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By Rev. Paul Wooley 

It might make sense to begin a discussion of church sound systems with a theological statement, which relates to the church's mission and liturgy.

We celebrate the message of salvation given to us by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in both Word and Sacrament. However, when it comes to the Proclamation of the Word, many of our congregants have difficulty hearing those important words. The readings of scripture and the homily are often poorly received. The sacred words of consecration at the Eucharist are not adequately heard.

The fidelity of a church sound system is particularly important for all parishioners but more critical for those with hearing aids. Although hearing aids greatly assist those with hearing deficits, they interfere with the normal ‘psychoacoustic’ processing, which helps those with normal hearing to sort out sounds from ambient noise and reverberation. At this time in our history, most congregations consist of an aging demographic with many people who have hearing loss.

It has been my experience that a large proportion of the churches, of various denominations, that I have visited over the years could use improvements to their sound systems.

Interestingly, this is regardless of the level of monetary investment in those systems. Systems that are appropriate for the particular building and purpose can often be had at a fairly moderate cost and sometimes minor changes can bring about spectacular improvement.

Additionally, in the last few years, the technology of live streaming, Zoom, and podcasts or other audio and video recording has become important. Very few of those involved previously had the technical background to perform these tasks.

In this series of articles, I am not expecting to turn anyone into an audio expert, however, I hope that members of the clergy, parish councils, and the laity might acquire enough knowledge to both understand the basics and be able to make reasoned choices about audio systems in church buildings.

This occasional series will include a number of sound system topics, including but not limited to:

The basic layout of sound systems
Making sense of the ‘Big Picture’. What is connected to what and why. Learning to decode all of the wiring and connections to avoid confusion.

Operating the equipment
Mistakes that most people make. Never have equipment that is beyond the understanding of the operator. Perform a sound check before every service. Keep track of batteries for wireless transmitters

The acoustics of church buildings
Direct and reflected sound. What is reverberation? How people and furnishings affect sound.

Type of microphones
Dynamic vs condenser microphones. Electret vs true condenser. What is phantom power?  Mounting on stands or connected to lectern or pulpit. Where to put microphones? Handheld microphones. USB microphones.

More about wireless mics
Your wireless system may be absolutely illegal! Wireless frequencies. Digital vs Analog Systems. Head-mount vs Lapel Microphones.

Mixers (not for baking)
Avoid overspending on a mixer  What are all those Knobs and Dials? How to set up a mixer for a service. Yes, you need headphones!

Amplifiers: Powering the speakers
What is a Watt, how much do you need? Separate amplifiers, vs combination mixer amps. Powered speakers

Speakers and their installation
What do speaker ratings mean? Woofers, mids, and tweeters. Speakers for voice vs music. Where to install speakers.

Recording, zooming, and podcasting
Types of audio recorders. Recording with a laptop. USB microphones. Free recording software.  Recording sound for video.

Lessons for speakers and readers
Using microphones. Pacing your speech. Don’t touch or tap the mic!

What about the Praise Band?
Contemporary music and worship bands are an expansive topic! Avoid the trap of imitating rock and roll sound systems.

Filming and video
What are some of the best practices for sound with video? No, the smartphone’s microphone is not your friend! Connecting sound and microphones to your video recorder. Are you going to edit this or just live-stream?

Your questions answered!
I will answer particular questions that have been sent to me. When I am consulting with churches that are experiencing problems, they have often spent considerable funds attempting to improve their system. Often ‘audio experts’ have oversold them on equipment that they don’t need, and which doesn’t necessarily improve the situation The truth is that if you have some idea of the basics you can avoid that trap. Most smaller churches require systems that are appropriate to what they are doing that can be had at moderate cost. Sometimes, for churches that are experiencing problems or wish to improve their system, a minor change might make a significant difference.  

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Rev. Paul Woolley is a retired priest in the Diocese of Huron. His original career path was as a designer, manufacturer, and installer of audio equipment. He then spent two decades as a professor of electronics at the post-secondary level. He has more than 55 years of experience working with audio equipment, of every description for varied venues.