Signature Sight & Sound

Diagnosing Sound Problems

Diagnosing Sound Problems

When diagnosing sound problems in any environment, three aspects must be addressed and considered:

  • Room geometry and the overall sonic characteristics of the space
  • The types of performances, presentations etc. that will take place in the space
  • The equipment used to reinforce the sound

Any one of these aspects will influence the others. That is why it is so important to initially look at the overall. There are also subsets within each area that play a major role, some of them obvious, others not.

Room Geometry

Every space has its own sonic characteristics. The overall sound characteristics of a room are shaped by the many different elements within that space, such as:

  • The dimensions of the room
  • The ceiling height
  • Materials used on the wall (plaster, wood, sheetrock)
  • Materials used on the ceiling
  • Floor coverings
  • Window and door openings
  • Stage and platform materials
  • Seating, wall and window treatments
  • Mechanical systems

Many of these areas are predetermined when upfitting an existing space. In new construction projects however, it is so very important to take all these areas into account in the design phase.

As churches grow and strive to remain culturally relevant, styles of music and presentation have changed. Often these changes occur within an existing sanctuary that was built decades ago, and built for a traditional worship service with an architecture that reflected that time period.

What happens when this church decides to move to a contemporary style of worship? In the best-case scenario, major changes are made to the platform, choir areas, and technical booth size and location (if they even have one); an acoustical design is implemented and an audio system is designed to accommodate the new worship direction.

However, in the worst case scenario, they try to accomplish the goal by hanging some speakers and adding monitor mixes. By not considering all factors, they are destined to fail. The system will never even get to the adequate level.

Consider the example of a multi-purpose room that is designed for worship, presentation and sporting events. This is a popular trend that many churches consider. They will use the multi-purpose room and build a sanctuary at a later date. This presents a challenge because of the components that must be in place for the sporting as well as the worship aspects. A decision must be made as to the greater need. Is it a sports venue that we can meet in, or is it a worship/presentation venue where we can do sports occasionally? This question has to be addressed. If not, both functions will suffer.

In this scenario, the mechanical and lighting systems, if designed more for the sporting side of the equation, can present noise problems. HID lighting that is primarily used in sporting applications is noisy. The same is true for air handling systems. Both can produce unwanted noise. In a space where basketball, volleyball etc. is being played, the floor, ceiling and wall materials have to be durable. This means hard, reflective surfaces — not the best choice for the best sound.

One overlooked area within the room geometry, for both new and existing buildings, is the location and size of the technical areas. This also includes the ability, or not, of the operators to hear the sound in the room as the congregation does. This is extremely important. If the operators are stuck in a closet with no audio access to the space, how can they effectively shape the sound? The same is true if doors or windows separate them. The sound operator must be able to hear the sound in the room to mix properly.

You need to be realistic about your space, be it new or existing, and for what is was, or is, being designed – and make sure it meets your goals. When working with your architect you should constantly reinforce the position that when designing the room dimensions and overall shape, as well as all materials that will cover surfaces or be introduced to the space, acoustical elements should always be considered first. This includes mechanical and lighting systems as well as proximity to compressors that operate refrigeration equipment and kitchen equipment.

Areas such as storage and technical areas need to be able to accommodate operators and have both audio and line of sight capabilities. By following this path you can effectively identify and reduce or eliminate noise issues and make the overall sound characteristics as good as possible.
How is the space to be used?

We touched on this in the section above, but the following point should be stressed. When designing a new space, it is extremely important that you – the client – have a crystal clear vision of how the space will be used. If it is multiuse, define the uses and prioritize them. We have been in meetings with clients and architects reviewing the final drawings only to find that the client’s vision for the use of the space was not effectively conveyed to the architect. This results in time lost, more revisions and more money.

When up-fitting an existing space, it is equally important to consider all its uses. Be prepared to make all the changes necessary to achieve your goals and realize that there may be multiple systems that need to change. The biggest mistake we see in this scenario is that the client is unwilling to look at all three aspects (listed above) and identify the changes that must take place to achieve optimum results. This is why a design-build firm focusing on performance and technology systems is so important. A design build firm understands how all these areas are related and the changes that must take place to get from point A to B.

Unfortunately, most people think replacing equipment is all that’s needed to fix problems. While it is an important step in the process, all three aspects must be considered.

A common mistake we see is in the speaker system design and its placement. Consider this statement; A room with good sonic characteristics can suffer significantly from a poorly designed speaker system, but, a properly designed speaker system can greatly help a room with less that desirable sonic characteristics.

I have stressed the importance of considering and addressing all aspects, but the reality is that sometimes it is just not possible. If this is the case, remember the above statement.

A design-build firm can look at your room geometry and all the characteristics of that room, including the problematic issues, and then design a speaker system that will achieve immediate results.

Wiring and their related components are another area that can create all sorts of problems. This also includes the isolation of electrical circuits. Whenever you are up-fitting an existing facility, always make sure the wiring is replaced.

In addition to the speaker systems, other outboard equipment can greatly improve the overall sound of your space. Depending on the skill and knowledge level of you operators, equalization can be tricky. Having the system and equalization properly calibrated can make a tremendous difference in the overall operation. Training is a key component in the design and installation of any technology system.

In conclusion

Plan and develop the vision and make sure everyone involved in the upfit or new building design understands the vision of how the space will be used. Bring in a qualified design-build firm that has the knowledge and experience in all areas of presentation and performance technologies. Make sure you bring them in very early in the design stage so you and the architect have the benefit of their knowledge and expertise.

Make the room geometry changes required to start with the best possible playing field. Don’t hinder your operators by cramming them into a space that is too small and does not allow them access to the room where they are mixing. Make sure that the architect and mechanical and electrical system designers understand that if the congregation cannot hear or see, you have failed the first priority of any performance venue. Choose a design-build firm that will design and install the proper technology systems based on your vision, and how that vision may develop over time, and also take into account the skill level of your operators.