Sunday, September 11, 2011

St. Augustine and Sound Reinforcement

It has been a few weeks since my last post and Red Team has continued with the mic-less experiment. The new semester is also well under way and I am teaching a course on the history of christian worship. Inevitably, I am drawing comparisons between contemporary worship practices and the description of older practices.

Something I will be researching and writing much more about is the movement in American Protestant churches to model (or re-model) their sanctuaries as concert venues. Consider this example of a church in Alabama.
The worship center was originally part of the First Baptist Church's campus in the heart of Bessemer, Alabama. The room was a stylistically traditional facility with a typical stage, choir loft, organ and bacony [sic]. Ricky Todd, worship pastor, expressed concerns early into the project about the traditional nature of both the acoustics and the unusually high ambient light levels due to the 20-foot tall windows running down either side of the facility. . . In late 2006 The Foundry pressed forward with the complete renovation of the facility's interior.
The renovation included the instillation of theater lighting, a complex sound system and state of the art video and projection equipment (hence the concern over the "unusually high ambient light levels"). It also included "acoustical materials that were installed on the side walls and the balcony face, as well as the materials that would be suspended overhead" to remove those troublesome "traditional acoustics" (acoustics which were designed to naturally enhance a congregation's singing but which prove too live and unruly for an amplified rock band).

"Their desire," the article explains "was to transform the space into a uniquely modern, multi-functional venue." Now, since remodeling, the building "has successfully hosted a number of concerts and community events, as well as their regularly scheduled Thursday and Sunday night worship services." What I want to draw attention to is the implicit assumption that the physical and technical properties of a concert venue is the same as a sanctuary. The two are now interchangeable.

While most small to mid-sized churches cannot afford this sort of renovation, many aspire to it. My guess is that this concert venue aesthetic only really started making inroads into regular sanctuaries in the last 15 years. What this means is that there is a new generation of Christians who have very different expectations for Sunday morning worship than their parents. Just consider the change in congregational singing. Most people focus on the change in repertoire, but in this post I want to think about volume.

The use of sound systems means that an individual or small ensemble not only leads the congregation's singing but (in many cases) is all that can be heard. For a new generation of worshipers this has become the preferred/accustomed style of worship.

I have recently been made aware of the way the concert hall aesthetic is influencing churches' understanding of volume and congregational singing. I heard of a minister in Ohio (not in my own congregation) who has requested the volume of the music is turned up so that people don't feel self -conscious when they sing. He believes that members of the congregation are worried that their neighbors can hear them sing. I am sure this is true for some. In this understanding, singing God's praises is a strangely individualistic experience. Singing in church becomes little different than singing along to a worship CD in your car. It is no longer congregational singing.

Baptism of St Augustine, Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497) 
There are, of course, many different ways that people experience and express their worship of God -- all of them valid. But if (as I wrote in a previous post) congregational singing is a constitutive practice and discipline of the Church that unites a community of dissimilar people in singing God's praise, then this concert hall aesthetic of congregational worship poses a theological problem.

In class this week we read St. Augustine's account of his baptism in 387 C.E.:
The tears flowed from me when I heard your hymns and canticles, for the sweet singing of your Church moved me  deeply. The music surged in my ears, truth  seeped into my heart,  and my feelings of devotion overflowed, so that the tears streamed down. But they were tears of gladness
It was not long before this that the Church at Milan  had begun to seek comfort and spiritual strength in the practice of singing in which the faithful united fervently with heart and voice (Confessions, IX.6-7)
For Augustine, it is hearing the voices of the church united in singing that proved so moving and that gave the church comfort and spiritual strength. 

So how might this change the way we think about sound reinforcement? Worship leaders and sound teams, I suggest, should set their volume at a level that enables us to hear the voices of the church. A rock band -- even in a small venue -- has to raise the volume of all the instruments and voices to balance the volume of the drum kit. A worship band in church need only raise its volume to balance (and compliment) the singing of the congregation.  Any louder and we risk drowning out the voices of the church (ekklesia), we lose a practice that celebrates and builds unity and we jeopardize a practice that  brought comfort to Augustine and the persecuted church in the fourth century.

