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HoW great thou art

Audio systems in houses of worship are becoming more sophisticated in order to cope with changing usage patterns. Plenty of reason, suggests David Davies, for manufacturers to count their blessings.

The Houses of Worship (HoW) market is a uniquely fascinating one, not least because the rewards it has brought for AV manufacturers, distributors and installers appear to be founded upon a mass of contradictions.

For a start, there is the issue of attendance. While an estimated 40% of US citizens continue to visit an HoW on a regular basis – and there is evidence of serious growth in various parts of Asia-Pacific – sharp declines have been recorded in many European nations. The UK is often cited as a prime example, with church attendance rates expected to dip below 5% by 2020 (source: Religious trends 5, Brieley 2005); simultaneously, the average age of worshippers continues to rise.

However, against this context of what some commentators love to term ‘creeping secularism’, there has been a surge in the number of Evangelical-style services incorporating more contemporary methods of performance. With these services making greater demands on AV technology, it is not hard to see why the HoW market has taken off, even in countries where overall attendance continues to slide. Moreover, an increasing number of non-Christian churches are also looking to upgrade their audio specs.

“Obviously [the audio requirements] vary greatly depending upon the type of worship, but the market is embracing technology and is far less conservative than it was 10 years ago,” says Nick Screen, who is business development manager of Duran Audio BV and MD of Duran Audio UK.

What’s more, the unique financial background of this sector, whereby new projects are likely to be driven by congregational donations, fund-raising initiatives and/or individual benefactors, suggests that HoW should be more immune to economic fluctuations than many other areas of install.

Health of the market
PSNE spoke to well over a dozen audio manufacturers during preparation of this article, and the general consensus was that – in comparison to many other markets – HoW has been relatively unaffected by the current global recession. Projects planned over the long-term continue to go ahead, while in those areas where attendance is strong or on the increase, worship facilities evince a desire to enhance the standard of their audio systems for speech and music.

“In our experience, [the impact of the economic crisis] has been less than in other markets,” says Peavey operations director Dave Bearman. “HoW still seem to have money to spend.”

“HoW, like all institutions, have to be prudent in the current economic climate and we are seeing more caution,” advises Karl Brunvoll, VP international sales, Renkus-Heinz. “However, many HoW production technology projects are budgeted over several years and carried out as planned.”

So if not exactly recession-proof, HoW is in pretty buoyant shape. Within this context of overall expansion, a cluster of countries appear to be setting the pace for market development.

Predictably enough, North America tops many a manufacturer’s list of the key HoW nations. The US Christian ‘mega-church’ market has been a well-documented phenomenon of recent years, and although some observers suggest that it has slowed down in the past 18 months, it continues to generate a steady stream of lucrative new projects. It should also be noted that, in terms of HoW AV, this is as top-flight as it gets, with many of these multi-thousand-capacity venues possessing audio, lighting and video systems fit to rival those of world-class concert halls.

A couple of notable projects aside, there is insufficient evidence at present to suggest that we are about to see an explosion in the number of large-capacity churches in non-US markets. However, the more euphoric and inclusive style of the services found there is becoming more widespread, particularly in Anglicanism. The conventional sparse organ accompaniment is increasingly being eschewed in favour of rock groups and extended communal singalongs, so it stands to reason that many existing venues are looking to upgrade their facilities with sophisticated mixing systems as well as high-spec loudspeakers and amplifiers.

“The market in Europe is a long way behind the US,” cautions Innovason sales and marketing director Gauthier Dalle, “but I imagine we’ll be seeing more and more US-style churches appearing in Europe with a much more liberal, modern style of worship. These days, that usually means a worship band, therefore PA, amplification, console, etc. Good news for us!”

Aviom’s international marketing and sales director for EMEA, Nick Williams, believes that the jury is still out as to whether there will be a major boom in the number of mega-churches outside North America, but says there is no doubt that “those kind of [US-style] services are now taking place more widely. People are aware that audio for HoW has gone beyond speech. More churches are beginning to specify digital consoles while the incorporation of rock bands means greater demand for monitoring systems.” This is clearly a welcome development for Aviom, which reports continuing demand from HoW for its Pro16 personal mixing series as well as burgeoning interest in the Pro64 networking modules.

Excepting the US, a quickfire survey of manufacturers’ leading HoW markets yields a lengthy list that includes the Middle East, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Korea and Singapore. The roll-call of ‘ones to watch’ includes China and several other nations where demonstrations of religious observance have only become more acceptable in recent times.

