Obstacle Number 4 -

Sound Equipment Dealers, Sound Contractors,
and Sound System Engineers / Designers
look the same to the layperson



When you are looking for a particular sound in a sanctuary, you have to define at least two things:

- the type of sound you want and then

- the particular choices of equipment you will need to get that sound in your acoustic space.

There are other factors to consider too but those two items are the chunk of the problem. This goes back to some things I’ve already talked about but it’s so important to keep the idea straight that we design a system for a type of sound, then pick the equipment and installation methods along with the art of the process to get that sound. Just because a company sells and installs sound equipment has nothing to do with getting the sound you want. You might get lucky or might not. Don’t just assume because a company sells equipment they have any real idea of how to get the sound you want. Of course, they will say they can. Who wouldn’t?

Laypersons make the mistake that all of these "equipment sellers" listed below are the same. They all sell or know about sound equipment - all we want is the lowest price. This thought process is an enormous mistake.

Know who is going to design your system.

The mindsets of “system designers” you’re likely to encounter

The mindsets of various sound system equipment suppliers can be likened to doctors. Some doctors are general practitioners. Some are specialized in different areas. Which one you need depends upon your illness. Most buyers don’t realize a difference exists among sound system “experts” and can easily choose the wrong person to do the job.

Church sound is a permanent installation requiring a different skill set to design and install properly than sound for touring groups, theatres, clubs, recording studios, etc. You cannot mix the disciplines. They do overlap, but they are not the same.

The designer must have experience working behind the mixing console during live church events to understand what tools you need to work with and understand the problems in sound for ministry.

The designer must have technical skills to understand the products on the market, their capabilities, and how to interface them correctly, plus know who makes the best product for your application and be brand neutral.

An understanding of acoustics is required to know how sound will behave in your sanctuary or multipurpose space. It is impossible to design a system that will provide even, clear, and dynamic sound at every seat without knowledge of acoustic engineering principles.

Then there is practical installation experience and knowing how to mechanically and safely hang hundreds of pounds of speakers overhead, meet building codes, and electrical safety issues. It has to look great too.

Finding this combination of talents in one person is difficult but that’s what it takes for this type of work. You must know going in, the qualifications of the prospective system designer you have chosen to provide a bid.

Not the salesperson, not the company, but the physical person that is going to create the list of equipment.
You wouldn’t ask a foot doctor to meet you in the operating room next week for heart surgery! Be careful of who you select to design your sound system.

Here are the most common mindsets in no particular order.

The deep discount web site

The goal is retail sales not consulting, system design, or acoustic engineering. If you know what you want and are in search of the lowest price, this is a good choice. But you arent likely to find a deep discount house that has much more than order takers on the phone with a good gab to sell you something. Again, nothing at all wrong with that. Just know what your goal is.

The music store

Most music stores offer sound equipment and generally a person is in charge of that department. This environment is retail sales. A customer walks in looking for something and it’s the salesman job to sell something. Most music stores have only one or two lines of audio equipment for sale and have a very narrow view of what is available in the audio industry. Music stores are price sensitive meaning they stock products that the average person can afford, not particularly the best product for the job. There’s nothing wrong with that, just know what the situation is. Musicians are the typical customer and bands need a PA system. The equipment is designed for portable use to cover an extremely broad range of applications. It’s made to be thrown in the back of a truck, hauled all over the country, easily setup, and make a loud noise. It is NOT intended to provide the perfect sound coverage or clarity, but to make decent sound for the money.

The local band guy

I run into this once in a while. “So and so sings in a quartet and can get a sound system at cost and install it himself.”

This is the same thing as the music store or rock’n’roller. It will be the same equipment the music store sells just bought somewhere at the rock bottom price. Again, nothing wrong with that. We all are looking for the best deal. But, remember, what you need is a person that knows how to acoustically fit a sound system into a building. Any 16 year old can buy some sound equipment and hook it up. That’s just no big deal. But that is not a sound system. That is sound equipment. That is a big home stereo.

The recording studio owner

“We know a guy that owns a recording studio and he says we need this.”

Recording is a completely different discipline than designing sound for permanent install. Once in a while, I’ll get a call from someone that wants me to set up a studio and design the acoustic space. I refer those jobs to a studio designer because that’s not what I do. It’s requires a different, though related, skill set. I understand the difference. The recording engineer looks like a regular sound guy because he sits behind a mixing console and twists knobs just like the live sound guy. But the recording engineer is mixing sound for a boom box, tv, car, or home stereo speaker. He does not have to think about feedback problems, even sound coverage, or articulation issues in a live environment. Typically, recording engineers aren’t good at sound system design though they will understand the fundamentals of hooking up equipment.

