Sound Systems for Better Sunday Worship
It is Rick Kamlet’s job to help religious communities communicate. As senior director for installed sound at JBL Professional, he has worked with many of the country’s megachurches, helping them find the right combination of speakers, microphones, amplifiers, and mixing boards to get their message out into the world, or at least out into the far reaches of the sanctuary. He has also written many articles for publications like Technologies for Worship and Church Production.
Kamlet is also a founding member of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Santa Clarita, Calif., and he has a strong interest in improving UU sound systems. It will probably come as no surprise that a professional soundman believes that many of us can sound better than we do on Sunday morning.
“When it comes to communication technology and style, many of our churches are decades behind,” he says. “For example, most of the audio systems in our churches are so basic that we don’t even provide sound that is intelligible to all the audience. There is usually no video presentation technology, even just for projecting words to hymns and readings, to get people’s heads up in a sense of community. And because of this, we start behind the eight ball and have to work harder to get people into a spiritual mindset. I think the denomination should embark on a focused effort to get us up to 21st-century technology. It’s nice to go into a well-designed, inspirational, worship space, and good sound is a big part of that.”
He adds, “Psychologically, it has been shown that good sound makes people rate the event around them as being more worthwhile. And it makes them want to come back and participate in more events. But if people have to strain to understand what’s being said they may rate the program as less relevant to them. They might, or might not, make the connection with poor sound quality being the source of their discomfort.”
Here are the problems Kamlet typically sees in UU sound systems:
- Home hi-fi speakers: “Home speakers are designed to work properly in a living room space, not a church, and not in places with live microphones. Home speakers lack pattern control, and the sound bounces around. People have to listen harder to understand words. Music clarity is diminished. Home speakers also get driven pretty hard and that can cause distortion. Use professional speakers designed to provide pattern control, minimize feedback, and cover the listening area evenly even when pushed hard.
- Speaker placement: Kamlet says placing speakers behind microphones causes speakers to project sound directly into the microphones, creating feedback and muddying the sound. Locate them more forward, projecting sound to the listeners. If speakers are only at the front of the room the front rows can get blown away. Adding “delay-fill” speakers partway back and pointed in the same direction as the front speakers means that listeners will hear the sound from them at the same time they hear the front speakers. The front speakers can be turned down.
- In a large room, don’t place speakers around the perimeter, all pointing in. This leads to garbled sound, because everyone hears the sound from every speaker, but at slightly different times. For small rooms the time offsets are smaller and not a problem.
- Cheap microphones: “Garbage in, garbage out.” They also cause more feedback.
- 1970s sound systems: “Today there are signal processors, which can even out the voice of a minister who keeps turning away from the microphone, then leaning in to it. There are mixers . . . that can remove the boominess from a voice. There are loudspeakers with excellent pattern control.”
Kamlet notes that many congregations do not have Assistive Listening Systems to help those with impaired hearing. It is also relatively easy now to send sound to the “cry room” and other locations.
Mike Reilly’s experience will also be helpful to congregations. A member of the UU Church of Fresno, Calif., he designed the sound system when the congregation moved into a new building in 2007. An engineer by training, and a performing musician turned sound technician, he decided it was better to tackle the task himself than to see the congregation end up with a multimillion-dollar building and a poor sound system. In his research he found the following quote that he has embraced: “Most congregations end up with three sound systems. They have the one some well-meaning member put together. Then they get one that improves on that. And then they end up paying for one that really works well.” He adds, “My intention at Fresno was to land between the latter two.”
His advice: Buy the best you can afford. For the new building he had a budget of $12,000, which he used to buy the following: a 32-channel mixer board, two 15-inch Yamaha speakers, two Yamaha stage monitor speakers, two Yamaha 400-watt two-channel amplifiers, six EV Dynamic microphones, six Shure 57 microphones, six hanging condenser mics, and some speakers and other microphones he brought from the old building. (And if you don’t understand all of that, someone in your congregation probably does.)
He noted that the construction of the building incorporated many of the wiring runs that a post-construction electronics setup would have had to include. “If they had been accomplished separately the cost of the system would likely have been more in the range of $18,000 total, rather than $12,000.”
After the system was up and running, the sound still wasn’t right. Reilly spent around $400 to buy a 2-channel, 32-band equalizer and another $400 to have a professional bring in a machine to “balance the frequency response” of the system in the space. “We found the space was naturally rolling up extra bass in the really low frequencies.” The technician was able to help them drop down those frequencies with the equalizer, balance the speakers, and then “lock down” the equalizer settings. In other words, Reilly says, “There’s a threat of death to anyone who moves the pretty slides on the EQ unit.”
Another tip from Reilly: Do not count on a sound check being accurate when the room is empty. “If you can put 200 people in the seats I can make this system sound pretty darn good. If you do a sound check in an empty room it will scare the heck out of you. I’ve learned our room over time and know that you can get just an approximation during sound check. You have to fine tune it when the room is full.”
Once he got the system performing in a consistent fashion, he also created a six-page detailed description of how to turn the church’s sound system on, how the various parts are connected, and how to set up the various microphones. He recommends that each congregation create its own document.
Some first steps a congregation can take:
Have the system evaluated by a knowledgeable professional, says Kamlet. “A good professional will ask about your services and programs and should not try to sell you a concert-type system simply because other churches may be using them. While we tend to rely on volunteer members of the congregation—and they may know what they’re doing—it’s usually best to have a professional evaluate it.”
He adds, “If you have a staff that does sound regularly, consider giving them a membership to SynAudCon online or sending them to a SynAudCon seminar to enhance their skills. Synaudcon is an organization that educates sound professionals and is especially good with church volunteers.”
Kamlet notes that finding a knowledgeable professional can be challenging. “There are no industry tests to take before calling yourself a sound professional.” The least expensive option is to visit a music store. “Some may specialize in churches, but keep in mind they make their money by selling products. Go visit the churches they’ve worked with.” Another option is to engage a “sound contractor,” also known as an AV Systems Integrator or just “systems integrator.” These people will give advice, sell you their products, and come set them up. A very large church, or one with a substantial audio budget, might go up another step and hire an independent audio consulting firm which will create a set of specifications that a church can use to get bids on a system.
Who should the Sound Team report to? Some answer to the Worship Committee, since most of their work is directed toward the worship experience. Other sound teams report to the church administrator or CEO.
“The quality of sound in our churches should reflect on the wonderful quality of our services and other programs,” Kamlet says. “We should provide sound that is clear and intelligible, sound that is not too soft and not too loud, sound that is consistent from seat-to-seat, sound that envelopes the congregation in wonderful sound quality. We should be providing sound that makes people want to stay longer, that makes them feel as if the program is speaking to them, and that makes them feel more involved with what’s going on at our churches.”
A more detailed list of Kamlet's recommendations is here. A PDF of the UU Church of Fresno’s six-page operations manual for its sound system is here. Use it as a template to create your own. For information on accessibility issues contact Equual Access, a UU group created to promote equality and access for UUs with disabilities. The Unitarian Universalist Association's Accessibility Handbook (PDF, page 55) has information on Assistive Listening Systems.