Augustine's experience is not so foreign to us today. Four weeks ago after the service I was told, "I love hearing everyone singing. Our voices just peal off the walls" (thanks to those pesky traditional acoustics!). As I have already observed, the drop in volume actually increases the congregation's singing. Last Sunday we led the congregation singing the Lord's Prayer set to the well worn tune Kumbya. Listen to how the voices swell in the final verse when the instruments stop playing. Like Augustine, I found  "the sweet singing of your Church moved me  deeply."

Father God in Heaven (click to listen)



    Pete - thanks for your post. I appreciate your attention to congregational singing, and think that you are asking a valuable set of questions upon which we should all reflect.

    However, in the spirit of collegiality I would like to 'push' you on a few points - as someone who comes to the practice of corporate worship from a different perspective :-) I hope you do not mind me commenting on your post here - but I am going to guess that you want this kind of dialog otherwise you wouldn't have 'blogged' about it!!! Consider what follows as an honest attempt to struggle with the same issues and walk alongside you during your work in this important area. I am honestly attempting to 'critique' without being 'critical' (you know what I mean)!

    1) Your Augustine analogy, while interesting, I do not think is very helpful for charting the course of worship in the 21st c. Of course Augustine would express himself as being 'moved' by the form of congregational singing of which he was a part - since there was no alternative. To work from the premise that that form of expression was (and by implication should be) normative - simply overlays that 1600 yr old context over ours today. I know that you would not normally do this when examining other topics addressed by 1600 yr old church fathers (e.g., forms of church governance, polity, forms, etc.)- so why here? I do not read Augustine (at least from the quote you offer) as placing any theological weight to the mode/form of worship. In what other form/mode could we have even envisioned the faithful "unit[ing] fervently [together] with heart and voice"? Unless you can demonstrate that Augustine even had another possible mode of worship other than an 'unamplified', corporate form - I am not sure if Augustine - as an example - is altogether helpful. Particularly as a theological 'norm' which is intended to be constitutive for worship today (at least by way of implication).


    2) I would also want to have a more detailed conversation about what you describe as the 'increase" in the congregation's singing. I would suggest that what you are likely 'measuring' when making recordings like that is not the actual 'level' (i.e., dB) of the congregational singing - but rather the volume of the congregation *relative* to the the overall level of the accompanying instrumentation. Let me explain further...

    Since in your recording tests you are recording in a context where the congregational vocals are, by *design*, louder than the instrumentation - the recorder - since it is likely configured for 'auto gain' will adjust to the dB of the loudest 'sound' in your soundfield. In this case, it is the congregational vocals. So, when you playback your recording, not surprisingly, the congregational vocals 'jump out' in the mix since the recorder is adjusting itself to the volume of the congregation.

    However, when you make the same recording with a band that is louder than the congregational singing, the 'auto gain' feature of the recorder is adjusting to the louder source in the soundfield (e.g., the 'band').

    While this might be obvious (duh :-) - the implications of this are significant. What may seem to be much louder congregational singing sans electronic amplification may not necessarily be louder than the volume of singing with louder instrumentation. That is, the actual dB of the congregational singing may be the same in either scenario.

    What is happening is that your ear perceives that congregational singing is louder sans amplification than it is with a fully-amplified band/group.

    Now if your 'study' is to conclude that the *relative* volume of voices in comparison to instrumentation is *higher* without amplification - well that is already a 'given' - since the way in which you have constructed your experiment allows for no other conclusion. However, if you wish to measure the *actual* volume (dB) of the congregation's voices, you will need to construct another experiment and subsequent way to measure something other than the relative "congregation to 'band'" dB ratio (which is actually what you are *perceiving* when listening to your recordings).

    Maybe all you actually want to discern is the overall 'congregation-to-instrumentation' dB ratio?... if that is the case, then you do not need to construct any experiment at all. That is, if you decrease the overall volume of any instrumentation - the "C/I" ratio will always increase (louder perceived congregation; lower perceived instrumentation). Increase the dB level of the instrumentation, the C/I ratio will be lower.