The typical “sound contractor”

“Just tell me what so and so’s price is and we’ll beat it”

In my mind, the typical sound contractor is an equipment salesman on wheels. There is some basic knowledge of clusters, side mounted speakers, equalization, etc. But, more often than not, the game is to get the sale instead of clear speech at every seat. Brands and prices will be the topic of conversation more than a guarantee that the sound will be articulate and clear at every seat. Computer generated coverage maps are presented to “prove” the integrity of the design but buyers don’t realize the computer can come up with the wrong answer depending upon what data was entered. A sound system cannot be designed with a computer system. I use the same software but I use it as a way to check my design not as a replacement for my expertise. With all that said, if you are looking for an install at the lowest price and aren’t concerned about the best coverage, clearest sound, and the best fit for your ministries, that’s fine. Again, know who you are dealing with.

The acoustical consultant

A good consultant generally knows how to design a sound system to fit an acoustical environment, but may only have expertise in solving acoustic problems. They typically have excellent hearing, technical expertise, and knows what they are doing. The consultant can design a system, provide you with the specification package, help you find someone to install it, and then follow up to make sure the project turned out right. This is one of the best ways to buy a system. Let someone that knows how to design for permanent install design your system and then let several contractors bid the actual installation. There will be engineering and other up front fees paid to the consultant for acoustic analysis and design. Laypersons not familiar will up front fees will often be put off by this but never expect an architect to design a house for you for free either. That essentially what a consultant does, what I do, and it takes considerable time and expertise.

Acoustically engineered sound

This best describes what I do. I have a combination of several mindsets. I am a certified electronics technician, have taught basic sound systems at the local community college, have mixed sound for hundreds of live productions, was a professional musician for 7 years, and have a formal education around sound engineering and acoustics. I can operate as a consultant or design / build. I do charge up front design fees for most projects depending upon the time required, but the amount typically goes toward the purchase if an installation agreement is initiated within 90 days.

I’ve crawled around in ceilings and hung thousands of pounds of speakers. I know how a good install should be done to protect your property and keep the safety of your audience in mind. I know how to make it look like it belongs there and not tacked on. I like to hide wires and make the sound system as invisible as possible.

As a technician, I have serviced just about any name brand and type of product you can name so I have a good understanding of the quality of various brands of audio / video / and lighting equipment. I can look across the landscape of manufacturers and pick the best product for your application and price. Sometimes only one manufacturer has the perfect product for the job and the price is the price. Sometimes there’s no need to pay more for a product when another cheaper version will do the same thing in this particular application. But, you can only know that by having your hands on it.

As a musician, I know what the musicians, the choir, and the music director wants to hear, not only in the audience, but what they hear on stage. They must sound good to themselves to have any confidence they sound good out front. Balancing the sound on stage with monitoring systems and vocal to music mix is important. Years standing on stage gave me that perspective most sound contractors don’t have.

As a live sound tech, I’ve mixed sound for every kind of production you can think of. From outdoor talent shows to full orchestras with live drama, I’ve done it all. I know the problems your sound techs will face and how to design in solutions you will need to solve them. I know how to teach your sound techs how to get the most out of your system.

The bottom line is, I’m a real sound man. I love great sound and I know how to get it!

Choosing the right mindset

You can have anything from the lowest price “we installed it ourselves” type of system to one that captivates your audience with even, clear, articulate, and dynamic sound. It’s your money and frankly, sometimes there just isn’t enough to get what you really need. I understand that. We all had to start somewhere. Just keep in mind your objective when you start asking for proposals, quotes, and system bids. If you have a small budget, no need to bring in an acoustical engineer or other top system designer. If you are sick and tired of sound problems and you’ve been through the “local experts”, then you’re ready for a real sound system solution. Contact us today.

How to find the person with the right mindset

One of the best ways to find out if someone knows anything about sound is have them mix for you. Forget what the salesman said, get the designer behind your mixing console. Have the sound system designer mix sound for a Sunday morning service. If you can’t stomach that uncertainty, then at least have a serious choir practice – that means most of them show up for practice. The system designer should be able to get a better sound than your sound techs (typically) or show some ability to hear the mix. Think about it.

If a system designer can’t hear the mix, how in the world can they design a sound system!

Before the prospective system designer gets there, purposely move around the levels, low, mid, high controls on each channel from where you normally have them. Don’t do anything else to play a joke or cause wasted time, just un-tune your normal settings so the person will have to actually find their way back to a good mix. I’ll take you up on this challenge anytime. If the designer looks lost behind the console, can’t explain what he / she is doing, or you can’t get a feel of this person’s ability, look for another company. You are most likely dealing with box hangers, equipment salesmen, and you will be buying another version of what you already have. It’s not a big home stereo you want. It’s clear speech at every seat. Again, they are not the same thing.


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