To Upgrade or Not

It has been my general experience that Houses of Worship will wait until their house sound systems are completely falling apart before they consider investing in a new one. You don’t have to wait that long to upgrade (or completely replace) your church system. You just have to use your ears and check the bank account and you will know when it’s time. That said, you will often only have to upgrade a single piece of gear which can make a huge improvement in the sound of your system.

When I get a call from a church looking to install new speakers, or a mixing board, I first listen to some programmed music played through the mains and check out the speaker leads—or if it’s a self-powered system, the XLR cables. Next, I will check to see if all the gear is grounded. Then, I will look at the age and quality of the microphones, and check to see how much dust has made its way into the mixer and other outboard gear. These actions may seem common sense, but many times I have found that these simple maintenance issues have been overlooked. A simple fix here can make a huge improvement in the quality of the audio a system produces.

For example; I went to a church that had a pretty healthy buzz in the front of house speakers. The assistant pastor told me that over the years the buzz had gotten worse and now they felt it was interfering with the service. It turned out that the church was originally built in the 1920s and the electrical system was not grounded. As the church added gear to their sound system the buzz got progressively worse. I added a copper ground rod at the outside electrical panel and grounded the whole system. The buzz vanished. Maybe that’s not a good example of a simple fix, and it does help that I am also an electrician, but grounding a building is not rocket science.

Here is something a little simpler: At another church I checked a self-powered speaker that was really loosing fidelity. It turned out that the XLR input cable had a frayed wire to one of the pins. I changed out the cable and the system was restored. In another instance, I visited a House of Worship with some beautiful new JBL main speakers that cost some real money—but they were using 30 year old speaker wire and microphones that looked like they had been used to pound nails.

The point is—it is not always new gear that makes a system sound great. It is a system after all and every part needs to be working.

Let’s say that all the wiring is good, your console and outboard gear is clean, microphones are passable, the system is grounded and it still sounds like hell (just a little church joke). Before you write a check for a whole new audio system, ask yourself, “How are the acoustics in the sanctuary?” If your acoustics are bad, the best system in the world can sound like the worst. That said, my recommendation is get the environment sounding sweet before you add the audio. At this point, you may need an expert. If you live in Los Angeles, I can help you. Where ever you live, you will need somebody who can evaluate your sanctuary and correct any problems. That person may be you. If it is not, you will have to call a professional.

Once the acoustics have been sorted out, it is time to get some new gear. To me, a new sound system would consist of main speakers, monitors, a mixing console, outboard gear (if needed), cables, mics, wires and a new snake. If that’s what you are planning, it sounds like fun. However I usually replace a piece of the system rather than the whole enchilada. The fact of the matter is that not every system needs to be replaced from top to bottom.

Installing new front of house main speakers can make a huge improvement in a sound system. As a rule, I like to replace wires and cables when I replace speakers. That goes for, mains, monitors, cry room etc. Of course, a new mixing board can not only improve the sound and quality of your house sound system, it will also make the audio techs really happy. There is nothing as exciting as working with, and learning to operate, a new board. I know that sounds nerdy but if you love audio (church or otherwise) you will agree.

So, you got a new mixer and some new FOH speakers—but what about the monitors? If you are in the worship band, monitors are the most important part of the sound system. Hearing yourself, and your band mates, well is right next to being in heaven. If your house of worship purchases new floor monitors make certain that you have a dedicated EQ for them, that you tune them to your sanctuary stage and of course, get new wires.

There is one very important piece of audio gear that very often is overlooked and generally neglected. That is the stage snake. How long have you had your snake? Most helpful volunteer audio technicians (and paid ones) have no idea how long the snake has been in their sanctuary. I worked on a church that had a snake mounted on the floor of the platform, it traveled up the wall and outside the church. The snake was routed along the building about 10 feet up and re-entered the building right where the mixing console was parked. As crazy as that sounds it was true. Now they have installed a new lightweight digital snake. Of course as a result the audio system sounds better. By the way I love digital snakes.