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Acoustics in the Worship Space IV
Scott R. Riedel

From the May 1987 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.


"This country doesn't need any more organ builders, it needs more good rooms." This statement made by one of the midwest's most skilled organ voicers speaks a great truth about what will provide real benefit to the worship life of the church. He realizes that fine acoustics are not only "for the organ", or "so the organist can play louder." Fine acoustics in the worship space primarily benefit the congregation. The worshiping church can experience enthusiasm and "community" in a room that allows the people to sing, speak, and act together, not sit in silent solitude.

Achieving a desirable ratio of reflected to absorbed sound energy is a key factor in achieving a desirable acoustical setting for worship. Significant amounts of sound energy must not be absorbed and removed from the space. When there is excessive absorption the speech and singing of worshipers not allowed distribution throughout the space. Corporate worship becomes a "solo" event. Excessive absorption of sound energy also inhibits clear and authoritative speech, and prevents blended, rhythmic, and musical production from choir, organ, and instruments.

Of all surfaces in the worship area, the floor offers the greatest opportunity for desirable acoustical reflections, for it is often the surface closest to the main body of listeners and singers: the congregation. The floor also offers the greatest potential danger to the space, for it can easily become the largest absorbent area when carpeted.

A carpeted (and highly absorbent) floor should therefore almost always be avoided, for carpeting's ability to remove desirable sound energy is contrary to the real needs of the worshipers.

Why then are so many worship spaces is carpeted, and why do so many advocate the use of carpeting, despite its obvious negative effects? What can be done to improve the situation? Many seem to ascribe qualities of elegance, importance, and warmth to carpeting. These qualities certainly apply to some residential and social environments. However, when one considers the "elegant", "important", and "noteworthy" worship rooms across the world, no carpeting is found. The list might include such places as Westminster Abbey, King's College Chapel, St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Peter's Lutheran-Citicorp, and many more. The opportunity for design and elegance available in wood, parquet, ceramic tile, brick, marble, slate, and stone can certainly equal or surpass the elegance and variety available in carpeting. In fact, the selection of carpeting can often be the unimaginative and "easy" solution of least artistic interest.

Uncarpeted environments which may be considered "cold", "unfriendly", and "too live" acoustically can easily be come very appealing with the use of warm colors throughout, and the judicious application of specially designed sound absorbers, only if necessary. Worship rooms that are "too live" from lack of absorbing materials are rather rare, especially when one considers that the bodies occupying a space absorb nearly 85% of the sound incident upon them. However, the designer must beware that so much sound is not reflected and re-reflected that music and speech be come garbled and confused. The introduction of carpeting for "judicious sound absorption" is usually inappropriate in the worship space, because most often too much sound is absorbed by it.

Factors of maintenance and safety frequently become issues in floor selection. There is some disagreement as to the ease and cost of carpeting vs. hard floor cleaning and maintenance. Spills and stains generally have a greater negative effect upon carpeting.

The wide variety of skid resistant ceramics and other hard floor materials available almost completely eliminate the potential of slipping. In consideration of economic issues, a durable, hard surfaced floor will outlive even the finest carpets.

Frequently a fear of foot-fall noises results in the selection of a carpeted floor. When a hard floor surface is used, foot fall noise can be suppressed with the installation of absorbant materials both beneath the floor, and within cavities created by raised platforms and risers.

Even after questions of maintenance, longevity, safety, and foot-fall noise are addressed, some may still fear that the lack of carpeting will promote "noise" created by occupants of the worship room. It can be noted that large spaces with a fitting "live acoustic" will exude a sense of awe, mystery, and "silent" behavior from its occupants. At the same time, occupants will have the freedom to sing and speak together at the desired moments. Further, it is contrary to the real needs of the entire community of worshipers to "deaden" a worship space, ruin musical ensemble and production, and abandon the sense of a great space, all for the sake of accommodating infrequent "noisy" behavior.

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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