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Design Approach for Houses of Worship

Clayton Acoustics Group’s design philosophy and consulting practice are acoustics-centered and engineering-based—the natural room acoustics and sound system must fully be part of the architectural design, and selection of materials and equipment must serve this goal exclusively. We support the theory that acoustics is architecture, as well as the equally important corollary audio is acoustics, and always look for simple, flexible and elegant solutions which meet our clients’ needs.

Many of our projects are houses-of-worship, with a clear emphasis on churches and synagogues having traditional liturgies and strong music programs. Successful worship spaces share highly-valued qualities such as clarity for intelligible speech, reverberance for liturgical music, responsiveness for congregational participation, and low background noise for enhancement of all sounds. We most often serve those congregations which wish to retain or even enhance the natural worship-space acoustics and may also require a high quality speech-reinforcement sound system to provide excellent speech intelligibility. We also help our clients with a variety of organ-related acoustics issues.

A reverberant church or synagogue is often a very complex acoustical space which must reconcile a distinct conflict of uses, needing to simultaneously be a music room and a lecture hall. Choral and organ music, as well as congregational singing and responses, are typically well supported by the natural acoustics of a responsive and reverberant worship space. Sermons, prayers and scripture readings are best served by a space with little reverberance which favors clarity of the spoken word.

For existing buildings our design approach is to preserve those qualities of natural acoustics which are already good and carefully enhance those others which need improvement. In many cases we take as our motto “do no harm,” ensuring that neither the visual nor aural beauty of a fine old church or synagogue are compromised in pursuit of intelligible speech. In other cases we can help bring about a positive change in the acoustical environment, benefitting both speech and music. For new building projects we take a leading role in establishing room acoustics criteria in order to ensure success.

Dry acoustics favoring speech over music is a very common situation in American houses of worship—new and old—and one that acousticians are asked to address on a regular basis. Liturgical music is not well served by low-reverberance and non-responsive acoustical characteristics, although speech—whether amplified or not—may work fairly well. In these cases our preferred solution is to identify realistic ways in which the musical acoustics can be improved, and then to specify a high quality speech-reinforcement sound system capable of providing excellent speech intelligibility within the natural acoustical context.

Speech in a reverberant building is often successful only through use of a modern, high quality speech-reinforcement sound system—one which provides clarity of the spoken word, adequate loudness for all listeners, natural sound quality of the talker’s voice and a true sense of directional realism favoring the talker’s location over those of the loudspeakers. We design excellent sound systems for the most acoustically-difficult worship buildings. Our uncompromising approach to sound system design for all houses of worship places primary emphasis on speech reinforcement and high intelligibility of the spoken word. Through the use of sophisticated computer modeling and digital-audio technology we have at our disposal the effective means to design and implement very high quality speech-reinforcement sound systems in reverberant spaces without the need to modify the natural acoustics of those spaces.

In a few cases, we are also designing electronic reverberation enhancement systems for small and/or historic buildings for which architectural modification to achieve improved natural acoustics is not feasible or affordable.

Noise in a worship space—even the background hum of traffic or whir of machinery—can be a real and potent enemy of speech and music. Any amount of background noise reduces speech intelligibility and music clarity, masking nuance of the spoken word and subtlety of a musical phrase. When the spaces between words and sentences, and pauses in musical passages, are not quiet—silent, even—but rather are filled with the drone of steady-state mechanical or environmental noise, the magic of spiritual communication in worship is irreparably lost. In all cases we advocate strongly for elimination of noise in the worship space, whether from environmental sources outside the building or mechanical systems inside.

Prospective clients often ask if we add sound absorbing material (carpet, glass-fiber panels, curtains, ceiling tile, etc.) to houses of worship in order to accommodate the sound systems we design. The answer is very simple: Never! We rarely recommend adding sound absorption for any reason, especially to a church or synagogue in which a traditional liturgy is practiced, and never in a building of historical importance and architectural significance. In some cases our work has lead to the removal of unsightly sound absorbing material which had previously been installed to tame a poorly designed sound system.

Many worship buildings, old and new, can be challenging spaces in which to achieve the right acoustical balance between music and speech requirements. A practical and sensitive design based upon solid acoustics principles, with careful attention to detail and thoroughness of purpose, can achieve excellent results.

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