A hidden, inaccessible sound system and equipment leads to a lot of grief, and more importantly, runs counter to our primary mission
June 02, 2011, by Charlie Moore
Let’s play hide the sound equipment! Sounds like a child’s game, eh?
Maybe so, but unfortunately, it’s also a reality that I’ve seen played out in too many churches.
A primary purpose of a church’s existence is the delivery of spoken word and music, so it begs the question: Why place sound equipment that is so important to this purpose in locations where it cannot be seen?
More importantly, sometimes it’s even placed where the sound operator is totally out of earshot of anything going on in the church sanctuary, where the operator can’t even see the platform and pulpit, and where it is completely inaccessible to the operator.
Here are some of the oddest places I’ve found sound equipment hidden at churches:
—In a nursery three rooms down the hall from the sanctuary. Nursery volunteers, by listening to a five-dollar ceiling loudspeaker, adjusted the entire church sound system with no physical contact with the space. The church was regularly plagued by feedback and “too soft-too loud” complaints. I wonder why…
—In a closet behind the chancel area of the church, with the door constantly locked and only the pastor had a key! Adjustment to change levels or avoid feedback was impossible.
—On a shelf in an alcove well behind the pulpit next to the organ. The elderly organist couldn’t hear very well and was always was fiddling with the system - to no avail, of course, particularly since there was no loudspeaker that provided any audio signal to that area of the church. Again the system regularly howled with feedback and distortion.
—Behind the last row of seating in the auditorium (which seats nearly 800 worshipers) against the back wall under a 30-foot balcony. The system operator, at a quite-large console, regularly used headphones to listen to what was going on because he was completely out of the coverage range of the primary loudspeakers.
—In the basement. And who was designated to adjust levels? Why, the custodian of course!
He listened via the cheapest of cheap ceiling loudspeakers, this time mounted on a blank panel in the equipment rack.
—In a small cabinet located under the last row of pews where an usher had to get down on his hands and knees and adjust the level of the system if there was a problem… Best wishes!
—And our first place winner: In a stairwell to the right of the platform (with door that was always closed), placed on top of shelves that were positioned directly beneath a leaking eave of the roof, where over the course of a couple of years, water had seeped into all of the electronics. Fortunately no one ever seemed to adjusted the system, so no one was electrocuted.
You’re probably thinking, “These examples have to be from the 1950s and 1960s, right?”
Sadly, no. These are things I’ve seen within the last 10 years, and in a number of cases, the systems were installed by so-called church sound “specialists”.
Asking why this happens leads to a couple of logical answers: aesthetic concerns and lack of understanding about the function and purpose of a sound system.
It also leads to another question: “Where should the sound equipment be located?” And this leads to the opposite answers - aesthetics cannot be allowed to overrule everything else, and the function/purpose of the system has to be understood.
Loudspeakers must be properly placed to properly perform. Beautiful architecture enhances the worship experience, but so does quality sound. Often there are choices that can be made based upon the art of compromise.
For example, if a highlight of a sanctuary is a 12-foot cross centered above the platform, do not seek to fly a big loudspeaker right in front of it. Very likely, there are other feasible loudspeaker locations to facilitate solid coverage to every seat within the space.
But it must be made clear that this central location is indeed often the optimum position, and thus the sound team is already making a compromise due to an aesthetic concern, so a reasonable alternative for optimally locating the loudspeakers needs to be accommodated.
In other words, if choice A is off the table, then choice B should be given due priority in the shared goal of the best overall presentation of worship services.
Many manufacturers offer custom finish services that do wonders in helping loudspeakers “blend in” with their surroundings. And if the loudspeakers must be covered, make sure the covering material (“scrim”) does not degrade performance.
The system operator position must be located in the primary listening area. Period. Mixing my metaphors, you don’t want a pilot flying blind, and you don’t want a system operator mixing deaf.
With this issue, two factors come into play: our old friend aesthetics (“people don’t want to see that ugly mixer”), and taking up too many “good seats.”
First, there are all sorts of ways to make the operator position attractive, ranging from custom carpentry to off-the-shelf cabinetry that is purpose-designed for AV equipment.
Second, the definition of “good seats” must also include sound quality, not just sightlines. Simply put, if system operators can’t do their best, there are far fewer good seats for the entire congregation.
Other key system components must also be easily accessible to the sound operator, because if there’s a problem, it should be able to be addressed immediately.
It is true that there are audio components and systems designed to be “set and forget” - largely run without an operator. But these are usually for applications without the dynamics and variables of worship services - conference rooms and boardrooms, to be specific, and even in churches in the form of distributed audio to ancillary rooms outside the sanctuary.
These types of systems usually cannot account for the wide range of factors involved with worship services, where a pastor experienced with public speaking can be immediately followed by a layman who’s never used a microphone, where a soft soprano singer performs a duet with a robust tenor singer, where dramas involving several participants all need microphones and then this diverse range of speaking styles all needs to be clearly heard through the sound system.
A hidden, inaccessible sound system and/or components leads to a lot of grief, and more importantly, runs counter to our primary mission. We can buy components of the highest quality, but if we can’t use them properly and optimally, the only guarantee is disappointment.
Charlie Moore has been involved in management positions at various professional audio manufacturers and large installation contractors for more than 40 years. He also has first-hand experience in live mixing, system design and installation and has been active as a volunteer in a number of church sound system operations.