By Joseph DeBuglio
It is fascinating to me that whenever a church starts a new
building project, renovation or addition, it is always with the best intentions.
However, by the time the budget committee finishes its task, many of these
churches end up making the following 30 mistakes in the hope of saving money.
Their approach: “Cut back what we can’t see.” Truly unique churches
stick to their convictions, avoid the misinformed principles listed here, and
take a leap of faith.
- Myth #1: Always design a church that is square. Square churches
create standing waves, making music sound very boomy in the bass range. The
early reflections do a good job of confusing speech, and using a sound
system makes it worse.
- Myth #2: Always design a church with parallel walls. Parallel walls
lower intelligibility and degrade music, adding to the confusion, and a
sound system cannot correct this problem. Yet somewhere out there, someone
is no doubt trying to prove me wrong on this.
- Myth #3: Always design the roof low over the audience and high over the
pulpit. This is the best way to kill music from the front of the church.
It forces you to use only long-throw narrow beam speaker horns, which sound
- Myth #4: Be sure the roof is less than 20 feet high. This is the
best way to make all of your music programs sound louder–much
louder, and not in a good way.
- Myth #5: Always accept the RT60 measurement at 1K (1000 hertz).
What happens with bass or treble sounds does matter.
- Myth #6: Always make the back walls of a church as flat as possible.
Flat back walls increase musical effects, throwing off musicians’ timing
- Myth #7: Make sure that the ventilation system is within 25dB of the
person speaking. Since clear speech occurs 25dB above background noise,
a poorly installed ventilation system ensures difficulty hearing. If vent
noise is loud enough, it can be recorded on the service tape.
- Myth #8: Follow the commercial standards normally recommended for air
systems. These standards do not account for congregational singing,
which creates humidity problems inside the sanctuary. Commercial standards
call for one ton per 1,000 square feet but churches need one ton per 500
- Myth #9: Church lighting in a nutshell: 25-foot candles for seating and
60-foot candles for the front of the church. The problem is, churchgoers
really want to be able to read their Bibles.
- Myth #10: Churches with thin walls cost less to build. Road or
aircraft outside noises can be reduced with a yet-to-be invented Electronic
Large-Format Random Noise Canceling System. These systems should be ready
for churches in the year 2097–maybe.
- Myth #11: Rating intelligibility of a sound system has no bearing on
whether or not a person can hear the sermon. Intelligibility scores
below 88% do not cut it in the church.
- Myth #12: Wide, fan-shaped rooms of a greater than 140-degree angle
really draw the crowd in. In these sanctuaries, people on the sides
require video walls to see the minister. Also, when a room is overly wide,
people on the sides always notice the latecomers. When the minister himself
looks in any direction, he might see worshippers slipping out early, making
him feel insecure.
- Myth #13: Place the organ and piano as far away from each other as
possible. This separation makes playing together harder and creates a
not-so-neat stereo effect–assuming you can hear the piano at all.
- Myth #14: The best place for the choir is under the organ pipes or
organ speakers. This arrangement ensures the choir will be drowned out.
- Myth #15: Pianos should be in a pit or against a wall atop carpet.
Even though an organ can play louder, you still need the piano.
- Myth #16: Build a six- or eight-sided church with equal-length walls.
This creates the same complications inherent with square rooms (See Myth
- Myth #17: Design the balcony so low and deep that people under it
cannot see the ceiling over the pulpit. What happens under a balcony does
have bearing on the acoustics of a church.
- Myth #18: Plan a bulkhead over the front of the altar or chancel area.
This feature makes it hard for the choir, organ and piano to be heard.
Bulkheads can reduce intelligibility and hamper a sound system’s ability to
do its job–not to mention, they look terrible. (Note: Deep
proscenium arches or an arches in front choirs cause the same
- Myth #19: It’s okay to paint over acoustical materials. Paint does
affect a room’s acoustics. If a wall material is soft or you feel the need
to paint unpainted block, don’t. This can hurt the brick. Those stories
about people sandblasting after they painted a wall by mistake are true.
