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Letter to the Musicians


The organist and choir director wants to hear that long reverberation time in the room; the pianist doesn’t want it that long, and the contemporary worship band doesn’t want any reverberation at all. With all of these desires, how does a church decide what’s best and what to invest in obtaining?

Before that can be answered, you need to be told that once reverberation is longer than about 2 seconds, our mind processes the remainder as just noise. It’s not musical, it’s not helpful, it’s just noise. Go into any recording studio and adjust the settings on an effects processor so it sounds good to you for both speech and music. You’ll find most people dial in only about 1.5 seconds or so, no more and not much less.

Having a long RT60 (reverberation time) makes music sound more like mush than music. Most music wasn’t written to be performed in long RT60 conditions; music that was written this way was because they had to compromise based on the room the musician had to work in.

A properly diffused room makes music full, natural, and above all else – musical!

A church in Brazil had a measured RT60 of over 7 seconds. Once the room was treated with very simple methods (no absorption was used), 5 seconds was cut off, resulting in a room with an average RT60 of just over 2 seconds. Speech was now intelligible. The choir could be understood, and the organist had to call the organ tuner in to turn DOWN several ranks of pipes. In addition to this, there was one full rank that had never been heard before – this was now heard loud and clear. Timing issues between musicians were eliminated. One would think the organist would hate the reduction in the reverberation time – on the contrary, the organist loved the changes.

In a medium Methodist church in the Chicago area, the room was temporarily treated with acoustical panels. The organist was asked to come in and play a little. As the organist walked through the sanctuary to the organ, he commented that he actually understood what people were saying to him from the rear of the room. It was the first time that had happened; normally no one could communicate from the back to the front or visa-versa. He played a few measures of the song used the previous Sunday, and suddenly stopped. With eyes wide open, he asked how we had managed to increase the reverberation time and yet give his organ more life and respond faster. As he talked more, he explained that normally when he played there was a delay of hearing the sound after pressing the keys. That wasn’t the case anymore; the sound was heard as soon as he pressed each key. We hadn’t increased the reverberation time at all and hadn’t shortened it either. It remained at an average of 1.8 seconds.

Not only is the RT60 of the room important, but so is the placement and shape of each wall in the room. A wall in the wrong place or of the wrong shape can reduced a well rehearsed choir or orchestra to a mess once they begin to sing or play in the sanctuary. Timing issues caused by late reflections and not being able to hear the others in the choir or orchestra are all problems that shouldn’t exist in a church sanctuary.

As far as the audio system is concerned, we’ve all heard systems which degrade the sound of an otherwise flawless performance. Again, this doesn’t have to be the case, and when it comes to churches, it should NOT be the case. A proper design, installation, and operated system will not create problems, it will merely allow everyone in the room to hear properly.


A concerned Christian and church audio/acoustics professional

-Blake Engel,
All Church Sound