Churches are known for having bad sound. This is especially true of smaller churches without paid tech staff. This bad sound can be the result of bad equipment, good equipment that is improperly used or just a lack of caring about how things sound. This is really too bad. When someone comes to church and leaves exhausted because of really terrible sound, the church has done them a disservice. And, they’re unlikely to return. They may not even be able to articulate why they didn’t like it, but if you dig, you may discover they just couldn’t hear.
With that in mind, below are a few simple suggestions on how to improve your church’s sound system that can go a long way toward making the church-going experience a better one.
1. Flatten it out
The first way to improve your church’s sound system is an inexpensive fix. In fact, the best thing about this tip is that it’s not just inexpensive, it’s free. Very often, after months of mixing from the same scene or board setup, you’ll find far more EQ or compression than needed, EQ on the LR buss that really isn’t required and gain structure that is way off. I like to run a baseline show file or scene that resets the desk to a known good state each week, but if you pick up where you left off last week, zero it out once in a while. I have seen consoles with every gain knob at full cut and they wonder why it sounds so bad. Zero it out, and start over clean.
2. Have your PA professionally calibrated
I remember visiting a church to look at their system some years back. They had a 31-band equalizer between the mixer and the amps, and every single band was at 15 dB. Every. Single. Band. For even better sound, they also had an 8-band feedback eliminator in the chain that was also at full cut on every band. As you may imagine, it sounded amazing. When I inquired, they said the speakers were too loud so they turned down the EQ to make it quieter.
If that’s your idea of how to calibrate a PA, and improve your Church’s sound system it’s time to bring in a pro. If you don’t recognize the incredible amount of sarcasm in the previous paragraph, it’s time to bring in a pro. Or, if you’re not sure how to set up a crossover, time align subs to mains or make the delays seem completely transparent, it’s time to bring in a pro. I know many guys who can extend the life of a less than ideal PA by simply calibrating it properly. This gives the church time to save money for a properly designed and installed speaker system.
3. Train your audio engineers
If you want to improve your Church’s sound system sometimes the easiest thing to do it train your audio engineers. However, for some reason, very few churches want to do this. I’m not sure why, but I’m going to go with ignorance. There seems to be a lack of understanding on the part of leadership on just how hard it is to put together a good mix. Pastors have asked if I can come to their church (during the week) and “dial in their mix so the volunteers can just recall it every weekend.” While it is true I could create a baseline file that would give them a good starting point, it still has to be mixed. Mixing is a weird blend of art and science and if your people don’t know what they’re doing, you’ll never get good results.
I’ll never understand how a church is willing to spend $50,000, $100,000 or more on a new PA or console but balks at spending a few thousand dollars to bring in a top-notch pro to train their team. I was once asked if I could fly half-way across the country, spend a weekend with a volunteer team and train them. Happy to do so, I gave them the cost (about $3,000 including travel). The pastor sighed and said, “Hmmm, we budgeted $500.” Needless to say, I didn’t take them up on that generous offer.
4. Replace broken or damaged equipment
A friend of mine was rather unhappy about the sound of their speaker system. His displeasure was not unfounded, I had heard it and it sounded terrible. One day he decided to do some investigating. He sent me pictures of the low frequency drivers with torn cones, and both high frequency drivers were blown completely. This may come as a shock, but it’s tough to put up a great mix on a set of blown speakers. What they really needed was a new PA designed for the room, but they didn’t yet have the funds. However, for a few hundred dollars in new components, they were at least able begin by producing the entire frequency range. This is more common than you think it is.
5. Have the PA re-hung
The last thought I have on how to improve your church’s sound system, is in regards to installation. Sometimes, a church will have a good collection of equipment for speakers, but they are not installed properly. Occasionally, there are too many speakers in a room—yes, that can cause more problems than it solves—and taking some down will improve sound dramatically. This is another example of having a trained professional come in and evaluate the system.
One caveat to this, however; re-hanging the wrong PA for the room will still result in the wrong PA for the room. It may be a case of throwing good money after bad. Sometimes it’s better to bite the bullet and have the entire system overhauled with new gear than spend more on bad. This is situation-dependent and a quality professional will help you sort it out.
