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The Context

On this page we are considering primarily PA systems in regular use in a particular worship venue, rather than temporary systems set up for specific events or by visiting bands. By "places of worship" here we primarily mean meeting places for Christian gatherings (of any denomination) − though some of the information given may equally be applicable to gatherings of other faiths.

The technical principles and many of the operational aspects of PA systems are similar no matter what the context of use. So please don't look only at this page − all the other pages of this site are equally relevant to PA in places of worship, and may be of some assistance to you.

If you are a technical operator who is fairly new to the subject then a useful introduction is provided by the 'Getting Started' pages for mixing engineers and system assemblers. Worship band members getting used to using a PA may find the performers' page useful. If however you have a specific PA-related problem or query, it is probably best to first check the FAQ page.

This page is written primarily to provide guidance to small finance-limited churches whose systems are inadequate for their present needs, or are suspected of being inadequate. If your system is a large or fairly-modern one that is being effectively utilised and is meeting your main requirements, then most of this page is unlikely to be of much interest to you.

From a PA perspective, we need to remember that the circumstances of different congregations vary widely, so there is no possibility of a "one solution fits all" approach. For example, we could contrast the case of elderly congregations meeting in traditional church buildings (a gradually declining scenario in the UK and Europe) with the case of younger and mixed-age gatherings using alternative accommodation such as schools or other rented halls or rooms (which is on the increase).

Congregations vary greatly in their average size:

  • Small − 20 to 150 (the most common scenario in the UK)
  • Medium-sized − 125 to 275
  • Large − 250 to 500
  • Very large − significantly exceeding 500 (fairly unusual in the UK)
in the type and size of their accommodation:
  • Small traditional churches and chapels
  • Large traditional churches and cathedrals
  • Small and medium-sized modern churches and halls
  • Large and very large halls and auditoria
in their mix of ages:
  • Predominantly under-25's
  • Predominantly 20-40 with young families
  • Very mixed
  • Predominantly 55+
and in their musical worship styles:
  • Predominantly traditional hymns; organ and/or piano only
  • Predominantly traditional but some keyboard or acoustic guitar based early-modern worship (often using songs and arrangements from the 1980's)
  • Transitional between traditional/early-modern and modern styles; smallish band (often varying in make-up from week to week) with or without amplified lead vocals
  • Predominantly recent worship songs; full band with amplified lead vocals, electric guitar(s), drums and bass
These factors, all of which are relevant to PA requirements and design, may combine in a multitude of ways. However, the following scenarios are the most common:
  • Small congregations, often mostly elderly, in small and large traditional churches using a traditional worship style.
  • Small congregations, aged 20-40 with young families, in small or medium-sized accommodation using transitional and/or modern worship styles.
  • Small and medium-sized mixed-age congregations in medium-sized accommodation using transitional worship styles.
  • Large and very large young congregations in large modern accommodation using modern worship styles.

There are a number of likely PA arrangements, which may or may not be appropriately tailored to the actual requirements of the particular worship scenario:

  • PA used only for speech. Worship band (if any) use backline only (no amplified vocalists).
  • PA used for speech and vocals only. Worship band instruments use backline only.
  • Limited PA used for vocals and for all instrumentation (often with the exception of drums and bass). No (or very limited) monitoring. Frequently a small mixer-amplifier or powered mixer is used − often located next to the band and set-up by them (i.e. no dedicated operator). This is sometimes a completely separate system from the one that is used for speech during other parts of the service (notices, prayers, sermon, etc).
  • Full PA used for vocals and for all instrumentation (sometimes with the exception of drums − and maybe bass) − full monitoring provided. Adequately-sized mixer, with competent operators.

Common Difficulties

The provision and operation of PA systems for such gatherings poses some particular challenges. Why should these be any different to other contexts of PA use? Mostly because the context is not a professional one − nor even a semi-professional one − in the sense that a church is a non-profit-making organisation. When not well-endowed financially (as is sadly often the case), the provision of adequate PA equipment and competent operators frequently falls low in the list of priorities for expenditure and action.

