Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in August 2012 and was updated in November 2015.
Josh Isenhart is an audio engineer and consultant who works as a quality improvement lead with the engineering team at Sensory Technologies in Indianapolis. Previously, he worked for Indiana’s largest rental and staging company, and before that, he was director of technical ministries at Lakeview Christian Church. His faith is his passion, so in his free time, he serves as a teaching pastor intern at Nehemiah Project Church.
Josh’s diverse background has given him the opportunity to consider audio from several perspectives. Having participated in many a budget discussion, he has developed a strong knowledge of when and how to replace, build, or improve a system, and he was kind enough to share that knowledge with us. Here's what he told us.
#1 Old Isn’t Necessarily Bad.
Before you start drafting that gear shopping list, assess the equipment you have on hand. Old doesn’t mean unusable. Think of all the people who trashed their tube amplifiers for solid-state stereos thirty years ago, only to find audiophiles preferring the warm sound of tube amps later. So, take the time to examine your gear. Does it work? Is it worth repairing? Can it be repurposed? Is there another ministry that can use it?
#2 Look at Backbone Issues.
Scrutinize your existing system, then deconstruct it piece by piece.
Speaker selection and placement
- Do you have the correct type and quantity of speakers?
- Are they installed properly?
- Do they adequately cover the seating area?
- Is there sufficient power for the number of speakers in place?
- Are the amplifiers properly installed, with good ventilation and appropriate AC power?
- Is there appropriate processing?
- Is the sound board located where the operator can properly hear the listening environment?
- Is there enough physical space for the necessary equipment and personnel?
- Has the system been wired neatly and logically?
- Were block diagrams and wiring layouts created during installation?
- Could any knowledgeable technician walk in and repair the system, or does it only make sense to the person who installed it and / or runs it?
#3 Evaluate Your Needs. Then, Develop a 3–5 Year Plan.
The most worthwhile investment you can make in your church’s audio gear is the time you spend developing a strategic plan based on your church’s current and future gear needs. The best sound systems are built on a foundation of communication with your church’s leaders, administrators (for instance, the budget committee) and the worship staff.
- Determine short-term goals. What's broken or needs to be addressed immediately?
- Examine your mid- and long-term goals. Develop a plan that adds over time the components needed for the functionality you want.
- Establish a budget for gear maintenance, upgrades and training, just like your church would do for new phone or computer systems.
#4 Buy Smart, Not Cheap.
You get what you pay for. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You’ve heard those old saws before, but they're true. Good equipment costs money.
- Don’t buy anything (cords, cables, mics, speakers, mixing boards, really anything in your system) just because the price is low. Buy it because you know it will work well and reliably.
- Talk to colleagues at other churches, read publications designed exclusively for church and production technology, attend seminars and workshops, and build a relationship with a trusted AV provider.
Once you understand exactly what you want to accomplish and which products can help, you’ll be ready to start shopping.
#5 Think Visual.
Church AV is no longer a luxury. As you consider retrofitting an old system versus installing a new one, think about how you will integrate all aspects of audio-visual production. The size of the congregation is no longer the determining factor here: it’s the impact of the message on a community raised on fast-moving images.
Now, How Much Should You Pay?
It’s not the eternal question, but it’s still a big one: How much should you budget for a new sound system?
There is no simple answer to this question. You need to take the time to evaluate all of your ministry’s goals. A good place to start is to base your budget on the number of people sitting in the seats, for instance:
- 200-300 people equals $20,000–30,000 in audio gear
- 301-500 people equals $30,000–50,000 in audio gear
- 500-1,000 people equals $50,000–$100,000 in audio gear
- 1,001-5,000 people $100,000–$250,000 in audio gear
- Over 5,000 people equals $250,000+ in audio gear
- Don’t be afraid to try new things.
- It’s okay to buy used.
- Cover your basic needs. Worry about bells and whistles later.
- Don’t get sold. Arm yourself with the facts.
- Look for package deals. Some companies will reduce their prices if you buy a bundle of gear.
- Build relationships with local dealers, contractors and repair shops.
- Don’t skimp on anything, especially the sound board, speakers and amplification.
- Get durable, all-purpose microphones. If you’re starting out with a small budget, buy as many SM57s and BETA 58A®s as you can. You can use them for anything, and they last forever.
The bottom line: good sound is good sound. A church building is a performance space, so all the usual rules of sound reinforcement apply.