I thought it might be helpful for readers to have a guide that includes pretty much all the things you would need to build a church sound system from scratch for a small to medium size sanctuary(from 100-500 capacity). Now this guide is assuming the need to provide for a full worship band setup or small church sound system. If you don’t have a band, it will still be helpful, but just miss out the bits that don’t apply.
Building PA System for Church – Things you will need
The mixing desk in your system will probably be one of the most expensive and most important parts of your entire sound system. Therefore it’s very important that you get the one that best suits your needs, but also one that is within the technical ability of your team. There’s no point buy a desk that looks like NASA mission control if you don’t have anyone with the knowledge and the experience to operate it. Budget is also a big factor when buying a desk and you always have to balance price with functionality.
If you have a simple setup, like podium, radio mics, electronic keyboard/piano, laptop for music output/videos etc, I would maybe consider a 16 channel desk. If you have a small worship band with a handful of singers and a few instruments, then I wouldn’t get anything smaller than a 20/24 channel desk. It’s amazing how many people I hear from who tell me that they bought a desk, but it now doesn’t have enough spare channels available for their current needs. Always buy with the future in mind. If you have a sizable and growing music ministry, then I would recommend a 32 channel digital mixing desk if your budget can stretch that far.
Something to double check before you buy any desk is that there are an adequate number of monitor outputs. This tends to be a detail some people forget about until it’s too late. Some desks these days also have built in effects. Is this something you need, or can you add stuff like that in later? You can add a reverb unit or delay, but so many desks these days already have this built in.
If you plan to use passive loudspeakers, then you will need a power amp of some kind. The other option is to use powered loudspeakers(which is what I currently use), in which case you won’t need one(see below). If you are planning to buy a power amp, you want to go for quality and reliability. If your power amp goes down in the middle of a service, then you will have no sound whatsoever. So it’s important to buy quality equipment. You also want something with a high signal to noise ratio, which is the difference in sound level from the noise floor to 0dBV.
There are some cheap power amps our there on the market, but often have a low SNR. A SNR>100dB is good. I wouldn’t touch anything with a SNR less than this. Also THD(total harmonic distortion is also important). A THD < 0.5% is ok. You also need to make sure the amp has enough channels for the number of speakers you think your will need. If you are just using 2 speakers, then a 2 channel amp is fine. But if you plan you use 4 loudspeakers, then you will need a 4 channel amp. Also make sure the amplifier power is going to be adequate for the size of building and matched to the speakers you plan to buy.
Don’t by speakers first without any thought for what size of map you are going to buy. Purchase your map and speakers together, so that you have thought carefully about how they are matched. As a rough guide your amplifier power should be 2 to 4 times your loudspeaker’s continuous power rating to avoid distortion, as long as you don’t drive speakers too hard or you have some way of limiting amplifier. For a 150-250 seater auditorium, a 750-1500W amp should be adequate for a worship band and everything else. For 250-500 seater auditorium, you are going to need 1500W+ and probably at least 4-6 channels to be able to get maximum coverage for your building.
When it comes to passive loudspeakers you really can’t make a decision on these without also considering what kind of power amp to get at the same time. You need to check ohm power rating against what the power amp can kick out to certain speakers. e.g. if speakers are 4 ohm and continuous power at 200W, then assuming you want x2 continuous power from amp, then the map would need to be capable of delivering 400W per channel into 4 ohms.
I wanted to say a little bit about powered speakers, as this tends to be my preferred option these days. There are some high quality powered speaker systems out now that are designed to match the amplifier to the speaker in way that is difficult to do with passive speakers and separate amp. Check out the DXR series from Yamaha – these speakers are amazing! The other advantages are that you don’t have any stereo crossover problems, and if one amp does down, you can still limp along with the other amp. They are also useful if you are in a church plant and you need to set up and tear down in a rented hall every Sunday.
It means you ahve less gear to deal with. They are more expensive than passive speakers, but then you have to factor in the cost of a power amp that you won’t need to spend. A pair of 1000-1500W powered speakers are more than adequate for a 150-250 seater sanctuary. Have a bigger venue? Buy a few more! I might be biased here, but once you have heard the sound quality from a good set of powered loudspeakers, you probably won’t want to go back to passive. If you are doing a system for an auditorium for an audience greater than 500, then standard kit isn’t going to be enough.
