10 Tips for Purchasing a New Church Sound System – by Darien Nagle

It’s a big decision. It’s a fair amount of the proportion of a church’s budget. It’s something that you’re likely to live with for a long time. It can have a significant effect on your church’s worship. Is it time to do the church sound system upgrade, and what are the things you need to consider and the questions you should ask? Here’s my top ten.

1. Have a budget in mind. A decent one. All in or all out. There isn’t buy something on the cheap and upgrade progressively. This is fraught with constant disappointment. Trust me, I’ve seen it all too often. Make your decision based on need. Fundamentally, can everyone hear the spoken word – do people complain often? Can they actively participate in worship or are they just “going through the motions”? Is there something more significant that you want to achieve musically. Use these factors to start the process for setting a reasonable budget. Remember you’ll need to allocate a fair proportion for consultancy and installation too; it’s not just about the equipment. Also, think of it as an investment in your congregation. The sound system can be the most inspirational, or most detrimental force in your church.

2. Identify specific requirements or objectives. List them. What do you want your system for? Is it primarily for speech reinforcement or is it for full-blown musical worship. Whilst pipe organs and choirs should be able to be heard without amplification, sometimes it is appropriate to give the choir some additional reinforcement (maybe due to location – tucked away at the side), plus help out with human voice (readers, clergy etc..). Additionally, your church may have more contemporary or popular forms of music that require even more than reinforcement, maybe even a separate system (or zone) in some cases. It’s important to understand, agree and articulate the objectives of the system up-front, even going so far as to describe these requirement (and potential measures of success) in a church committee document.

3. Automatic or manual? Identify whether you need or want a sound system requiring to be manned by church volunteers. Does someone need to operate it? There are certainly advantages if you do. Do you even have a pool of available volunteers? It’s pretty unspectacular work, and whilst initially attractive, it can quickly become a commitment too much for those whose heart really isn’t in it. Or maybe an automatic system, with little intervention (and little flexibility) is more appropriate? There are automatic mixers, especially for speech, or even software that can be used as part of higher-end digital systems that can accommodate this requirement.
Additionally, think about the development of volunteers, maybe even youth involvement, if the system is going to be mostly manual. In successful audio installations, community, especially youth, forms a basis of a successful implementation and a “Sound System Ministry”, as it’s sometimes called.
Think about initiating a complementary training program for volunteers. Maybe this can be used together with some rules in the church on who is able to touch the sound system going forward. There is terrible tampering of sound systems in most churches, it’s unfortunate but I suppose it seems to be human nature, so access to the system needs to be seriously thought through. The equipment may not be holy in itself but its operation and care facilitates a holy environment and thusly should be treated with respect.

4. Analogue or Digital? Are you looking for a mixing console which is analogue or digitally based? Digital mixing also allows for some rather extreme extras, such as remote mixing via iPads – especially good for consoles located in terrible mixing positions. Digital mixing consoles generally take up less space compared to their analogue counterparts, so if space is a restriction, it might be the only option. Digital also includes the ability to recall settings, which is great as an anti-tampering measure, plus they include lots of inbuilt equipment and the option of running far less cabling than their analogue counterparts. I’m a great believer in digital mixing consoles for churches as a great number of settings can be pre-set, leaving the volunteers with basic fader/volume adjustments to begin with. Plus, make a mistake, or turn the console off and all the settings are recalled again like nothing ever happened.

5. Ask about microphone choices. Even though a lot of attention seems to get focused on the loudspeakers, one of the most important components is selection of the microphones. There are lots of types and price ranges on offer, but it’s essential to select something suited to the job at hand. For example, there are some lovely acoustically isolated, pulpit, long-necked, condenser microphones (they don’t go “boom” when you knock the pulpit stand), but they require a mixing console that supplies something called Phantom Power, plus need to be professionally installed. For the altar, you can practically turn the entire altar surface into its own microphone using something called a boundary or Pressure Zone Microphone (PZM) but once again consultation is required to see if that’s a fit for your church. Microphone choice will greatly influence the susceptibility for the system to feedback (that dreadful “ringing” sound we’re all unfortunately too familiar with), and an investment in this area is always worthwhile.

