Every parish struggles with acoustical problems, some because of the large space, but some because of the wholly unnecessary existence of carpet in the nave and sanctuary. Many parishes have made the huge mistake of carpeting their church space because someone on someone on some know-nothing committee thought that the carpet made the place feel warmer and friendly—like a living room—and perhaps too, someone found the echoes of children crying or hymnbooks dropping to be annoying.
Sadly, carpet is a killer of good liturgical acoustics. It wrecks the music, as singers struggle to overcome it. The readers end up sounding more didactic than profound. And even the greatest organ in the world can't fight the sound buffer that carpet creates. All the time you spend rehearsing, and all the money paying a good organist or buying an organ, ends up as money down the carpet drain.
Elementary errors are involved in the decision. When the church is being constructed and tested for sound, it is during a time when it is empty of bodies. The decision makers stand around and note that a new carpet won't make that much difference. Once installed, it only appears to muffle the sound of steps and things dropped. But once the place is packed with people, something new is discovered. The sound is completely dead—dead in the sense that it doesn't move. This is not the sound of liturgy.
This is when the acoustic engineers are brought in, usually from some local firm that specializes in studio recordings or some such. What they will not tell you is that you can save the expense of massively pricey sound systems and mixing tricks simply by pulling up the carpet. They don't tell you this because they are not in the carpet removal business. Their job is to make the existing space sound better. Sadly, this means sometimes tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment, the effect of which is to make it impossible for anyone to be heard unless surrounded by microphones.
Again, this is no solution at all. Chant will never sound right. The organ becomes a complete waste. The instruments and vocal styles that work in a space like this belong more to the American Idol genre of music than sacred music. This is a true tragedy for any parish seeking to reform its liturgical program. I'm very sorry to say this, but it pretty well dooms the reform. You can chant and play Bach all you want but you will never be able to overcome the acoustic limitations.
What to do? The decision makers need to gather the courage to take action. Pull up the carpets immediately. It might leave concrete or wood or something else. It might be unsightly until the time when tile or new concrete or wood can be installed, but the mere appearance alone will call forth a donation perhaps. What's important is that immediately the sound will be fixed, and the parish will have save untold amounts in paying the acoustic firm. Not only that: funds will be saved from future carpet cleanings, repairs, and replacements.
Much of this information I learned from Reidel and Associates, a firm that does consulting on worship spaces. I ordered their pamphlet about sound called "Acoustics in the Worship Space" by Scott R. Riedel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986). It is quite technical and very informative. Here is what he says about floors on page 17.
The floor is typically the building surface that is largest and nearest to worshipers and musicians. It is important that the floor be reflective of sound, particularly near musicians, since it provides the first opportunity for much sound energy to be reinforced. Carpet is an inappropriate floor covering in the worship space; it is acoustically counterproductive to the needs of the worshipers.
The mood of warmth and elegance that carpeting sometimes provides can also be provided with acoustically reflective flooring such as quarry tile or wood that is of warm color and high quality. The notion that the worshiper covers the floor surface, making its material composition acoustically unimportant is false. The large floor area of the worship space bas great acoustical influence. Appropriate floor materials include slate, quarry tile, sealed wood, brick, stone, ceramic tile, terrazzo, and marble.
Walk and Ceiling. Durable, bard-surfaced walls and ceiling are also essential for good acoustical reflections. The ceiling is potentially the largest uninterrupted surface and therefore should be used to reinforce tone. Large expanses of absorptive acoustical ceiling tile are to be strictly avoided. Appropriate wall or ceiling materials include hard plaster, drywall of substantial thickness, sealed woods, glazed brick, stone, med and painted concrete block, marble, and rigidly mounted wood paneling.
The construction of walls, floors, and doors should retard the transmission of noise into the space from adjoining rooms, from the outdoors, or via structure-borne paths. Sound attenuators or absorptive material may be fitted to heat and air ducts to reduce mechanical noise also.
Some may consider using absorbing materials such as carpeting or acoustical tile to suppress noise from the congregation. Noise from shuffled feet or small children is usually not as pervasive as might be feared. It is unwise to destroy the proper reverberant acoustical setting for worship in deference to highly infrequent noisy behavior.
Let me now address the issue of noise. A building in which you can hear your footsteps signals something in our imaginations. It is a special place, a place in which we are encouraged to walk carefully and stay as quiet as possible. Pops, cracks, thumbs, and sounds of all sorts coming from no particular direction is part of the ambiance of church, and its contributes to the feeling of awe.
It was some years ago that I attended a concert of organum—three voices singing early medieval liturgical music—at the National Cathedral in Washington, a vast space. There were only three small voices near the altar, and I was at the back and the people singing looked like tiny specs. Moving my foot a few inches created a noise that could be heard for 20 feet in all directions, loud enough to drown out the music. As a result, everyone sat in frozen silence, fearing even to move a muscle. This went on for more than a full hour. It was a gripping experience.
The closer we can come to creating this environment in our parishes, the holier the space will sound and feel. I've personally never heard an echo that is too extended for worship. It is possible I suppose but I've never experienced it.
One final point about Church acoustics that needs to be added here. The Introit of the Mass is not: "Please turn off your cellphones." This line is increasingly common at the start of Mass. This really must end. Yes, it is a good thing for people to turn off cell phones but instructions to that effect are not what should be the first words one hears at the start of Mass.
And please consider that people are not dumb as sticks. Cell phones are a normal part of life now, and we are all learning to keep them off in any public lecture or event such as a worship service. These things take care of themselves over time. For someone's cell phone to ring ends up being a warning to everyone else for the future.