A persistent shortage of funds available for use in this area is likely to mean:

  • A lack of investment over a long period, resulting in some or all of the equipment being near the end of its life, and/or lacking in the quality or facilities commonly provided by more modern equipment.
  • Heavy compromise in the choice of new items of equipment, resulting in the use of mediocre-quality equipment and/or a lack of highly desirable features.
  • Piecemeal replacement of equipment when it becomes uneconomic to repair, resulting in a mixture of equipment interfaces and styles.
  • A lack (or complete absence) of equipment considered 'non-essential', such as graphic equalisers, stage monitors, effects units, compressors, noise gates, balanced line cabling, DI boxes, and suitable types and/or a sufficient number of microphones.
  • A lack of adequate training provision for musicians, vocalists and sound engineers.

Additionally:

  • The space used for the worship meetings may be acoustically challenging − e.g. with long reverberation times, echoes or resonances. (See the absorbent walls project information.)
  • The space used for the worship meetings may be small in relation to the direct sound levels produced by the band, giving the sound engineer little scope for controlling the sound mix heard by the congregation (without creating an excessive overall sound level).
  • The space available for the band may be very restricted, which may result in musicians and vocalists having difficulty in hearing their own sound above that of other band members in close proximity, and causing sound leakage problems.
  • Musical instruments may be of poor or mediocre quality.
  • Changes in the style of worship music (for example, from pipe organ to keyboard and guitars) may mean that existing PA equipment is used far outside of its design parameters. In extreme cases, equipment designed only for the reproduction of speech may now be being used for music at relatively high levels.
  • The size of the congregation may vary widely between 'regular' services and 'special' ones such as for Easter, Christmas and other occasional events (large weddings, funerals, etc.).
  • Architectural and/or aesthetic considerations may place restrictions on the type and location of speakers, and/or on the location of the mixing position.
  • Sound engineers are likely to be volunteers with no formal training and a less than complete understanding of how to achieve the best results possible in all the given circumstances.
  • Musicians and vocalists are likely to be volunteers with no formal training and unskilled in matters relating to PA systems − e.g. in microphone technique and sound-checks. They may also be naiive of the constraints of the particular system available. These factors may lead to frustrations regarding their on-stage sound, and to other problems such as acoustic feedback.
  • Other microphone-users, such as readers, preachers, and congregation members giving ad-hoc announcements, may adopt poor microphone technique and/or use inadequate voice levels, resulting in the system operating close to the point of feedback. This may be a cause of an over-resonant sound.
  • Depending on the type of congregation, its members may differ widely as regards their tastes and preferences for mixes and sound level. (This may be a particular problem when the average age of the worship band members differs widely from the average age of the congregation.)

These lists demonstrate just some of the very difficult challenges often faced by the sound engineer in places of worship. Thankfully, not all of the above will apply to every worship situation, but if none of the factors listed applies to yours then you are very blessed indeed − Praise the Lord! Frequently, when funds are simply not available to address even the most pressing of the above issues, the engineer has to operate in the knowledge that the achievable results fall far short of his or her ideal.


Looking Forwards

In some cases the only solution for improvement may involve significant expenditure − on equipment, training, and/or controlling the room acoustics. However, in addition to the basic advice on mixing given on the Mixing Engineers page, here are some specific tips that may be of assistance:

  • If equipment is known to be inadequate, carry out research to determine the most cost-effective way to resolve the most serious issue(s), and make proposals to those in charge.
    • If funds are limited, it is usually best to concentrate in the first instance on ensuring that the fundamental parts of the system (in particular, speakers and microphones) are of adequate quality. For example, there is probably no merit in upgrading the mixer or adding an effects unit if the speakers are inadequate.
    • To avoid wasting money on frequent replacements, always ensure that any equipment purchased will meet forseeable future needs − not just solve the immediate problem(s). The more money is spent on a particular item, the longer its anticipated useful lifetime in the system (as it evolves over time) should be.
    • If you have insufficient skill or experience to assess the existing equipment, or are unable to carry out the necessary research effectively, obtain skilled advice and/or assistance.
    • You may find it helpful to refer to the notes on choosing a mixer and/or the microphone selector.

