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Optimizing Audio for Traditional Services

John McJunkin • January 2022Sound Sanctuary • January 6, 2022

Photo by Hannes Mallaun

Sometimes it feels like worship has split into two very different worlds: traditional and contemporary. Rewind 50 years, and you’d see the guitar (almost exclusively the acoustic guitar at that stage) really starting to catch on. Rewind 60 years, and you’d discover guitars to be pretty darn rare in the domain of worship. The principal instruments at that point in history were the organ, the piano, and the human voice — in copious supply.

Other traditional orchestral instruments came into play in certain situations, but the notion of worship led by “combo” instruments like guitars, drum kits, synthesizers, and the like was still a few years off. Indeed, after The Beatles and The Beach Boys made rock ‘n’ roll popular the world over, it didn’t seem quite so odd to include a guitar on Sunday morning. And as organs and pianos aren’t portable enough to warrant consideration for youth group campouts, guitars continued to become more prevalent, and the style of worship music began to evolve to sound more like the popular music made with guitars.

By the late 1970s and early ‘80s, there were actual rock and pop bands playing church music. By the ‘90s, it had become a pretty big deal, and by the 2000s, contemporary worship had far surpassed traditional worship. At the present time, modern worship reigns supreme… but there are still many houses of worship that offer at least one service each week of the traditional variety. As is the case with all kinds of advancement, developments that benefit one group may also benefit another, and indeed, we are going to take a look at how the technology intended to support contemporary worship can improve the quality of traditional worship and make it available to a much broader audience.

Rock concerts are loud, with lots of colorful lighting, fog, and even pyrotechnics and laser beams. To a certain degree, contemporary worship is expected to be every bit as exciting and compelling, and may include these same elements (okay — maybe not the pyrotechnics — but I have seen lasers!) By way of distinguishing itself as much as possible from contemporary worship, traditional worship in the modern age very deliberately avoids all the flash and loud excitement. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t leverage some tech from contemporary worship to improve the quality of a traditional service.

Speaker(s) in the House

Not only has the quantity of sound increased with the advent of modern pop worship, but so has the quality. And that increase in quality can benefit our traditional service. Traditional services may not happen in the confines of a cathedral that was deliberately designed to ensure that every sound happening in or near the altar would be heard clearly everywhere in the space. Hence, it actually becomes a necessity to provide some amplification — possibly even delayed speakers in the rear of the space. But even in cathedrals that serve the sound well, we can improve on the excellence of the acoustics-savvy architects who designed these spaces. Don’t expect to see line arrays flown on either side of the pulpit. In fact, you may not see speakers at all. Many churches go well out of their way to completely conceal the “helper” speakers. I would respectfully submit that seasoned parishioners who were around to see the evolution from organ to guitar might find their inclination to be offended at the arrival of loudspeakers is overcome by the improvement in their ability to clearly hear the music (and other elements) brought by those speakers.

Let’s examine that notion for a moment as well — the amplification of elements in the service other than music. We focus a lot of our efforts on worship music, but the pastor’s message is certainly the reason people attend. If we can add a limited sound reinforcement system to improve the quality and clarity of our traditional worship, we can also use it to improve the quality and clarity of the pastor’s message. The same best practices that apply for speech amplification of contemporary services also apply for traditional services: it’s wise to use a headset microphone and to wring out the system to minimize feedback, among other things. Similarly, a cantor’s voice should be given every bit as much consideration, albeit with the additional attention we would give to the amplification of any other singer — EQ and maybe even some light compression should be considered.

Close-miking an organ that doesn’t put out a particularly large amount of SPL can help clarify it in the back of the room, and as alluded to prior, may even be necessary in a large, non-cathedral space. Condenser mics are probably going to be the most likely topology, since they offer clarity, capacity to capture subtle details, and with a cardioid pickup pattern, can help reduce the possibility of feedback. The gentle boost we’re looking for here is not going to involve a ton of SPL, so feedback is already less likely, but how nice it would be to all but eliminate it. In my opinion, unless there’s a good reason to avoid it, the organ (and everything else) should be presented in stereo. One other novel possibility — the idea of reinforcing the deep, impressive low-end that organs can deliver. Large subs in a traditional cathedral might seem odd, but adding a bit to the 16 Hz bass note emanating from that 32-foot pipe can be powerful.

Lift Up Your Voices

There’s nothing new about miking the choir… we’ve been doing that for recording purposes for a long time, and sound reinforcement is a must for contemporary services that integrate a choir — it would be difficult at best for the choir to compete with the pop music elements otherwise. But in the traditional service, mics above the choir might be a novel idea. Again, gain before feedback is an issue here, so we may not choose to go omni. And there are benefits to be had with more directional mics, particularly in the case of a larger choir with sections. By spotlighting sections each with their own mic, a mix engineer can sweeten the blend a bit in the FOH mix (and maybe help out the basses with a little boost from a nice low shelf).

It would certainly make sense to include the piano among the traditional worship elements that can benefit from a bit of lift. Again — stereo also makes sense, and a bit of equalization can also help our front of house engineer to get things blended nicely. If other orchestral instruments are to be featured, they should almost certainly be included in the mix as well. Strings, winds, and brass appear on occasion, and may need a boost in the back of the room.

So That All May Hear

We’ve focused on loudspeakers heretofore, but there is one other thing to think about: assistive listening. As I had alluded earlier, it’s a good bet that the majority of parishioners who prefer traditional services in the modern age were also around when it ruled the earth, and would likely benefit from the deployment of a good assistive listening system. In this case, it would almost make sense to designate a dedicated engineer to ensure that the blend heard in the listening system represents all the elements properly. For that matter, sound reinforcement can also grant the capacity for a skilled FOH engineer to mix for loudspeakers in an intentional way in order to ensure that whichever element of the service is currently front and center is heard clearly above any other concurrent element. Deliberate mixing was a foreign concept to traditional worship, but offers benefits that make it worth consideration.

One final thought: in the Covid and post-Covid era, live streaming of services is no longer just an option — it’s mandatory. Proper live streaming requires the miking of every element that you’ll want heard by the online audience, so it makes sense to leverage the mics to present the signal to both the online faithful and the flock right there in the room. High quality audio technology isn’t just for contemporary services anymore, and if best practices are followed, it can very positively enhance a traditional service, and is worthy of consideration.

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