Not all of these solutions are what some might thing of as “inexpensive,” often read, “free.” This is true because high quality sound costs money. The larger the room, the larger the price tag. However, people come to your church to hear the Gospel. Are you not obligated to make the hearing as easy as possible? I suggest each church should make high-quality sound a top priority.
Want to go deeper? Mike Sessler teaches a 12-part series on SALT University, called The Art of Mastering The Live Mix.
I laughed multiple times. Great article.
Thank you we are working on this project now.
I went to Smaart training for three days and realized during that class that tuning a room was a bit over my head. Not only that, I lost all my notes I took during the class via someone else deleting them. Anywho, I think we are in the scenario above. The system we have was designed for speaking, and the church was fairly traditional at the time. The church has moved more towards the contemporary style worship service, and we added balcony seating. I wouldn’t say it sounds bad, but I’m pretty sure it’s not as good as it could/should be. A system redesign would definitely solve it, but since the budget isn’t there for that, I think having the room retuned to the best it could possibly be would tell us a lot about the long-term viability of our current system. I reached out to some other well known and respected church tech guys you know very well about who they would recommend to do this kind of work and never got an answer. If you could have anyone tune your room, who would you choose?
Ahhh, these questions are so hard. The answer is, “It depends.” Chances are, the guys that I would want to do it are our of your price range. And that’s part of the challenge with doing system calibration for churches in general. Most churches want to pay a few hundred dollars for someone to come in and calibrate; because unless the system is really complex, it only takes a few hours. However, to have someone spend a day flying in, a day flying home, two hotel nights plus rental car and meals, you’re quickly looking at $2000-3000, which is what anyone worth their salt would/should charge. Shoot me an email at mike at churchtecharts dot org and let me know where you are located. I’ll see if I know anyone nearby that can do the work. Also, tell me about your system and how it’s deployed. It’s possible it’s not going to get any better and a re-tune would be a waste of money. There’s not a clear-cut, simple answer to these questions, unfortunately.
This was helpful, thank you. We are in a church where we definitely need a professional to come in an evaluate the system, recalibrate, etc. However, I’ve brought in 3 different audio professionals (all have extensive knowledge of working with churches and live sound) and they’ve each preferred and recommended their own way of setting things up. From what I understand, it’s very different and a couple of them have even gone as far as asking me why anyone would “do it this way.” This makes me wonder if there isn’t one standard way to do things in sound engineering. I really have no knowledge in this area at all. I just know what I like to hear and what sounds good to me. How do we get past the subjective and get sound advice?
You’re welcome! You have correctly surmised that there is no one “right” way to do it. In any given room, there might be two or three and up to a half dozen ways to deploy a system that would sound great. I’ve personally been in rooms that I look over and think, “Hmmm, that’s a choice.” But, it sounded good and the church was happy with it. To some extent, sound is a bit subjective. It also largely depends on what the church is going for. Compounding that, often a church will install a system with one goal in mind, then 5 years later, pivot their worship style and be frustrated the system can’t keep up.
I liken it to buying a car. You wouldn’t likely buy a Corrolla if you wanted to haul mulch every weekend. However, the Dodge, Chevy, Ford, Toyota and Nissan trucks all have their strengths and weaknesses. Which one you choose depends on how you rate those values.
I’m going to design a PA with gear I know and trust, and deploy it in a manner I am confident will work. That doesn’t mean my choices are the only “right” way to go. My customers are happy with my work, but they might be just as happy with someone else’s.
My best advice to you is to find someone you want to work with. They should be willing to listen to you and learn about the mission and vision of your church. If the conversation starts with, “So, tell me about your church, your worship style and what you’re trying to accomplish,” you’re on a good path. If it goes the other way, “This is terrible, who came up with this. Let me tell you what we’re going to do in here…” you may want to keep looking.
The best systems are built through good relationships. When the integrator/designer takes time to get to know you and the church, and you trust them, you’ll get a great end result, regardless of the name on the box. Assuming they’re actually competent, of course. Go check out their other projects. See how they sound. Talk to their customers and learn how they were to work with.
Hopefully that helps.
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