‘I still can’t hear the pastor well enough’

By  Richard A. Honeycutt

Turning to someone in the church may not give you the expertise you need to find and correct an acoustics problem.

“I had trouble hearing in church today. I think we need to get Charlie on the sound crew; he knows all about computers.”
“Yeah, but Ben works at
the telephone company, so he probably could help us too.”
“And my nephew Joey works at a music store, so he knows all about sound.”
“Hank is an announcer at the radio station, so I’m sure he’s an expert.”
“Robby has a recording studio, so he makes his living with sound.”

In my years as a consultant on sound and acoustics, I really have heard all these comments. What’s the problem? Although Charlie, Ben, Joey, Hank and Robby may know something about sound systems (perhaps not as much as they think they know), their expertise is not in the area of live sound, particularly live sound for houses of worship.

The wise decision of whom to call when a church has sound problems comes down to three choices: a professional sound system contractor, a sound system consultant, or an acoustical consultant.

The contractor should have the expertise to find and correct the problem, but may have financial motivations to replace equipment that could as well have been repaired less expensively, and/or to replace more equipment than necessary.

To know which consultant to call, you need to know whether the problem is caused by room acoustics, the sound system or operator issues.

Some consultants have expertise in all three areas. Let’s look at a few common sound problems in churches, and their likely causes. Certainly there are many other types of sound problems, but three will serve as an example of good diagnostic thinking.

The sound is not loud enough.
If the complaints are coming from hearing-challenged people, the solution is a hearing assistance system, which any good sound contractor can install. Trying to compensate for poor hearing of 5 percent of the congregation by turning up the sound for 100 percent of them is not a good idea.

If the complaints are coming from lots of people, three questions need to be answered:

  • Are only certain areas of the room affected?
  • Is the problem related to only one or a few mics, or to all mics?
  • Is the operator located where she orhe can hear what the congregation is hearing? (Not in a separate sound room behind a “drive-in window”.)

A “yes” to question one indicates that the problem is caused by acoustical issues, speaker selection, or speaker location/aiming. If question two is answered “yes,” the operator may not be able to get enough sound from the affected mics without creating feedback squeal. A negative answer to question three requires a relocation of the sound controls, or a change to an automatic mixer, if the worship style permits the use of one.

In all these cases, a sound system consultant who is also competent in acoustics can help. If the issue turns out to be speaker selection/placement/aiming, a contractor may eventually need to be brought in to make corrections, but the consultant is needed first for the correct diagnosis.

The sound system squeals a lot.
Squeals are one result of acoustic feedback, caused by too much sound from the speakers getting back into the mics. Other results of acoustic feedback are “ringing,” in which the sound seems to have excess reverberation, and unnatural emphasis of certain frequencies or pitches of the voice. No sound system is immune to acoustic feedback, but a well-designed and properly-installed system should not be plagued by the problem.

Thus the first question should be whether one or a few operators do better at avoiding feedback problems than do other operators. If so, the solution is operator training, which can be provided by a good sound system consultant or contractor. Even if training is not the answer, the consultant or contractor may be able to identify the cause of the problem before or during the training session. While there are several good “feedback eliminators” on the market, all of them have limitations, and should only be used as a last resort, on the recommendation of a competent sound professional.

Sound can’t be understood.
In the extreme case of this problem, turning off the sound system actually improves intelligibility. In such a case, a sound system consultant is definitely needed. In other cases, turning off the HVAC system cures the problem. In this event, an acoustical consultant should be engaged to suggest needed changes to the HVAC system. The third major cause of poor intelligibility is excessive reverberation and/or echoes, either of which should be addressed by an acoustical consultant.

While there are cases in which a sound problem indicates the need to replace the sound system, often adjustments, repairs, or training are wiser choices. There’s no need for a church to go through three or four sound systems (as many do) before achieving excellent, natural sound.

Dr. Richard A. Honeycutt is principal consultant with EDC Sound Services, Lexington, NC. www.edcsound.com


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