Pro audio in the European house of worship market

Colin Birch and Will Strauss take a look at the current state of the European house of worship market and highlight the specific requirements of religious venues. 

To the uninitiated, supplying audio technology to a house of worship (HoW) might not seem hugely lucrative. But in the United States, amplifying the word of God is big business.

There, the larger churches and other religious meeting places have spent decades developing sophisticated AV systems to the point that now, to facilitate time-shifted rejoicing, they feature state-of-the art recording, post-production, and broadcast capabilities that would shame many a regional US TV station.

In Europe, the demand is there, but on a much smaller scale.

“The UK church market is very much still a low-end area,” says James Baker, Avid Technology’s live sound territory sales manager for Europe. “A lot [of them] are local community churches that don’t have the budget for professional mixing consoles. [Instead] they’re mostly using low-end desks. We do see sales into this business sector increasing, however the curve of this is not as big or as fast as you would expect.”

The majority of Baker’s business in the HoW market is for arena-sized religious events, and this is being done via rental companies.

For Caleb Hill, marketing manager of Sound Network, DPA’s UK distributor, HoW is a niche but occasionally surprising market. “It quietly ticks along,” he says. “But, through our channel partners, we probably supply more than we think.”

Of course, even today’s state-of-the-art HoW installations began life as simple public address systems. As the technology became more affordable and accessible, churches would add some lighting, cameras, a simple vision mixer, and a projector, or strategically-located monitors if the venue was particularly large.

Many of these analogue systems are still in use today, in smaller or less well-funded venues. The more cavernous, often purpose-built, multimedia-enabled houses of worship – colloquially referred to as megachurches or superchurches – are now all-digital, with wireless microphone and digital loudspeaker control systems, multichannel mixing consoles, digital audio workstations, video and audio web streaming capabilities and even, in some cases, wholly-owned dedicated cable television channels.

Those British and European churches that are unable to simply continue to rely on a medieval or gothic building’s impressive acoustics are, at the very least, investing in ever-more-affordable professional-quality microphones, sound reinforcement, and front-of-house systems to provide the best possible listening experience for their congregations.

Sound Considerations

A house of worship is not most people’s idea of a hostile environment for a simple microphone and speaker system, but harsh surfaces, obtrusive stone pillars, pulpits, choir stalls, religious icons, and vast stained glass windows create huge challenges for systems designers and operators whose job it is to make sure churchgoers enjoy every sermon, prayer, and hymn.

Unlike theatres or music venues, which tend to stick to tried-and-tested design conventions, every church is different, from the layout of the building to the individual style of a particular ministry.

The art of audio system design and integration in this market is to understand how the building is used, and blend the technology into the way each church conducts its services.

Integrators focus a great deal of their attention on pattern control, digital signal processing and stored, optimised settings, to enhance and enrich the congregation’s experiences. The technology must also be unobtrusive and in no way interfere with the building’s aesthetic or how services are conducted.

Ease-of-use in HoW AV systems is also really important, since many churches rely on volunteers to operate them on the day of a service. To help, suppliers and integrators have designed special workflows and simple, intuitive touchscreen interfaces to reduce the chances of operator error interfering with the delivery of a rousing sermon.

That said, the people responsible for using and maintaining these systems are quickly learning how to get the most out of them. Indeed, in many cases, volunteers nowadays are members of the congregation with a professional audio and/or video background.

Examples of technologies that have been embraced by the house of worship market include:

JBL’s HiQnet Performance Manager – a software application used for configuring networked audio systems that was created to cut down on design time, simplify networking and automate the configuring of control interfaces.

The Virtual Soundcheck feature of Digidesign’s Venue console – this allows operators to use recorded performance audio to fine-tune console settings for future use; adjust gain structure, build snapshots, and even refine PA system settings with the click of a mouse, using the next best thing to an actual service as source material.

The Aviom monitoring system – for musicians performing during a service to control their own mixes, so they don’t have to solely rely on a volunteer audio operator for what they hear, meaning they play better and sound better together.

A new entrant into the US house of worship audio market is broadcast console manufacturer Calrec Audio. One of its Artemis consoles was used for the live online broadcast of Billy Graham’s Festival of Hope in El Paso, Texas, which was attended by more than 16,000 people. Signals were fed from sister company DiGiCo’s front of house desk to the nearby OB truck housing the Artemis using MADI over coax. Calrec is hoping its involvement in this major event will be a stepping stone into more of these large-scale projects.

To see the future of audio and video in houses of worship, perhaps the best places to visit are youth groups.

Here, musical instruments, recording technology, cameras, and lighting jostle for space with high-end computers loaded with the state-of-the-art content-creation technology that tomorrow’s church leaders are using to create and distribute their deeply-held beliefs.