  • If the equipment is known to be adequate, or if funds to make improvements are not available, then changes may need to be made to the way the equipment is used, in order to get the best possible results from it. For example:
    • Are the available microphones being used correctly? In particular:
      • Best available type of microphone used for each sound source.
      • All microphones correctly placed (usually as close as possible to their respective sound sources, to help avoid feedback and leakage).
      • Best microphone technique used by vocalists and by persons speaking.
      • Lavalier microphones worn correctly, and large head movements avoided (or consider using a headset microphone instead).
      • Adequate voice levels used for speech and singing.
      • Unused microphones kept muted (e.g. worship band microphones muted during the sermon).
    • Are the front-of-house speakers correctly located in the room, at an adequate height to cover the whole congregration without being too loud for people at the front, and correctly angled?
    • Are graphic equalisers (if present) correctly adjusted?
    • Are the available channel equalisation facilities being used to best advantage? ('Low cut' switches should always be activated on speech and vocal mic channels.)
    • If compressors are used, are they optimally set for their respective sound sources?
    • If the on-stage level is too high to enable the engineer to create a good overall mix for the congregation, without exceeding acceptable overall sound levels, then investigate the source(s) of the high stage levels and consider how they may be reduced. For example:
      • If drums are being played too loudly, can this be resolved by changes to the playing style? Sometimes loud drumming is encouraged by excessively loud backline and/or monitors (see the next bullet). Also consider the use of fabric to dampen drums (e.g. a blanket in the kick drum or a tea-towel on the snare), use of a drum screen, or use of electronic drums.
      • Where backline is not amplified via the PA, ensure that the relevant musician(s) understands that the sound engineer has no direct control over the level of their sound in the overall mix heard by the congregation, and that they need to manage their level accordingly. (This is a less than ideal situation for keeping stage levels acceptably low, as it means that other band members may find that the necessary backline level masks their own sound, or masks other instruments/vocals that they need to hear, necessitating those levels to be higher than they otherwise would.)
      • Where amplified backline and/or monitors are in use, ensure that each one is set at the minimum level necessary for the relevant band member(s), and that each one is pointing in the optimal direction (tricky when you don't have enough monitors). Can they be located closer to the performers, to allow their level to be reduced? (Often a significant advantage can be obtained by increasing their height.) If possible, arrange for each monitor to be supplied with a mix of just the sources needed by the person(s) it covers.
    • Is the sound level from the front-of-house speakers appropriate for the size of the congregation and for the distance between the speakers and the congregation? Avoid the use of sound levels greater than necessary, considering the comfort and safety of all ages present within the congregation.
    • When the room acoustics are difficult, investigate the possibility of improving them, for example by the installation of carpeting, curtains, false ceilings or drapes. (Sometimes these kinds of improvements, although often expensive, are funded more readily than changes to the PA equipment, because of the other benefits they bring.) In the meantime, apply effects sparingly; avoid the use of reverb and echo effects when there is already too much natural reverb and echo!
  • If engineering skills are inadequate or in need of updating, consider appropriate training. There are many options available, including one-day on-site training sessions using your own equipment, weekend workshops away, and comprehensive full-time courses. For example, a Christian-based full-time live sound course is run by Nexus Institute of Creative Arts (external link, opens in a new window), formerly Nexus Trust. For information on what kind of things might be covered in training, see the Training page.

"Nobody made a greater mistake than he* who did nothing because he could only do a little." − Edmund Burke. [* or she − Editor]


Other Audio Equipment

This section includes lists of some manufacturers of other audio equipment that you may need in a worship context. (For general PA equipment suppliers see the Suppliers page and for manufacturers see the Manufacturers page.) These lists are not exhaustive, and no recommendation is implied. For further information on the equipment from these manufacturers follow the links, which take you to their websites. These links open in a new window of your browser. Please contact me if any of the links don't work, or if you would like to suggest other manufacturers to be added. Thank you.

