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Form Following Function: Making Sure That The Choir Can Be Heard

Considering the impact of the acoustic signature of the worship center and the layout of the platform area on the choir sound.

By Dale Alexander March 18, 2019

A nicely reverberant environment helps to naturally reinforce this choir.

The question that’s at the top of the list when I talk with pastors and music ministers: Why can’t we hear the choir?

For a church with an active choir ministry, this can be one of the most volatile challenges to deal with and the solution usually isn’t a simple one. In many evangelical churches, the choir is still an important element of the worship service, although musical styles have evolved from piano accompaniment to a rhythm section or even a full-blown orchestra.

If the choir can’t be heard, it’s usually due to the acoustic signature of the worship center, and the platform area in particular. Typically, one or both of the following factors contribute to the problem:

1) The architecture of the room and the church’s acoustic requirements at the time the building was constructed are not in concert.

2) The building design team did not put a priority on acoustic signature/performance. All too often the way the room “looks” drives the design, thus function follows form.

In a perfect world (acoustically speaking) we would always have form following function, and it exposes an age-old conflict between architects and acousticians. When I was taking acoustics classes in college, one reference source we used was the book “Deaf Architects and Blind Acousticians” by Robert E. Apfel. The title over-simplifies the problem a little, but is really an accurate model of many design teams working on new church worship centers today.

The Timeline

For many decades, worship services in almost all evangelical churches were choir based, joined by piano and sometimes organ accompaniment. Interestingly, many of these older spaces were actually designed with input from an acoustician.

The choir was typically large (and loud) enough to balance with the piano and organ, and thus didn’t need a lot of reinforcement. They were usually located in an open area at the rear of the platform. Often the rear (upstage) wall and/or the ceiling would be angled to thrust or reflect the choir sound into the main area of the room. The platforms were typically constructed of hard wood or other reflective materials to amplify the choir via early reflections.

Many of these buildings also had very high, reflective ceilings and sound-reflective surfaces on the walls. It would increase the reverberation time, helping the sound of the organ and choir to “swim around” the room, lending the music a sense of majesty. (A choir and/or organ concert performed in such a space can be a truly exhilarating experience that’s not soon forgotten.)

Since the 1980s, there have been many new worship centers designed and built to look like these older facilities because “that’s what a church is supposed to look like.” The problem, however, is that musical requirements have changed drastically over the last 30-plus years.

Churches have moved to a much more contemporary music style that also incorporates percussion, amplified instruments, and brass sections. The sheer volume from these instruments can be difficult to overcome; add strings and woodwinds, and the choir has little chance of being heard. A few churches have been able to make it work to some degree, but not without at least some acoustic modifications to the platform region.

In many metropolitan areas, there are wonderful performing arts centers that have the acoustic properties to support a choir program with full orchestra accompaniment. It leads many to ask: If it can be done in these facilities, why can’t it be done with churches? The answer is that it indeed can – if there’s a strong choir director working with skilled choir and orchestra members.

Some churches pay musicians, and some of them are true professionals. But at the vast majority, they’re volunteers cheerfully giving their time and talent to be of service. In addition, music ministers generally don’t have the authority that professional conductors have in directing the musicians and choir, let alone acoustical issues.

Setting Priorities

Now that we’ve identified the problem, what can be done to correct it? There’s not a simple answer. The first question: How important is the choir to worship services? The answer helps in defining priorities. If the choir is deemed to be a high priority, then the church should do (and usually does) all it can to solve the problem. If, however, it’s a lower priority, very little will be done.

A common thought is to put microphones on the choir to capture their sound that can then be reinforced in the sound system. Unfortunately, too often this does nothing but exacerbate the problem because the mics actually pick up more of the sound that is masking the choir in the first place.

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Art Eaton says

I've always had pretty good results from talking directly with the choir and explaining the problem and the solution. In most cases I can keep the amplified instruments isolated from the choir mics. That along with keeping the band turned down both in the pa and in the room. If the choir is the feature, then feature the choir.

Jerry DeClercq says

Having experienced the acoustical problems myself, you used all the right words. Another thorn has been the purchase and install of the wrong speakers on limited budgets, for good music (voice and instruments) to be heard as should be.

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