Church Acoustics – FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How long have you been an acoustics consultant?   What are your qualifications and experience?
2. What kind of work do you do?
3. What is involved in architectural acoustics and, more specifically, in church acoustics?
4. Where do you work?   Where are most of your projects?   How far do you travel for projects?
5. What are your hourly rates and fees?
6. When do you get involved in a project?
7. Who hires you?   Who is your contract with?
8. How many people work for MuSonics?
9. Do you sell any products or have affiliations with manufacturers or vendors of any products?
10. We have an acoustical problem:

      •   Speech is perfectly clear in our new church, but music is dull and lifeless.
      •   Music sounds glorious in our 100-year-old cathedral, but most people can’t understand the readings and sermons.
      •   We have echoes.
      •   We have too much reverberation.
      •   We don’t have enough reverberation.
      •   We have a very noisy air conditioning/heating system.
      •   Our pastor wants to install carpet and pew pads to improve the acoustics.
      •   Our music director and organist want to remove carpet and pew pads to improve acoustics.
      •   We have a brand new sound system that just doesn’t seem to work right.
      •   We have a very old sound system that never seemed to work right.

     What can we do about this situation?   Can it be fixed, or do we just have to live with it?

11. More FAQs are in the works.   Please use the form on the Contact page to ask your own question.


1. How long have you been an acoustics consultant?   What are your qualifications and experience?
I founded MuSonics in 1981. My formal training includes undergraduate studies in music performance, theory, and education, culminating in an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in physics/acoustics and music. Over the past 30 years my work in acoustics has been almost exclusively in worship, performance, and music education facilities. Details can be found in An Overview of MuSonics, a PDF document that can be viewed online or downloaded. The specific areas of acoustics consulting in which I work are detailed in Acoustical Design Elements for Worship Spaces, another PDF document. More detailed information about project experience can be found under the “Projects” menu on the home page, which takes you to other PDF files listing Projects Completed and Cathedral Projects. Projects started recently or about to begin are listed under “On The Horizon,” the final item under the “Projects” menu. The “Overview” and “Acoustical Design Elements” are also available from the home page.

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2. What kind of work do you do?
Most of my work involves acoustical design for new construction and renovations of churches, performance venues, and music education facilities. In these projects I serve as a member of a design team — a group of architectural, engineering, and design professionals — typically led and shepherded by a project architect. These major projects typically last for two to four years from the preliminary planning and design concepts through completion.

Other projects involve additions and improvements, such as installations of new pipe or electronic organs, sound system upgrades or enhancements, redesign of music ministry areas, etc. These projects are generally less extensive than a major building project and typically last for 3 – 12 months.

Many of my other projects are in existing churches; these typically involve acoustics-related concerns or troubleshooting, such as poor speech intelligibility, too little or too much reverberation, etc. I have a great fondness for these ostensibly “smaller” projects; often the most intriguing and challenging, they can require intensive investigation to identify what’s gone amiss and to find effective, economical solutions. See FAQ 10 below for more details about my approach to these types of projects.

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3. What is involved in architectural acoustics and, more specifically, in church acoustics?
Churches are “assembly spaces,” i.e., buildings that accommodate a group of people gathered for praise, celebration, rites and rituals — elements of the worship practices of specific religious denominations. The general form of the building involves a relatively small presentation area (a sanctuary or chancel) and a large seating area (the nave) where the congregation or assembly sits, listens, and participates in the worship service. This architectural form has much in common with a performance space, but with significant distinctions. One key distinction is that in performance halls, the audience is a passive group observing the event but not actively participating. In a liturgical space, however, those seated in the congregation/assembly area take part in the service through their spoken and sung responses in prayer, hymns, and other ritual parts of the service. A more detailed and multifaceted presentation of church acoustics from a variety of perspectives can be found in Acoustics for Liturgy: Meeting House Essay #2.

The acoustical factors of church design involve all the sound-dependent elements of worship such as the projection and distribution of sound from clergy and musicians to the assembly, the natural (unamplified) support of the sounds produced by the congregation, the control of noise from building systems (air-conditioning and electronic systems, for example) — even silence. To fulfill these diverse, multifaceted design challenges, church acousticians must possess technical and practical knowledge of acoustics, music, audio systems, and mechanical engineering. They must also have thorough knowledge of liturgy, sacred space, and church music of diverse varieties and styles, in order to work in collaboration not only with other technical members of the architectural design team but also with members of the worship communities they serve.

More specific information can be found in Acoustical Design Elements, a PDF document that can be accessed from the MuSonics website home page.

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4. Where do you work?   Where are most of your projects?   How far do you travel for projects?
Over the past 25 years I’ve had projects in 40 of the contiguous U.S. states including Washington, D.C. Projects currently active (as of June 2011) are in Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, North and South Dakota, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin.

