Home -> Educational Articles Index -> Speakers & Amplifiers for Houses of Worship Seating Less than 1,000 - Part 1/4

Speakers & Amplifiers for Houses of Worship
Seating Less Than 1,000

Blake A. Engel, All Church Sound
edited by Joseph De Buglio, JdB Sound, Acoustics


This is the full length version of the article published in the June 2003 (premier) issue of Religious Product News magazine. The web version posted on their site had been edited by their editors to fit in the space allotted; the print version of the magazine had been edited once again and eliminated a few other key sections.

Part 1

One could write a lengthy book on the subject of speakers, and another on amplifiers—no need to do so, however, it’s already been done more than once! I find many people in the church community don’t know the basics when it comes to what it takes to determine the proper speaker or amplifier for their church sanctuary. While there are many variables to consider, I’d like to cover a few basic issues that require consideration. Here’s a few points to keep in mind throughout your reading of this article.

    1. The acoustics of the room determines how well any audio reinforcement system can work
    2. Speaker location determines if the system is great or just mediocre.
    3. Speaker choice shouldn’t be made based on brand name or what everyone else uses.
    4. Amplifier choice is nearly as important to the system as the speaker choice and location in achieving a great system.

Acoustics First
First of all, you can’t choose a speaker or speaker system for your sanctuary unless you have an intimate knowledge of the condition of the acoustical environment. That is to say, the acoustics of the room determines how well any speaker will perform in the room. Put a great speaker in a great room, and you have great results. Put a great speaker in a poor room, and you have poor results. It can’t be stressed enough that the acoustics of the room places limits on how good the speaker system will perform and how good it’ll sound. Of course, the acoustical condition of the room also determines how well the choir will sound, how well the piano and organ will sound, how well the congregation sings, and how well people understand the minister.

There are thousands of different speakers made for live sound use. Of these, only a portion should ever be considered for use in a church. If the acoustics are good, you can choose from many of the available models. If the acoustics are poor, you’re limited to selecting from a very small group of speakers that often cost quite a bit.

The argument is, you either spend a ton of money on expensive speakers that will work in a poor acoustical environment, or spend much less money on the speakers and fix the acoustical problems. If you go the route of the expensive speakers and leaving the room bad, then the only time people will be able to hear properly is when the audio system is used (assuming the system was designed and installed correctly). This means that smaller events held in the sanctuary that don’t need any audio reinforcement will have to continue suffering with the poor sound in the room. This would apply to small weddings and funerals, kids’ choir rehearsals, youth choir rehearsals, adult choir rehearsals, drama rehearsals, praise band and soloist rehearsals and even organ and piano rehearsals or recitals. Putting in the very expensive audio system can help only the times when it’s being used. It does nothing to address the fundamental problem – the room itself.

The other option is to fix the room. Just the other day I heard from my associate Joseph De Buglio of another church who had called to tell him of their joy with the acoustical work they did per his recommendations. They told him the sound system was terrific sounding and had a lot of gain before feedback they had never had before. Thing is, they were talking about the OLD sound system, the one they were in the process of totally upgrading! The only complaint they had was that since they were now able to really turn up the gain on some of the mics, they heard a radio station in the system. Well, the radio station had always been there, they had just never been able to run the gain as high as they could now. In other instances, improving the acoustics of a sanctuary results in the congregation thinking a new organ and sound system had been installed.

Taking the time to understand the acoustical situation in your sanctuary and addressing it correctly goes a long way in ensuring every sound event will be heard the way it should be. This means rehearsals go quicker because there’s no “could you repeat that?” or problems with timing. The pianist and organist can play together better, the drummer can beat as hard as he or she wants yet it won’t be overwhelming in the room. The minister can take 3 steps back from the pulpit, talk in a normal voice, and everyone in the congregation will be able to hear him because the acoustics are so good, the audio system can work the way it was designed to. Those with hearing loss will again be able to hear and understand what’s said because the noise and interference from the poor acoustical situation has been remedied. And finally, when the finance committee chairperson pleads with the congregation to help raise funds for a special project, people won’t bring in jar after jar of honey!

