14 Comments

  1. James Neophytou

    What a magnificent piece of writing. I was thoroughly engrossed, from beginning to end. I am sharing it widely.

    James Neophytou
    Student of Byzantine Chant (Year 4)
    London, UK

  2. Rdr James Morgan, Olympia WA

    I hope that when we eventually build our temple in Tacoma WA we will follow the suggestions here.

  3. Julian Williamson

    Best article on church acoustics I’ve ever read, and best explanation of the divergence between Baroque and Orthodox music based on architecture. Further, kudos for the suggestion that churches stay away from sound systems…the medium is the message, like McCluhan said. Finally, addressing the issues with sheetrock and lensing in large domes is medicine every church architect out to take. I’m forwarding this to friends.

    Julian Williamson
    Occasional church attendee

  4. This is brilliant.
    Now I am not quite sure it was here, but I once read an article about the distinction between squares, representing the earth, and circles, representing the heavens, in Christian iconography. The fact that entirely round-shaped churches do not make for good acoustics is confirmation from another field that the basis should be square, an only the higher parts of the church should be round. I love this.

    1. I think this is the article you must be recalling, by Jonathan Pageau. It was very memorable for me as well:
      https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/heaven-round-earth-square/

      with your prayers,
      Baker

  5. Hi Andrew, thanks very much for addressing this topic. It is very important. I agree with most of your article, but in some cases you have employed broad generalizations that will not work as guiding principles for designers of medium to large-sized Orthodox churches. I do disagree with your recommendation that churches not hire an acoustical engineer to consult with the architect during design. The thing is just to hire the right kind of acoustical consultant. Designers need to rely on the expertise of their team of consultants, and not think they can manage everything perfectly themselves. I will put in a plug for my top acoustician recommendations, but let me first point out a few of the points at which I believe a greater level of nuanced understanding is required in this field in order to achieve optimal results.

    First of all, I disagree with a simple notion that longer reverb time is always better. If the RT60 is longer than 1.8 seconds, speech intelligibility will begin to suffer to a great extent. [Technical note: reverberation time is measured as the time it takes for a sound to decay by 60 decibels once the sound source is removed. This is usually measured using a balloon pop, as a clap’s decibel level is unpredictable.] Measures like standing closer to the speaker, or the speaker slowing down, will not practically be sufficient to overcome long reverberations in medium-sized churches, which will muddle the source sound of the speaker or chanter’s voice. When a parish suffers an acoustical environment that is too lively, they are likely to bring in artificial amplification for the chanters and clergy, which can have disastrous effects on the prayerful environment (not always, but usually).

    Second, your article deals with room acoustics, which is simply one of the aspects of acoustic design. Sound separation is another important issue – minimizing the intrusion of noises into the space from a cry room, restrooms, or from a nearby roadway. Controlling HVAC noise is also not simple. Low reverberations from the mechanical units themselves and the whistle of high velocity air coming through grilles will significantly impoverish a room’s acoustic clarity. Most mechanical engineers who design HVAC systems will not be capable of controlling their systems’ acoustics unaided, and an acoustical consultant can provide invaluable help in this area.

    Third, building height. It is very common for parishes in the US to commission an architect with designing a church/temple for 250 or 400 people to attend liturgy, and to have a limited budget. This usually means they cannot afford to build a building that is 1.618 times as tall as it is wide. Furthermore, parishes in the US often find themselves with zoning ordinances that will limit the height of the structure they can build. In order to get a project from paper to bricks and mortar, the architect must employ great creative capability to deliver a design that embodies the Church’s traditions and requirements, while also meeting the specific parish’s constraints. It is not a simple task, and it can greatly help to have expert consultants in advisory roles.

    Fourth, I find that your flooring recommendations are based on an assumed small church size and for maximizing reverb time. When designing a medium or large-sized church the designer needs to find some places to absorb sound so as to keep the RT60 within a desirable range for speech intelligibility. The floor may sometimes be an ideal place to absorb sound with carpet or rugs; it just depends on a lot of things.

    Finally, I will plug my favorite acoustical consultants.

    Nelson Acoustics of Elgin, TX.
    David Nelson is a tonsured Orthodox reader, chanter, a musician, and a world-class acoustical engineer. He is also a friend of mine.
    https://nelsonacoustical.com/

    BAi, LLC of Austin, TX.
    Andy Miller is another highly recommended consultant.
    https://www.baiaustin.com/

    forgive me a sinner,
    asking your prayers,
    Baker

    1. Hi Baker. Indeed there’s more to acoustics than reverberation, and certainly HVAC and bathroom noises need careful mitigation. But that’s getting outside the scope of my article, which is already awfully long as it is. But I can’t agree with you about the need to artificially dampen reverberation in medium to large churches. I have attended services in large historic churches throughout Europe, some with immense reverb, and have never found it impossible for the preacher to preach or the readers to read. The churches assign people with loud clear voices and they make it work. I also haven’t observed that these big European churches have felt compelled to add carpets or acoustic paneling all over the place to dampen their reverb. For one thing, the organists at such churches would never allow it. It would be unthinkable in Russia.

