A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to demo a new loudspeaker system in our auditorium.
Our existing PA is not great; well let me rephrase that. It’s a decent PA that is completely wrong for our room, and is installed wrong. Of the 12 boxes (6 per side), 8 of them are pointed at walls, not at people. That leads to a highly reverberant sound field (something you’ve heard me talk a lot about lately), with minimal direct sound.
The end result is that it’s very hard to hear, and we need to run music a lot louder than we should to try to overcome the reverb.
I spent a lot of time thinking about how to demonstrate the benefits of a proper system to our church’s leadership. I think this gets overlooked too often; and quite frankly, it’s a flaw in our thinking. As humans, we naturally tend to think everyone is like us. It’s a normal misconception. We assume that because we can obviously hear the difference between our old, crappy PA and the new great-sounding one, that everyone else will be able to as well. Bad news; it ain’t necessarily so.
Play Music, But Don’t Stop There
Most speaker demos I’ve been to consist of a select group of carefully chosen tracks that make the proposed PA sound good. This is a valid test, but only for the engineers and musicians in the group. The average person will not likely be able to differentiate between differences in speaker systems—at least not on a conscious level.
We played music on both our house system and new proposed one, and when I polled the audience, most of them said they really didn’t hear that much of a difference. Yes, the new one sounded a little more clear, but it wouldn’t have been enough to make the sale.
One of the major issues we have in our room is comb filtering; in fact it’s so bad that we have 12-18 dB variations between 2-4 kHz from seat to seat. I can hear the collective groan coming from you, my dear readers. However, when I explain that to our leadership, here’s what they hear, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, 12-18 blah, blah, blah, blah…” It means nothing to them. So we had to demonstrate it.
We fired up some pink noise at a moderate level and I had them walk the room. Almost everyone could hear the sound changing dramatically as they walked down the center aisle, and down a row. In fact, I had them wobble back and forth down the center aisle and I could watch almost all of them get what we were demonstrating. When we switched to the proposed PA, everyone went, “Ahhh, I hear what you’re saying. I don’t understand it, but I hear it.”
I followed that up with an explanation of the implications of such varied listening experiences. But even that wasn’t enough. Next time, we’ll talk about using creating compelling demonstrations that even the non-audio person will hear and realize the benefits of.
Because we know that simply pointing out a problem is generally not enough motivation for solving it, we have to dig deeper and find out what is causing pain for our leaders. And once we find the pain, we can provide the solution.
Realize that they may not be aware of the pain—indeed, many of my leaders thought our system was just “normal.” They didn’t realize it could be so very much better.
Find The Pain Points
The message is the most important part of our service (not everyone’s service, our service). And I know speech in our room is terrible. But we have to remember that most everyone’s point of reference is our room. They don’t know any different, and figure this is just how it is. Of course as trained engineers, we can hear exactly what the problems are, but how to do we explain it? Again, we demonstrate.
I played some tracks of our pastor teaching through our PA, then switched to the proposed system. Because of the increased focus, almost everyone went, “Ah ha!” You could almost see the room getting brighter as the lightbulbs went on. But it wasn’t enough to make the sale.
Based on our room, I know it is really hard for our pastor to preach in there. He hears himself four times, which is exhausting. He may not know it, but as I talked about last week in my review of the Bose demo, having to filter out that many reflections wears one out. I knew if we were going to get a chance at funding this project, he needed to be on board.
So I had him come up, put on his mic and stand on the platform. I had him start a message on our PA, then switched the Bose. Within about 6 words, he stopped and said, “OK, yeah, I hear that. That’s a big difference. No wonder I’m so exhausted on Sundays!” He put it together on his own. To be sure he was clear, I explained what he was experiencing. I also explained that it’s just as exhausting for our congregation to have to filter our 3 extraneous copies of his voice for 40 minutes. He got that.
I also brought up our Executive Pastor, who will sometimes do announcements. Even though he’s had three surgeries on his ears and didn’t get any of the other demonstrations, when he talked into the mic and I switched between systems, it took about 4 words before he said, “Oh wow…I hear that. I didn’t think I would, but I can really tell a difference.”
Finally, our least technical, least critical listener heard the difference. I then proceeded to work with some musicians to demonstrate what they needed to hear, and answer questions. The one question that didn’t come up was, “How much.” And that’s just what I wanted.
Is It Sold?
When I originally wrote this post, the answer was no. However, now that I’m getting ready to post it, I can report back that the elders have voted unanimously to move forward with the project. So it looks like we’ll not only be hanging a new PA this summer, we’ll also be moving the tech booth to the floor and out of the balcony.
I really believe all the effort we put into creating a demo that everyone would get paid off. Each of our senior leaders has thanked me for the time and effort we put in, and acknowledged that there is a pretty big difference. All were grateful that I took the time to educate them on the problems we faced with our current system and how the new one would dramatically improve the feel in the room.
And that’s what I wanted. If you ever have the opportunity to do a loudspeaker demo, try to get it brought in to your room so you can do a direct A/B comparison, and figure out what you need to do so your leadership will unequivocally hear the difference.
They need to know it’s not just you and I complaining about some esoteric, subtle sound differences that only trained engineers can hear. A proper PA will help your church grow; they just need help to understand why. And it’s our job to help them get it.
Mike Sessler is the Technical Director at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, CA. He has been involved in live production for over 20 years and is the author of the blog Church Tech Arts. He also hosts a weekly podcast called Church Tech Weekly on the TechArtsNetwork.