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Church Sound: The Fallacy Of A “Flat” System

Flat is great for home stereos and interstate highways, but sometimes not so much for church sound systems

By Jon Baumgartner October 1, 2014

On more than one occasion, I’ve been called to a church to inspect the facility for the purpose of designing a new sound system.

Upon arrival, I discover that the church has perfectly adequate audio components that have been tuned and balanced perfectly inadequately.

It never fails—when I inform the owner that the system is fine and simply needs to be properly tuned, I get the response that the church has just paid somebody several hundred dollars to tune the system with pink noise and a computer, and thus, it is as close to “flat” as possible.

But these clients have been sold a fallacy: flat is always good, and flat is what you want.

Not so fast, and here’s why. About 40 years ago, home stereo systems began to improve exponentially. The ability of loudspeakers to exactly reproduce what was happening in the studio recording became extremely good, and providers of high-end stereo system equipment began bragging that the loudspeakers had nearly perfectly flat response. They were indicating to the potential buyer that the loudspeakers were going to exactly reproduce what the studio engineer had worked so diligently to create in the recording studio.

Without question, a stereo system with a perfectly flat response over the entire audio spectrum is indeed a wonderful thing to experience. So why is “flat” not the end-all and be-all?

As previously mentioned, the recording and mastering engineers go to great lengths to EQ every single track on a project to sonic perfection. These folks are true professionals at producing breathtaking audio, and they don’t want your home loudspeakers messing with their art. Therefore, a perfectly flat loudspeaker response should in theory reproduce a sonically perfect example of the original work. 

Because many of us enjoy listening to music in the home (and some pursue sonic perfection with great zeal), it has become widely known that flat is good. Flat is desirable. Flat is what we want.

Let’s get back to our church. The technician we speak to about tuning the room tells us that he will use a computer analysis tool to determine which frequencies in the spectrum are deficient, which ones are too prevalent, and which are just right. He’ll reduce the overly prevalent and increase the deficient, until all frequencies in the audio spectrum are represented at the same decibel level. The system response is now flat. Oh good! This Sunday the sound is going to be awesome!!

But Sunday comes along and the sound is very thick, muffled and somewhat dull. Disappointment city. Why?

Because flat usually only sounds good if you’re playing a recording through it. Recall that the studio engineers went to great lengths to sonically shape the sound.

If your church is fortunate enough to have a quality console with lots of sweepable EQ on each channel and an engineer that really knows how to listen and how to mix, each individual channel can be tweaked to sound fabulous (just like they do in the studio).


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