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KnowHOW: Locating the sound booth

KnowHOW: Locating the sound booth

KnowHOW: Locating the sound booth

During the last 30 years, Gordon Moore has been asked many times where the sound booth should go during a remodel or new construction of a church. This is his definitive answer

Sound is one of the most important aspects of the worship experience and, while houses of worship have become more aware of this fact, there is still some difficulty with the acceptance of the visual presence of a sound booth. Many facilities will try to locate the sound booth in a separate location from where the congregation sits. I have seen sound booths located in lofts above the congregation, in enclosed booths in the back (thus invisible) and even in another room elsewhere in the building (or campus) like a broadcast studio command centre.

Sloped flooring with raised seating behind sound booth
Sloped flooring with raised seating behind sound booth

Let’s be perfectly clear. The best location for the sound booth is in the direct sound field of the PA system that serves the congregation. The sound techs need to hear exactly what the worshippers hear in order to best serve the congregation’s audible needs.

In that magical world where we always get what we need, the sound booth is located in a central spot on the main floor in the midst of the congregation. If speaker modelling is available, it should be located where the full spectral response of the PA system can be heard – in short, the best listening position in the house.

Many new churches have recognised this need and have actually placed the sound booth in that location. Several considerations, however, must be taken into account.

Sloped flooring with recessed sound booth
Sloped flooring with recessed sound booth

Visual impact – the sound booth (regardless of location) cannot interfere with the line of sight for worshippers. Placing the sound booth dead centre in the congregation without considering this factor will result in the impairment of a clear view of the altar/stage for all those seated behind the booth. A modern sound booth will have computer displays, racks of gear and technicians who may be very active/mobile during the service. In our church, the FOH mixer is almost always standing during the service and, when seated, is in a high chair that allows easy access to the controls at the upper edge of the console. The activity of the sound crew will serve as a distraction to the worshippers – they may become more interested in the console activity than the message.

This violates Rule #1 of technology in a service – the technology must never detract from the worship experience. The goal is to enhance the service, clarify the message and uplift the worshippers in a non-intrusive fashion. So, how can we mitigate this conflict between the perfect location audibly and the negative visual distraction?

Flat flooring demands a privacy screen and low-mounted equipment to avoid distraction
Flat flooring demands a privacy screen and low-mounted equipment to avoid distraction

If you are designing a new facility, ask the architect to design the booth into the seating area, taking line of sight issues into account. This generally means recessing the booth into the floor or elevating the seats behind so that the sound booth doesn’t interfere.

Next, remove visual distractions. Instead of mounting the computer screens directly front and centre on the front edge of the booth, try flush-mounting them on the booth work surface under a protective glass screen. Alternately, try the multi-touch monitors lying flat that allow mouse-free operations. The important factor here is to place the screens where the techs can see them and the worshippers cannot.

If necessary, place a privacy screen behind the booth that will block the view. It is very important that this privacy screen is acoustically transparent fabric. If you erect a beautiful burled elm wooden screen, it will look amazing. It will also create unwanted reflections of sound that will cause your sound technicians to incorrectly skew the EQ of the system, thus colouring, in a very negative manner, the sound they are creating. Make certain the privacy screen is high enough to block the distracting visuals yet low enough so that those seated behind the booth have a clear view of the worship leaders and events.

Naturally, most of us do not live in a world where we get what we need. Location of the sound booth is more often a compromise.

Sound booth in the back, note the acoustic panel
Sound booth in the back, note the acoustic panel

A popular solution is placing the sound booth in the back behind the worshippers. In this case, the most important factor is to make certain that they are still getting the direct sound from the PA system – that they hear what the worshippers hear. The biggest negative of this placement is the distance (with attendant time delay) and the effects of reflections on the perceived sound.

These negatives can be offset with a pair of simple solutions. First, make sure each sound tech has good-quality headphones so that they can clearly hear – without delay – the house mix. Establish firm rules – changes to channel EQ, compression or other dynamics, or tapped effects (where the sound mixer establishes a beat for a sound effect such as reverb, echo, etc.) must be done while listening to headphones. Imagine trying to synchronise an effect when you are literally sitting 100ms away from the band. Use of the solo functions rises exponentially the farther from the stage you get. Second, make certain all nearby walls (especially the wall behind the booth) are acoustically treated to kill reflections so the sound booth doesn’t have to deal with reflected interference skewing the frequency response.