Noting that “a lot of projects are happening in the Far East right now”, Ohm sales manager Clive Kinton draws particular attention to South Korea. “We have supplied a number of new builds, which have very large congregations that require them to run services three or four times on a Sunday,” he says. “In many cases, the church is treated a bit like a concert hall; they really want to make a performance out of the service.”

Moreover, it is clear that interest in high-spec audio now spreads far beyond the various strands of Christianity. Kinton observes a general upturn in interest from Islamic HoW, particularly with regard to minarets, although he acknowledges that “there are some problems there. It’s a fine line between freedom to worship and noise abatement.” Elsewhere, Sean Maxwell from UK Electro-Voice distributor Shuttlesound reports “solid business” for EV in “Church of England and new Christian denomination churches, mosques and temples, reflecting the multicultural composition of the UK”.

‘Intelligibility and musicality’
If it’s a given that high-spec audio for HoW is in the ascendant, how does this manifest itself in the demands made of manufacturers?

“HoW venues are demanding to have the same quality audio as you would find in music venues while insisting on a very high standard of speech intelligibility,” says Nexo marketing manager Joe White, who notes the uptake in line array technologies linked up through digital networks. “Furthermore, many HoW venues are specifying systems that can be modular to cater for different events that they may have inside and outside their HoW venues.”

As far as Tannoy communications manager Mark Flanagan is concerned, the main priorities for loudspeaker manufacturers are “intelligibility and musicality, while being as architecturally sensitive as possible. Due to the nature of the activity taking place in a HoW and the fact that the venue design is driven by considerations that are effectively at odds with good acoustics – both in terms of materials and the form of the building – achieving good speech intelligibility is often an extremely challenging task and the quality of a religious sermon can suffer significantly as a result.”

High reverberation times bequeathed by unsympathetic building materials is a particular bugbear. For several manufacturers – Renkus-Heinz with its Iconyx system and Tannoy with QFlex, to name just two – beam-steering arrays hold the ability to address many of these problems. “With beam-steering, concentrated beams of acoustic energy can be concentrated on specific target audience areas,” explains Flanagan, adding that Tannoy’s QFlex has been an “instant hit” in the UK and mainland Europe across both traditional and modern HoW.

Rivalling acoustic challenges as a pressure point is the need to minimise aesthetic impact. Accordingly, ‘discreet’ is a popular buzzword, and only likely to become more so. “Specially-designed ‘invisible’ speakers will be more and more in demand in an effort to preserve the building’s architecture,” predicts D.A.S. Audio’s international sales director EMEA, Jack Palacio.

For console manufacturers, the need to minimise footprint is a constant preoccupation, especially in smaller, more traditional venues. Also high on the agenda is the need to ensure ease of operation and accommodate what may be wildly fluctuating knowledge bases on the part of HoW personnel.

DiGiCo marketing director David Webster suggests that in a super-church “there is probably one person who really knows what they are doing and then a lot of volunteers. That’s why – starting with the SD8 – we have included the ability to set the level of security in the console.” Webster adds that, emboldened by the popularity of the small-footprint SD8, DiGiCo is continuing to increase its market share in HoW.

Trial by committee?
Some of the challenges inherent in the HoW market are common to all types of manufacturer, of course, and none more so than the method by which purchasing decisions are taken. With HoW committees obliged to respect the requirements – and financial contributions – of their congregations, it is hardly surprising that the decision-making process can be rather protracted.

“As with any voluntary organisation, no one can stand up and dictate,” says Kinton. “So if I issued a quote today, the chances are that it would take six months for someone to come back and say ‘yes’.”

Despite this, it is clear that HoW is a market more than worthy of the effort – not least because the best may be yet to come. L-Acoustics marketing director Stéphane Ecalle suggests that we are going to see “more digital audio, networking, control platform development and new sound design solutions adapted to the mixed usage of speech and music,” while there is a broad expectation that many HoW will explore the possibility of simultaneous translation and webcasting. Moreover, with an increasing number of HoW-specific trade events – the most high profile example being the Worship Facilities Expo (WFX) in the US – it is likely that manufacturers and distributors will find it ever easier to make those all-important first contacts. Reason enough, it would seem, to offer a short prayer of thanks to the Great Whatever.