Sunday, April 15, 2012

Can you hear us at the back?

The view from the back of AFUMC
As we continue with the mic-less experiment at church, it is difficult to get a sense of how much people can hear.
A couple of weeks ago on Palm Sunday, the sound man Tim broadcast the service on the web via the small mic on his i-pad. His i-pad was sitting on the desk at the back of church. When I streamed the recording, the first thing I noticed was that you could hear all of Red Team's voices and instruments.  This was a relief. 
I then compared it to the recording I had made using my Zoom H2 recorder. The Zoom has four mics which gives it ears in the back of its head. I place the mic in the front pew with two mics directed at the music team and the other two pointing at the whole congregation. I then mix the four-channel recording down to stereo. 
Anyway, when I compared the two different recordings I noticed that the balance of instruments was better from the back of the church. Most noticeably the violin floated over the top of the voices.
I Love You Lord (Zoom H2)
I love You Lord (i-pad - recorded from internet stream) sample 1sample 2
The second thing I noticed was that on the i-pad recording the congregation sounded muted -- nowhere near as loud as it was on my recording. Of course, this makes sense too. When you are sitting on the back pew, the congregation are all singing away from you.
As I continue to think about congregational singing without amplification, I think there are some interesting things to consider here. How do you encourage those in the back half of the sanctuary to "sing lustily and with good courage" when they are not surrounded by the sound of their neighbors singing? 
One solution is to change the seating arrangement -- you move the congregation so they can hear each other wherever they are sitting. In Jean Halden Kilgre's excellent book When Church Became Theater (OUP, 2005) she explains why in the late eighteen hundreds churches with  curvilinear pews and inclined or bowled floors became so popular. The architects and congregations were responding to a new democratic impulse: people in the pews wanted to see and hear each other. Kilgre points out that this change in design coincided with the "zenith" in congregational singing (p.133). 
AFUMC's sanctuary--built in the 1950s and influenced by the liturgical renewal movement--is arranged in good medieval fashion facing front. The the pews are straight, straight ahead and bolted down!
If you can't move the pews, perhaps you can move the singers. In eighteenth century England, faced with medieval churches and a desire to "improve the quality of psalmody," the reformers of congregational singing raised galeries at the west end of parish churches from which the newly formed choir led the singing. These West Gallery musicians went out of style with the influx of organs in the nineteenth century -- a struggle immortalized in Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree. Ashland First United Methodist church has the advantage of already having a west gallery. The acoustics sound good too -- check out the Palestrina piece below.
Here are the sounds we have been making:
Palm Sunday (April 1, 2012)
Hosanna Loud Hosanna
Ride On, Ride On in Majesty - Libby's setting of the Palm Sunday hymn to Palestrina's Jesu Rex Admirabilis.
I Love You Lord/Hosanna (during communion)
Easter 2 (April 15, 2012)
Rise O Church - a four-part call to worship set to the great hymn tune CWM RHONDDA
The Head That Once Was Crowned With Thorns
Father God in Heaven