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Why your venue has more effect on congregational participation than your sound system

At the heart of every good sounding speaker system, is a good sounding venue.

Often people get so focussed on the microphone, or the EQ that they forget what has the biggest impact on the quality of the sound: the venue. Perhaps you could think of it this way; if I take £1m of speakers into St Paul’s Cathedral, it is still going to sound echoey. Except now it’s a very expensive echo!

The real question is: how much echo is too much? Of course, the answer to that is: it depends!

Singing vs preaching

Well, what do we do in church buildings? Broadly speaking, we have congregational singing and we listen to a preacher. Unfortunately, these two elements are in opposition to each other.

Thinking first about the preaching; or any spoken word come to that. The best reference we have for this is a school classroom. There are very strict regulations in a classroom about how echoey the room is allowed to be; this is all outlined in the BB93 regulations. The principle is, the less reverb, the better. If it’s really echoey in the building then it can be really hard to hear what’s being said. As soon as we amplify the spoken word, it just gets harder to understand as we are exciting the room with more energy.

What is interesting is that this dry acoustic experience (no reverb) is really good for contemporary music. Inherently, many of the songs we sing are based around a pop-song: tight punchy drum sounds, definition to the vocals, a very obvious groove and beat to the song. So this really dry room is fantastic at supporting this contemporary musical style.

So if I can get rid of all the reverb in the church everything will be Ok?

Err, no. I’m afraid not. Actually, if you take out all the ‘life’ from the room it will be anything but good; if you want people to be able to join in that is. Which is what Church is all about isn’t it?

The reason why everyone loves singing in the bathroom is the ‘vibe’ you get back from the room. There’s a natural reverb that is generated in the bathroom (usually due to the tiled walls) that makes people want to sing. But if you stood in a cupboard, you wouldn’t have the same experience. The same is true when you go back to the larger church space: if the building has a natural reverb, the congregation get the ‘vibe’ back from the venue and are encouraged to sing. Take that vibe away and people switch off. It’s not about how good the songs are, or how good the band are playing, or the quality of the sound mix; it’s the room that has the most profound psychological effect on congregational participation.

Of course, many of our Churches have a strong choral or orchestral tradition in their worship. This style of music is often very flowing and legato. A venue with a pronounced reverb will support this particular art.

The real challenge is to find a balance in the venue: too much reverb and you will struggle for intelligibility in your spoken word and definition in contemporary music. Too little and the venue sounds flat and people will be discouraged from participating.

Tim Horton is the Sales and Installations Manager at SFL Group and co-presents Musicademy’s Sound Tech and PA Training for Churches DVDs. The DVDs teach the concept of the hierarchy of importance in considerable depth along with many other Sound Tech related topics.