Whether building a new facility or retrofitting an existing building, planning, purchasing and installing a sound system can be a daunting task for most church boards or committees. Depending on who you read, the average church in America buys 3 or 4 complete sound systems before they get it right. Why is it so difficult? Let me list three reasons.
First, many churches approach the purchase of sound equipment with a skewed understanding of what it means to be a good steward. Often it is thought that being a good steward requires searching for the best price. But that best price can be the most expensive purchase over time. All equipment is not created equal. Quality is not cheap, but purchasing quality equipment is often less expensive over time than buying the best priced gear.
Second, there is a lot of confusing information in the market place. Manufacturers make claims that, to be kind, are a bit of a stretch. And many reputable sources that provide that equipment for purchase back those claims implicitly if not explicitly. Many sources that sell equipment are, by design, driven by the economics of the market place. If churches keep calling and asking for a specific brand it only makes economic sense for that supplier to carry that brand, regardless of the quality, or lack thereof.
Third, there is not a readily available independent source for churches to discover information concerning equipment, contractors and consultants. In other words, there is no Consumer Guide for church audio products and services.
So what is a church to do?
Going to the supermarket and buying the biggest loudspeakers for the least amount of money and then hanging them by the handles near or over the preacher’s head is not the solution. Unless, of course, you feel it is time to get a new preacher.
Doing it right is not easy. It can be time consuming, sometimes frustrating and usually not cheap. But it can be done. Your church can end up with a quality product and at the same time be a good steward of what has been entrusted to you.
Over the next few pages I would like to take you through the decision making process that will produce great sound and a good experience getting there.
Listing your wants
So many times the church sound committee consists of people with willing and good hearts but very little knowledge or experience about quality sound and what it takes to get there. Many church committees that I meet with at the beginning of a project are expecting me to tell them everything, including what they want. Let me make my first suggestion. Start with asking those who are going to be using it what they want. The musicians, vocalists, pastors, worship leaders and those who operate the system should be solicited for their want lists.
For instance, does the pastor prefer a lapel mic, EarSet mic, handheld or podium? Does he prefer to hear himself in the monitors or not, or does it matter? Would the band like a personal mixing system such as Aviom or HearBack and use headphones or do they prefer to work with floor monitors? Would the worship leader like to have in-ear monitors? What style of music is being played and does leadership foresee a shift in the next 5 years?
Do the operators prefer to use analog mixing consoles or do they want to step into the world of digital? How many microphone and instrument inputs are needed?
Turn them loose and let them all create their dream list. Have them write down what difficulties they currently face and proposed solutions, if they have any. Find out if they have heard systems they thought were outstanding and investigate to see what equipment was used. Wait, I can hear a word of caution beckoning me to proclaim it to all who will listen.
I have often sat cringing as I have listened to church musicians bestow accolades upon equipment that was deserving of only a watery burial. A Yugo was a great driving car to all those that had never driven, and never thought about driving, anything else. There is equipment out there that has become high and lifted up and at that point, should really be dropped and walked away from.
But the information you gather from these people can be valuable to you and to your designer. It can and should be used to develop a place of understanding of what they are hoping you will accomplish in this endeavor to equip your place of worship for sound. And it is important that they are a part of this process and that they are valued for their talents and gifts.
Once you have your dream list the hard work is just starting.
Deciding your needs
The next step is taking that list of wants and deciding which ones are important enough to list as needs. Let me suggest three thoughts that should drive that process.
First, every person who comes to your services should be able to hear everything clearly and effortlessly. I recently attended a service at a large church in Florida where I could understand only about half of what was being said or sung. It was not a pleasant experience. Most visitors will not return for a second time if they can’t clearly hear what is being said or sung.
Second, the pastor(s) must feel comfortable with the microphone being used and must be confident that it will not fail in delivering the message to those sitting in the congregation.
Third, the musicians have a right and need to hear. But they must be able to do that without the sound of their monitors spilling over into the seating area of the congregation.
Your list of needs should include the number of inputs for the system, number of outputs for monitors and the type of monitoring system preferred by the musicians. It should list what instruments need to be provided for so that the proper interface can be provided to connect with the sound system and ultimately the people. Is there a need to provide for a choir and will they be stationary or used in different locations of the platform area?
Is there a need to help lower the volume of the drums, guitars or other instruments? Are there orchestral instruments that need to be considered? Does the pastor baptize by immersion and does he prefer some sort of shock treatment while in the water?
What recording and duplication requirements do you have? What kind of hearing impaired system do you prefer and how great is the need? Is there a need for sound to be provided to external spaces such as overflow, nursery and lobby?
These are some of the questions that I must have answered, as a designer, to have a hope of getting it right the first time. And if there is something unique about your needs you must let the designer know. I had one church who wanted to make sure that a subwoofer could be used to shake the building during the earthquake in their Easter play. I would have placed that in the want column but for them it was an absolute need.
In the next issue we will look at how to choose the right path to acquiring a quality sound reinforcement system in your church. We will look at how to decide whether to use a consultant, design/build firm or a music store for your next system and how to insure that you get exactly what you need.