Consultants, Contactors, Retailers - And Your Church Sound Project
Many churches don't see the wisdom of paying for professional help with sound system needs, too often to their own detriment

June 15, 2012, by Tom Young


When faced with a need for either a significant improvement to an existing sound system or an entirely new sound system, the most often-heard advise is “hire a qualified consultant.” Or at least it should be.

But many churches balk at the notion of paying a fee to a professional to help with sound system needs.

The thinking: this is not money well spent because there always seems to be “someone” in the congregation confident in his own abilities to choose appropriate equipment and put it all together. Or, the local music store will provide the required expertise - why pay anyone else?

These approaches have lousy track records, wasting buckets of money and making everyone involved with the church suffer through poor sound quality for years. And years…

Full disclosure at this point: I am a long-time electro-acoustic consultant, so there might be temptation to think I’m biased in dispensing advice.

But the reality is that I truly wish I didn’t have to address this topic, because I’ve spent my career trying to help churches pick up the pieces after they’ve suffered mightily by putting their trust in totally unqualified personnel.

The bottom line is that a qualified consultant who specializes in live sound reinforcement (because this is what a church sound system is designed to do) will end up saving the church money, time and a whole lot of heartache.

Sound systems may be obtained in three basic ways:

1) All at once or piece-meal from a retail outlet (music store) or catalog vendor, usually installed by church members.

2) All at once or piece-meal from an AV contracting (“design-build”) firm that usually does at least part of the installation as well.

3) All at once with design by a qualified consultant and installation by a contracting firm that both work as colleagues in the process.

New let’s clarify these sources and what they do.

Retail Outlets
A retail supplier or catalog house that sells professional audio equipment does not design or engineer sound systems, and in most cases they’re not qualified to do either. All but a few of the largest do not employ seasoned live sound system experts. Very few, in fact, have staff with significant experience in live sound system design or operation.

Staff members are primarily part-time musicians or home studio owners who are there primarily to supplement their incomes. And musicians and home studio people are rarely qualified to provide sound reinforcement design advice, nor do they usually have a grasp of architectural accommodation, nor do they possess the necessary skills in installation and related safety issues, nor electrical systems and related issues, nor the physics of electroacoustics.

Further, they’re not familiar with the National Electrical Code (NEC) that must be adhered to, both for inspections and insurance purposes.

Usually, they can’t properly employ room and system modeling (computer-assisted prediction), and they’re not trained or invested in test and measurement skills/equipment that help truly optimize a sound system.

They’re usually not members of any pro audio and/or acoustics trade organization, and they’re also prone to dismiss many significant issues as “not that complicated.” (And if you hear someone say this, run away screaming immediately!)

Note that I am saying most - not all - fit these criteria. Anyone still bold enough to tread down this path should at least understand the right questions to ask.

A contracting firm usually specializes at installing systems, and many also offer system design services. However, be aware that this does not necessarily mean that they’re qualified to design systems.

Some have invested time and money in modeling and optimization training and equipment, and also have the necessary experience in using these tools and others to do successful design work.

But others, even with training, may be lacking the necessary design skills, whether it’s due to lack of experience and/or other factors. (Do you really want someone learning how to design when it’s your system?)

In other words, just because someone shows you a technical document on a computer screen - and goodness, it does look complicated - does not mean the document is providing any salient information that will translate into a better sound system design. Or, that the person doing the showing knows much more than you.

This is a common sales tool that is used to show off and “wow” the customer, when in reality, there might be little depth of knowledge and understanding behind the “dog and pony show.”

Further, contracting firms are increasingly focused on selling total audio-visual (AV) system packages, encompassing not just sound but also lighting and video. As a result, the emphasis is not just on sound, with staff members sometimes not likely to possess deep knowledge on the subject.

Like retail outlets, no single contracting firm can carry all lines of audio equipment, and they’re also bound by agreements with manufacturers to sell certain amounts of each brand they carry.

They’re also not prone to attend your project meetings without additional fees, and other than a complimentary site visit, they’re also not likely to budget time for programming and design development. They usually don’t make provisions for the focused, useful training of volunteer sound operators on aspects such as the “how and why” of live sound, as well as mixing, politics and so on.

Better contracting firms will have licensed engineers on staff, and they make it a practice to send staff members to seminars, workshops and other continuing educational endeavors. Further, these firms belong to respected trade organizations such as the National Systems Contractor Association (NSCA) and the Audio Engineering Society (AES).

There is one caveat to be pointed out. Some contracting firms offer true system design-build services, and they employ qualified designers, either on staff or via a business arrangement. This approach and structure has proven successful in some situations.

The bottom line is to understand what a contactor can and cannot do - again, if you simply ask the right questions.

