Loudspeaker Buying Guide Pt. 2

Photo courtesy of Tim Geers

Photo courtesy of Tim Geers

This is part 2 in our series on selecting speakers. As I said last time, deciding which speakers to buy for your church can be a daunting task. It’s typically an expensive decision, and a really expensive one if you choose poorly. It’s important to not simply buy the first set you year, or decide on a system based on a magazine review. Even hearing them in another building may not be a good indicator of how they’ll do in your building. So here are some more questions to consider. 

What is the Vibe?

This goes along with the source; are we looking for quiet and contemplative or loud and energetic? Do we simply want to reinforce some acoustic sounds so they can be heard in the back of the room, or do we want to put the sound right in your face? Even in the extremes, we have options. For example, if we’re going for more of a concert feel, what genre do we wish to emulate? Some PA’s will deliver a very edgy, rock ’n’ roll sound, while others are more hi-fi. Knowing what vibe you want to create will begin to dictate the system you ultimately install. 

What is the Environment?

Churches run the gamut from acoustically live, highly reflective cathedral type rooms, to dampened and treated theatrical venues. Like everything else, the environment will effect the choice of speakers. Highly reverberant rooms will require speakers that have excellent pattern control to keep sound from bouncing off the walls, ceilings and floors. Very dead rooms will require more speakers to energize the space and overcome all the absorption.

There is also the issue of aesthetics. Many congregants would object to a modern, black flown line array in a historic cathedral. In such a room, a smaller, less visually intrusive system is required. Even in modern churches, sight lines, trim heights and other architectural features will dictate one speaker type or another. Make sure your integrator is asking these questions. 

Can We Hang ‘em High?

Some rooms make it easy to hang—or fly—speakers. In others, it’s impossible. In still others, it’s impractical or not necessary. Before you get your heart set on 600 pounds of beautiful, flown, line array, make sure the roof structure can actually support it. And yes, it’s possible your roof cannot support that much weight. In more traditional venues, wall or column mounted speakers are often the best choice as they can blend into the architecture rather easily (especially if they can be custom painted). In some smaller, multi-purpose rooms, portable speakers on sticks might be the best option. 

Can We Afford Them?

Speaker systems can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for small rooms; from ten- to fifty-thousand for medium rooms and upwards of a hundred thousand to almost a million dollars for very large rooms. In those vast categories are all kinds of variations. Some well-known manufacturers are very good, and rather expensive. Other lesser-known companies can be almost as good and considerably more affordable. Not everyone needs or can afford a Mercedes; quite often, we can get by quite nicely with an Infinity or even a Nissan. 

Just be sure to buy enough PA for your room. Too many churches buy on budget and end up unhappy with the results. Build in some headroom; make sure the system can go louder than you need it to so you’re not pushing it to the edge every weekend. 

Those are some general questions and parameters you should be considering before beginning to hone in on your speaker selection. Now that we have that established, next time, we’ll consider some of the categories and sub-categories of speaker systems. 

Roland

Loudspeaker Buying Guide Pt. 1

Photo courtesy of Larry Jacobsen

Photo courtesy of Larry Jacobsen

Buying loudspeakers is perhaps the most daunting task a church tech will face. Today we have powered and unpowered speakers; line arrays and point source boxes; flown and ground stacked; cheap and eye-watering expensive. In each of those categories, we have dozens of manufacturers with hundreds of models to choose from. While it’s not possible in the space of this article to tell you what to buy, we will attempt to guide you through the process of selecting the proper speakers for your space.

The Perfect Speaker

First, there is no perfect speaker. All speaker designs make compromises in deference to the laws of physics. The right speaker for one room might well be entirely the wrong speaker for another room. Don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking that the speakers in the church that put on that big conference are the right speakers for you. They may be, but they also may not be. 

Second, once you get beyond putting up one or two speakers in a small room, I believe there needs to be some design involved. A competent integrator should be able to model the room and show you some options based on prediction software and help narrow down your choices. Far too many churches make the mistake of just hanging some boxes in the room, pointing them wherever and hoping it sounds good. From experience, I can tell you that most of the time it doesn’t. Plan on spending at least some of your speaker budget on an actual design. You can thank me later. 

As I said, there is no “best” speaker. What you want is the right speakers for your environment. To get to that right speaker, we have to ask some questions, and determine what we are trying to accomplish. Once we know the intended result, we can begin selecting speakers that will effectively deliver the results. It’s much like buying a vehicle; you wouldn’t buy a two-seater convertible if you intend to haul around a lot of mulch. Then again, a pickup would probably not be the best choice to drive a large family to baseball practice. With that in mind, let’s ask some questions.

