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Acoustics in the Worship Space II
Scott R. Riedel

From the May 1984 Edition of The Diapason.

Acoustic in the Worship Space, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX have appeared in The Diapason, May 1983, May 1984, January 1986, May 1987, April 1988, April 1990, July 1991 May 1992, and April 2009 respectively.

A recent perusal of a popular church management magazine revealed 22 prominent listings, articles, and advertisements, each purporting to deliver or contribute to the aural and acoustical success of the worship space. These listings included pipe organs and electronic instruments, handbells, campaniform and electronic carillons, sound reinforcement systems, hearing aid devices, and cassette tape machines. While each writer or manufacturer can claim his or her product or concept to have influence upon the acoustical environment, not all can claim significant effect upon acoustical goals and success. Therefore, concepts and materials essential for a successful acoustical, musical, and worship environment must be identified.

This point is especially pertinent in light of the fact that so many unnoticed elements often have the greatest acoustical effect. Here, from the same publication, is a list drawn from 35 other articles or advertisements which have significant acoustical effect, yet are often forgotten in that regard: pew, pew pad, and kneeler manufacturers; stained glass window craftsmen; and lamp, furniture, vestment, and carpet suppliers.

A successful worship and musical environment as related to acoustics must be defined. Of primary consideration in a space functioning for worship, with music provided mostly by the organ and singers, is a desirable reverberation period. This period in most worship environments should be a minimum of two seconds at mid-range frequencies. The reverberation period is the number of seconds required for sound to drop a level of 60 decibels after the source ceases production of tone. Coupled with the reverberation period are necessary acoustical qualities of a space which will provide clear, intelligible speech and music to all listening locations, and which will promote musical reinforcement, unity and ensemble for all musical participants including organ, cantor, instruments, choir, and the singing congregation. Acoustical faults such as echo, hot spots, dead spots and standing waves must be avoided.

Which factors, then, are some of the genuine contributors to the acoustical, musical and ultimate theological success of a space?

1. Early planning and consideration of acoustical goals are essential in the design of any worship space. If the basic geometry of the space, and the materials of structural and finish construction are not sympathetic to acoustical goals, repair or correction later in the design and building process will be expensive or even impossible. Geometric shapes and volumes such as concave surfaces which focus tone onto "hot spots" must be eliminated from the design. The selection of basic materials and construction assemblies can either promote or prevent acoustical success. Even the selection of face brick, or the number of coats and type of wood sealer has extraordinary effect upon musical production.

Spatial needs for organ and choir must be considered. The relationships among musicians, instruments, and listeners must be carefully planned early in the process.

In every situation where a contemplated worship building will house a congregation using music as part of its service, liturgy, or rite, qualified consultation must be sought by the congregation. A sensitive architect, an organ builder with awareness, knowledgeable clergy and musicians, and independent acoustical advice must be identified and then incorporated into the earliest planning stages for the ultimate success of worship by the people.

2. Planning for the future—not wishful thinking, but keen preparation— must be a feature of the design of a worship room. Adequate space for the future pipe organ that cannot be afforded now, allowance for additional musical groups (more choirs, bell ringers, orchestra players) must all be considered in the present design. Of course, any and all future circumstances cannot be foreseen, but spatial limitations prohibiting those aforementioned eventualities are all too common to many congregations. In buildings which are constructed without foresight, the end result is greater expense for the congregation, along with inferior musical instruments. Note also this statement by a representative of a highly respected American organ manufacturer:

"I have watched in my lifetime the advent of the suburban parish, and have seen repeatedly these parishes start out on a small scale, and, though I begged for proper space for a pipe organ, they reasoned that they could never afford one, so no space was left. Lo and behold, ten years down the road the church has mus roomed and is all paid for. They decide they want a pipe organ. We have two right here that are at that stage, and there is simply no way to get an organ in without major alterations."

