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Acoustics in the Worship Space, VII
Scott R. Riedel

From the July 1991 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.

Can't microphones fix any acoustical problem?

Contemporary society employs "state of the art" electronic technology in many and various facets of everyday life. The use of electronic technology and equipment can solve many problems and perform many functions. Electrical and solid state electronic equipment can help to prepare a meal in the form of a microwave oven, control the heating, air conditioning and light in a room, send a "FAX" message across the country in minutes, create synthetic music, and even write a magazine article such as this one with the aid of a computer.

There are many applications for electronic technology in the acoustical field, from test instruments to assist in the acoustical design of a room, to the electronic sound reinforcement system equipment, and more. There are also acoustical applications where electronic sound systems (microphones, etc.) are inappropriate. An understanding of the three basic acoustical needs of the worship space will assist in the understanding of appropriate acoustical design and equipment.

The clear, intelligible distribution of speech (from readers, preachers, liturgists, etc.) to all listening locations in the room is one acoustical requirement in the worship space. Another is the support and distribution of music (of choir, organ, instruments, etc.) to all listening locations. This music must also be clear, blended into balanced ensemble, and with good tuning and rhythmic accuracy amongst musicians. Finally, a worship room must provide an environment with a corporate acoustic where all worshipers are heard and reinforced by each other for a sense of unity and "community support" in hymns and sung and spoken liturgy and responses.

Electronic systems (microphones, speakers, etc.) are appropriate in most worship environments when used for the intelligible distribution and reinforcement of speech. Microphones can be placed at the many sound source locations, such as pulpit, lectern, ambo, altar, font, etc., and speakers can be designed and located to deliver sound to all listeners. When well designed, electronic systems are particularly useful in maintaining realism, controlling clarity through the use of time delays in large spaces, and in assisting the hearing impaired. It should be noted, however, that in some circumstances with careful architectural design, an electronic sound reinforcement system may not be necessary for the clear distribution of speech.

The use of an electronic system may or may not be appropriate to different types of music. In some musical idioms, particularly contemporary, the composers, musicians, and listeners might expect the use of a "sound system." Further, a "system" may be necessary in some contemporary forms to reinforce soloists or small groups of voices over "instrumentation," and for the playing of the instruments themselves. High loudness levels from sound systems, however, are often not necessary when applied to music in the worship environment.

Electronic sound reinforcement is most often unnecessary, inappropriate, and even damaging to many classic and traditional sacred music forms. Composers and musicians expect and require a natural and architectural acoustical setting to reinforce, blend, support and project musical production. Typically, a good architectural setting for musicians implies a rather high ratio of sound reflecting materials, and proximity between musicians. This type of architectural acoustical environment not only assists musical ensembles (whether they be choirs, instrumentalists or divisions of organ pipes) to work together, but also creates a sense of architectural fit, realism, and presence for the listener. To rely on electronic systems rather than architectural acoustics for classic and traditional musical forms can be to function contrary to the desire of the composer, musician, and listener.

Sacred music often functions to lead the congregation in hymnody, psalmody and liturgy, rather than only functioning with the congregation as "listeners." It is in the application of leading the congregation music that choir and instruments can easily pass from support and leading into a "performance" role if too high "sound system" volumes are used.

Finally, a good corporate acoustical environment, where the unity and acoustical involvement (in music and speech) of all worshipers is desired, cannot likely be achieved through the use of electronic systems. It is the involvement of all present in hymns, liturgy, and responses that is the key element of corporate worship. Short of providing microphone "pick-up" and speaker "distribution" from and to the entire body of the congregation, electronic systems are inappropriate for this purpose. Note that electronic equipment is available which can raise the reverberation periods in "dead" rooms, thus improving the "corporate" acoustical experience. Such systems are highly sophisticated and are appropriate alternatives when true architectural/ acoustical measures are not possible. The cost of an effective electronic reverberation enhancement system might exceed the cost of architectural/acoustical remodeling in a building, It is the essential realism and unity of presence, both visual and acoustical, that truly great worship architecture, not "systems," can and must provide.

The proper architectural means to the goal of a good "corporate" acoustical environment is through the use of room size, shape, layout, and finish materials which support desired sound energy. Such rooms have adequate cubic volumes, and a relatively high ratio of sound reflecting materials (few sound absorbing carpets, acoustical tiles, etc.), and reverberation periods of approximately 2.0 seconds or greater, occupied.

The use of microphones and "sound systems" are appropriate and useful in many applications, particularly for the clarification of speech, but a fine "architectural acoustic" is truly the key element for fine worship acoustics where music and corporate activity are used. In such spaces, worship is truly enlivened and communicative in speech, music, and the participation of all who attend.

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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