- April 1, 2018
- Posted by: admin
- Categories: Audio Production, Broadcast Gears, Broadcasting, Event Management, Sound Reinforcement
When it comes to choosing audio equipment, by far the most important–and most difficult–decision any church has to make is selection of a new main loudspeaker system for the worship auditorium or sanctuary. This decision is critical for two reasons:
- A loudspeaker system is almost always the single most expensive component, particularly when installation costs are included. If you make the wrong decision, un-installing and re-installing another system will be expensive and time consuming.
- Loudspeakers all sound different. Two different systems can be the same size, same configuration and with nearly identical published specifications, but they will still sound dissimilar no matter what you do with EQ and processing.
Consequently, it’s always a good idea to listen to your prospective choices before making this “big leap” of financial commitment. But where do you listen? What are the upsides and downsides of your options, both inside your church and out? For some insight, we queried two church techs with experience in comparative evaluations, and a systems integrator specializing in AVL systems for worship.
Side note: Specific manufacturer names have been replaced with generic identifiers as brands are not relevant to the core discussion here.
Listen and compare at home
Ideally, you would want to audition prospective systems in your own worship space, where they will be deployed. It’s not easily arranged, but Shaun Miller, currently worship arts technical director at Rolling Hills Community Church in Franklin, Tenn., has benefited from several “shootouts” over the years.
“This is an incredibly helpful way of getting an idea of how a PA will sound in your space,” he says. “Point source loudspeakers are easier to compare side by side. When listening to line arrays we had to ground stack them as flying would be cumbersome. But it was helpful, since there are many manufacturers out there, all with products covering a wide range. Putting them side by side can help you hear differences in details. In contrast, if you hear different systems in the separate, dedicated demo rooms at a trade show like InfoComm, you won’t be able to hear brand A against brand B.”
Putting [point source loudspeakers] side by side can help you hear differences in details.
Joe Cristina, audio lead and FOH at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, Calif., recently finished an audio renovation after a prolonged period of careful evaluations, including in-church demos. “We did two demo sessions separated by about 18 months before we settled on our new [brand X] system,” he recalls. “Although our system is flown, we had to floor stack it for the demos because we could not commit to a hang. Our first demo was [brand Z] and it made such a strong sonic impression that it stuck with me for months, even up to the point of our [brand Z] demo. In the end it was like choosing a personal preference between two really fine wines, in this case the one that struck me as the more ‘transparent’ of the two.”
Joe Jones, project manager at Summit Integrated Systems in Lafayette, Colo., has organized a number of church loudspeaker demos. “These demos typically happen when a client is interested in a newer product, or one for which we don’t have a nearby installed example. A tour through one of our completed projects provides a much closer representation of how the product will be tuned and integrated into the room acoustics, which is as important–if not more important–than the product itself,” he says.
“We typically rely on the manufacturer to provide the gear,” Jones continues. “They are usually willing to supply the product and manpower, but it does take a fair amount of coordination. The manufacturers also want to know the opportunity for a sale is real, and that the church budget can support the product being demo’d.”
In the end, are such demos all that critical? Jones is cautious on this point. “It depends. It can be helpful in building confidence in the product as well as trust with the vendor. Does the vendor understand what the church wants and needs? Are all the pros and cons of the options presented? If you look at it from a different perspective, when there is a high amount of trust between a church and their vendor/integrator, a demo may not even be necessary.”
Trade show “shootouts”
Comparative multi-manufacturer loudspeaker evaluation sessions–or “shootouts”–have been presented at a number of recent trade shows. Are they helpful?
“I think [shootout] sessions are valuable in the early stages of selecting a PA, just to get outside your usual comfort zone.” Shaun Miller, Worship Arts Technical Director, Rolling Hills Community Church, Franklin, TN
“I find these interesting and a good starting point, with limitations,” says Miller. “I have never been to a shootout that allowed us to play our own music, though perhaps if I’d made an appointment I could have. Still, I think these sessions are valuable in the early stages of selecting a PA, just to get outside your usual comfort zone.”
Jones also has taken in several of these sessions. “If there’s new product I want to hear, I’ll go. However, these events often are limited by the size and acoustics of the venue. It’s usually a hotel ballroom, which is very different from a church auditorium or worship center.”
At other churches
All three respondents agree that the ideal is to find a similar church with a similar system, and give it a listen. Even if it’s not a close comparison, it can be beneficial in other ways.
“We checked out a system nearby at Laguna Presbyterian Church,” recalls Cristina. “It was a [brand X] system but the space was substantially different in terms of dimensions and layout since it was a very traditional floor plan. So what sold us there was not so much that demo as the manufacturer’s people and the way they took time in fully assessing our needs. That led us to ask for a demo at our church.”
“After selecting a brand, we had our integrator and the manufacturer line up a few locations where we could hear a real-world install.” Shaun Miller, Worship Arts Technical Director, Rolling Hills Community Church, Franklin, TN
Miller followed a similar procedure. “After selecting a brand, we had our integrator and the manufacturer line up a few locations where we could hear a real-world install. That helped us zero in on what we wanted to bring in and hear in our space.”
If you can’t find a similar system in an acoustically comparable space anywhere nearby, Jones proposes an alternative. “We sometimes offer an outdoor demo at our offices. This provides a more neutral environment for evaluating the loudspeaker itself, where it isn’t affected by room acoustics.”
Trusting in others
Our two church tech guys here are in the Los Angeles and Nashville metro areas. Alas, it can be difficult for smaller churches in more isolated areas to make meaningful comparisons. What to do?
“I can’t think of an area that is so remote there is not an opportunity to go to a nearby major city and listen to systems,” says Cristina. “If you are serious about spending money, then you need to be a good steward and do your due diligence.”
Still, he acknowledges, ultimately you may have to rely–at least in part–on the knowledge and judgment of others. “In our case, we looked at several integrators and checked their references thoroughly. We took the time to make some calls. There’s no excuse not to do your homework when spending that much of your church’s money.”
For his part, Miller likes to gather information widely, but he carefully weighs what he hears and places his trust in established relationships. “I like to get lots of input, but there is a fine line between good feedback and having too many cooks in the kitchen,” he acknowledges. “But I do recommend talking to a reputable integrator vs. buying from a box retailer. You have to trust your integrator’s team, knowing they are looking out for what’s best in your room and not just their bottom line.”
And it’s always good to keep an open mind, maintains Miller. “We’re currently in the beginning phases of our new auditorium, and I think I’m pretty well sold on sticking with the brand we have now. But I recently talked with another church’s tech director whose judgment I respect and he has decided to go with a brand I never would have considered. That got me to asking questions, so now we’re going to demo that brand as well.”
By Bruce Borgerson.