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Sound in Reverberant Spaces, Part 2: The Most Important Thing

nerdy sound guy shirts from zazzle.comThis is the second installment in a series of posts on identifying and addressing the difficulties of mixing ampliied sound in reverberant spaces.  It is a series of guest posts by Steve Bailey, Chief Sound Engineer at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church (Denver, CO), where he mixes both classical and modern (amplified) music in a traditional, hard-surfaced, reverberent room.

Last time we talked about the science behind why your room sounds the way it does. This time we’re finally going to start talking about solutions and the things you can do to get the most out of your room. Unfortunately I have some bad news: you may not like what I have to say this time around. But I can promise you that if you do nothing else that I am going to suggest in the coming posts but follow the advice in this one, your room will sound significantly better. Furthermore, if you do everything else I suggest and ignore this one piece of advice, your room will probably never sound as good as it could.

The Most Important Solution

You need to hire a professional sound engineer. I’ll pause while you catch your breath… I know, staff is expensive and you’ve got volunteers that do this already. But let me ask you this: would you let a volunteer with no professional experience remodel your kitchen, or work on the electrical system of your car, or perform surgery on you? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not prideful enough to think that what I do is as difficult or important as surgery, but the fact is that audio engineering is a difficult and complex job, which requires years of training and experience to become proficient in. That probably isn’t your volunteer.

Why This Will Work

There is nothing wrong with volunteers. In fact, I suggest you keep those that you already have on staff to work under the supervision of this person. However there is a fundamental difference between a paid position and a volunteer. For one, professional people come with experience. This is a technical, and difficult job which is very easy to get wrong and can be daunting to people who don’t understand it. There is also far more accountability from a person you are paying than a volunteer. If a volunteer messes something up, it’s not a huge concern, but if a professional messes up they should take it much more seriously. Also, volunteers will do this because they want to, so if something more pressing comes up, they are often going to take care of that rather than your needs. A professional person should have the church as their highest priority while they are there. It is work for them after all.

As I said before, this is the best thing you can do for yourself. The truth of the matter is that a good engineer can make a bad room sound good, and a bad engineer can make a good room sound bad. This person will probably try and take care of other things that can help your sound improve as well, many of which I will be mentioning in future postings (this doesn’t mean you get to stop reading).

How to Do It

Start talking to people you know in this industry and tell them what you’re looking for. You probably want this person to work your rehearsals, your services, and a few extra hours a week fixing things and cleaning up, so they’re going to be part time. I can’t stress this next point enough: pay them competitively. If you want to have a professional level person working your board, you need to pay them a professional wage. To determine what a competitive wage is in your city, talk to people in this industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also has a very complete job profile on their site. There’s also a lot of information in forums (like this one) and other sites on the internet, so give Google a shot too.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you look for this person: in this industry experience is far more important than a degree. A lot of really excellent engineers got where they are based only on experience and not on a college education (myself included). It’s very important that they have professional level experience with live mixing. Preferably in a setting similar to the room you’re in now. Not studio work (the two are very different animals), not gaffing and running cables, not lights. Definitely not “I do sound for my band,” and definitely not “I’m really good at hooking up stereos.”

Have Faith

This is a tough solution to get your head around. This is particularly true in churches, where we rely so heavily on volunteers for so much of what we do. In the long term, this will also probably be the most expensive thing that I am going to suggest you do. But the person in this position is really integral to your worship experience. This step is the most important step you can take to improve the sound in your room.

Previous Posts:


Gratuitous: We Worship as God Creates (Part 2)

Gratuitous beauty one Sunday at Coral RidgeIn the previous post, we explored the shocking gratuity of God’s beauty displayed in the earth.  We discussed how the Trinity’s lavish outpouring of excessive beauty should be reflected in our worship, because our worship reflects our God.  We now briefly turn to the pragmatics of how we as worshipers and worship leaders might see that gratuitous beauty come to life in our churches.

Toward a Way Forward

Here are some thoughts, off the top of my head, toward seeking more gratuitous beauty in our worship services.  (I’d love to hear yours!)

Have a keen sense of smell for the off odor of hyper-pragmatism.  (Notice that I said "hyper"; being practical isn't necessarily bad.)  Pragmatism doesn’t have to be the enemy of beauty, but in our history, it often has been (just think of educational budget cuts in schools and which departments first get hit).  When “what works best” is the prevailing mantra, just know that sometimes beauty gets suffocated.  Beauty, for everyone but God (Who is neither wanting nor wasting), often requires a bit of excess—excess money, excess raw materials, excess time, etc.  And excess is not a part of the pragmatist’s paradigm.  Excess feels very impractical.  We evangelicals have a long history of prioritized pragmatism (you hear it in the quip, “Win the lost at any cost.”).  We just need to have our antennae up for how pragmatism sneaks in to choke out beauty, and we need to be able to willingly and lovingly call it out.  (This is sometimes what is behind the tension between a worship pastor and a lead pastor.  Many worship pastors intuit or lean toward fighting for beauty, and sometimes lead pastors are wired with a heavy dose of pragmatic, bottom-line thinking.)