A qualified electroacoustic consultant will offer ample experience working with and designing sound systems for churches, and often, other performance spaces. They will have attended advanced live sound related seminars and workshops, and they continue to do so because this is their specialty.

Consultants may or may not have licensed engineers on staff, but will have a firm grasp on safety issues, and are familiar with the terminology and methods employed by architects, other consultants (theater, acoustics), specialty engineers (electrical, structural, mechanical), and contractors (carpenters, electrical, HVAC, etc.).

Qualified consultants will also have worked at various times for a church or performance venue as staff sound system operators. Often they will have a background in contracting, and should have some background in music as well.

They will have membership with organizations such as NSCA and AES, as well as the ASA and USITT, and it is not uncommon for some staff to be trained as professional engineers (this is designated by a “PE” in their titles on business cards.)

They attend several trade shows each year because it provides insight into emerging technologies and new equipment, and it also allows them to attend technical papers and to sit in on technical committees. Participating in these conferences keeps the consultant “connected” and helps to prevent them from becoming either too proprietary or experimental.

To The Chase
One of the most significant issues: the consultant is employed directly by the client to provide the best possible system design at a reasonable cost. (It’s under the category of “who’s looking out for number one?”)

As a result, consultants specify equipment based upon its merits and value. Their affiliation with manufacturers is one of mutual respect and not unduly influenced by numbers. This independence is paramount.

However, many consultants are asked by manufacturers to participate in product development, or to provide valuable feedback so that minor design flaws may be corrected. (The better contractors and design build firms do this as well.) All must walk the lie between incorporating new products/technologies and undertaking unnecessary risk for every system project.

Consultants must also participate in your project meetings, and at the end of the design phase, they deliver a completely engineered audio system design in the form of a bid package, plus a list of pre-qualified contractors to bid on the project.

The specification should allow very few items that the bidding contractors are allowed to substitute. Specifying exact equipment for all but the most mundane components of a system is what the consultant is paid to provide, and the consultant should be able to clearly detail to the client why each device is required.

One other aspect of a complete system design is provision for future needs. This may take the form of recommending more mixer input channels than are initially needed, additional wire, cable and conduit (installed at the outset even if they’re not needed until later), and a digital processor that can easily be expanded in functions and input/output capabilities. This can save thousands and thousands of dollars down the line.

Finally, the design package should be complete and not require the contactor to “fill in the blanks.”

Getting Options

Another valuable ingredient is the bidding part of the process itself. If a church attempts to shop around for a sound system package, not only is this very likely to lead to multiples of package proposals (these are not designed systems in any way, shape or form), but prices will vary widely.

All of this leads to chaos since there is no way to qualitatively compare the multiple proposals.

Aside from confusion about what the church is really buying, this also opens the door to temptation to accept a lower quality system based solely on dollar value.

A consultant designs the appropriate system and estimates what it will cost. If this is too much money, then the consultant may be able to provide a lower cost option, and with a full explanation of the ramifications.

Note, however, that consultants must be willing to say “no” when being pressured to provide a compromised design, and if necessary, they will walk away from a client with unrealistic expectations.

Another option is to stage the system purchase and installation into several phases, allowing the client to obtain the best system over time. But note that this is still a “system” design and not a piece-meal approach.

As part of the bid package, the consultant provides a list of several pre-qualified contractors and they bid on the same system design. This results in no ambiguities, and the client can then accept the lowest (or one of the lowest) bids.

Programming is the most important first step in developing a design that provides what is needed. The consultant must also attend worship services and interview key personnel to establish what their needs and hopes are. This also helps the consultant to identify the technical capabilities of the crew.

Following programming and the various design phases (schematic design, design development), the entire sound system design must be presented in the form of contract documents, which include drawings and a written specification.

The drawing set must include the functional aspects of each part of the system, as well as detailed drawings of key components such as loudspeakers (clusters, arrays, rigging and mounting methods), rack elevations, custom panels, and the isolated ground AC (electrical) power system.

The latter is provided as a concept (because consultants are not licensed to engineer them), and then it must be approved, detailed and stamped by a licensed electrical engineer in the local where the church is being built or the system is being installed. This is also the case for any suspended devices such as loudspeakers.

Once the contracting firm is selected, the consultant serves as the primary interface on all issues related to the system, and then interfaces with the client on any aspects of note.

Yet another important part of the services provided by a consultant is an ability to measure and optimize the system after it is installed, and then to train the users in its operation. This completes the picture.

Finally, the consultant will be available to answer questions later, as they crop up, which can inevitably happen with a new sound system.

Churches that invest the time and care in finding and vetting qualified candidates for design and install services are much more likely to achieve a sound system that serves their needs, and will do so for many years to come, while also receiving a very high return on their investment.

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Consultants, Contactors, Retailers - And Your Church Sound Project