- Myth #20: Construct foyers with the hardest materials available.
The echoes from this area distract musicians, the minister and anyone near
- Myth #21: If your church is using drywall, only one-half-inch thickness
is necessary. Thicker drywall is not just an added, meaningless expense.
- Myth #22: Insulating interior walls is an unnecessary practice.
Noises from hallways and office areas are intrusive in a church setting.
- Myth #23: Inside walls can all be built with two-by-fours.
Two-by-eight-foot interior walls are better for privacy within the
- Myth #24: Install wiring and amplifiers in the organ loft next to the
relay switcher. The clicking sounds of the relays–amplified through the
sound system–do not add “color” to the overall sound of the
- Myth #25: Go on the Internet, find all of the church builders, and hire
one that makes no mention of audio or acoustics in their mission statement
or anywhere else on their site. Don’t “faith it” on this one.
- Myth #26: Hire the most expensive consultants. Nowhere is it
written that the glossier the brochure, the better the sound system will
- Myth #27: Don’t bother checking past client references.
- Myth #28: Follow local commercial building codes. These are the
minimum codes for short-term construction–by definition, 20 years or less.
The money saved following local commercial building codes will not enable
you to rebuild the church before it wears out in 15 years.
- Myth #29: The “sweet spot” audio theory is a myth. There is
a spot in every church where acoustical sound broadcasts further than any
other spot before reflections begin to interfere with the original sound.
- Myth #30: When building a new church, don’t visit local churches built
in the last 15 years to create your wish list. Today, CAD computer
programs mean you can do a drawing in six to 10 weeks, but take the
opportunity to learn from the mistakes made by other churches. Interview the
custodians. Although they are not architects, they do fix anything that goes
wrong with the new building all the time.
Also keep this in mind: A church built for speech is ideal for all music, and
a church built for music is usually very good for speech. It does not matter if
you are building a church for classical music or Christian rock-and-roll. A
church can have a very long RT60 if it is well diffused, but many musicians are
of the mistaken belief that the length of an RT60–and nothing else–matters.
Likewise, a church can have a short RT60 and still sound great for both
classical music and Christian rock-and-roll. For example, one of North America’s
best concert venues is the Boston Symphony Hall. This space is just as suited to
rock-and-roll as it is to classical music. Its simple rectangular shoebox shape
includes more than a dozen acoustical features, including diffusers, bass traps
and deflection surfaces in the right places. Adding these features to a church
does not cost much (the added costs are often recovered in the first year), but
the rewards are huge. A church can be a rectangle–like Boston Symphony Hall
–and be used for multiple purposes and any style of worship. A fan-shaped
sanctuary can be used for concerts and contemporary music but it will not work
for classical music unless acoustical features are added.
Bear in mind that acoustics are not a do-it-yourself endeavor; however, they
are not necessarily expensive either. A million-dollar sanctuary project should
logically be able to ante up $50,000 for acoustics. This includes consulting,
modeling, acoustical installation or construction, and tuning of a room. That’s
right, tuning a room.
Historically (from 1350 to the 1870’s), churches were built to include
acoustical features that could be tuned after the church was finished and
occupied. Only a few people in the world know enough about this art to do it
today, but one commonly known technique was the construction of pillars. After a
church was finished, the pillars–usually hollow–were cut near their tops with
either holes or slots and then filled with sand to “tune the room.” In
a modern church, plaster pillars can be tuners, but sand is too heavy, so
alternate materials need to be used.
Church acoustics is both an art and a science. Scientifically, everything can
be calculated. Artistically, you have to know which combination of acoustical
features work best in the shell of the room.
Joseph DeBuglio represents the Church Sound Network and JdB Sound
is the author of Why Are Church Sound Systems and Church Acoustics So
Confusing? DeBuglio can be reached via e-mail at[email protected]or by calling (416) 248-9007.