THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE: Confounding acoustical problems in houses of worship

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Acoustics, although fundamentally easy to comprehend, are not that easy to master. There are many variables that go into every single situation. This is what Russ Berger explained plainly when approached to write a story on acoustical considerations for houses of worship.
Even though there isn’t a skeleton key to unlock the secret of managing unruly acoustics, the following anecdotes will hopefully offer some food for thought.

Small to medium-sized churches often find themselves dealing with acoustical issues affecting their worship spaces. If you are assigned the responsibility of resolving these issues, it’s difficult to know which recommendation to trust. The Internet is full of cookbook solutions and home brew remedies touted on flashy pages, but Google can only take you so far. You may be presented with offers of help from the ubiquitous well-meaning hobbyist in your congregation, for whom every problem has an answer that is simple, elegant, and wrong.

If you have consulted with other churches who have dealt with similar issues, it may seem to you that inside every seemingly simple acoustical problem there is a complex and expensive answer trying to get out. Although occasionally that may be true, it is not always the case. That’s why it is so important to seek the right professional help.

Regardless of whether it’s a renovation of a gym-a-torium, a new addition to the existing sanctuary, the planning of a new multipurpose meeting room, or a ground-up relocation to a new building, there is too much at stake to leave the acoustical considerations of a project to chance. Here are some examples of situations at churches with 300-1,500 seats where well-intentioned but misplaced trust caused needless heartache and expense.

The Equalizer Solution

As a professional acoustical consultant, I’m amazed at just how far off some recommendations can be. Several years ago I received a call from the pastor of a 400-seat church. Apparently, a respected surgeon in his congregation suggested that the sound in their sanctuary could be significantly improved by adding equalizers and having an acoustician in to “tune the room.” The pastor went to a local equipment vendor, who sold him a pair of third-octave equalizers for the sanctuary, and now he was asking how much I would charge for the “room tuning.”

I wanted to know more about the problems he was experiencing, and we spoke for about 45 minutes discussing the configuration of the room (a classic shoe box with a central spine peaked roof), how they worshiped, what complaints they were receiving about the sound, about the choir, etc. We even talked about his family, his kids, and the new youth program the church was starting. I believed I had a pretty good understanding of their goals, and I finally got around to asking about their sound system: who had designed it, what kind it was, when it was installed, and when it last received maintenance.

After a brief silence, the pastor responded that they had no sound system in the church, and did I think they needed one in addition to the equalizers. Yikes! A faulty premise hatched a half-baked idea, which led to a salesperson who had sold the church a pair of equalizers and hadn’t bothered to confirm that there was a sound system to connect them to. While this is an extreme example of enthusiastic, well-meaning advice gone wrong, it illustrates the need to get help from a source that has an eye on the big picture.

The “More is Better” Solution

It pains me to see clients spending too much on the wrong solution. In another facility where there actually was a sound system installed (one of very high quality and expense) it was reported that it did not adequately serve a 1,200 seat fan-shaped room. Chief complaints: the spoken word was unintelligible, and the lyrics to songs were muddled. Some said turn it up; others said turn it down. The recommendation from their newest in a long line of local amateur experts was that the sound system needed to be replaced… again. Apparently, the system had already been replaced and upgraded twice before our firm was contacted. We were asked to perform a peer review of the system and the acoustics, and to help determine if there were any alternatives to spending another six figures to get results.

In the first few minutes after arriving on site, the reason for their acoustical issues was very clear. Noise levels from the HVAC system throughout the seating area averaged NC-65. The aging package units were replaced and relocated further from the building. The air delivery duct work system was modified and the face dampers in the supply terminal devices were removed. The noise levels dropped to NC-30 with the HVAC system fully operational. Now you could hear every nuance through the sound system. Instead of spending $400,000 on a new system they didn’t need, the church spent $40,000 to replace an aging HVAC system and make a few simple modifications to the delivery system.

The underlying point here is that if you rely on help from someone whose only tool is a hammer, every problem to them will look like a nail. Most situations are not that simple to solve, and require careful study to come up with a cost-effective solution to address the need. In acoustical consulting, the client is rewarded in direct proportion to the experience of the acoustician.

Acoustical consultants are drawn from a wide array of disciplines including engineering, physics, architecture and performing arts, particularly music and entertainment. They seek to solve real world problems affecting individuals, businesses, institutions, and the community through both technical and creative approaches. Services range from sound isolation, room acoustics, and noise and vibration control to performance verification and testing.

An acoustical consultant may play the role of advisor, designer, mediator, or all three. They work collaboratively with church staff and/or the design team, and understand the function of your facility. While some assignments may be similar in nature, no two projects are identical.

Speaking of experience, it is truly the number one qualifier that sets acoustical consultants apart from any other vendor/supplier who would argue they are qualified to provide acoustical services. The NCAC – National Council of Acoustical Consultants – is an organization with which I have been proud to be involved, whose roster consists of some of the very best acoustical consultants across the country and around the world. NCAC is made up of more than 130 member firms whose practice must meet a rigorous set of qualifications to be considered for membership. Ask your consultant if they are a member of NCAC; if not, check out and find the right expert for your acoustical needs.