Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sound amplification has changed what we preach, speak and sing...

As I read these words, I found myself thinking that this is something which I have always thought but never formed into one thought and voiced it.

...I tried a couple years ago to float the idea that microphones have had an overall bad effect on preaching... How powerfully the modern use of microphones has affected preaching and to some extent singing. Consider, that to preach without a microphone means to preach with elevated volume and it requires one to strongly project the voice. In effect one has to preach authoritatively and passionately. Without a microphone I have to speak boldly. And as I preach in this manner, the physical requirement affects the message... Too much microphone causes the priest to adopt a gentle, lyrical style of preaching. His style too easily becomes suggestive, rather than using bold proclamation...  good gutsy singing has taken something of a hit and I blame the loud microphones for some of it...  Read more here...

I wonder if our tether to microphones and amplified sound has not transformed the content as well as the manner in which preaching takes place today.  There are ample examples of those preaching is less proclamation than conversation.  Such a conversation would not be possible were it not for the sound amplification system that turns up the volume without the preacher projecting more.  The character of the sermon has subtly shifted from proclamation in the assembly to a quiet conversation from the Pastor's study that is amplified so others might listen in.  Some preachers roam around as if their movements add weight to their words.  Others have even focused the entire sermon on but one or several individuals in the assembly, thus increasing the idea that the sermon is a conversation for a few that has been amplified so others might also hear.

I know that my preaching changes from the smaller services in which a dozen or so are present to the larger services in which I am speaking to several hundred.  It is not simply that it is hard to shout at a small group.  It is that the volume of sound needed to reach that small circle of folks is vastly different than the volume of sound needed to reach several hundred people spread throughout the assembly space. 

If you have lectors reading, amplification also affects how they read.  If they know that their is a PA system to increase their volume, the readers often read more softly and gently than they would read if their words were not amplified.  In addition to this, with the ever present printed lessons, the people in the pew do not listen to the sound of the voice as much as they read along.  Reading along with the words printed out is a far different experience than listening to the sound of the voice alone.

No where is this more true than in the realm of singing and the music of the service.  One of the real problems of contemporary worship is that the music depends far too much on mics, mixers, and amps.  The sound is not immediate to the ear but funneled through an amplified to a speaker which directs sound from the different place than the speaker or singer.  Amplified music lends itself more to music as performance music instead of service music and transforms the singer or player into the soloist who sings to inspire or entertain instead of to call the voices of the assembly to join in the song (as was the original role of cantor or liturgical choir).

We do have a PA system and mics but the system is less amplification than enhancement of the sound.  The acoustical pattern of the building means that the spoken word emanates better from the area of the chancel and, specifically, from the vantage point of the lectern and pulpit and altar.  This means that we do not need to substitute the amplified sound for what is coming from the individuals speaking but to enhance that sound for those corners of the building that need them.  The other obvious reason for the PA system is so that we may record the service for distribution.

We have created the need for microphones because we plaster the surfaces in the sanctuary with sound absorbing materials.  Carpet, padded pews, draperies, etc., are enemies of good vocal projection and good singing.  In addition, we have experimented with the outline of the building structure in ways that prevent the sound of the voice from being clearly heard and so we create the need for elaborate sound systems so that anyone may be heard.  A good acoustical environment is not a luxury but a necessity for the Divine Service and its liturgical speaking, preaching, and singing.

Funny how the sound systems (and dramatic lighting arrays) of some modern church buildings suck up every spare dollar and so we are left with warehouse structures unfriendly to the liturgy but appropriate for staged music and worship that entertains.  We have become our own worst enemies for the vibrant preaching and chant and singing that liturgy expects. 


Cheryl said...

Thank you for this post, Pastor. It is excellent. It calls to mind the unintended consequences of other well-meaning efforts--for example, the use of recorded music (tracks) to accompany congregational singing.

Janis Williams said...

One other thing amplification has done: It means we can easily move to the back pew (ostensibly for a fast getaway when the thing is over).

I really doubt whether there were 'back row Baptists (or Lutherans) before there were mics.

Christopher Gillespie said...

Last year, a well-meaning pastor suggested that chanting was no longer needed or even edifying because we have sound amplification.

He's right, to a point. The tones selected certainly fit well with the male baritone voice and tend to be near the resonant frequency of a room. That's why amplified chant often sounds too loud without dynamic range compression.

What he missed is the value of chant for diction and phrasing. It requires a more contemplative pace and forces articulation over amplified mumbling.

I often go microphone-less for the smaller services and use a natural voice.