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.
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.
It’s been a while since we’ve discussed everyone’s favorite live sound topic in the church; volume! Almost nothing will get people fired up more than trying to figure out how loud to run a service. If you ask 10 people in the congregation, you’re liable to get 11 answers. When I was a TD regularly mixing, I would get complaints from some people that it was too loud and from others that it wasn’t loud enough. And that was for the same service. The reality is, it will be almost impossible to please everyone in the congregation when it comes to volume. However, there are some things that we need to know before we even enter into the conversation.
It May Be a Style Thing
A service mixed at 85 dBA SPL 10 second average may be too loud for someone if they don’t like Hillsong-style worship music. But that same person may have no problem with a pipe organ cranking away at 105 dBA SPL 10 second average. Some people see guitars on stage and say, “It’s too loud!” even if the guitars aren’t playing. Before you get into a heated argument about actual level, make sure you’re really talking about volume.
It May Be a Mix Balance Thing
I’m an old guy now, but I still like music reasonably loud for worship. However, I’m not digging the current trend to make the kick and bass the lead vocal. I’ve heard several mixes—if they can be called mixes—where pretty much all I could hear (and feel) was the kick and bass. No vocals, no guitar, no keys, no anything else. And the low end was flappy and all over the place anyway. But for some reason, that’s how the guy mixed it. In all of those cases, the mix was too loud for me. It was just plain unpleasant to listen to. I really wouldn’t have mattered if it was 100 dB or 85 dB.
I’ve also heard a few rooms where the system was tuned with so much energy in the 1-4 KHz range that it felt like an ice pick to the forehead. Again, it doesn’t really matter what level we’re talking about at that point, it’s too loud. This is where an RTA can be really helpful to see what’s going on in the room. If you see a big hump in the middle of the frequency range, you need to fix that because you’re going to get complaints.
At that point, you have to figure out if it’s your mix or system tuning. But either way, you need to fix it.
It May Be a Acoustic Instrument Thing
Live drums are generally pretty loud. When churches put a full drum kit on a stage in a small room with all hard surfaces, the drums are going to be loud. In fact, they will probably louder than you want without even putting them in the PA. And you can’t turn them down at that point. I’m not going to go into how to solve that problem here (we’ve talked about that already—search for it), but those cymbals can be a chief source of complaints. Similarly, if you have guitar amps or bass amps on stage, they can often overpower the PA if the musicians aren’t disciplined.
In this case, it actually is too loud. If you have to run the level of the mix higher than you ordinarily would just to make it work with the drums or guitars on stage, you have some work to do. Floor wedges can present a similar challenge. When I arrived at Coast Hills, when I turned off the main PA and measured just the stage wash, we were at about 86-88 dBA at FOH 90 feet away. At that time, our volume limit was 88 dB at FOH. I was pretty much done, so I went home.
No, I didn’t go home, but you can see the challenge. It took a lot of energy, time and no small amount of money to fix that issue. But we did.
The point of this article is to get you thinking about volume in a different way. It’s a much more nuanced problem than just what the Radio Shack SPL meter says. Or worse, the uncalibrated SPL app that everyone has on their phone. And by the way, the next time someone walks up, phone in hand telling you how loud it is, just ask them when the last time they calibrated their phone to an industry standard reference calibration. Then show them the calibration page and ask them where their calibration source is. That usually settles them down.
Before you go getting into an argument about how loud it is, make sure you identify the real problem. What’s your favorite volume-related issue?