What Is a Sound System?

At Mother of God Church, the sound system we currently enjoy is a performance system. That is, it is designed to amplify not only the spoken word but also the complex frequencies that are present in  the multiple tonalities of music.

The most obvious parts of the sound system are the speakers that hang above the sanctuary on each side and the microphones. But the system (click here for a diagram) is far more complex than that.

For instance, when a member of the Folk Ensemble sings into a microphone, the sound travels through a wire into the junction box mounted behind the communion rail. From there, it goes to an individual channel on a soundboard in the sanctuary. Within the soundboard, the audio signal is split in two. One signal travels to the monitor speakers on the altar for the singer to hear; the other signal gets combined with multiple audio signals from the other musicians and travels through a wire that runs under the church floor to the soundboard in the back. At that point, the audio signal is sent to an equalizer (which can be adjusted for clarity and warmth) housed in a rack in the sacristy. From the equalizer, the signal moves to the compressor, then to the amplifiers (also in the rack) and finally, to the speakers in the sanctuary.

The richness and fidelity of sound that a speaker produces depends, in large part, on its quality and design. However, the speakers don’t exist in a vacuum. Much depends on the acoustics of the room in which the speakers are placed. The more hard surfaces there are, the more the sound will bounce around. Too much bouncing, or reverb, causes the sound to be muddy and garbled. If there’s too little reverb, the sound will be deadened and flat. Consequently, speakers that sound good in one space can be all wrong for another. Positioning of the speakers in the room is also important to direct the sound waves properly to cover the most area.

(It is important to note that the speakers that are currently in place at Mother of God were specifically chosen, tested and installed to meet the difficult acoustic demands of the interior space.)

If the sound system as a whole is in good working order, and if the people operating it are knowledgeable, everyone has a good experience and the entire process is unnoticeable. But if one element fails, the result is distracting, irritating and sometimes, downright painful.

Where we are now

The state of the sound system at Mother of God is currently good. The speakers above the sanctuary are performing well and only in need of cleaning after years of collecting dust. Likewise, the components in the rack have been replaced within recent years and are in good shape.

The parts of the sound system that are beginning to fail are the sound boards at the front and rear of church. The back board has a hum in it that indicates its days are numbered. Several channels no longer work. In addition, given the growth of the Folk Ensemble and a need to give the sound engineer more control over individual voices and instruments, the existing number of channels in both soundboards is inadequate.

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There is also a need to add recording and playback capabilities to the system. For now, the sound engineers bring in their own equipment to accommodate this need.

Some parishioners have stated that they have trouble hearing, depending on where they are sitting in church. The addition of fill speakers is under consideration, as well as updating a special receiver system for those who are hearing impaired.

At this time, a special committee is being formed to guide the process of upgrading the sound system. Regular updates will be coming out to keep you informed of our progress.

Mother of God Sound System: The History

After the fire in 1986, Mother of God Church had the unique opportunity to start from scratch in building a new sound system to fit the specific needs of both the spoken and music ministries. A specially formed sound committee, chaired by representatives from the Finance Council and the Folk Ensemble, commissioned Daniel Martin, then president of the Acoustical Society of America, to conduct an independent acoustical study of the church. Martin made recommendations on how to improve the way sound traveled in the church, e.g., installing carpeting on the floors, adding acoustic material on the back wall underneath the choir, hanging cloth draperies over the painted ones on the wall of the sanctuary, etc.

Because they involved compromising the historical integrity of the building, all but the recommendation regarding carpeting were rejected. The job was bid out to a number of vendors, including Smithall Electronics, Inc., owned by George Smith. After careful consideration, the committee decided to award the contract to Smith, who then worked closely with Martin to install the current sound system in 1987. Both Martin and Smith understood the challenges of amplifying the spoken word and music in a space as acoustically complex as Mother of God. Through much trial and error, and with sensitivity to the architectural integrity of the space, they designed a system that would supply the church with the best sound fidelity for the affordable dollar.

MoG retained Smithall Electronics over the years to maintain and upgrade the system, such as adding rear speakers on two columns to boost the sound towards the back of church, as well as maintaining the soundboards and supplying the latest in microphone technology.

This sound system has and continues to perform well in conveying both the spoken word and music.