The explosive growth of the multi site model for churches in America has created a whole new world for sound engineers. We have moved from acoustically designed, built from the ground up, sanctuaries to pre-existing buildings of many kinds that were never intended for live audio. My home church has two campuses that are both re-purposed warehouse spaces. I am lucky enough to get to speak into how our spaces are outfitted for sound and media, but even in our spaces you cannot eliminate all of the obstacles this kind of space presents.
Sound techs are at the mercy of the environment they serve in. If you find yourself in a space re-purposed for church and are often struggling to get a great sound I have good news for you! There are a few simple things you can do to maximize the mix.
1. In Ear Monitoring
This can be a hard one to execute as it does require purchasing some equipment and a slight learning curve. However this does not require thousands and thousands of dollars. The key is building a package within your budget while simultaneously preparing your musician’s for the change. As long as they understand the technical need for a reference monitor your largest complaint will probably be a feeling of disconnect from the church body during worship. Your musicians do not need 4 driver custom molded in ears in order to effectively use an in ear system. What you’ll get in return is a lot less noise in your worship space. Floor wedges and stage monitors will always increase your sound pressure level even if they are pointed at the back wall. Depending on the construction of your building they can even create problems with flattening a room if you’re not careful. Once the only thing pushing amplified sound in a room are the main speakers you’ll have increased your clarity by lowering the SPL of the space.
2. Control the Source
Regardless of what type of musical setup you have there are really only two types of sound sources in any audio environment. Either direct or microphone sources. Direct sources such as keyboards or acoustic guitars are your best friend in an acoustically challenged room. Things such as electric guitars, acoustic drums, and vocalists all utilize microphones. But they also produce sound outside of the PA system. Vocalists are of no concern unless you have a real quiet or real loud singer. In those cases you just have to work with the vocalist to produce the best sound for your room. However guitars and drums will create a large amount of room noise for your system to conflict with. If your micing guitar amps take a few bucks and build an insulated enclosure to sit the amp in. If you have acoustic drums then you NEED a drum shield at the very least, especially when it comes to the high frequency symbols. The higher the frequency the louder it will be perceived and the farther it will travel. If you can remove any overpowering noise from the room being produced outside of the system your level of control will drastically increase.
3. Mix it Loud
Ahhhhh yeah! This is my favorite. I am from the “Let’s turn it to 11” club and so this tip brings my heart joy. For my fellow sound engineers who like to push the volume envelope I have come bearing some sound science to back up what you’ve been saying all along! You see different frequencies are perceived by the human ear at different volume levels. High frequencies at unity will sound painfully loud while lower frequencies will sound much quieter in volume. Couple this with the fact that the lower frequencies are less reflective than the higher frequencies and it becomes clear that one of the most effective ways to mask the acoustical problems of a room is an increase in sound pressure. Here is how it works: Everyone’s ears can only hear so much sound at any given time. When you put them into a room where the higher frequencies are bouncing around and the lower frequencies are attenuating much faster it becomes harder to mix evenly. But if you increase the overall SPL of the mix running through the speakers you can overpower the natural acoustic problems of a space by filling up the hearing bandwidth of a person with the sounds you want instead of the sounds you fight. Louder is better because we can kind of trick people’s ears. Basically if we make it louder it sounds better because people hear more of it and less of the problems the room creates.
If you apply these three things you should hear immediate results that create the clarity and presence you’re searching for. You may find some opposition, but if your persistent with explaining the benefits and wise with your purchases they are simple solutions to some of the problems re-purposed spaces present.