3. A sensitivity to real worship needs of the congregation on the part of the designer is essential. Sentimental notions of quiet houses of private devotion, or the mystical delivery of liturgical "muzak" are not appropriate to the needs of most worshiping congregations. Given that the worship space is for many where heaven meets earth, and where all join together in praise and mutual support, only architecture of unity can meet the criteria. Togetherness and unity can be highly promoted through the acoustical attitude of the worship room. In most worship formats people combine their efforts to the greatest degree through the aural sense. Aside from standing and sitting, speech, response, and song are often the only common overt actions worshipers enjoy together. The acoustical setting must never suppress the vigorous energy of co-participants in praise. The sound of all worshipers must be reinforced and must reverberate throughout the space. With the congregation as the primary criterion, the favorable circumstance of all sound properly set can result, for the spoken word will gain authority; organ, instruments, and choir will benefit if the room is designed to promote the acoustical unity and vitality of all worshipers. Here is where the pipe organ is the essential link to many congregations. The unique tone of the real organ, only in a fine acoustical setting, can draw and lead the people to unified and vigorous response in musical form.

4. Short term fads and fashion must be avoided. The negative effects of dated materials and styles, both in architecture and organ design are obvious in many situations. Often the fads of a brief time, and not the integrity of meritorious principles are followed. New ideas based on scientific data and artistic talent are always appropriate. Short term experimentation with institutions of eternity is inappropriate. The modern counterparts to buried pipe chambers, leathered diapasons, and "Gustavino" tile will likewise not aid worship in the present or future.

Time honored classical principles of acoustical design are essential tools in providing a successful worship space. These classic ideas are proper room shape, generous cubic volume, appropriate surface materials, and correct placement of instruments, musicians, listeners, and worshipers. Note that these concepts are discussed in Acoustics in the Worship Space I," The Diapason, May,1983.

The Organ and Acoustics
There is no doubt that the quality of an organ is greatly influenced by the acoustical setting. The finest manufacturers will spend many hours, days, and weeks voicing an instrument in the environment of its use. Builders may even demand acoustical improvement before installing an instrument in a space. The influence of acoustics on every detail of organ building has led to many common building practices and theories of design and construction. A brief overview of some discussions held at the recent American Institute of Organbuilder's convention can bring some of this influence to light.

The topic was especially prominent in the opening panel meeting. Here builders, designers, and musicians alike spoke of organ design after Dr. Noehren's fine presentation on Bach and the instrument. Robert Noehren and Paul Manz both agreed on the underlying determinants of organ design: needs of literature, liturgy, and the qualities of the room of their hearing. James Moeser also stated his inclination to accept a somewhat inferior instrument giving preference to superior acoustics in selecting a concert location.

A subsequent, and revealing statement regarding acoustics was made by Herr Furtwangler of the Giesecke Pipe Company in his lecture on reed pipe making. He discussed the scaling and design of reed pipes, stating the prerequisite data for the task: the 8' Principal scale of the organ, and the reverberation period, frequency response, and interior finish material specifications of the room. Certainly, the design of pipes of such vibrant and varied tonal palette as reeds must take into account how the room will react to every aspect and color of the tone.

Even in his discourse on mechanical chest design, Gerhard Brunzema spoke of the spatial relationship of chest, case, and pipes, maintaining that as much as 10 decibels difference in intensity can be achieved from a single pipe when elements are skillfully placed. He also noted the effect of the acoustical environment on the tremulant, stating his preference for a 15 percent pressure change in a live acoustic, and a 10 percent change in a more absorbent space. Surely no one can deny the over whelming influence of the acoustical setting upon musical production. The musical vitality of every organ, singer, or player is directly attributable to the character of the room of their hearing. Given that inspiration and vitality in worship are largely a result of the energy and response of the participants, then a fine acoustical setting is required for every musical and liturgical space.

Scott R. Riedel is President of Scott R. Riedel & Associates, Ltd., an Acoustical and Organ Consulting firm based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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