Like a broken record, I have repeated many times that acoustical problems come in layers. If you are not happy with the way your church sounds and you think it is an acoustical problem, it is never just a single problem. Whenever you try to fix that one single problem you think you have, in every case that has crossed my desk, there were 2 to 5 other problems that became apparent and the new problems that are now unmasked by the first problem are often just as bad at limiting what can be done in worship.
For most churches, fixing that first problem with ready-made panels from well-intentioned product manufacturers often costs a lot of money. It often take a lot of time to raise that money. Often the cost of such fixes are so high that getting people to put more money into acoustics again is very difficult to do and the willingness to make another fix is gone, or they have lost any trust in “acoustical experts” or confidence that the problem can be fixed. That said, there seems to always be enough willingness to spending more money on sound equipment and that is what most churches do. Imagine working on churches that after their first acoustical fix, they replace the loudspeaker system 3 times in 15 years. Many churches are doing this. You here this expression all the time but replacing a perfectly good sound system and expecting a different outcome doesn’t work.
Churches shouldn’t keep changing their sound system design to try to compensate for the room acoustics. It doesn’t work and it never will. Yeah, you know, physics keeps getting in the way but the way churches keep buying sound systems, you would think someone found a magic bullet. God gave us Physics for a reason. We need a fixed set of conditions for good hearing and music no matter what. When you obey the physics and understand the fixed set of conditions, great things start to happen. So, when a church has a proper acoustical management system in either a new or existing church, the speaker system should last 20 to 25 years or until you can’t get replacement parts. And then you just replace the equipment – not needed to redesign anything. (Ok, if you want to add subs, knock yourself out.) (The rest of the sound system should only be upgraded as your worship style and needs change or to replace failed equipment.)
Fixing the acoustics of any large room used for hearing speech, music, audience singing, live performances, video, movies and for recording is never about fixing just one problem. An acoustical fix should always be a system. I prefer the term “Sound Management System.” Managing sound is about being all-inclusive, and all of the acoustical issues need to be identified before creating a plan to fix the room. Reverberation time (RT60) and echoes are often the main reasons for most acoustical fixes. However, these two issues often mask the other problems and taking acoustical measurements doesn’t reveal the other complications. A person has to be trained to know what to look for. Then they can take measurements or create a simulation to create a fix.
This photo an example where a church installed Tectum™ on the walls. While the Tectum worked great to dampen the overall sound, it made the room very poor for worship. After installing the Sono Tubes™ on top of the Tectum, the room became a good room for all aspects of worship.
The other common problems that are masked are standing waves, bass buildup, improper frequency response of the room, flutter echoes (which are often exposed when reducing RT60,) excessive early reflections and more. The question is, can all of these issues be identified at the same time and can all of them be addressed or fixed in one step? The simple answer is yes.
With proper training and with lots of experience/apprenticing, it is possible to have a total solution in one step. However, often in existing spaces and even in new spaces, what you see may not be what you think. Often, when you look at blueprints of the worship, the plans may call for an insulated 2 x 8 wall on 12 inch center with half-inch drywall. Instead the wall is 2 x 6 on 24 inch centers with 2 layers of 5/8th drywall. When you have a wall that is over 800 sq ft, those construction differences can have a huge impact on how the will room sound. What you see and what you are hearing can be very far apart. Churches as a rule and most large room gathering spaces don’t have what is often referred to as “as built drawings.” This would be a set of drawings that includes all construction variations and changes as the space is being built. When you have a 30 ft wall in front of you, there is no way of knowing 100% how that wall was completed above 7 to 10 ft. It is a 2 x 8 wall or is it 2 x 6? Is it insulated all the way up or just the first 10 feet? Therefore, because of all of these unknown variables, it is impossible to predict with 100% certainty of how a room will sound after you apply an acoustical treatment.
One good approach to large room acoustics is to first gain control of the room. Next add some dampening if needed and finally, sweetening the room if additional control is needed for certain critical listening requirements. With a 3 step approach, you can get the best possible performance of your space every time.
The first step, getting control of the room, is literally about managing all of the sound issues and anticipating any new problems before they happen if not addressed now. This often means creating an acoustical solution that turns into a system. Usually that means treating all of the walls in a large space. All of the walls need to be managed or included in the sound management plan. This is not an option.
In one church project, 106 panels needed to be installed. At the end of the day, 2 panels could not be installed on the back wall because the sound booth was in the way. The plan was to install them the next day. That evening, the church was needed for a music program. The two panels that were not installed added up to 60 sq ft. for an 800 seat church with a 35 ft ceiling. While the rest of the room was sounding great, the sound was awful on stage. Those two missing panels made the stage/altar area un-useable. To make things worse, it soured the performance of a very good sound system too. The gain before feedback was such that you had to step off the stage to use any microphones. As a result, the program was moved to the church gym which was only slightly better. The next day after those two panels were installed, it was like magic and all of the problems from the night before were all gone and the gain before feedback was such that they could have 10 open mics and still pickup voices from 20 inches away. Before any acoustical treatment they could only have 4 mics open with everyone needing to be within 3 inches for the same praise and worship team.
Who would have ever thought that a couple of 30 sq ft panels in a space with around 12,000 sq feet of wall space can render a space useless. That is how powerful an “acoustical system” is. Every part of the acoustical fix is a critical item. Just like a battery in a car. If there is no battery, you can’t start your car and like a car that is made up of many parts, so is an acoustical system.
The other two steps are just tweaks. When a complete acoustical management design is planned, it should also include tunable adjustments that are hidden in most cases. These adjustment are always something that the church can do on their own to dampen and/or sweeten the room for those critical listeners or for those with growing talent that need that extra help to get them to the next level of their skills.
Acoustical solutions that only addresses a customer’s main complaints is like buying car tires and an engine. You’re not going to go anywhere without an engine, frame, body, seats, doors, steering wheel, and so on. When we buy a car, everything is included. It is a self-contained system. When a church doesn’t have a sound management system, it is an incomplete worship space. Any acoustical fix for a church should be all-inclusive. Fixing only the RT60 or and echo problem of a church is like adding doors to a car that only has an engine and tires. What are you going to mount the doors to? You acoustical fix should include everything in the one step if you want to have great sound.
Joseph De Buglio©