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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

To Mic or Not to Mic



  • · What is it?
  • Who needs it?
  • · When is it mandatory?
  • · When is it manipulative?
  • · When is it beneficial?

Currently, many American churches use sound reinforcement for EVERY aspect of the corporate worship service. Although pianists, organists, or singers may be well-trained at blending and adjusting volume, often the modern preference for sound amplification trumps their best efforts. Likewise, when preaching becomes an irritation to the ear rather than simply audible, often poor sound reinforcement is the culprit. If ambience in a naturally reverberant church is looked upon as an enemy, rather than as a friend to the worship experience, something is out of order. In such cases, the leadership may eliminate natural ambience for public speech, often denying the congregation a wonderful experience of liturgy in live acoustics. There are good solutions to every acoustical and audio dilemma, if we take the time to study the situation and put effective methods for sound enjoyment into action. When we do it well, a minor miracle takes place –-the natural ambience of a room combines with natural musical and spoken sound and everyone is edified to the glory of God.

What is it?

Sound reinforcement is a synonym for sound enhancement to compensate for obvious deficiencies. Among the deficiencies are

  • poor room acoustics –too much reverberation for speech; too little reverberation for organ and choir
  • unclear speech –poorly trained lectors or readers, children and youth in worship, adults whose training is more on content in sermons or lessons, and not delivery.
  • unbalanced musical forces –choristers who blast above their fellows, organists who crank out too many decibels for the choir or soloists, and any imbalance between shared forces
  • any combination of deficiencies

Although I am opposed to the use of microphones for live performance of classical, traditional sacred music, there are times when it is necessary. Why is it? Because of obvious deficiencies making the music inaudible or distorted.

Who needs it?

Excessive use of microphones in worship betrays a general lack of understanding about sound emission. In more reverberant acoustics, a sound becomes part of the ambience of a hall or sanctuary very naturally, without reinforcement. In ideal acoustics of 2-3 seconds dispersed evenly throughout a room, trained musicians have no problem adjusting articulation and dynamics to achieve clarity and balance. Unfortunately, the current generation is addicted to ‘studio’ or ‘living room’ acoustics as the ideal setting for worship. Even worse, we have devised little earphones to tune in our favorite songs from personal listening devices, making us intolerant of things that come from a distance. When a parishioner in today’s churches comes forward and complains they ‘just cannot hear the words’ it may be due to an acute need for sonic intimacy not achievable in a large auditorium. But is clarity possible? Award-winning acoustical consultant Scott Riedel writes “For the most part, the acoustical architecture, and not a sound system, is the preferred vehicle for carrying sacred music to all listeners.” (“Fundamentals of Church Acoustics”)

Moreover, audio volunteers and helpers may seek to use whatever is available to remedy this ‘unclear’ sound. Many sound systems are too sophisticated for any but the trained audio engineer. Larger congregations who can afford very fine equipment and staff are often unwittingly persuaded that the sound system is their primary vehicle for a good ‘worship mix.’ Taken together, the result is often a musical sound that is very different from the one produced on the chancel platform.

In most cases, effective sound reinforcement is a complement, rather than an enemy, to the natural acoustic qualities of a hall or sanctuary. When church pastors, music directors, organists, and parishioners learn that no amount of equipment can substitute for the natural ambience required for balanced preaching, singing or anything else, the manipulation will cease. Meanwhile, we have much confusion about sound emission in corporate worship.

When is it mandatory?

Generally, sound reinforcement is mandatory for public speech and useful for certain styles of contemporary music. To pretend that reinforcement is mandatory for every movement of sound from the chancel or front platform to the congregation, is to miss the wonder of natural sound emission in a good acoustic. Granted, very few newly built churches get it right. There is usually some imbalance that has to be corrected. The advice of a good acoustical consultant who is experienced with churches is invaluable in designing surface treatments to correct poor acoustics. One church acoustician in Japan has made the observation that

Despite the importance of making room for the special acoustical characteristics of church sanctuaries, connections between the field of acoustical design and church projects have been all too sparse and weak. There are too many examples of large sums of money spent on churches in ways that diminish sanctuaries' acoustical quality, or where acoustical building materials have been misused, or doors and windows designed and installed without concern for the basics of sound insulation, or HVAC systems decided without a thought about noise control. When I see or learn of these examples, I can only regret that these churches' leaders and administrators did not consult with a professional acoustical consultant during the planning stage of their construction or renovation.

