Whether it's hardware in a laptop, or software for a mobile device or even a car, most — if not all — technology solutions will eventually need an upgrade. We can safely say that at some point, church sound systems will be among them.
Existing church venues may change physically — for instance, by modernizing or expanding worship to other parts of a building — and eventually exceed the capabilities of an existing sound system. But the most common reasons to refresh a church sound system setup are that an existing system has become worn out (loudspeakers can lose their flexibility and thus their fidelity, and amplifiers' capacitors will deteriorate over time) and the fact that the quality of professional audio systems has exponentially increased in recent decades. Even untrained ears may be able to hear a qualitative difference between a sound system installed 20 years ago and a new one: Loudspeakers are clearer and brighter sounding, amplifiers are more efficient and powerful, and advanced software allows systems to be designed literally to cover the audience down to the individual seat level.
So, when is it time for a church's sound to go to the next level, and what needs to be factored in when it comes to cost? Let's find out.
It's important to start by listening and looking for the more obvious clues. Wiring between amplifiers and speakers in older systems are often long copper runs, subject to deterioration from moisture and attic-dwelling animals chewing on them. That kind of degradation will become evident in crackling and other noise artifacts as well as visual inspections. As amplifiers age, they may require more of their power to reach the same volume levels, which could produce audio distortion.
There are also cultural shifts in worship that can reveal the shortcomings of older church sound systems. For example, a church that uses traditional worship music may evolve to also incorporate contemporary worship music for some services. A PA system that was suitable for choral and acoustic music would find itself hard pressed to effectively handle a rock or R&B combo — and would be devoid of the powerful low-frequency impact they need without subwoofers.
Then, there are the churchgoers themselves. As a society, we're regularly exposed to superior-sounding audio in theaters, on television, at concerts, and even the use of personal audio systems including headphones and earbuds. Businesses have discovered that better sound sells more products. This has led to a heightened awareness around achieving better sound quality and mitigating noise in every aspect of our lives. Thus, going from a sonically pleasant environment into one that's markedly less so presents a sharp contrast that people will ultimately notice.
As we age, our aural acuity diminishes. As a result, more people will have trouble with speech intelligibility at church. Newer sound systems with advanced processing capabilities can help address this issue.
Simply put, sound quality has been shown to affect church attendance. Therefore, upgrading a church sound system setup can have quantifiable returns on investment.
The appropriate person or committee at a church should undertake an appraisal of the building's existing sound system starting with these questions:
- When was the sound system originally installed, and when were any previous upgrades made? Any system more than a decade old is a candidate for a refresh.
- Has the building outgrown the sound system? Expanded seating areas and additions to the structure may mean the sound system needs to be either extended or replaced.
- Is the worship music changing? Contemporary music requires two key elements: bandwidth and power. The former is to adequately reproduce the broader spectrum of modern genres compared to traditional choral and keyboard music — and the latter is to do so with plenty of amplification headroom to avoid distortion.
It always comes down to the bottom line, but churches have a lot more choices today than even a decade ago. There is now a plethora of brands and systems to choose from, and their quality across the board has grown in that time. It's fair to say that a church would have to try harder to install a poor-sounding PA than a good-sounding one. This is in large part due to the dynamics of music production. As record sales declined since the turn of the century, music artists took to the road for revenue, and they demanded higher-quality touring PA systems. Established and new brands stepped up to respond, at the same time creating more options for users, which in turn has helped keep costs under control.
This online calculator can provide a basic idea of a budget, based on sanctuary size, and number of seats. From there, other technical considerations include the nature and shape of a worship space. For instance, a wide, fan-shaped seating area will require additional speakers in line array systems to achieve full coverage. Long, narrow rooms, low ceilings, and balconies will need fill speakers, and oftentimes those will need to have the audio signal delayed, via digital signal processing (DSP) processing, to align with the sound coming from the front array loudspeakers.
Another essential factor to consider when updating a church sound system setup is aesthetics. How a system looks in a church can be as important as how it sounds. A large line array may look great at a rock concert but significantly out of place in a cathedral. Again, the advances in sound technology offer plenty of possible solutions. One often used, for instance, is columnar line arrays such as Bose Professional's Panaray loudspeakers. They encompass a slim and sleek row of speakers that fit unobtrusively onto the support columns of traditional church environments while distributing sound evenly.