I have never done sound for a venue that size before, so I’m afraid I don’t really know what is available off the shelf in term of powered speakers that would work in those circumstances. I think once you get to that size of venue you are really looking for professional advice and getting contractors in to do your sound. You may wish to read another related post – What’s the difference between powered and passive loudspeakers?
How you mount your loudspeakers will be determined a lot by the shape of your church building. Extended wall brackets are perhaps the easiest way to install speakers, and will usually come with a way of adjusting their vertical and horizontal tilt, which is very important. You can also hang on wires from the ceiling, but from a safety point of view, you might need to call in a professional to put these in for you. You don’t want a 1000W speaker falling on someone’s head! And of course the other potion is using speaker stands, but if you are in your own building, I would recommend going for a more permanent solution such as brackets.
If you need the system to be portable then loudspeaker stands are probably the way to go. Some loudspeakers come with an offset hole to place onto a speaker stand or bracket, this is a great option if you are using speaker stands as you normally wouldn’t be able to tilt the loudspeakers down. Just remember if you are using the offset with brackets, you should set the bracket initially to 0 degrees in the vertical. If you aren’t using the offset hole on the speaker, you may want to set the bracket offset in the vertical to between 5-10 degree depending on the situation. See my other post where I talk about speaker placement in more detail – What is the best position for loudspeakers in a church?
Speaker cables need to carry the signal a long distance, so I would advise getting the best quality cables you can afford. Don’t scrimp on this, because if a cable develops a fault, it can often be a big job to remove and replace. Also buy cables with quality connectors. There’s so much garbage out there you might be able to get cheap, but please don’t be tempted. Always go for quality when it comes to cables.
Trunking can sometimes be an afterthought when installing a PA system, but it is important to keep cables out of sight, not just for cosmetics, but also for safety reasons. You don’t want the church getting sued because someone tripped over a cable. Also it keeps them away from mice that can cause so much havoc. You can get floor trunking and wall trunking, but make sure that the dimensions are enough to take all the cables you need. If you are also installing video equipment with Cat5 cables etc, you need to allow for that also.
With so much extra equipment you plan to use in your church, you need to check that you have enough power points and that you don’t overload the circuit. Sit down with an electrician and explain what you plan to do. Add up your power requirement for each area of the sanctuary to find out your power requirements. Also on your soundbooth, you will need plenty of multiway power points for all your equipment.
A stereo EQ unit is needed to enable you to get rid of unwanted frequencies and feedback. It is also essential for tuning your system to give you a flat response. There are so many factors that can affect your overall sound in a room such as walls and furniture, and the only way to account for that is to properly equalise your system. Check out my other post on How to EQ a church sound system
9)Radio microphone system
Many churches use radio mics for the preacher, either the clip on lavalier type or a headset over ear microphone. If you are getting a radio mic system it is also worth getting one or two handheld microphones also. These can be useful for Q/A type sessions or if you need to set up a mic in an area where you are too far away from your snake multicore inputs. A couple of things to think about: range – make sure that wireless microphone system has enough range for the size of your building.
The spec should indicate this in some way. If unsure contact the manufacturer or a local rep. Receivers can come in rackmount format or there are some that are just meant to sit on a table, but you can maybe get a 19″ rackmount kit later at some point. Another thing to consider is older analogue receivers worked in the VHF and UHF bands, but as governments both in North America and Europe have been buying up these parts of the radio spectrum they are becoming crowded out and may no longer be useful for wireless microphones.
Digital receivers in recent years have taken their place and my advice would be to go with a digital system if you are starting from scratch now. You should read my post on the best wireless mic systems for churches working on a budget.
10)Floor Monitor speakers
Monitor speakers come in all shapes and sizes, and come in either passive or active formats. Personally, I’m not a fan of passive monitors, although they are an option if you are on a tight budget. In my opinion active powered monitors give you more control and again have some of the other advantages common to having powered loudspeakers instead of a power amplifier. If your main monitor amp blows up, and you have passive floor speakers, then you lose all your sound. If your floor monitors are all active, if one blows, you still have the others to keep the sound going. For a small band, 2 monitors may be sufficient, but for a larger band, you may want to go to 4 plus.
