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The Problems with Low Ceilings - Does your church have one?

Blake Engel, All Church Sound


Does your church sanctuary have a low ceiling? A low ceiling is one that's less than fifteen feet high (even a 15 foot ceiling isn't all that high!).

Why does it even matter how high the ceiling is? A high ceiling means wasted heating in the winter, that's for sure. A high ceiling also means there's a lot of unusable (wasted) space, too. So why even consider having a high ceiling in a church sanctuary? ACOUSTICS & THE SOUND SYSTEM, that's why. First, the sound system. Take a look at figure 1, an elevation (side) view of a typical church sanctuary with a 35' (high) ceiling.

With a central cluster mounted at the peak, people on the edges in the first five rows are covered by some small fill speakers, while the rest of the congregation is covered by the main system speaker. Based on distance and amplifier adjustments, everyone in the pews hears the sound at about the same level (±3dB). Figure 2 shows the plan, or overhead view of the same room/system.

This simple system uses 3 speakers and two amplifiers (one amp bridged for the main speaker, the other operating in stereo mode for the fill speakers). The speakers and amplifiers only, not including the mounting, is about $3,700.00. Now take a look at figure 3 which shows an elevation view of a typical church sanctuary with a 12' (low) ceiling. We can see that several speakers are required to cover the same depth room properly. Not only are several speakers required front to back, but also side-to-side. Figure 4 shows the rows of speakers required to properly cover the width of the room. This system (in a room with the same length and width as the previous system, but with a lower ceiling) requires 16 speakers and 4 amplifiers. Not only that, but the system requires a digital delay on the second and third row of speakers. The speakers, amplifiers, and cable will run about $6,500.00. That's quite a bit more than the system installed in the high-ceiling sanctuary, isn't it?

To get good sound in a low-ceiling room, you need to spend a lot of money on equipment and acoustics. A low ceiling sanctuary results in poor acoustics when used for congregational singing and acoustic music. It's often times a better idea to re-build and raise the ceiling of the room by 5 to 10 feet instead of spending so much money on the sound system equipment and acoustics.

Low-ceiling sanctuaries are typically built by smaller congregations who build a new church. Because they're small, there isn't much money to spend on things like high ceilings. For that matter, there's usually not much money available for a proper sound system. The church grows, someone decides they need an upgraded sound system, and then they find out it costs too much (based on the low ceiling problem) to have it installed. The church will then typically turn to members who know a little about electronics and have them put in a system based on good intentions. Visitors who are used to their home high-fidelity sound systems come and can't even understand the pastors message, so they don't come back-and the church stays small. This doesn't happen in every small church, but it happens in enough of them to be a problem.

The solution? Avoid building a church sanctuary with a low ceiling. Talk to an acoustical expert before going to an architect.