Induction Loop Amplifiers / Drivers

(For information on what this is about, see Induction loop.)

Audio Recording Equipment

There are a number of possible approaches to producing audio recordings of services, each of which have their own merits and possible problems. Some common methods are listed below − the first two being the methods most often employed.

  • Direct recording to CD, using a dedicated CD recorder. If more than one copy of the CD is required, a PC or a dedicated CD duplicator can subsequently be used to make copies.
  • Recording using a solid-state digital recording device. These generally record to a flash-memory based device such as a removable memory card or a USB drive. Many such recorders offer a choice of recording formats, such as linear PCM or MP3 at various bit-rates. The recorded sound file is subsequently transferred to a PC, either by physically transferring the memory card/drive or by using a USB cable. It may then be uploaded to the Internet and/or used to write one or more CDs.
  • Recording using a mini disc recorder or a DAT recorder, with subsequent audio transfer to a PC or to a CD recorder.
  • Recording using a PC, either directly to a CD or (preferably) in the first instance to the PC's hard drive, with CDs being written later.
  • Recording using a dedicated hard-disk recording unit, with subsequent transfer to a PC or CD-writer that is then used to write one or more CDs.

Video Projection for Song Words etc.

Some churches, especially those that prefer a more traditional or personal worship style, are content with using hymn books or other song books for their congregations. However, video projection of song words from a computer can offer substantial benefits. For example:

  • Additional songs can easily be added to the system as required.
  • Song words, the layout of song sections, and presentation styles can all be tailored to match the church's preferences.
  • No need to maintain an up-to-date stock of song books in serviceable condition.
  • The congregation worship in a heads-up stance, which can promote a more corporate feel to the worship time as people are more aware of others around them and their response to the worship.
  • The hands of congregation members are freed-up, e.g. assisting expressive worship (lifted hands, banner waving, dance, etc.) and practicalities such as caring for young children in the service.
  • The projection system can also be used for other purposes such as displaying sermon outlines (e.g. using PowerPoint™), video clips, notices, alert messages, etc. Some presentation software allows the use of a live video background (e.g. of the worship leader) while displaying the song words.

Some cautions:

  • A licence may be required for the projection of song words. Licensing for Christian churches in the UK is provided by CCL. Outside the UK, try CCL Global. (External links, open in a new window.)
  • Be sure to have sufficient people trained to use the projection system. Yet another rota!
  • Some members of the congregation, e.g. some older members, may have difficulties with distance vision (even if the song words are large) or with a prolonged head-up stance. Such members may feel excluded if there is no alternative available to the projected song words.
  • If you use a projection system but also issue the congregation with song books, be sure that the words on your projection system exactly match those in the song books.
  • As the information on these systems is usually readily editable, beware alterations being made to lyrics, or to the sequence of the song sections, that are made for a specific occasion and then remain to cause problems later. It can be useful in such cases to make a suitably-renamed copy of the song on the system and make the specific changes to that, leaving the original untouched.

There are many available sources of song words projection software. Here are some suggestions:

Some tips on creating PowerPoint™ presentations:

