Who Done It?

by Curt Taipale

Have you ever walked into a church sanctuary and thought to yourself “What blithering idiot designed that system?” Okay, maybe not in exactly those terms, but you get my point. The world is full of churches that, with the best of intentions, wound up with a mediocre sound, video, or lighting system and/or poor acoustics. Someone is responsible for the project not hitting the mark, or for setting the mark too low, but it’s never quite clear who.

Of course our carnal nature wants us to feel superior. I’m sure that neither you nor I were responsible. The reality is that we shouldn’t be too quick to place blame unless we know the whole story. There are a lot of people who either directly or indirectly influence the final results, and a poor result could have been caused by any one of them. More often than not, it’s a team effort.

Was it the System Designer?

There’s no question that there are people with little experience or knowledge about system design trying to make a living in the industry. We all have to start somewhere. To be honest, we all (hopefully) learn something during each project – usually how to do it right, and sometimes what not to do.

I’m blessed to be friends with some of the best-known, almost revered system designers in the country, and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing and seeing some of their systems in action. Want to know something? Even the best miss the mark at times, sometimes by a long shot. I would hazard to guess that there’s not a single system designer on this planet who would want you to hear the first few systems they designed.

It’s easy to blame the previous system designer for the problems. But if we’re going to grant people a measure of grace as God would, and if we’re going to give the designer the benefit of the doubt, we should stop and think that maybe, just maybe, the poor results weren’t the designer’s fault.

Was it the Building Committee?

There are a myriad of reasons why an installation might not perform as the church originally envisioned. First, the church’s senior pastor, music pastor, administrator, and tech team leader might have each had entirely different concepts and objectives regarding those systems. The system designer must find a way to deliver a design that’s congruent with the church’s vision, needs and budget realities. When those are a moving target, hitting it becomes difficult at best.

To further confuse the issue, the church’s architect, general contractor, and performance system designer should be working as a team, but sometimes they have conflicting objectives. Each tends to believe they’re right and that their particular needs, objectives and opinions must take priority.

For example, what the architect envisions for how the room will look when it’s built might cause tremendous grief for the acoustics consultant. What the performance system designer needs in order to adequately cover the room with sound, lights and video display just gets in the way of the architect’s passion for visual aesthetics. The general contractor thinks they’re all nuts because the church says they don’t have enough money to pull it all off anyway.

The Budget Done It!

The general contractor goes to the church administrator and says “Look, I can save you $250,000 on this building with one simple change – just delete the absorption at the ceiling. We already have insulation on top of the roof, so there’s no need for that extra cost.” Of course, the church administrator leaps at the chance.

What neither the GC nor the administrator took into account was the fact that the acoustics consultant was counting on the absorption coefficient of that “extra” fuzz as part of his overall solution. By the time he found out about the cut it was too late to get it reinstated.

So then you walk into the room and as an astute observer of things technical you realize that the room sounds terrible and the sound system isn’t as intelligible as it should be. Of course you don’t know the sordid history of the building project, so you naturally blame the idiot sound system designer, or the acoustics consultant. Or you blame the poor church sound mixer for his/her inexperience or lack of gifting.

Without having everyone on the same page with a congruent vision for the end result, it’s desperately easy for uncontrolled value-engineering to take place. It gets seemingly out of control because often those decisions are made by individuals who know nothing about the systems they’re cutting.

It’s unlikely that they’ll cut the softly padded pews because they understand the need for comfortable seating. HVAC systems, house lighting systems, the quantity and placement of doors, etc. are based on simple formulas or building code requirements that deliver predictable results.

What many don’t understand or accept as truth is the fact that sound system designs, video projection system designs, stage lighting system designs, and even acoustics are also based on time-honored, provable formulas. Like most similar disciplines, great results are developed through a blend of science, experience and art.

Computers do not tell us how to design sound systems. They help us predict the results if we install the system we have in mind. The good designer spends untold hours studying, listening, watching, experiencing, researching, testing, and talking with peers about design concepts, techniques and the latest gear. They don’t get paid for that investment in time, yet they have to make the investment if they’re going to stay on top of their craft. It would be embarrassing for a client to tell the designer that one of the pieces of equipment that he has proposed is no longer manufactured.

Unfortunately some systems miss their mark because an influential member of the project team didn’t know what they were talking about, but were better at convincing the church to do things their way.

Who ‘Ya Gonna Call?

That’s when the next consultant gets the phone call to come and visit the church and tell them what they need to do to fix the problems that were created by those silly decisions. That plea usually comes within the first two years after the installation, although some churches wait a few years until they’re so frustrated with the poor quality that they can’t see straight. The consultant goes in and helps the church sort through those issues and develops a course of action to bring them up to the level of technical excellence they originally envisioned. And everyone lives happily ever after.

There’s no question that it would have cost them less money had they taken those steps in the first place. Yet church after church goes down the same road, ultimately installing two or three systems before they get the one that works right. *

Confusion in the Ranks

There’s a tendency in some churches to try and second-guess the design. That can really undermine the finished product. For example, during one of our projects we had the church’s volunteer sound guy telling us what loudspeakers we should use (based not on hearing the device, but rather on the advice of his local music store), and we had the architect telling us where we could put the speakers (purely because he wanted to hide them from view).

Both of those objectives were counter to the level of technical excellence that the church came to us for in the first place. Our stand for technical excellence became a real uphill battle. If you’re in a building project now or renovating your existing auditorium and you want the best technical and acoustic solutions you can possibly afford, we encourage you to find the design team that is right for your project, hire them, and then do what they tell you to do.

Seems so simple, but it’s rare when that happens. I’ve only had a handful of projects where I was given carte blanche to do anything I wanted to do, however given a reasonable amount of liberty a good consultant can deliver great results. My company is blessed to have some clients who realized after the project was complete that they should have done everything we recommended. And their experiences are our best line of defense when new clients start to go down the same path.

If you shortchange the process, you may find yourself looking back on the project a couple of years from now realizing that you should have done it then. The “extra” money that no one thought could be raised often turns out to be not as big of a problem after all. But once that project is complete, the corporate interests of your church will quickly move on to other things, or the next big building project. You may find yourself forced to simply live with the problems that could have so easily been avoided. And what could have been a premium solution is never allowed to emerge.

Are you contemplating an upgrade to your sound, video or lighting system right now? Or maybe you are about to enter a new building project? I encourage you to spare yourselves the misery and frustration that I've describe above. Do all you can to make it right the first time. It’s worth the effort, I assure you.

Originally featured in the January 2003 issue of Live Sound International. Copyright 2015. Taipale Media Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

* The concept of churches typically purchasing three sound systems before they get the one they wanted in the first place was originally shared with the pro audio world by Don & Carolyn Davis, founders of Synergetic Audio Concepts. Jim Brown later put it in writing, and it is available for download as a PDF from his website. We recommend that you share it with your building committee. Navigate to, and scroll down and click on the link to "Why Churches Buy Three Sound Systems, and How You Can Buy Only One".