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Tackling A/V in Changing Worship Styles
By: Jonathan Hensley

Introducing a modern day service into a traditional space is, unfortunately, a challenge many churches struggle with.  Spaces designed to accommodate the primary sound sources for a particular worship style tend not to be easily reconfigured. The additional challenge of maintaining adequate control of noise produced by building systems, such as HVAC and lighting, as well as adjacent spaces, adds greater complexity to the decisions the A/V team is responsible for making. Where many churches get stuck or end up overspending is in planning for the necessary investments in electronic equipment, instruments, lighting and other components used in staging a worship service without considering the likely acoustical impact on those participating in worship in the space.

Friends Church in Willoughby, Ohio, was built in the 1940s. Its original layout consisted of a traditional worship room, and, since then, the church has developed several new additions.   Today's campus looks more like a college than a traditional house of worship. Friends Church now has three spaces dedicated to different styles of service: modern, traditional, and youth. Each space is very different from the other with its own set of A/V challenges.

Modern Style Worship in a Gymnasium

Friends Church conducts their modern style services in a gymnasium. This is what is called a "Mobile Church," according to Gus Peders, technical director. By mobile church, he means that the A/V configuration is not maintained throughout the week. Does he ever feel uneasy having thousands of dollars worth of equipment suspending over what during the week is basically a playground? Yes. In fact, according to Peders, one of the more memorable and surprising instances resulted in lights shining brightly on the back of a member of congregation's head rather than on the leader of the worship service.  

Along with the potential for damaged equipment and unexpected maintenance from cross-purposing such a type and size of space, gymnasiums are notorious for hard surfaces that cause reverberation and echo. A live band playing in such a harsh acoustic environment often leads to poor clarity of sound and troublesome reverberation. Pointing at the ceiling, walls and even the second stage at the back of the room with a large navy blue curtain, Peders explained how the ceiling and walls have been acoustically treated, saying, "Every other ceiling tile is acoustic and the walls are perforated to aid in deadening the sound of the loud instruments." The large navy blue curtain in the back of the room serves the purpose of preventing slapback. 

Youth Ministry in a Multi-Purpose Room

In the space where Friends Church conducts their youth ministry services, Seth Wenger recognizes the challenges of conducting worship in an environment where the HVAC system creates unwanted noise.

"Vocal clarity is key [in our youth ministry services]," said Wegner. "If the vocal clarity is unclear, you can't follow along and can't focus." 

In the corner of the room, a slightly elevated stage holds an electric drum set, unlike the acoustic drum set used for the Modern Style Worship. "You have to match the instrument to the room," Wenger said. "We tried an acoustic drum set, but the sound was unbearable." 

Unfortunately, this situation is emblematic of one of the more common problems experienced by A/V professionals working in churches: spaces originally designed to accommodate one purpose or for a particular worship type often need individual, customized solutions to make the retrofitted space perform as needed for it new purpose.

Traditional Worship in a Traditional Space

At Friends Church, the Traditional Worship Center is defined by a beautiful elevated wood panel ceiling. Peders said, "The smartest decision [from the A/V vantage point] we made was building a full drum enclosure. This really helps cut down on volume complaints, and for the first time in 7 years I actually had to mix in that space." 

Wenger said, "We didn't want people to say wow that was a really loud drum set instead of wow that was a great service." On top of isolating the drum set, they also isolated all of the amps except the acoustic piano, to which he said, "You work harder to get a good sound when you isolate."

The worship runs on an average of 92dB 94 dB, or roughly the equivalent of the sound level produced by heavy traffic at close range. "It's not the volume people complain about, it's what they hear," Wenger explained. "This is why acoustic treatment is a necessary piece in any audio-visual set up. You want to think of it [a room] as an instrument. It plays a huge role in worship. A room that is too dead makes people very aware of themselves singing, where a room that is too alive makes it hard to follow along. You really can tell a change in how much people are willing to sing. Finding the right balance of acoustic treatment that allows people to follow along and lets their voices blend together is crucial."

In dealing with the challenge of how to accommodate the A/V needs of their different worship styles, Friends Church opted to create separate spaces to accommodate each service style. Doing this, they have been able to focus on the A/V challenges presented by each individual space, and incrementally address sound quality and the overall worship experience in the context of the types of service they conduct in each space. This solution has solved many of their problems and given them the flexibility to adapt to future needs without overspending on a solution that may become obsolete with changes in the worship community. Not all traditional churches looking to expand their worship services into other areas have the budget or luxury of space to be as accommodating as Friends Church has been to its members.

If your church is considering making the transition from traditional style worship to modern,  here are four tips to getting the most from your planning process and, ultimately, to getting the best value for your investment:

1. Don't assume that re-purposing or sharing a single space for multiple worship styles delivers the best value.

2. Match the instrumentation to the room.

3. Evaluate the potential for noisy building systems to have a negative impact within the space during worship and avoid those spaces whenever possible where these systems create significant noise.

4. Plan for proper acoustic treatment as part of your A/V investment to get the best overall value.

Jonathan Hensley is an acoustic specialist at Audimute Soundproofing in Cleveland, Ohio. He has a strong understanding of acoustic issues associated with church environments and can be reached with any questions at info@audimutesoundproofing.com.

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