Cast a vision for a big budget.  Gratuity involves expense, especially the kind that seems inordinate.  I remember one of my college church music professors bemoaning the anemic worship/music budgets of many churches.  Sometimes that sounds like rich-guy talk…first world problems.  It’s more complex than that.  Whether you’re a big church or a small church, urban or rural, Western or majority world, you might try encouraging a budget which, as a percentage of the whole, seems a bit much.  But then, once you do that, you need to carefully steward such gratuity.  Gratuity should not be frivolous waste but lavish love.  Remember when Mary expended a whole pint of expensive perfume on Jesus' feet in one shot (John 12).  She “wasted” a big budget.  (I praise God that at Cherry Creek and Coral Ridge I’ve been alongside leaders and church bodies that get this!)

Begin to ask how you can beautify the elements of worship that already exist.  Sometimes, when we think about “arts and worship,” we pigeonhole our thought-patterns into adding “artistic elements” to our worship (you know, freestyle sculptors and interpretive dance and such).  But, what if we took inventory of what we already do and simply asked, In what ways can we make these things more beautiful?  How can I help beautify the music?  How can our prayers and Scripture readings be more beautiful?  How can we beautify our preaching? (Many don't think about the sermon as an opportunity for beauty, but oratory is just as much aesthetic as it is didactic.)

Beautify your worship space.  This might be one of the more obvious ones, but in recent years we’ve tipped the scales heavily in favor of pragmatic function over aesthetic impact, replacing cathedrals with warehouses. So it might be worth asking the question of how we can turn our drab, dated, overly-functional, or industrial-looking spaces into inspiring, beautiful ones.  (You can think about this whether you're a church with an established building or a community meeting in temporary spaces.)

If you're at a loss in the physical-space-and-beauty conversation, a great place to start for some building blocks is Bifrost's Arts' Liturgy, Music, Space Curriculum, available for free download here (see esp. pp. 38-47).

With ALL of the above, consult artists and artistically-minded people.  Don’t just commission an artist (or worse, ask for a donation) to paint some murals for your fellowship hall.  Don’t just bring them in to do a flash-mob sculpting of the bust of Jesus during your service.  Don’t just replace the sermon one Sunday with their Shakespearean recitation of the Gospel of John.  Engage their gifts and skills in the consultation and execution of addressing the big picture stuff, like budgets, worship elements, décor, and architecture.


I've only scratched the surface. What else would you add in the discussion of reflecting the Trinity's generosity of beauty in our worship?


Sound in Reverberant Spaces, Part 1: Why It's Hard  

I've had the privilege over the last year to work with Steve Bailey, a musician and sound engineer who I believe has "conquered" our hard-surfaced, reverberant, classically-oriented worship space at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church here in Denver.  As a worship leader, my vision for a good mix is not about making our musicians sound awesome as much as it is that the music we make sounds inspiring enough such that we eliminate distractions toward the people of God singing boldly on Sunday mornings.  A lot of my friends and readership work in older church buildings which are highly reverberant and therefore difficult to mix for amplified music.  Because Steve so excels at mixing our difficult room for our diverse musical sounds (everything from big rock, to Dixie, to bluegrass, to folk-classical), I invited him to post here.  Hopefully we'll hear more from him!

The Problem

Amplified sound in highly reverberant spaces is a very common problem, particularly in churches. It’s common enough that the vast majority of the work that I have done as a live sound engineer has been for churches with overly reverberant rooms. The problem comes intrinsically from oppositional forces being at work within the church. The forces of the past demanded large spaces that are designed for acoustic worship music. The forces of the present demand contemporary worship music, which is almost always amplified. So we run into the issue that suddenly a room that was designed for a “classical” musical aesthetic is now being used to play “rock” music.

When building rooms that are designed for acoustic music (or that don’t take amplified music into consideration) architects seem to favor lots of hard, reflective surfaces and funny angles. Honestly, I don’t know if architects take into consideration what their space will sound like or if they just build with hard surfaces and angles because it looks good. It probably goes both ways, but the end result is the same: you have a room that sounds really good for unamplified music or speech because it is highly reverberant.

The Science

As a general rule, I’m going to try not to get overly technical in these posts, but some science talk is demanded here. Sound, amplified or not, is essentially a vibration that disturbs the particles of nearby air and causes them to bump into each other. So, the soundboard on a piano, or the cone of a speaker, or someone’s vocal cord, vibrates and pushes air particle 1. Particle 1 bumps into particle 2, which bumps into particle 3 and on and on until particle 13,732,085 bumps into a tiny hair in your ear. This hair is connected to a nerve, which sends an electrical impulse to your brain. So everything is really just pushing air around.

But our ears are really tiny. When you think about the amount of air, and therefore sound, that’s actually traveling into your ear versus the amount that’s being pushed around by a piano, or a cluster of speakers, there’s a lot of air that’s going to places apart from our ears. This is where those hard surfaces come into play.