      Also, consider that the builders of historic churches knew full well what they were doing. They knew that huge tall spaces had big reverb, and they built them that way deliberately. Carpeting and other absorptive materials were available, but we don’t see them used by historic church builders. Tapestries, for instance, were common in aristocratic residences, but quite uncommon in churches.

      So the idea that medium to large churches just need this acoustic mitigation nowadays strikes me as inconsistent with Tradition, and inconsistent with the living liturgical experience of many Old-World churches. Is it that Americans always want to design to the lowest-common-denominator (the preacher or reader with a wimpy voice)? Or is that acousticians simply need something to do?

      I don’t mean to disparage acousticians in general. I have the highest respect for the difficult and important work they do in other settings. I just struggle to see their necessity if our goal is to accurately emulate the great churches of the Old World (which obviously weren’t built with acousticians or with the intention of mitigating reverb).

      1. Thank you Andrew.

        I would say that even when “our goal is to accurately emulate the great churches of the Old World” those ideals do not always follow through to optimal results. I know a number of parishes who have embarked with high intentions but something happened along the way and they ended up with a church with major acoustical issues. Problems emerge in the process when competing priorities influence the project without good oversight.

        An off-hand list of common priorities that challenge a historical idealism in Orthodox church design include: the desire/need to save money on construction methods (we do want them to be built after all, not just dreamed-of), modifying the volumetric proportions for a number of functional or practical reasons, the desire to remove the visual interference of lots of columns that would block people’s view of the holy doors, introducing fixed pew seating, or introducing building components and systems that are a requirement of most contemporary buildings (HVAC, plumbing, other). Architecture at this scale is always a collaborative process, and requires many minds and hands to come to fruition.

        Anyways, in my experience it helps to have a professional acoustician involved so that each decision along the way can be vetted for its acoustical impact. A good acoustician will actually help back up sticking to Tradition in most cases. It’s much easier for me to tell a client (who might want to save money by lowering the building height by 30%) that we can’t lower a barrel vault any further because it will have disastrous acoustical ramifications, backed up by engineered calculations; rather than to simply have to appeal to Tradition, that “it’s always been done this way.”

        For this matter it is equally advisable to have a good iconographer or iconologist consult on church design projects to advocate for providing wall surfaces that will be as complimentary as possible to the eventual wall murals.

        with your prayers,
        Baker

        1. Fair enough. If I had a project like you describe I suppose I too would want a broad team of professional advocates. Fortunately my niche and reputation as a designer is such that I am typically asked to design small to medium churches with traditional-minded clients. Most of the ideological conflicts you describe aren’t even on the table. But I can infer (from looking at most modern Orthodox churches) that many congregations do not have emulating great Old-World churches among their priorities. Some apparently just want a modern auditorium with a Byzantine cross on top, and I imagine they would want modern auditorium acoustics to go with it.

  6. Many thanks, Andrew, for a great introduction to this most important area. Beautifully written with great detail. Just to raise acoustics as a vital issue for church design is important. Judging by the end results of so many contemporary Orthodox churches, it doesn’t seem to have enter designers’ minds as a vital issue until the building is completed, and then it is too late! I appreciate too, Baker, your comments. Things are complex.
    A dream I have is that we have some inter-Orthodox conventions, perhaps every few years, of experienced liturgical artists and designers – architects, chanters, iconographers, acoustic engineers (who understand Orthodox requirements!). We can thereby pool knowledge and work towards architectural solutions for contemporary challenges (materials, financial constraints, etc.). Findings could be published, and between such conferences there would be an ongoing dialogue between professionals – precisely such as OAJ provides. As an iconographer and wall painter, so often I have seen contemporary Orthodox churches where the architect has clearly given no consideration as to the suitability of the wall spaces for iconography. The icon painter is expected just to do their best with what is given, no matter how weird the resulting individual wall shapes are. Design by committee is not a good way forward, but at least conferences and a multi-disciplinary approach can educate architects concerning the variety of liturgical requirements and how to find solutions.

  7. DENNIS A STECKLEY

    An excellent article in every respect! So many people building churches try to totally deaden the space thinking they can add reverb back in electronically. It’s just not a good idea!

  8. Ted Chan

    Mr. Gould — you mention the varnishing of wood as a solution to the acoustical problem of that material. Was this the solution employed for Slavic wooden churches in the past, or were there other solutions as well?

    1. To my knowledge, the walls of log churches were never varnished historically, though they were occasionally painted, which works similarly. I have seen some pictures of modern log churches in Russia that are varnished inside. Personally, I would be cautious to varnish logs that serve as exterior walls, because those logs get wet from the outside and need to dry out. In that specific application, one would need to be sure to use a breathable exterior-grade sealer rather than a film-forming varnish.

      What we do see in the old wooden village churches is extensive painted and varnished surfaces other than the log walls. The iconostasis was usually floor-to-ceiling, often wrapping partway around the side walls. Large icons and kiots covered other walls as well. And the ceilings were frequently paneled in wooden boards painted with angels. So there were enough smooth surfaces to make for a bright sound, despite the rough log construction.

      1. Ted Chan

        Thank you!

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