Understanding loudspeaker systems — what’s right for your church?Audio/Visual, CURRENT ISSUE, FACILITIES, Latest News, Pastor Friendly A/V, TECHNOLOGY, Worship Center Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
Though your church’s audio system is comprised of a lot of different components, loudspeakers are arguably the most significant. As the final link between the message and the listener, the right loudspeaker system can make the difference between indifference and inspiration.
By Rik Kirby & Daniel Keller
Whether you’re thinking about upgrading your existing sound system or installing one for the first time, chances are you’ve already discovered a nearly infinite, somewhat overwhelming range of options.
Loudspeaker systems come in all shapes, sizes and configurations. Your choices will depend on a number of factors, including the size of your sanctuary, its seating arrangement and acoustical character.
The type(s) of services your church offers also make a difference — a traditional, sermon-based service will have different requirements than a contemporary service with a high-impact praise band. It’s important to understand the different types of loudspeaker systems, and what features are best to meet the needs of your church.
Some basics: passive, powered and distributed systems
In a typical sound system, each individual loudspeaker is powered by a dedicated amplifier. (As with your home hi-fi, this can often be a multi-channel amplifier, with essentially two or more amplifiers combined into a single unit.)
In recent years, there has been a growing trend toward self-powered loudspeakers — that is, loudspeakers with a dedicated amplifier built into the system. More than just a matter of convenience, self-powered speakers ensure that the amplifier and loudspeaker are well matched to each other, as well as cutting down on the cost of installation.
Many commercial loudspeakers also include transformers in their designs, allowing them to be incorporated into 70- and 100-volt distributed audio systems. While lacking the power needed for a large-scale PA system, these low-voltage distributed systems offer some advantages for smaller rooms, and as supplemental and / or ancillary systems. Fewer power amplifiers are required to drive multiple loudspeakers, and each speaker’s volume can be adjusted independently, making them a cost-effective solution for hallways, anterooms and other areas where wide coverage and differing volume levels is needed.
What’s in the box?
As mentioned earlier, loudspeakers themselves come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Here’s a look at some of the basic types of loudspeakers, and their characteristics.
Ceiling speakers. Often used in distributed systems, ceiling speakers are built into the ceiling, with the outside of the loudspeaker mounting flush with the ceiling surface. These types of loudspeakers are ideal for installations where the speakers should be pretty much hidden from view.
Due to their broad coverage pattern and lack of directionality, ceiling speakers are a common choice for background music in offices and public spaces. They are also frequently used for supplemental coverage in larger systems.
Surface-mount speakers. Surface-mount loudspeakers are usually built into a cabinet-type enclosure that is mounted with a bracket on a wall or ceiling. They are available in a wide range of shapes, sizes and configurations. Most manufacturers offer an assortment of different mounting options, as well, to allow for different types of architecture and differing placement and positioning requirements.
As with ceiling speakers, surface-mount loudspeakers can be used as primary sound sources in small to mid-sized facilities, or for supplemental coverage in larger systems.
Point-source systems and line arrays. For many sanctuaries, a point-source system is the most common solution. Depending on the desired coverage pattern, these systems can be configured in a number of different ways. For smaller spaces and shallower rooms, a horizontal cluster can provide short-throw coverage. Depending on the width of the room, this can be configured as a single center cluster, left and right clusters, or left-right-center clusters.
For deeper rooms requiring longer throw coverage, a vertical line array might be a good solution. Though mainly used in touring sound, line arrays are also available in smaller form-factor and installation-friendly designs for smaller rooms. They are a popular option due to their relatively easy installation and flexibility of coverage.
Line arrays do present their own challenges, however. Even smaller ones tend to be large and heavy, requiring considerable structural work to hang from ceilings. Even if your sanctuary’s has fairly high ceilings, line arrays normally work optimally when hung lower, and they can interfere with sightlines for some of your audience. In many cases, they can also interfere with the room’s aesthetics, looking very out of place in an otherwise traditional architecture.
Finally, you might consider a digitally steered array system. Traditional line arrays can be designed to distribute sound evenly across a given coverage pattern; however, they can introduce other issues. With some sound bouncing off of walls, ceilings and other reflective surfaces, spoken word intelligibility can suffer, particularly in larger sanctuaries.
Digitally steered arrays use DSP (Digital Signal Processing) to help direct a speaker’s output into a tight, focused pattern that can be shaped and directed with precision.
Scrimping will cost you more
As we’ve stated in previous “Pastor-Friendly Sound Systems” installments, the first step in deciding on a loudspeaker system should be to shop for a qualified professional sound contractor and / or consultant. In the long run, the money spent on getting a pro to help plan your system is the best expenditure you can make. An experienced systems designer will work with you to create a system that fits your church’s space, message and budget.
Many a small and mid-sized church has been tempted by the lower cost of purchasing a big-box-store “pro-sumer” system and installing it themselves, only to discover that their budget system creates more problems than it solves. While many budget loudspeakers can play loudly for extended periods, they can’t deliver the pattern control, intelligibility or performance of a professional system. Budget systems also lack the long-term durability to meet the demands of a weekly service.
Generally, the extra budget spent on a professional system designed by an experienced consultant will be worthwhile in the long run. Investing in a budget system will pretty much guarantee that you’ll be replacing it sooner than you’d planned.
Rik Kirby is Vice President, Sales & Marketing at Renkus-Heinz, Inc. Located in Southern California for more than 35 years, Renkus-Heinz is a manufacturer of high-end professional loudspeaker systems.
Daniel Keller is CEO of Get It In Writing, Inc.®