June 06, 2017

Selecting a sound system for your church can be a lot more challenging than it might seem at first glance. In the past, most houses of worship were either small enough not to need a sound system, or equipped with minimal systems just so you could hear the pastor or the choir a little better. But as the size of the average church has steadily increased over time, even modest presentations often need a sound system to be effective. With the increasing popularity of contemporary worship music which requires more robust sound reproduction, most ministries will find themselves investing in sound equipment at some point.

Chances are you or someone on your worship team has a basic familiarity with sound systems or professional experience working with live music. But because of the unique requirements of church sound that might not be enough to help you select the best type of equipment for your congregation's needs. Whole books have been written on the subject of sound reinforcement for worship, and the field of study goes far beyond the scope of these articles. But hopefully we can give you enough of an overview to help you become familiar with the most important design considerations. Once you understand the basics of selecting and designing a sound system for your church, you will be able to make an informed decision about how to implement it.

Whether you are buying your first PA for a small church start-up, or considering an upgrade to an established church system, a good place to start is listing what you want your sound system to do. This is especially important when choosing your church's first sound system. Let's look at some of the typical applications that you might want your PA to be able to handle, starting with the most important design requirement:

Communication: You Need a Way to Share Your Message Clearly.

The whole reason you’re there is to talk to people, and if they can’t understand what you’re saying you can’t do that effectively. Jokes about Noah notwithstanding, you don’t need echoes. You need clarity! If the system is poor and harsh sounding, it can even wear on your listeners and reduce their attention span. Unfortunately, not all PA systems are optimum for reproducing the spoken word clearly to a large audience. A tiny bit of ambient reflection or a slight lack of midrange detail might go unnoticed or even enhance a band or group of worship singers, but you want the teaching to be intelligible without the congregation straining to hear or trying to filter out extra reflections and room echoes.

The first design consideration is system format. How many speakers will be used and where will they be located? This matters because sounds from multiple speakers at different distances will arrive at different times, reducing intelligibility. Sound also reflects off nearby surfaces in the room so speaker placement can greatly affect ambient reflection. Note: You’ll also want to evaluate your room acoustics and apply acoustic treatment as required to prevent excess reverberation off hard surfaces.

Format Options: Common Speaker Configurations for Church Systems

Mono: If you don’t have special sound requirements for music and your room is of modest size, you might want to consider a single-source mono sound system which is less likely to generate echo and phase issues. If you have a very long, narrow venue a mono system can be a simple and cost-effective way to improve clarity. The sound system will be arranged in a single centrally-located cluster. Common in permanent installations, mono systems work well when they are ‘flown’ from special overhead rigging. With any system that is suspended it is crucial that the speaker is designed for rigging and properly installed! Always consult expert riggers when hanging speakers overhead.

Stereo: If you have contemporary worship music or multi-media productions you may want a stereo system for better depth and separation of instruments. Stereo systems work best in symmetrical rooms that are deeper than they are wide. You’ll want to arrange your main speakers symmetrically as well, remembering not to locate them too close to walls where there is the most reflection. Ideally you want both speakers to cover your entire seating area.

LCR (Left-Center-Right): In wide rooms or when you have seating in areas to the side of the stage an LCR system might be a good option. The left and right channels are set wide enough to cover the additional seating and a central mono cluster fills in between them. A separate center channel also offers a single-source option for the spoken-word segments of the presentation for excellent clarity. LCR systems can be customized to address the specific needs or challenges of your venue and give you more design flexibility. Remember: as the complexity of your system increases so does your ability to control what’s happening with the sound. It also increases the necessity of having a professional sound technician to operate and maintain it.

Distributed Sound Systems: This format is commonly used to cover very large areas where there is an audible delay caused by the distance between the main speakers and part of the audience. It is also very effective for achieving good coverage in unconventional, oddly-shaped rooms. In a distributed sound system, additional speakers are employed in parts of the audience where the ambient reflections of the room begin to compete with the direct sound from the main speakers. By installing satellite speakers to cover these areas and using a delay to synch them with the direct sound from the main front-of-house speakers, it is possible for both sources to reach the listener's ear at the same time. This delivers more direct sound and helps overcome room ambience in more distant seating areas.

Putting Knowledge to Work for You

Putting top priority on ensuring your message will be clear and understandable is a sound investment in the future of your ministry and the people who are served by it. And as we'll see in the next article, these principles and formats apply no matter how small or large your system needs to be. If you are considering a new or upgrade to your sound system contact our team at Carvin Audio by clicking here or call us at 800-854-2235 - we're always here to help you build the best system for your needs.

What kinds of unusual system formats have you seen put to use? If you have used one of these sound system formats, tell us about your experience in the comments.

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