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5. What are your hourly rates and fees?
Most of my projects don’t lend themselves to an hourly fee basis. On projects involving the design of new buildings or renovations, I usually establish a clearly delineated scope of work and services with a fixed fee for services extending from the pre-design planning process, through all design phases, and through construction completion, final inspection, and performance verification. Fees vary significantly depending on specific project details. Many project fees are developed in response to a Request for Proposal (RFP) from a parish or architect. RFPs usually itemize basic project information including the size of the building (usually indicated by seating capacity), nature and extent of music ministries, schedule, total construction cost, etc. I can provide a fee estimate with the type of information normally included in an RFP or with a detailed outline of project parameters.

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6. When do you get involved in a project?
Since fundamental architectural design affects many acoustical factors, it is vitally important for the acoustician to be involved in the earliest phase of design. In architectural parlance this would be before or at the very early stages of the Schematic Design phase. It is often even more beneficial for acoustical input during the pre-design phases, i.e., initial planning and conceptual design, to help define architectural requirements for unique, unusual, or specialized project elements or acoustical requirements, such as large, multifaceted music ministries with highly varied musical styles, or the installation of a significant pipe organ.

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7. Who hires you?   Who is your contract with?
In many projects I work directly for and am directly responsible to the church or parish. In other cases I work for the architect. In any case I am formally a member of the design team, but my professional responsibility is always to the end user or building owner, i.e., to the church, parish, or diocese. I will ordinarily prepare a detailed proposal or agreement that outlines my scope of work and responsibilities throughout the entire project. If the architect, parish, or diocese has a standard contract, my proposal can serve as elaboration or refinement of that agreement or can be included as a contractual addendum.

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8. How many people work for MuSonics?
Only two people have ever been a part of MuSonics. Peter Borchard is the electro-acoustics designer/consultant who does the audio system design and specification. I am responsible for all the other aspects of acoustic design, including room acoustics, music design and space planning, mechanical system noise and vibration control, etc. (Again, please see Acoustics Design Elements for a summary of the various areas of acoustics involved in our work.) We have years of training and experience, and we have earned excellent reputations for our work in church acoustics.

Naturally, people want to know who will be doing the work if they hire MuSonics. Since there are only two of us, be assured that Peter and I will be doing the consulting and design work ourselves.

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9. Do you sell any products or have affiliations with manufacturers or vendors of any products?
MuSonics is strictly a design and consulting firm: we sell no products and have no affiliations with any manufacturers. This is absolutely necessary in order to maintain objectivity about the design and specification of the various products and systems required in worship spaces. We are in regular, intensive communication with manufacturers and suppliers so that our product knowledge is complete and up-to-date regarding such diverse elements as microphone, speakers, pipe and electronic organs, air-conditioning units, choir risers, and various “acoustical” materials used to absorb, reflect, or diffuse sound waves. We are committed to keeping our knowledge current and incisive, and we are equally vigilant to avoid any conflicts of interest or associations that might influence our decision beyond recommending the best, most cost-effective products to achieve optimal acoustical results for the churches we serve.

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10. We have an acoustical problem . . .
I often receive calls and emails about these and other acoustics-related concerns; I wish there were a simple way to address them all. Through hundreds of similar projects over the last 25 years, I have learned that, while most of these situations have similarities, there are far more differences than might be expected. Some problems have existed for 25 years and more; other problems are found in churches that have been open for only a year or two. Some churches have budgets of a few thousand dollars, while others have hundreds of thousands in the budget. Some concerns involve new pipe organs, some involve sound systems, and others have general acoustical problems.

How can an acoustician offer a proposal and fee before knowing what the problem is? What is the best way to approach these projects?

In the same way that a doctor needs to perform a thorough physical examination of a patient before prescribing treatment, an acoustician needs to perform an acoustical analysis and evaluation, i.e., an “objective” diagnosis of the causes of the subjectively “observed” acoustical problems, in order to prescribe effective, economical solutions.

It’s very difficult to speculate on possible solutions before the analysis is done, because of the extraordinarily broad range and varied nature of problems.

The acoustical analysis is vitally important not only in the context of the particular architectural space but, more importantly, in the context of the particular faith community. Each church is unique, as is the community it houses. Worship practices, musical styles, and other sound-related factors may vary from church to church—and from service to service in the same church. My acoustical evaluations involve an entire weekend; this gives me the opportunity to attend all weekend services, conduct measurements, verify details and materials noted in architectural drawings, take hundreds of digital photos, and meet with pastors, musicians, and other church staff and members.

The variety of factors involved in these weekend efforts is enormous. Some churches have one or two services, others as many as six or more. Some churches have available all the architectural drawings and specifications; but in older buildings the drawings are often not available, or there have been so many changes over the years that the drawings are no longer relevant. Significant changes, such as installing a new organ or a change in musical styles or formats may suggest a need for an entirely different acoustical environment or redesign of the music ministry area.

The result of the weekend evaluation is a complete written report documenting all acoustical measurements in the context of the worship, liturgical, and musical elements of the specific church, with detailed recommendations for acoustical corrective measures.

I’d be happy to discuss your specific situation with you; just call or send an email.

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11. More questions coming soon . . .
Please use the form on the Contact page to ask your own question.

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