6. Equally consider wireless microphones. This is an area where I typically see too many establishments saving too much money, with terribly unsatisfactory results, and an essentially useless wireless system. If you have a need for wireless microphones, invest in a decent multi-microphone wireless microphone system, oh, and please, please change those wireless batteries for every service! The other thing to be aware of is that in Australia, we’re currently undergoing a “Digital Dividend Restack” where wireless microphones operating in the 694-820MHz will become illegal to operate after January 1st, 2015. Rest assured, all the major wireless microphone manufacturers will (or already do) have products that operate under 694MHz, but given this equipment is likely to be operating for a long time before another upgrade, it’s worth asking about your future compliance to Australian standards (read more at www.readyfordigital.com.au).
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Radio interference is a fact of life with wireless microphones, and this is accentuated by any single channel receiver; Dual or Quad channel receivers are best. Digital is preferable – I’ve just never liked the thought of the possibility of others listening into analogue wireless systems and especially the odd taxi radio call making it inappropriately into the middle of a service, but the encryption and error correction make digital less susceptible to interference and noise in general, plus you can stack lots of wireless microphones together with modern systems, so there’s great expandability options too.

7. Selection of speakers, and more importantly, speaker placement. Acoustics are never perfect for a sound system in a church (which is an advantage for the choir and pipe organ), and speaker placement is key. Do you care if they are visible? Do you need something invisible? There are some creative options these days that when installed
correctly are virtually invisible. Both approaches will have implications that the systems consultant can talk you through. There are clusters, line arrays, even speakers that come colour matched, or can be painted to match columns or existing paint work, making them virtually invisible. Often the best speaker location isn’t the highest visually appealing option, so compromises have to be made and talked through.

Think about outside coverage too, or coverage for major festivals. Usually a church sound system has multiple zones, with each zone tuned and controlled slightly differently. You may want the flexibility to configure the sound system for a major festival versus a daily weekday service.

8. Mixing console placement. Whilst we are on the topic of placements, what about mixing console placement? It’s an important piece of equipment that’s key to getting results service after service. Ideally it should be in a line-of-sight place, but many churches don’t want the sound and lighting person and console prominently visible. That’s fine, but consider it will be very difficult for the sound mixing volunteer to get a consistent sound if they can’t hear properly from where they are mixing. Sure, they can work with a pair of closed headphones, or maybe use remote mixing, but these are compromises to seriously consider based on your overall sound system priorities.

9. Think about recording capabilities. Did you want the capability to record a particular guest presenter/speaker, or maybe record an entire service? These might be released and sold as CDs at church later, or even posted for download on the church website. Maybe you’d like the capability to stream live to the Internet? Let the consultant know about these potential requirements up front as it will affect the choice of components, especially the mixing console.

10. Choosing a consultant and installer. Everyone is an apparent expert in this field (as an example, knowledge of hi-fi is in no way related to professional audio), but actually few installers have the experience of working with churches. Ask around. Look around at other churches. If there’s one you like, ask them who installed it. They’ll be plenty of people giving advice, most of it inappropriate or outright incorrect, so it’s important to engage a professional with an existing track record, or one that comes highly recommended.

Ask about support after installation. Will they be around after the system is installed, to fine tune settings, maybe together with you for a few services.

What about long term maintenance. What if someone resets the whole system – will the installer retain a backup (if it’s digital). What would they charge to come in and set it up again?

I’ve seen sound systems that I’ve installed have a prolific and positive effect on congregations including growing them dramatically, and on the opposite side I’ve seen the effect of tragic decisions and wasted budgets because someone on the committee thought they were an “expert” and everyone would save a bit of money, ultimately costing the quality of worship day-in, day-out. I’d like to think the above “top ten” represents mostly common sense applied to sound systems, nonetheless asking the simple and obvious questions can be a sure step in achieving a really great outcome for your church. Good luck in your search for a truly inspiring sound system!