With hard surfaces in a room, the sound literally bounces around more. So, the chain of air particles that didn’t go into your ear hits a hard wall and bounces off of it, and might then also bounce off of another wall and maybe another before it reaches your ear. All that bouncing ends up taking a lot of time. So there’s one set of particles that come straight from the sound source to your ear, and a whole other set that bounce around the room for a while and then hit your ear later. Realistically speaking, we hear dozens of reflections coming from various points in the room all reaching our ears at different times. This creates what we in the ‘biz’ call “reflections.”

Reflections aren’t bad. In fact, a lot of musical effects are designed to emulate reflections that don’t exist. Things like echo, delay, and reverb create a little bit of time between the original, unprocessed signal and what’s called the ‘wet’ or effected signal. These effects create a sense of space in music that otherwise wouldn’t have it which is great and, honestly, totally necessary to keep things sounding natural.

So rooms designed with hard surfaces create a natural reverberation, which sounds great at lower volumes. But once things get amplified everything falls apart. Here’s why: imagine bouncing a super-ball. When you bounce it softly, it bounces for less time before it dribbles out and eventually comes to rest. If you jump in the air and throw it as hard as you can, it bounces for much longer before it comes to rest. This is what’s happening to the air particles in your room.

Think of amplitude (another, more precise word for “volume”) as being the force that you impart to the super-ball. When acoustic music is performed it happens at a low enough amplitude that only the sound reflecting off of one surface reaches your ear. These reflections are called “early reflections” and are the good kind of reflections. The other, bad reflections that come from bouncing off of two or three walls (called “late reflections”) lose all of their energy through bouncing around so that they come to rest before they can actually reach your ear. This would be like when you bounce the ball softly.

When you amplify sound, you are imparting more energy to it and thus more amplitude and volume. So those late reflections have a lot more energy when they start out and never come to rest before they reach your ear. Think of when you jump in the air to bounce the super-ball. All these late reflections are competing in your ear against the direct sound and the good early reflections, making the whole thing sound messy and unintelligible. 

Toward a Solution

So that’s the problem in a nutshell. The solution to the problem is complicated and comes from a lot of different approaches. In later posts, I’ll start addressing what these approaches are and the philosophy that will help you to get the most out of the fixes that you decide to use.

If this was hugely interesting to you I would first call you a nerd, and then suggest that you do some reading on the physics of sound. The first few chapters of almost any sound reinforcement textbook will have a wealth of information for you. I particularly like Audio in Media, by Stanley Alten. For a more comprehensive approach to these concepts, and really for everything audio, pick up the The Sound Reinforcement Handbook, by Gary Davis and Ralph Jones. It’s a hefty read and can get extremely technical, but I consider it to be the most complete source of information on the subject.

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Why Architecture Matters: Our Quest to Unify Organ and Drums for the Sake of the Gospel 

Philosopher and liturgical theologian, Nicholas Wolterstorff, recently reminded listeners at the “Liturgy, Music, and Space” Conference hosted by Bifrost Arts this past spring that the architecture around and in your worship space makes theological statements whether you like it or not.  For instance, a tall, raised platform at the front the sanctuary with the Communion table positioned in the very back can make the theological statement that the Lord’s Table is so holy that its access must be limited and guarded.  Or, think of a worship space in which the seating is arranged in a circle or semicircle around the leaders in worship in the middle.  This can make a statement about the unity of the people of God in worship and the tearing down of sharp divisions between the congregation and the worship leaders.  Or, think about the warehouse with a huge stage and lighting structure.  It says, “we’re here to perform for you…sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”  Architecture tells the story of your theology of and priorities in worship.  I want to share with you how we’ve chosen to let some recent changes to our sanctuary’s architecture inform our theology of worship. 

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Bifrost Arts Conference: Liturgy, Music, & Space - Nicholas Wolterstorff on Why Church Architecture Matters


Go to Bifrost Arts Conference Video Blog


Plenary Session: "Does Your Church Building Say What it Should Say?"

Nicholas Wolterstorff was the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, and taught at Yale from 1989 until he retired in June 2002. Previously, he taught at Calvin College, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Notre Dame and was visiting professor at several institutions. After concentrating on metaphysics at the beginning of his career (On Universals), he spent many years working primarily on aesthetics and art philosophy (Works and Worlds of Art, Art in Action).


Too often we think of church buildings purely in functional terms.  However, the human being's natural propensity toward evaluating "fittingness" (how fitting something is for its purpose) and processing with "synesthesia" (other senses being triggered and affected by input from another sense) necessitates that we understand ecclesiastical architecture in theological and affective terms.  In other words, architecture matters because it both speaks of our theology of worship and shapes us as worshipers.  A brief journey through church history illustrates this (Wolterstorff walks through various eras, discussing how architecture reflected varying degrees of passivity and active participation of the laity in corporate worship).  Wolterstorff encourages a balanced perspective when thinking about and planning our worship spaces (i.e. vertical/transcendent/majestic dimensions, coupled with horizontal/familial dimensions) and offers practical illustrations of what that looks like.


Here's a PDF of my outline from this session.