Speaker Placement
If you don’t have this little detail correct, you won’t have a good system no matter what you paid for the equipment or how good it looks. If the speakers are in the wrong location, it makes the rest of the system sound mediocre even if the rest of the equipment is very, very high quality. In a typical mono system, speakers mounted to the left and right of the platform like a bad habit are just that—a bad habit. Such systems introduce dead spots and poor intelligibility—which results in listeners fatigue (or putting people to sleep). Speakers mounted in the four corners of a sanctuary make the problems of a typical left-right system seem bearable. Sitting near the rear of such rooms results in your eyes telling you the sound source is in front of you, yet your ears tell you it’s behind you. Talk about confusion! Improperly designed distributed systems can have the same effect.

What about pew-mounted systems? If you put enough money into one, use quality speakers and get all of the delay settings done properly, such a system can work for a speech only system. (In reality, such a high-quality system is rarely done based on the extreme expense.) As soon as any music is done, you’re going to struggle unless the system is turned off. Remember, electricity flows a whole lot faster through wire than sound waves travel through the air. Even with the delays set so the speech system works great, it’s just not right when it comes to music and congregational singing. Such systems are not worth the expense and problems for churches to invest in them.

All right, so if the speakers aren’t supposed to be mounted to the left and right of the platform, in the four corners, or on the pews, where should they go?, The short answer is that the speaker(s) should be mounted overhead, usually a few feet in front of the pulpit, centered left-to-right in the room. This is commonly referred to as a “cluster” or “point source speaker system”. This method ensures even sound coverage from front to back, and proper localization for the original sound source. Remember, God placed our ears on the side of our head; we can tell the direction of sound very well on the horizontal plane, but not in the vertical plane. Therefore, your brain will combine the visual input from your eyes and the audio input from your ears and let you know that the minister’s voice is indeed coming from him, while the speaker system is actually 25 or 35 feet above your head. The exact location of the speaker(s) is determined by the size and shape of the room, location of the platform and seating, plus the sound pressure levels required and other such factors.

Now, for rooms with a ceiling that’s lower than 18-feet, other methods must be used. This usually includes some form of a distributed system. Some rooms need only a couple delayed fill speakers to cover the most rear seating sections, other rooms must employ many rows of speakers, each one with a different signal delay time set for it. Such systems cost quite a bit of money, consider the quantity of speakers and amplifiers. Although most distributed system use smaller speakers than used in a cluster system, there are many of them, and many amplifiers, cables, and delay equipment is needed. In some cases, the cost difference can be as much as two or three times the cost compared to if the ceiling were another 15-feet higher.

Just as there’s a sweetspot in a home theater system or recording studio, there’s a sweetspot in every church sanctuary. The difference is that in the recording studio or home theater, the sweetspot is where you should sit to hear the best stereo sound. Live sound is always mono, but coming from different sources. In a church, the sweetspot is where the speaker should be placed to project mono sound into the largest area to achieve a greater level of intelligibility. This spot is typically very easy to find with two people. Hey, if you can gain one or two percent extra intelligibility by just putting the speaker in the right place, why not? This is a free upgrade! Don’t miss out on this important aspect. More information on the sweetspot can be read here.

If you’re working with new construction, the acoustics of the room should be dictating the size and location of the platform. This ensures a better environment for audio. You can’t design a room and then drop in platform and seating to make it look good; this isn’t using the knowledge we have about the laws of physics to your advantage. When you begin down the road of choosing the correct speaker(s) for your room, you must determine how much coverage is needed. How wide and how deep is your room? Will one speaker suffice, or will you need two, three, or more? If you room has a low ceiling and is deep, you’ll need extra speakers (often referred to as “delayed speakers”) to fill in the middle and rear seating areas.

Click here for Part 2