I haven’t really addressed in-ear monitors because it’s not something I have a lot of experience with, but a lot of musicians prefer these to traditional monitors. They work in a similar way to wireless microphone expect that the unit back at your sound booth or 19″ rack unit is a transmitter rather than a receiver. It may work well if you have a handful of musicians, but I imagine for hygiene reasons each musician will want their own headset with the name on it, not to be used by anyone else! For a larger worship band and group of singers, standard floor monitors may still be the better option, and almost certainly cheaper.
Vocal mics are one of the key components of any system. Quality microphones are a must. I see so many churches trying to save money on this item, but to get quality sound, it is one of the most important of all bits of audio gear. And you can still get some pretty decent vocal microphones on a tight budget. The Sure SM58 has just turned 50 years old and is still a favourite of singers and musicians all over the world and yet it is still relatively cheap.
You really can’t go wrong with a Sure microphone, but there are other brands out there that are equally as good, if not better in some ways – Audio-Technica and Sennheiser make some really great microphones too. Also make sure that the microphones you get are for live sound and not specifically for recording(there is an important difference). Also make sure that you have enough vocal mics for your worship band. If some people are sharing, one mic between two or three at the very most is what you will get away with.
Also many live vocal microphones tend to be dynamic mics, but if you are using condenser mics, you will need to run +48V phantom power from your mixing desk or use batteries. Dynamic mics tend to have a warmer sound and condensers are a bit brighter. Find out which are the best vocal mics.
12) Choir mics
Also if you have a choir that you wish to pick up their voices with microphones, there are some overhead mics specifically designed for this. You may need 2 to 4 depending on the size of choir. Choir mics usually come in matched pairs which can be placed either on mic stands set above the heads of the singers or can be hung from the ceiling.
Depending on what types of instruments you plan to use, there are a variety of microphones to choose from. For violins, cellos, flutes etc, a clip-on microphone may be better. To avoid wires getting in the way, there may be wireless versions of these types of microphones worth checking out. If an acoustic guitar has its own pickups/mic etc, then you can usually plug it straight into a DI box, but if it doesn’t a condenser microphone may be best. I have used an AKG C1000 for a number of different instruments and works well, also the Shure SM57 is a very versatile microphone for instruments. For drums, I have a separate section below.
Mic stands need to be stable and easy to adjust. Also make sure you have more than enough for your worship band, as stands do get broken from time to time. You can also get shorter mic stands for instrument mics where applicable, and some designed specifically for drum kits and cymbals. If you wish to use a fixed microphone on the pulpit or lectern, you can get specially designed microphone holders for that. Just make sure that once installed, the mic position is easily adjustable and that the microphone/s is discrete and isn’t obscuring the view of the preacher.
DI(direct injection) boxes are needed for any instruments you have on stage that don’t use a microphone e.g. guitars, bass, keyboard. They convert an unbalanced input from a 1/4″ jack to a balanced XLR output that can go to your mixing desk. Any sound engineer will have a box of DI boxes at his/her disposal, so make sure you have more than enough for all your needs. Some guitarists may have effects pedals that have a balanced output that they can use, which is ok as long as they don’t induce extra noise into the system. Make sure that any DI box you get has a ground lift switch which allows you to disrupt the ground circuitry that may be causing any unwanted hum.
Putting in a PA system? You’re going to need a sound booth of some kind if you don’t have one already. Have a look around Google images to get ideas from other churches and what they have done. You can go for the completely modern look, or if you are in an old church building and want the audio booth to be in keeping with the style of the building, then why not re-purpose some old pews or church furnishings?
Even if using new materials, you will be able to match wood colour or paint scheme in some way. If you can afford it, get an interior designer or joiner to have a look at your plans and come up with an idea. If you have the expertise you can save a bit of money building this in-house, but you may get better results hiring a craftsman to make this for you. Check out my post on Sound Booth Design.
17)Sound booth lights
I didn’t even think of this until I had to plan for an evening concert. I had been so used to just using the sound desk during the day, or even for evening services the lights were always on. However, doing a concert where the lights are dimmed make it very difficult for the sound guy to see what he’s doing. You can set up a few low level desk lamps on dimmer controls so you can adjust brightness and avoid annoying the congregation or distracting musicians. Another solution is cheap USB led lights you can plug into your power points on your sound booth and direct towards all your gear. Cheap and cheerful but it works.
