Worship music hasn’t undergone many significant changes — until the last two decades, that is. In this time, worship music in many churches has rapidly moved from traditional worship forms using organ, piano and choir, to band instruments consisting of drums, bass and lead guitars, keyboards and amplified vocals.
These changes in worship forms have caused acousticians and sound system designers to look for new models for their designs.
In many mainline denominations, worship has traditionally been led using organ, piano and a choir as the primary sources. The church congregation also enjoyed hearing each other’s voices as part of the worship experience. Both the organ and congregational singing enveloped the worshiper, giving the feel of being part of a heavenly choir.
Sanctuaries designed with fairly reverberant or “live” acoustics provided this feeling of worship. The room needed enough reverberation to support organ and choral music, but not so much that the spoken word of God could not be clearly understood.
Standards were developed with recommended reverberation times based on a room’s cubic volume and particular uses. It was generally desired to have more bass or low-frequency reverberation than high frequency to give the room warmth, especially for organ music.
As a younger generation has brought the music they grew up with (rock-and-roll) into the church, congregations began to experience a great deal of frustration with typical “traditional” church acoustics. Drums and bass guitars lost any form of definition or separation. Punchy, upbeat music became muddled and overbearing. The answer seemed to be to design rooms with very muted acoustics so that there was little to no reverberation or acoustical energy left in the room. Although this worked quite well for band music and speech clarity, it greatly inhibited congregational participation. The feeling of being part of a heavenly choir was replaced with the feeling of a kick drum in your belly! The rooms became quite lifeless and congregants felt as if they were singing by themselves, therefore they held back and did not enter as enthusiastically into worship.
Enter a Whole New Approach
Although there are still a number of traditional worship congregations enjoying organ and choral music, the current trend seems to be moving toward praise and worship music, some of it very contemporary. A number of these refer to themselves as “seeker-sensitive,” desiring little to no congregational participation. These churches are targeting non-religious people who don’t know the songs and might not want anyone to hear them sing.
However, the majority of congregations we have worked with, that are moving to more contemporary music, still desire to be a part of a heavenly choir, even though drums, guitars, and a praise team lead the worship. The problem has been, if the room reflects enough acoustical energy to surround the congregation, the percussive nature of band instruments runs together, resulting in very poor-quality band music. If the room is acoustically muted enough for excellent band music, then the members of the congregation feel as if they are singing by themselves.
Working together as a sound system designer and acoustician, we have developed a completely new model for the design of contemporary worship spaces. We wanted to find a way to control energy in the room for praise type music while maintaining nearby reflected energy for congregational singing.
This new model consists of two acoustical environments working together. The upper ceiling (“outer environment”) is an acoustically dampened shell with absorption to control bass frequencies and prevent acoustical energy from remaining in the room longer than desired. The inner shell consists of acoustical “clouds” or gyp. board reflecting planes fairly low over the congregation or choir, as well as shaped, sound-diffusing walls providing reinforcement of congregational singing.
In addition, some of the wall planes might also have sound-absorbing panels of variable thickness to remove low-frequency sound energy. These are designed to prevent echoes from the platform area or from the sound system loudspeakers, and to minimize unwanted resonances or focusing effects.
Control of high sound levels on the platform from the band instruments or monitor loudspeakers is also crucial. Since everything is amplified, overhead acoustic reflectors are not necessary, and the area above the platform can be made highly sound-absorptive. This also provides a flexible area for special theatrical lighting, curtains, screens, etc.
This new model proved to be extremely successful in a recently completed 2,200-seat sanctuary for McKinney Memorial Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas. The worship style is very contemporary, with a band and praise team and sub-woofers, and yet the congregation still desires to experience the worship through singing. Reverberation is quite muted for lower frequencies while higher frequencies are a little higher than normally achieved.
The main difference is that the acoustical clouds suspended over the congregation provide acoustical energy back to the congregation quickly, without bouncing many times around the room (which would result in longer reverberation times). Controlled low-frequency energy and quick reflected energy to the congregation is the best of both worlds. The result is music, which is punchy without being “muddy”, and speech that’s very clear and intelligible.
It’s equally important that the sound system be designed specifically for this acoustical environment. Contemporary worship places high demands on sound systems and must be considered as part of the whole package.
Noise (The Hidden Factor)
The other important element in the success of this model is low background noise most commonly produced from the building HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning System). Higher background noise levels mask out or cover up the congregational singing, preventing people from hearing the cumulative effect of a roomful of beautiful singing. Without the reduced noise levels, the acoustical model above will not be effective.
Not only does this background noise mask out congregational worship, it also covers up the subtleties of music and harmonies from the praise band. It also forces the sound system to be operated more loudly, resulting in a forced or amplified sound rather than a pleasant or natural sound for speech. A quiet room allows the pastor to lower his voice for effect and still be clearly heard. An intimate, conversational style of teaching seems to be preferred in most of the contemporary churches with which we work.
The acoustical engineer must work closely with the project mechanical designer in order to design a quiet system. Many mechanical designers are trained to design efficient systems for moving air, but have little training or experience in noise control. This is also true for the mechanical contractor. It’s best if the acoustical engineer is hired to check the installation to be certain guidelines have been followed.
We have found it important for the building designers and building contractors to be able to work closely together to achieve the desired results. There are many construction factors that affect noise, acoustics and sound isolation issues. Most contractors don’t place noise control and acoustics as top priorities, and often “value engineer” projects to reduce budget. This often has an adverse effect on the quality of the worship from an acoustical point of view.
There needs to be some assurance that guidelines will be carried out as intended. We have often partnered with design/build firms to be certain both design criteria and construction objectives are met. Site visits and post-construction testing are other ways to insure that this happens.
Worship in churches has changed dramatically! Design and construction of worship centers is far different than it was just a few years ago. The standard approach to acoustics and construction won’t yield the results desired by the modern church. New models of acoustics and construction must be carefully considered in any new worship center where the worship style is contemporary.
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Chris Jordan Bill Johnson represents Acoustic Design Associates and Chris Jordan of Electro Acoustics & Video, Inc.
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