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Acoustics: Use a Pro or DIY?

John McJunkin • May 2020Sound Sanctuary • May 8, 2020

At Journey Christian Church (Odessa, FL), integrator GC Pro used Primacoustic’s Broadway absorptive panels to reduce reverb time and improve intelligibility.

On occasion, aspiring engineer/producer/performer types ask me what kind of mic they should get and how they should use it, because the model they’re currently using “makes the vocal sound hollow — like being in a cave.” I first ask, “Where do record your vocals?” Invariably, it’s something like “in the garage, so I can record late at night without bothering anybody else.” My next question asks about the garage’s walls and floors, where they’ll reply, “The floor is concrete, the walls and the ceiling are drywall, and it’s a perfect rectangle.” If I ask, “What does it sound like to your ear when you just walk in and sing?” The response is, “Well — it does kinda sound hollow — like a cave.”

Suddenly, as the light bulb above their head starts illuminating, I’ll add, “It sounds that way because it is that way.” “Yeah, but the salesman said this mic is car-droid or something like that — it only picks up what’s right in front of it.” Once we have a little talk about reflections, flutter echoes and the limitations of limitations, they begin to realize it would be vastly better if they’d simply take their “car-droid” microphone into a walk-in closet and record there, standing on a carpeted floor amongst hanging clothing.

This tale relates to an important notion that applies in both studio and live sound domains. Microphones and other technologies don’t alter the way the room sounds, and technology is incapable of completely eliminating room ambience once it’s captured by a mic. And sometimes that room ambience is a really good thing. We record drum kits in big rooms with ceilings soaring 25 feet above our heads so we can deliberately capture some of that ambience. Starting about 15 centuries ago, cathedrals were designed to maximize the reflections and ambience of the space. Even now in the modern age, we still want some tasty reverb bouncing around the room — but not too much. It’s easy to make sound bounce around, but not quite as easy to make sound bounce around in a smooth, controlled way that is pleasing to the ear — that’s the trick. And it’s what we’re talking about in this month’s column. More specifically, we’re talking about whether it’s preferable to outsource acoustical treatment of the room or to handle it in-house on a DIY basis. And the answer is… it depends.

‡‡         Outsourced or DIY?

A number of factors must be considered when reaching a conclusion relating to outsourced or DIY acoustical treatment. Looming large among them is budget. Honestly, if money is no object, it’s likely a church will hire experts who can acoustically assess the sanctuary, develop a comprehensive plan, and execute it for the best possible results. As in other domains of life, it’s always nice to have the money to bring in experts who are better at stuff than we are and let them do better than we ever could.

A church may choose to go DIY even if they have a large budget — perhaps the church is attended by a whiz-bang acoustician with access to materials at a substantial discount. In a case like that, going DIY makes at least a little sense. But money is rarely the only consideration. It may be the case that our whiz-bang acoustician is really busy, won’t get to it for six months, and we’d really like to have the work completed in a few months. So we’re back to outsourcing, and that’s fine — we need to decide what’s important to us. If getting it done quickly is important and we have plenty of money to spend, the question is whether our in-house expert can make it happen on our accelerated schedule.

What other things do we need to think about? We need to consider the actual result of the work to be done. We need to know that the combination of absorptive, diffusive, and reflective materials that will be used to make the room sound better will actually… make the room sound better. If we choose to contract a pro acoustical firm, we can look at their track record, talk to previous customers and maybe even get to go “hear some of their work.” A professional firm should have some kind of track record that will give us an idea of what we can expect if we contract with them. And that reveals a downside of the DIY approach. Unfortunately, there will not be a “track record” to examine if we keep the design and execution in house. We might be able to make some semi-accurate predictions if we emulate the design and execution done by professional organizations, but we’ll never get it exactly the same as they do and won’t know how effective our work will be.

One plus associated with hiring outside help is that there’s a certain degree of accountability. The effective result of acoustical treatment can be objectively measured with test gear, so when we contract a firm to do the work, there will be formally established expectations, and if they’re not met, we have the recourse of being able to talk to the professionals who did the work and sort out how any shortcomings could be remedied. If the work is accomplished completely by amateurs and volunteers, chances are that no measurable, tangible goals will be established, so comparing the actual results with expected results becomes a bit of a slippery proposition. At the very least, we hope that the work made the room sound “better.” When a contract is struck between two parties agreeing that one will do certain work in exchange for money, the law allows for recourse if the party doing the work does not deliver what they agreed to deliver. There’s some accountability and a way to resolve any remaining dispute over the results of the work, and this is an advantage over going DIY.

‡‡         Short or Long Term?

I would respectfully submit that your decision whether to go DIY or to outsource will be heavily influenced by the answer to one question we haven’t yet considered: How long will we be using this space? A church using a rented storefront location in a strip mall is probably not as keen to the notion of spending a pile of money to have an acoustical firm come in and do a full workup as would a church that holds services in a long-term facility that’s purpose-built for church activities.

There’s certainly some appeal to the notion of keeping the work in-house — doing some research and leveraging the charming (and fellowship-promoting) way of execution, like an old-fashioned barn-raising. And as long as the expectations aren’t too much (or frankly, too specific) and the project can be completed on time and at — or under — budget, the DIY approach can work well for some churches. If, however, tangible results meeting specific goals on a hard schedule when money is plentiful, contracting a professional firm is probably the better way to go. And as usual, there’s a third way — the hybrid approach of using in-house volunteer labor to install professionally manufactured acoustical products. My advice is to sort out what’s important, examine your financial resources and reach your conclusions from there.

John McJunkin is the chief engineer and staff producer in the studio at Grand Canyon University.

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