How many times have you been doing a sound check and you discover the wireless mic or condensers are out of battery and you go hunting everywhere for spare batteries? Get a battery charger and a big pack of rechargeable batteries. Make sure you have a variety of batteries and a charger that is capable of charging them, such as AA, AAA and PP3 rectangular for active guitar and bass circuits. Will save you a few headaches in the future.
If you have decided to mic up your drum kit, then specialist drum microphones will be required. There are whole drum kit mic kits, where you get a range of different mics for an average size drum kit. This is a good option if you aren’t sure what to buy. Shure, AKG, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, Samson are good makes and even Sabian have their own drum mic kit available. You can use mics like the Shure SM57 for drums, but you need something with a good dynamic range.
For cymbals you need a mic with good high frequency response and for bass drum, a microphone with good bass response. You will also have to buy a set of mic stands for the drums, some short ones for bass drum etc and over head stands for cymbals.
Like the loudspeaker cables, these are not something to scrimp on. So many times I have identified hum or intermittent noise problems coming from a dodgy XLR cable, and usually a cheap one I found lying around somewhere. By the time you finish your PA system you are going to need a lot of XLR cables, and if you want to at least save yourself from the annoying task of trying to track down intermittent noise to a single cable, save yourself time and buy quality from the beginning. You will need long cables for microphones and DI boxes, and short cables for EQ units, Wireless receivers etc. Also make sure you have a few spares handy, as you never know when one of them will break.
21)Multicore snake – analogue and digital
A multicore cable or ‘snake cable‘ as it is sometimes called, is another key component of any PA setup. It carries the signals from the microphones and DI boxes to the mixing desk and also carries the monitor signals to the floor monitors on the stage. A 16-way snake, will usually have 12 XLR inputs and 4 monitor returns(mostly unbalanced but some may have XLR returns – something to check before you buy: that your monitor outputs on your mixer match connectors on multicore.
And that floor monitor inputs match also). A 20-way snake will have 16 inputs of mics and DI boxes and 4 monitor returns. Make sure you order a multicore that is capable of accommodating all your singers and musicians. It’s an expensive mistake if you get a multicore that is too small. Better erring on the side of caution and getting something too big than too small. Also, you will be able to find cheap multicores online, but you may regret it as sometimes the internal soldering is poor and low-quality connectors have been used. Always go for a quality product and be prepared to pay a bit extra for a good multicore snake.
22)1/4 ” Jack cables
Sorry to repeat myself, but the same applies to 1/4″ jacks – go for quality cables and could save yourself a lot of problems further down the line. Make sure you have plenty of spares for every eventuality! Also, it is worth paying a bit extra money for cable that bend well. Some cables can be stiff and difficult to tidy away easily.
A label make is just a handy thing to have, full stop. However, for a sound tech guy, it can be a very useful tool indeed. Think of all the pieces of equipment you have and how you keep tabs on everything. It’s happened to me a number of times that I have come in on a Sunday morning only to find that the cleaner has moved a monitor speaker to clean, and unplugged a few cables. So I come in and realise something is wrong and have to fix it quickly. If everything is labeled it just makes your job easier. Also for your mixing desk it’s handy if you want to label all your channels, although masking tape does a great job for that too.
Over the past 40 years or more loop amplifiers have been installed in many churches to enable people with hearing aids to listen to the service. It uses an induction loop which carries a signal from the loop amp which takes an aux output from your mixing desk. People with an analogue hearing aid are then able to hear if their device is switched to the T-position. The amplifier power output needed is determined by the area that needs to be covered. You will often see loop amplifiers which specify range in square feet or metres. The induction loop itself is fairly easy to install as it is just a single continuous cable, but does need to cover the entire perimeter of your sanctuary. As technology has moved on, digital hearing aids have in theory replaced the need for induction loops, but many people with hearing problems still prefer the older system.
25)19″ rack unit
A 19” industrial rack unit is a great way to organise your sound gear and keep it tidy. You can get tall stand alone units or under desk units to suit your sound booth. Some sound gear may already come with a rack mount kit or may be specifically designed to be rack mounted. The 19″ rack is the best place to put your power amp, EQ unit and wireless microphone receiver unit, although I would place the power amp and wireless receiver as far apart as possible within the rack to avoid any possible interference.
Hope you have found this list useful. To check out some of the sound gear I recommend, visit my Recommended Gear page.