Quoted from “Church Acoustics” by Dr. Minoru Nagata

When is it manipulative?

There are many cases of American congregations who have installed sound reinforcement systems that carry the spoken word adequately throughout the room. Many more, however, have invested in an audio system that is far too sophisticated and powerful for their actual needs. In other congregations, nearly every aspect of corporate worship is subject to manipulation, even to the point of rendering the musical elements distorted and irritating. Indeed, for musicians, sound manipulation often projects an undesirable image. A singer whose amateur voice is boosted beyond all reasonable expectation of volume is, to the trained ear, a manipulation of the original sound. Even to untrained listeners, too much amplification can be distracting in any setting, especially in corporate worship. Again, Scott Riedel makes the point:

To rely on electronic systems rather than architectural acoustics for classic and traditional musical forms can be to function contrary to the desire of the composer, musician, and listener.*

When is it beneficial?

Auditorium acoustics are optimized for both speech and singing

Careful planning with a qualified acoustical consultant is not only a good investment in the new building project, but tends toward dynamic and enjoyable corporate worship. In the case of a pipe organ installation, reverberation not only maximizes the organ’s capability of ‘ringing’ the room; modest reverberation of between 2 and 2.5 seconds is quite manageable. The best acoustics are ideal for speech, choral and instrumental music, congregational singing and reading. Ideally, the best scenario is for the acoustical consultant cooperating with organ builder, musicians, building committee, architect, and anyone else connected to the project. Cooperation around the basic concepts of design and sound emission, noise control, and speech/music enhancement have worked in hundreds of churches in America.

All parties work together in a cooperative effort to support principles of good acoustics

Given the current confusion, beneficial use of acoustically intelligent sound reinforcement is a remote hope. Yet a willing team of congregation, staff, building committee, acoustical engineer, determined to pursue wisdom in this matter, can sponsor excellent sound management. Few churches have followed this paradigm, unfortunately. That does not prevent a church facing these problems from pursuing such wisdom.

When you walk into a beautiful sanctuary, take into account not only the visual impact of the room, but LISTEN to the quality of its sound. As the musicians play, is their sound unforced and balanced? As the choir sings, is their quality unforced, do individual voices rise above the entire ensemble, and is the text at least mostly audible? As the readers read and the preacher preaches, is the sound gently boosted, so that no distortion of treble or bass spoils the best qualities of the human voice? Listen patiently, and measure your own expectations against the present realities. Hopefully the sounds of corporate worship should comingle with the natural ambience of a well-tuned room, resulting in true beauty. Scott Riedel summarizes what a well-tuned room ‘sounds’ like:

Composers and musicians expect and require a natural and architectural acoustical setting to reinforce, blend, support and project musical production. Typically, a good architectural setting for musicians implies a rather high ratio of sound reflecting materials, and proximity between musicians. This type of architectural acoustical environment not only assists musical ensembles (whether they be choirs, instrumentalists or divisions of organ pipes) to work together, but also creates a sense of architectural fit, realism, and presence for the listener.*

Written by Terry Yount, DMA

October, 2009

* Scott Riedel in “Acoustics in the Worship Space”. Subtitle: Can't microphones fix any acoustical problem?

1 comment:

musonics said...

I'm glad to have stumbled on this site tonight. Very interesting perspective and another voice in the wilderness. There seem to be two distinct camps of church musicians: those who use mics and those who don't.

You might be interested in this publication.

Since these articles were originally written in the context of hymn singing, I don't think that any of us even mentions microphones. It is an interesting look at acoustics from different perspectives.

Thanks for your article. I'm sending it along to several kindred spirits.