"It was so hard to hear, I gave up."

Recently, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine who is the media coordinator at a church I once worked at part-time. He had received a letter from a congregant expressing frustration after a recent service. It seems this congregant had brought his parents, neither of whom are Christ-followers. After the service, his father said, "I didn't get much out of that. I don't think that guy was a good speaker. It was so hard to hear him, after a while, I just gave up." That has to be the height of frustration for someone who brings a friend or family member to church. You finally get them to come, and they can't hear. Terrific.

The obvious first response is that the sound guy should have turned up the speaker. That may be true, but I've mixed in that room, and with some of the pastors, you're dancing on a thin line that divides inaudible from feedback. The problem is twofold (maybe three, we'll see if I feel like tackling issue three).

First, and this is a problem in many churches, schools and theaters, people on stage tend to believe that because they have a mic on, they don't need to project above a whisper. Their theory is that the mic will amplify their meekest musings to a mighty roar. Rubbish, I say! At best, this line of thinking is ignorant; at worst it's laziness. Here's the deal: If you're a public speaker, learn how to speak! And I don't mean how to form words with your mouth and tongue. I mean learn how to speak in such a way that if the power went out, the person in the back row would not have to strain to hear what you have to say. And before you even think about telling me this is impossible, remember that PA systems in the church have only been around for about 30-40 years. Before that preachers had to preach. Billy Sunday preached to thousands at a time, outside, with no PA. Jesus taught 5,000+ on a hillside with no PA. Heck, I've witnessed a 90 pound, 14 year-old girl fill an auditorium that seated 800 people, and sing over an orchestra with no PA!  So you can do it.

The thing is, we as sound guys, can always turn you down. There is a limit however, as to how much we can turn you up. It's not because we don't want to, it's the laws of physics. There is a point in every room where amplification reaches a point of no return and the system will begin to howl like a train closing in on a stalled car on the tracks. And since every pastor and public speaker I know consider feedback an anathema, you need to give us something to work with. Which brings me to the second problem. The microphone.

The pastors at this church continue to insist on using the dreaded lavaliere mic. Lavs have their place to be sure (I use them all the time in video production), but on stage is not one of them. Again, the problem is physics. Allow me to delve into a little science lesson for you. We need to consider the inverse square law. The inverse square law simply states that for every doubling of the distance between the sound source and the mic, the acoustical energy is cut in half. That means it's half as loud. I have suggested to my friend that he try having the pastors wear an earset mic, such as the Countryman e6, or AT892, or DPA 4066. His response was, "Oh, the one they call they Brittany Spears mic? Yeah, tried that." 

OK, first of all, Brittany doesn't wear an e6. In fact, the e6 is practically invisible. And if you're concerned about what a mic like that looks like, well, get over it. Back to our science lesson for the why. Now, consider that a properly fitted e6 (or similar) mic will place the microphone element approximately 1/2 inch from the speaker's mouth. The best case scenario for a lav is going to put it at least 4 inches away (and under the chin). Now, let's apply the inverse square law and see what we find. For the purposes of illustration, we'll say that the sound level at the lavaliere is 10 (it's not, I'm simply using this number to make the math easy). When we cut the distance from 4 inches to 2, the sound level doubles, making it 20. When we cut the distance from 2 inches to 1 inch, it doubles again; now we're at 40. Cut the distance to 1/2", where we find our earset mic, and it doubles again, this time to 80. So simply moving the mic element from 4 inches to 1/2 inch away from the mouth, we've achieved an eightfold increase in sound level! 

If you don't think that's significant, let me put it another way. What would be the impact on your ministry if you suddenly started receiving an eightfold increase in offerings? Do I have your attention now? By giving your sound guy eight times (8 times!) the sound energy to work with, that radically changes the amount of amplification that can occur before the dreaded feedback happens. That means he (or she) now has a chance to turn you up so people in the back row can hear.

Finally, if we combine those two solutions (talking louder and wearing the proper mic), no one has to strain to hear what you're saying. I don't think I know of a pastor who works hard all week on a sermon, yet doesn't care if anyone hears it or not. The whole point of preaching in the first place is to impart God's truth to your hearers. Yet, if they can't hear, what's the point? Telling someone to buy the CD or listen online is not an acceptable solution. Get with the program, learn to speak properly and wear the right mic. There I said it. Let the e-mail and comments come!

I mentioned that there were possible three causes for this problem. Since I'm on a roll, we'll dive into that as well. In this case, there are issues with the room's acoustics as well as the speaker system. Simply put, neither are optimal. As I  said, I've mixed in that room, and I've gotten it to sound pretty good. Still there are some incredible standing waves and resonant frequencies that have to be dramatically notched out in order to keep feedback at bay. Doing this cuts a big chunk out of the audio spectrum, and really hurts intelligibility. The room is also rather reverberant, which makes it harder to localize sound. 

We have this problem (only much, much worse) at CPC. I've been lobbying for acoustic treatment and new speakers since before I started. And it's not just so we can play the rock music louder at Upper Room. It's so the 80 year-old grandma in the traditional service can hear the morning message clearly without straining. In my friend's church, the much needed acoustic treatment has been rejected due to the way it looks. Again I say, get over it. If you're more concerned about the way your room looks that making sure people can hear, you've got bigger issues than sound problems. Not only that, acoustic treatment doesn't have to be ugly. 

Of course, this can all be avoided by designing and building the room properly in the first place. If you're getting ready to build a worship space, stop what you're doing, and hire a highly qualified (and probably expensive) acoustician to look at the plans. Then give him or her free reign to fix them. Skip this step at your own peril. Failure to get the design and build right will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars. And you will get letters like the ones referenced above.