What is the Source?

Believe it or not, the requirements for a speaker system that will deliver primarily the spoken word and one that will engage the audience with concert-level sound are quite different. Different churches have vastly different programming styles, and the PA needs change as we consider those styles. 

In a very traditional, liturgical setting, the speaker system really just needs to deliver the frequency spectrum of the human voice evenly throughout the room and with great clarity. The volume levels don’t need to be that high (relatively speaking), so we don’t need a bunch of drivers in the air. Don’t be fooled, however; getting a system like this to sound good requires some careful design. It’s just not likely to be as expensive as a full-on modern service system.

As amplified music becomes more and more of a priority, the system needs to adjust. Some churches want concert-level audio, and the only way to get that is with a big PA. Even in smaller rooms, you’ll need to move a lot of air, and that requires a good number of full-range speakers, as well as low frequency drivers (sub woofers) to deliver the goods. Most churches fall somewhere in between those extremes and will need a system designed accordingly.

This is the first in a series of questions we have to ask when it comes to selecting speakers for a venue. Next time, we’ll delve into a little more detail.

“Gear

Church Tech Weekly Episode 214: It's Sunday Already?

One of the most common questions we get at CTA is how to build volunteer teams. We dig deep into that topic tonight with a guy who is really doing a great job with it. Get out the pencil and paper, you're going to want to take notes...

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Setting Up a Redundant Dante Network

Last time, I shared with you the problem you can have if you set up a Dante network improperly. Without redundancy, a single break anywhere in the system can cause major problems. With redundancy, if you cross the streams, the whole network refuses to work properly. Based on my experiences a few weeks back and some conversations I had with people who know a lot more about this than I do, I have revised my set up process to make sure things work properly. 

Configure First

My biggest mistake was wiring everything together then powering it all up. I freaked the switches out without even knowing it, then nothing I did after that worked properly. So the new tactic is to configure first, then wire. In some cases (like Yamaha Rio boxes), this will mean flipping dip switches for redundant mode. In others, it will mean powering it up and selecting redundant mode in the setup menu. No Cat5 cables will be connected until each piece of gear is verified to be in redundant mode.

But it’s not time to connect anything yet. The next step is to set up the switches. It’s important to get the QoS settings correct, build VLANs, configure settings for wireless use and disable energy efficient modes. This is all best done without anything connected to the switch. In fact, the next time I do it, I’ll be programming switches in the office before heading out to the field. 

Wire Primary First, Test

Once everything is configured properly, and we’ve triple-checked to be sure everything is in redundant mode, we will wire up the primary network side and make sure that all works. The system will function just fine on just the primary network, and this is the time to mount all stage racks to consoles, make sure signal is flowing between devices and the system is functioning as expected. 

If everything checks out with just the primary network connected, then it’s time to connect the secondary network. If everything was configured properly, nothing should happen. If the system freaks out when you plug in a device’s secondary port, you have the streams crossed somewhere. At that point, disconnect the secondary, power cycle everything and check your settings again. 

Once you get everything working with both networks, you can test the failover by pulling the primary from one device. Audio should keep on flowing and stay working when you plug primary back in.

Label Well

The take away for us on this install was to make sure everything was labeled well once we got it all working. We further hosed ourselves during trouble shooting by accidentally plugging a primary port into a secondary switch. I didn’t do it for that install, but in figure ones, I will even use different colors for the Cat5e cables and patch cords to make sure the two networks stay separate. And I’ll standardize on those colors so as we build networks all over the country, we will always know what is primary and secondary. 

It’s Not That Hard, Just Different

I know a lot of people are afraid of the digital network revolution in sound systems. It’s true that when we used big copper snakes, it was a little easier to troubleshoot things like bad cables and improper patches. However, we still had to make sure the system was wired correctly with regard to polarity. We still had to pay attention to power and grounding. The transition between balanced and unbalanced connections still had to be handled properly. There were plenty of places for things to go horribly wrong. The biggest difference was we could typically physically see the problem. 

In the networked world, we can have problems that we can’t physically see. The problems can exist inside a switch and it takes a different set of troubleshooting skills to figure it out. But it’s not really all that hard once you do it a few times and get some basic knowledge of the system. Yamaha actually has some great information on setting up network systems and switches, and I highly recommend you check it out before you set up your first Dante network. This post is not meant to be an exhaustive guide, just an overview. 

It’s a brave new world out there, folks. I’ve been saying for a few years that our job as technical artists will involve a lot more network skills. Now is the time to beef up that skill set!

Roland

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