A monitor can also be placed in the booth so the sound crew can hear the mix. The critical step here is to make certain that the frequency response of that monitor is closely matched to the frequency response as heard by an audience member in the direct sound field. This can be done by playing a broadband test signal – typically pink noise – into the system and measuring/recording the response in a more ideal position in the seating area. Take a screen capture of that response. Then, EQ the monitor, using the same signal source, so that it matches the recorded profile as closely as possible. Do not trust your ears. Do not just use the same EQ settings as you have on the house EQ. Do not copy and paste the EQ settings in the digital mixer for the house EQ to the monitor EQ. The monitor will have different characteristics, so you must EQ using a spectrum analyser such as SMAART to ensure as exact a match as possible. After calibrating the monitor, ask yourself, ‘does the monitor sound good now?’ If the answer is no, perhaps your house speakers need to be EQ’d again.

Sound booth on the left is NOT in the direct sound field
Sound booth on the left is NOT in the direct sound field

Once you have matched monitor and house, you can then use the monitor in the sound booth. Remember to apply delay to the monitor channel so you have both signals in phase with each other. One more word of caution. Keep the level as low as possible. The presence of the monitor speaker should not be heard by the people in the seating close to the booth. If they hear both, the audio from each source will be out of sync and out of phase, reducing the intelligibility and once again violating Rule #1. Be sure to place an unamplified audience microphone in the seating area so you can accurately monitor levels to avoid excessive SPL.

The scenarios described above are both solid working scenarios. In some cases, however, the architect, or the worship leaders, put the sound people in the worst place possible – a ‘sound booth’ where the operators cannot directly hear the sound – or (yes, there is worse) – a separate room in another location. Fight tooth and nail against this. This is commonly found because there is a misconception that a recording studio where the sound equipment is isolated from the performers and a live sound venue are the same. It simply does not work that way. If you must mix from a remote or sealed room, follow these guidelines.

Use of a monitor is not the best solution and must be managed carefully. Done properly, it can work
Use of a monitor is not the best solution and must be managed carefully. Done properly, it can work
  • Use a high-quality monitor system exactly matched to the response of the house PA.
  • Make sure you have a reference microphone in the room that you can listen to for feedback, strange sounds, etc. Set it up for easy access to solo functions so you can listen to it alone – and quickly. This microphone is for monitoring only and must not be in the house mix.
  • Make sure you have a reference microphone in the room tied to SMAART or other analysis software – you must keep a careful watch on the spectral content and the levels. Establish acceptable envelopes with the software to avoid exceeding spectral or level limits.
  • Measure and know (as in understand) the time delay or latency in the system. If it is a digital system, it will have impact on some of your mixing decisions.
  • Every week, pray then beg your worship leaders to put the mixer in the house.

Finally, take a good hard look at updating your mixer to one of the new generation of digital mixers. Nearly all of the new digital mixers appropriate to a house of worship have Wi-Fi capabilities that allow remote mixing using an iPad or other touchpad-based surface. With this capability, you can sit anywhere in the congregation and mix the house without the need to be at the booth at all. Imagine mixing and sitting with your spouse sharing worship in fellowship with your friends. If you choose this route, build a separate network with a secure router using a managed switch. Carefully guard the password and do not make it a public network. Hide the SSID so the cellphones and laptops cannot see it. Keep it off the internet. By keeping this network secure and secret, you can be assured no one can easily hack your mixing system or overwhelm it by streaming the big game during a service.

Placing your sound booth in the right location can help you follow Rule #1, enhancing the worship experience for your congregation and also for yourself (remember, you are there to worship as well). Consider your options carefully, stay in the sound field and stay out of the visual domain.

Be blessed and mix well.

Gordon Moore is the director of technical ministries at Rio Rancho United Methodist Church in Rio Rancho, New Mexico and president of Lectrosonics Inc.

This article was first published in the May-June 2019 edition of Worship AVL. Subscribe at www.proavl-central.com/subscribe/worship



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