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Prioritizing for Good Acoustics
By: D. Sean Bail

With all of the issues that any church faces in its daily operations, preparation for the weekly sermon on Sunday, special events throughout the year, or any number of the functions and activities of the church, the list of needs is ongoing. If anything, it seems like nothing ever gets completed before new concerns pop up with more and more regularity. Prioritization is a must-do where resources are limited and expectations are high. 

Where do the acoustics of the sanctuary fall on the list? Not very high, usually. I'm going to try to convince you otherwise. It's not just my job, it's my passion.

Prioritization is determining the importance of need. If you don't need something, it doesn't make the list.

So, I'm going to focus on just the most important things that fall under the heading of "have-to-have." This has always been the hardest aspect to quantify when it comes to acoustics. 

When you are hot or cold, or you cannot see clearly, you instantly recognize the problem and you take appropriate action. Acoustics, when wrong, are typically only an annoyance, something that causes you to wince or occasionally tilt your head to better hear. 

In short, people put up with bad acoustics even though the psychological impact of straining to hear clearly can make the difference between communicating or not. If your priority is reaching the congregation with your message, I would propose that acoustics is one of the most important functions of any church.

Someone is there to listen, to be heard and to understand.  It could be freezing cold or oppressively hot and, as long as you could hear it, the message could get through. Turn the lights off and we would all be visually impaired, but we would still be listening. You can listen to a sermon on YouTube on your laptop in the dark, right?

Thus, acoustics is a fundamental function, not a finish. More time and energy is devoted to the heating, air, and electrical systems than will ever be considered when determining how a space should perform acoustically. Air conditioning is a must, but let's face it, the temperate air is not why people come to church. They come to hear.

I often find myself advising clients who know they have a problem but are not sure what exactly is wrong, and it's most always long after the building fund has been depleted. If there is something wrong with the air conditioning or if the lights are not working, everybody knows what is wrong. 

But, with acoustics, more often than not, issues are more difficult to define and that is because no one understands that there really is a science behind sound and the way sound is received and interpreted by the recipient. 

Once a building is finished, though, it is easy to change the thermostat a few degrees or dim the lights, but being able to alter the acoustics of a space after the fact is incredibly problematic. So many variables effect how sound works in a room, the prospect of truly having a "multi-purpose" space is often limited to best compromise. 

Most solutions aim for the middle ground where nothing will sound great, but everything will sound just okay. Of course, from my point of view, the acoustics should be at least as high on the priority list as the aesthetics are in the planning/building stage, but, unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.

Imagine a performance hall. Consider all of the thought and planning that goes into what that space will eventually host. Basic tenets of performance hall design demands that, even with all of the pomp and circumstance of the world's greatest venue, a poor-sounding hall will not generate the revenue to stay open because the audience will not pay to come to a performance they cannot hear perfectly. 

Now consider that a church sanctuary has a greater mandate than generating revenue. If the importance of the message delivered in a church is greater than the content at a performance hall, would it not be prudent to consider acoustics as an integral function of the space?

Regardless where you are in your project, whether finished and wondering why the sound is not what you thought it should be, or you are just beginning your grand building plan, I submit that if you do not consider the acoustics of your house, you will struggle to meet the needs of your congregation.

The best description of a meaningful moment in an audience holding its collective breath is, "you could hear a pin drop." This familiar quote brings to mind silence but it also expresses the act of being able to hear the tiniest sound.

Isn't this what you want for your congregation? That both the sounds and the silences are profound?  That sounds like good prioritization.

D. Sean Bail is a sales consultant for South Eastern Acoustic, Inc., www.seainc.us.

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