    3) To make the test truly objective - and not simply subjective, you would need to play the same music with the two different forms of instrumentation. For example, you refer to our singing of the Lord's Prayer to the tune *Kumbya* (which I did enjoy :-). You would need to consider that the great level of 'comfort' with that tune may have led to the perceived 'swell' in the volume level you observe. How would that 'swell' have measured on the dB meter if done 'acapella' in the final verse when accompanied by a louder accompanying instrumentation? You really need to remove the variable of specific song selection when collecting experimental data. You would need to set a control to your experiment. If the demographic of our congregation would be more familiar with the tune of *Kumbya* than a 'Chris Tomlin' tune...then that very well may have contributed to the louder *perceived* volume. Again, the experiment needs to eliminate multiple variables from the equation in order to provide meaningful results. Again, these 'variables' are not lost on any of us - but I personally - if constructing the experiment myself - would seek to eliminate them in order to make the experiment a) objective, b) repeatable, and c) valid. I think you need to consider spending more time on experimental design.

    In sum, I would suggest - as someone genuinely interested in the work you are doing - is that you might consider reflecting further upon:
    1) what you *actually* wish to test for and 2) how to construct an experiment which would allow you to measure what you seek in #1.

    On account of my already overly-wordy comment - I will not address the theological questions that come to my mind here...We can talk about them later!!!

    Thanks for the attention and thought you are giving to this important aspect of congregational worship. Your service in this areas is invaluable and a clear act of service and devotion to God and God's Kingdom.

    Peace brother-

  4. Thanks for the comments Terence.
    1. Theologically: I am not arguing that the style of worship in the early church is normative. What I am suggesting is that there is a strong theological tradition from Paul to Ignatius of Antioch to Augustine that understands voices uniting in God’s praise as a significant (perhaps a critical) ecclesial practice. I wrote about this in my blog post "A Sounding Image."
    Augustine’s account introduces the idea of the importance of hearing others voices which, I want to suggest, is more than a metaphor for the unity we have in Christ.

    2. The main point in my blog is that volume is used in a concert venue not simply to enable everyone to hear the performance but also to drown out extraneous noise: when I pay to go to a gig, I am going to hear the show, not my neighbors talking. It is also because volume has become an intrinsic part of the rock/pop genre -- you can’t imagine Spinal Tap only turned up to 3! It is at a rock concert that I can sing along without the fear of my neighbor hearing me.
    Congregational singing, by which I mean a congregation of all ages joining their voices together AND BEING ABLE TO HEAR EACH OTHER, has to think about volume differently. The worship band is providing the accompaniment to the main instrument which is the voices of the congregation.

    I am not really conducting a scientific experiment--though that might be fun-- rather I am trying to figure out:
    i) how to enable people to sing together.
    ii) how to enable people to hear each other sing.
    But I will point out that I don’t use the auto gain or compression on my recorder (both of which are available on the H2 Zoom) - the dynamic range on the recording is true to what the microphones “heard”.

    Of course “the great level of 'comfort' with that tune may have led to the perceived 'swell' in the volume level you observe.” Volume is only one “variable” we work with when leading congregational singing. We spend a lot of time picking singable melodies -- often these are ones with which the congregation is already familiar. As you know, there are all kinds of things you have to do when introducing a new melody to a congregation.

    But back to volume: It is not simply the low volume that encourages people to sing, it is also the dynamic range. It is the dropping away of the instruments that encourages people to sing out (you employed this technique in one song on Sunday).
    What is fascinating to me is this is where theology and practice intersect. Theologically I think we should hear each other sing as this is a real way witness to and experience the unity of the Church. At the same time, we discover that when people can hear each other sing they sing louder. See my blog post "Hearing Others Sing - A Lesson Relearned."

    I am neither a luddite nor a purist -- I am not arguing against technology nor for a certain repertoire. I am the Malcolm X of worship music: congregational singing by any means necessary!