Acoustics: Some Thoughts and a Story

It’s been my observation, spurred from a summer course in grad school on sacred architecture, that Catholic parishes lost their way somewhat after World War II. Conservatives seem to pin architecture problems on Vatican II, but I think the Dark Ages in the US span from 1945 to about 1980. The main corrective factor was not the emergence of Duncan Stroik, Denis McNamara and the reform2 efforts, but the USCCB document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship.

At the Recovering Choir Director, there’s a thread about carpets and HVAC noise in churches. In the good old days, there was none of this. Churches weren’t heated, carpeted, air conditioned, or anything like that. They were built as green as they could be, and tended to be moderately cool in the summer, cold enough for coats in the winter, and reverberant when built by geniuses, and decent when built by imitators.

I read this post with a degree of curiosity. I’ve been involved with a few churches that have renovated or rebuilt. In every case, an architect was part of the team. Architects and contractors I’ve worked with have always been solicitous of the needs of the client. That included concerns about acoustics and the noise produced by heating and cooling systems. Consider the combination of an inexperienced pastor with church-inexperienced professionals: I could see the issue of acoustics never coming up. We live in a visual culture. Most often, things are built to look good, and if sound problems come up later, money can get thrown that way in bulk.

From 1995 till 2000, I served a great parish that significantly renovated a 1945 church. Among the changes: bringing the altar to the center of the transcepts, taking out load-bearing columns and opening up those transcepts, adding an immersion baptismal font, a Eucharistic chapel, devotional shrines, and other aspects.

Our pastor was a bit alarmed that as the consultations widened with architect, contractor, and liturgical consultant, new but important items were added and the overall budget was expanded from $400,000 to a little over a million. But everything tacked on was determined to be a good addition for us. Our hired consultants raised the issue of potential noise from mechanical systems. The fix wasn’t free, but it wasn’t exorbitant either. It was simply a priority for good liturgy. The pastor made sure it got done.

I have no doubt that some pastors and building committees hire architects, contractors, sound engineers, and other consultants who have limited experience with churches. My last parish hired a good guy to do the sound system. He had very little understanding of church concerns, as his specialty was convention centers, boardrooms, and hotels. The bottom line: we got what we paid for. And fifteen years later, the parish still doesn’t have a happy fix.

Back to St Ed’s in ’96. Our liturgical consultant urged us to carpet under the pews to muffle the sound of kneelers plopping down. I was horrified. The pastor said I was going to lose this battle. The building committee was liable to listen to a professional consultant above me. But he did say that the parish had budgeted $4,000 for an acoustical consultant. He was more than willing to hire a good one if I was willing to accept the final verdict. How could I decline?

Our pre-renovation church was tested both empty and with a full congregation. Recordings were made, sound was analyzed, and after the last Mass, a meeting was arranged for us to hear the results. Our chairperson cut to the chase and told the consultant we had a difference of opinion about carpet and how much to use. Could he give us advice?

“By all means,” the consultant said, “Carpet under your pews …

… if you’ve completely given up on congregational singing.”

(Yes!)

The plan he recommended would carpet the main aisle to reduce reverberation from the central speaker cluster. A decorative carpet was planned for under the main altar. (You can see it in the “great parish” link above.) That was it.

The pastor clapped me on the back and smiled after the meeting. “Good call, Todd,” he said. “I’m glad we got the guidance we needed to do a good job on this.” I don’t think the liturgical consultant was terribly happy about being overruled. But we ended up with a visually outstanding church with great acoustics.

Whether the predominant strain is liberal or conservative in a church, if beauty and quality in liturgy is a priority, then acoustical concerns will be addressed. Quality will prevail. If the pastor, committee, or parishioners are inclined to “save a buck or two,” then economy will prevail and the liturgy will reflect it. The real obstacle in most places to good liturgy is not the invasion of either liberals or traditionalists to the party of the other, but the pragmatism that relegates music and the arts to the sidelines of the culture.

I welcome reform2 musicians and liturgists to the cause of ripping out carpets and attending to good acoustics in churches. A lot of us have been at it for decades by now, but the companionship is a welcome one. Anything that improves singing for a cappella music is going to work for congregational song. And that’s the main thing I’m concerned about: keeping the music from the pews rolling.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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3 Responses to Acoustics: Some Thoughts and a Story

  1. kiwinomad06 says:

    Last year when I walked in France I came across two very old churches that had acoustics that simply amazed me. In Conques,
    http://chemincamino08.blogspot.com/2008/07/27-april.html the church building was quite narrow but tall, and at vespers, with only a handful of priests singing, the sound was just exquisite. In Moissac, a much larger abbey, the small group of nuns who sang vespers sounded like they were angels in heaven. They knew something back then about building for acoustics that perhaps we have lost.

  2. Liam says:

    Ah, Conques and Moissac: Treasures of French Romanesque.

    One of the reasons I vastly prefer Romanesque (Ottonian/Salian stuff particularly and, even better, earlier basilican architecture) to Gothic is the tendency for a cleaner acoustical dimension. I prefer Gothic for smaller chapels, even though it was really designed to vault large spaces; Gothic vaulting and compartmentalization can lead to a gauzy, hazy nimbus of sound that was OK for the period
    but is not as good for today’s liturgical needs. Domes, especially if large and/or deep, can be acoustical disasters for Roman liturgy. People whine about the timbre of the Sistine Chapel choir, but that vocal technique has been deliberately cultivated and perpetuated in response to the acoustical nightmare that is S Pietro in Vaticano….

    To repeat part of what I wrote over at NLM on this:

    A basic but invariably unspoken rule of church design: the church building is itself an instrument, and acoustical functionality precedes visual delight. A choir should be able to be heard clearly throughout the area of congregational seating without amplification. In parish churches (as opposed to cathedrals), a preacher and celebrant should be able to sing and proclaim in a public proclamatory tone and be understood by much of the congregation without amplification being a necessity (as opposed to merely helpful) for the non-hearing-impaired.

    Acoustical intelligibility is a functional baseline for churches where the OF will be celebrated regularly. Thus, neither the deadened sound of modern interiors nor the gauzy vague nimbus acoustic of churches designed in periods when intelligibility was theoretical more than real.

    A benchmark for the Roman rite to keep in mind: S Maria Maggiore in Rome (though I’d be exquisitely happy with S Sabina) – you can hear a small schola chant clearly in that quite large space without amplification:

    http://farm1.static.flickr.com/97/211111352_55990c5b33.jpg?v=0

  3. RP Burke says:

    It’s spelled “transepts” without a ‘c’

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