Take a church sanctuary--any church
sanctuary. Fill it with a congregation and have the pastor give
a sermon. What does the pastor need more--a sound system or
good acoustics? Now, using the same sanctuary and same congregation,
have a choir of 40 sing with organ and piano. What's more important--a
sound system or good acoustics? Again, use the same sanctuary
and same congregation, but this time add a contemporary worship
team (complete with piano, keyboard, drums, guitar, etc.). What's
more important--a sound system or good acoustics?
In each case, both the sound system and acoustics are important...but
which is more important?! The use of electronic sound systems
is quite new, really. It wasn't until the 1940's that the use
of electronic amplification in churches really began. This was
because it was a new, expensive technology, and in the past,
no sound amplification was needed (primarily because the number
of planes, trains, automobiles and other noise makers was low).
Prior to the 1940's the main concern was acoustics.
Sound behaves differently inside a room than it does outside
in an open space. Outside there are no large, flat reflective
surfaces, there is no ceiling, and the "floor" is
made up of many different materials. The only two places outside
in an open space that come close to a closed room is the Grand
Canyon (and other similar rock formations) and bodies of water
with a smooth, calm surface. Rock is hard and a great reflector
of sound waves, so is water.
When a structure is built, the inside is usually finished with
hard, flat surfaces (walls, ceiling, floor). These hard surfaces
reflect sound waves. Depending on the characteristics of the
surface (its composition, size, shape), different frequencies
of sound will be affected differently. For example, a room that
has all of its surfaces carpeted will be boomy sounding because
the carpet is absorbing the high frequencies sooner than the
low frequencies are being absorbed. In such a room, there's
nothing a sound system (pure electronics) can do to overcome
the boomy room.
Another example is a room with two flat parallel walls. Sound
waves will bounce back and forth between these two walls very
rapidly (at the speed of sound), creating an echo that sounds
like a ping-pong ball being dropped on a hard surface. Again,
there's nothing a sound system (pure electronics) can do to
overcome this echo.
Finally, a third example--an air-conditioned room built with
the air conditioner blowers and compressors right outside one
of the side walls. The noise created by the equipment will be
loud, and, although a sound system may be able to produce sound
levels louder than the air conditioning equipment, you're still
stuck with the noise (it hasn't reduced the noise at all). Installing
the air conditioning equipment in a different location or building
the wall differently would have been the best solution. You
can't fight an acoustical problem with a sound system!
Depending on the acoustical problem the room has, installation
of a sound system may in fact make the problem worse! Although
proper design of the sound system shouldn't produce acoustical
problems, in many cases the sound system helps show the acoustical
deficiencies. Remember, a sound system increases the volume
of a persons voice or pre-recorded music. A voice un-amplified
in a room may sound OK, but when amplified may excite the room
to a point that acoustical problems are much more noticeable.
In answer to the question presented, the acoustics of a room
are very important, even more so than the sound system itself.
A sound system can only amplify sound, it can only perform as
well as the acoustics of the room allow it to. A sound system
amplifies everything, good and bad. Just like a microscope can
only magnify (it can't show us things that don't actually exist),
a proper sound system can only present a mirror image of the
acoustics of the room.
So, before you begin investing the Lord's money in audio equipment,
be sure to take a look at your acoustics--or hire someone to
do an acousical analysis of the room. It may cost a little more
in the beginning, but the final product will be well worth the
effort and money spent.