sound produced by a pipe organ is one which is never forgotten. It has the ability to produce the dynamic range of a full orchestra, and could elicit a myriad of emotions from worshippers when played. However, when the organ was first beginning to be used in worship, some people felt that this new musical instrument was unfit for use in the worship of God. Some felt that it was “too loud and boisterous”; others felt that it might detract from singing and chanting, which had been the primary form of musical worship in churches for many centuries.

In many ways, the audio systems of today are very similar to those early pipe organs. Like the organ, and all instruments, a sound system’s main function is to produce sound. However, the sound system is at the same time a unique instrument, since it does not produce and amplify it’s own sounds, but the sounds of other musical instruments as well. The organ and the sound system are both very large, technologically complex instruments, consisting of multiple parts that must function together as a complete system. The cables, microphones, consoles, loudspeakers, and outboard gear in a sound system can be equated to the myriad pieces of the organ; the keyboards, stops, pipes, bellows, and pedals. Both instruments, the sound system and the organ, are capable of producing large amounts of sound pressure level. The sound system is capable of covering the entire musical range, from the deep gut-punching lows of kick drums, to the high angelic sound of wind instruments. Because of this, the sound system is unparalleled in being able, like the organ, to express almost every musical emotion available. A good sound system operator, through proper and artistic mixing, can convey any different emotions through their mixes, from deep intimate worship, to boisterous and joyous celebration. The sound system not only amplifies sound alone, but also the emotions that those sounds can convey, by allowing more people to be able to hear the lovely voice of a singer, or the dance like rhythms of a modern praise chorus.

The Engineer as Musician
If the sound system is, in fact, a very powerful musical instrument, then perhaps a change is in order regarding the way we look at sound engineers. Many times, worship leaders, band members, and pastors simply see their church’s audio ministers as simply technically-oriented people. While this is true, and operating a sound system does require a level of technical proficiency, too often we neglect the musical side of these very important people. They are not merely technicians, they are also musicians. They are not only operating a piece of technical equipment, but a very powerful musical instrument. Sound people themselves need to realize that they are just as much a member of the worship team as the worship leader, or the band members. Conversely, when band members and worship leaders begin to see the sound person as a vital member of the worship team, teamwork will be greatly improved, and many arguments that often occur between musicians and sound people can be avoided or solved. The “person in the booth” is not simply a technical person; they are also a creative person.

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