Upgrading Your Church’s Audio System: Five Tips from a Church Tech

Contributor:  Josh Isenhart, Consultant, Sound Engineer

Worship Technology Solutions, Markey’s Rental and Staging

“The point is this: good sound is good sound. A church building is really a performance space, and all of the rules of sound reinforcement apply.”    

Josh Isenhart is a freelance audio engineer and consultant for church technical ministries.  Having sat through many a budget discussion, we knew he’d have some sound opinions about building a solid system to share with our readers. This is what he had to say.

1. Old Isn’t Necessarily Bad
Before you start drafting that shopping list, take the time to assess the equipment you have on hand.  Just because it’s old, it doesn’t mean it isn’t serviceable.  (Think of all the consumers who trashed their tube amplifiers for solid-state stereos thirty years ago only to find audiophiles preferring that warm sound later.)

Examine your gear.  Is it worth repairing?  Can it be repurposed?  Is there another ministry that can use it?

2. Look at Backbone Issues
Scrutinize the system that’s in place and deconstruct it, link by link:

Speaker selection and placement

  • Do you have the correct kind and number of speakers?
  • Are they installed properly?
  • Do they adequately cover the space?

Power

  • Is there sufficient power for the number of speakers in place?
  • Are the amplifiers properly installed, with good ventilation and appropriate A.C. power?

Mix Position

  • Is the soundboard in a location that allows the operator to properly hear what is going on in the room?
  • Is there enough physical space for all of the equipment and the personnel required?

Wiring

  • Has the system been wired in a neat, logical manner?
  • Were block diagrams and wiring layouts created during installation?
  • Can any competent technician walk in and repair the system – or – is it only understood by the person who has been running it for the last 30 years?

3.  Evaluate your current needs. Then, develop a 3-to-5 Year Plan
The best investment you can make is an investment of your time in developing a strategic plan that is based on the present and future needs of your church.  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 do you want to be doing differently by the end of the year?
  • Examine your long-term goals and begin developing the necessary system over time.
  • Establish a budget for maintenance, upgrades and training.   Systems and individual components don’t represent one-time purchases.  (When your church budgets for new computer systems, for example, it’s always with the understanding that the network and the workstations will need to be upgraded on a consistent basis.)

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 it all before, but it’s still true.  Good equipment costs money.

Don’t buy anything – cords, cables, mics, speakers, mixing boards, really anything in your system – on the basis of low price.  Buy it because you believe it will perform the task most effectively and reliably.  There’s a lot of product experience out there.  Talk to colleagues at other churches, read any number of publications designed exclusively for church and production technology, attend seminars and workshops.

Once you understand exactly what you need and which product is most likely to fulfill it, you’ll be ready to start shopping.

5. Think Visual.
Church AV is no longer a luxury.  As you think about retrofitting a tired system or installing a new one, think about how you will be integrating screens, projectors and the whole pantheon of multimedia.  The size of the congregation is no longer the tipping point 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 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 you budget on the number of people sitting in the seats, for instance:

Number of Seats                                                           Budget

200-300                                                                         $10,000-$15,000

300-500                                                                         $15,000-$20,000

500-1,000                                                                      $40,000-$80,000

1,000-5,000                                                                   $60,000-$100,000

Over 5,000                                                                     $100,000+

Budget-Saving Tips from Josh: How to Control P.A. Costs

Here are Josh’s tips for optimizing quality and budget control:

  • Don’t be afraid to try new things.
  • It’s OK to buy used.
  • Cover your basic needs and worry about bells and whistles later.
  • Don’t get sold.  Arm yourself with the facts.
  • Look for packages.  Some companies will reduce their prices based on a bundle of gear.
  • Build relationships with local dealers, contractors and repair shops.
  • Don’t skimp on anything, especially the soundboard, speakers and amplification.
  • Get durable, all-purpose microphones.

“I rely heavily on Shure microphones. Not because they’re affordable, but because they are some of the most reliable products on the market. If you’re starting out with a small budget, buy as many SM57s and Beta 58s as you can. You can use them for anything and they last forever.

Regardless of whether you’re a church of 20,000 or a church of 200, look seriously at the entire Shure line. Having toured and recorded with wireless systems that cost far more, I can tell you in all honesty that nothing sounds as good or is as rock solid as Shure wireless systems.”

Thanks to Josh Isenhart for sharing his approach to tackling a seemingly overwhelming task.  To contact Josh, email him at: j3isenhart@gmail.com.

Davida Rochman

A Shure associate since 1979, Davida Rochman graduated with a degree in Speech Communications and never imagined that her first post-college job would result in a life-long career that had her marketing microphones rather than speaking into them. Today, Davida is a Communications Manager, lending her skills to a wide spectrum of activities – from public relations and social media to content development and sponsorships.

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