  • In general, many slides with a limited amount of information or detail on each one will work better than a smaller number of densely-packed slides.
  • If the presentation is being prepared for use on just one projection system, find out the aspect ratio of the screen and set up the page format of your presentation accordingly, otherwise your slides may not fully fill the screen. Set this up before you design your slides, so that you can make best use of the available slide area.
  • Select your text colour and its background so as to give a good contrast between the two. However, avoid very bright background colours such as bright yellow or 100% white (especially for backgrounds that occupy a large area of the screen, e.g. behind substantial areas of text), as this can be dazzling − especially when the projected image is bright in comparison with the room's ambient lighting levels. Lightly textured backgrounds in pastel shades often work well.
  • Avoid using a large border for your slides, as large borders reduce the area available for your content, which is likely to reduce overall legibility.
  • Be sure to use a large enough point-size for your text to allow good legibility for people seated at the furthest distance from the screen. The minimum usable size will depend mostly on the size of the screen in comparison with the furthest seating distance from it, but will also be affected by factors such as the screen quality, the projected contrast ratio of your text on its background, the ambient light levels falling on the screen, dazzle from other sources of light, etc. If possible, carry out a test using the projection system you will be using for the presentation, and check legibility at the furthest seating distance (remembering that not everyone's eyesight may be as good as your own!).
  • If using images on your slides, where you want the detail of the images to be clearly seen (e.g. maps, people's faces, etc.) make the images as large as you can on the slide (taking into account any areas that are needed around the image for essential associated text). Don't leave unnecessary large borders of unused space around your images. (An unavoidably large border may be needed either at the sides or above and below − but not both − because of a mismatch between the shape (aspect ratio) of an image and the shape of the space available for it on the slide. It's usually best not to distort an image's shape to make it fit.)

Some video / multimedia projector manufacturers:


Safety Considerations

All the usual PA-related safety considerations apply in places of worship − see the Safety page.

Special attention must be given to situations of increased risk, such as the greatly increased risk of electric shock in the presence of water. This applies not only to outdoor events, but also in other situations involving water, such as baptism services. Even the presence of damp surfaces can increase the shock risk, but risks are greatest when significant amounts of water are present − particularly when persons are substantially immersed or drenched, or when pools or baths are used into which equipment might fall. Fatalities have occurred in these and other similar circumstances.

As the layout and circumstances vary from location to location, it is impossible for this website to give categoric or specific safety advice. You must ensure that you have safety measures and procedures in place that are appropriate for your specific circumstances. If in any doubt, seek suitable professional advice. However, the following brief guidelines may give a useful starting point:

  • Carry out regular risk assessments to enable your specific hazards to be determined, and to evaluate whether steps should be taken to eliminate or to reduce the level of risk associated with each hazard. Record your risk assessments and details of any actions taken or planned.
  • Do not allow electrical equipment of any kind (including mains cables) into the vicinity of a wet area − for example where it might fall into a pool, be splashed by persons using a pool, or be encountered by wet persons leaving or (re-)entering a pool. The only exception is waterproof battery-powered radio microphone transmitters.
  • Do not allow cabled microphones to be used by wet persons, whether in a pool or otherwise (this includes stand-mounted cabled microphones).
  • Preferably do not suspend a cabled microphone above a pool. If this is unavoidable, it must be sufficiently high (for example, at least 2.5 metres above the highest point of the pool edge that can be stood on) and the cable must be secured in such a way that it is impossible for any part to drop to a lower height while still connected to the system.
  • Do not allow wet persons to use or approach electrical equipment of any kind (including mains cables, socket outlets and switches), other than waterproof battery-powered radio microphone transmitters.
  • Do not use any socket outlets that are in the vicinity of a filled or partially-filled pool (unless inaccessible − e.g. all covers in place).
  • Ensure that any nearby socket outlets, or socket outlets close to where wet persons may stand or walk, are adequately protected from splashes, e.g. by suitable polythene sheeting or other suitable waterproof insulating material.
  • Ensure that all socket outlets are protected by RCDs having a trip current of 30 mA or less.
  • Check all RCDs regularly, by using their integral TEST button.
  • Ensure that the fixed electrical installation is regularly inspected and tested, and that condition reports are properly acted upon.
  • Ensure that all electrical equipment is properly used and maintained, and is regularly inspected and tested. (See PAT.)

If you would like to reproduce any of the information from this website for use by your church, please refer to Reproduction of Information from PAforMusic on the home page.

There is considerable scope for expanding this section of the PAforMusic website. If you have particular questions, comments or suggestions relating to the use of PA systems in worship contexts, please do not hesitate to contact me.


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This page last updated 03-Feb-2016.