The European houses of worship market is certainly a growing opportunity for installers. However, with varying demands across the many denominations and countries throughout the region, will it ever be as sophisticated as the sector in the US? Ian McMurray finds out.
The US boasts well over 300,000 churches - more than 1,000 of which have a regular congregation in excess of 1,000 (there is reputedly a church in Dallas with its own multi-storey parking for 10,000 cars…) - as well as numerous new builds and a highly commercial outlook.
"The US church AV industry calls it the 'three-system story'," smiles Steve Bush of Meyer Sound. "A church installs its first system on a tight budget. Its second system is the first, but modified by a friend of a parishioner - but it still doesn't quite work. The third one - some years later - is the one they allocate proper budget to, and that is installed by professionals. That's the one that does what they want it to."
But is the European market far behind? "The AV market in the US is completely different to that in the EU where the diversity from country to country is significant, and requirements and decision-making patterns occur not only regionally but also from denomination to denomination," says Marc Heath, a director at integrator d3 Audio & Visual.
"The European market is growing," adds Alan March, business development manager for Sennheiser UK, "but performance audio in European churches is a minnow in comparison to the US."
"The market is growing, but it's slow-moving and varies enormously from country to country depending on the nature of the church," notes Dave Bearman, operations director at Peavey. "For example, a typical traditional church is most likely to have little or no sound reinforcement, but the newer evangelical or charismatic churches are likely to have much larger and more complex systems based on a US-style model."
There's a widely held view in the industry - at least insofar as the UK market is concerned - that increasing fragmentation in churches, driven by a desire to make the church-going experience more appealing to new worshippers, is driving the market and placing new demands on AV companies.
That desire doesn't always result in fragmentation, however. In many cases, churches have become aware of the need to become more of a focal point for the local population, with church buildings increasingly becoming multifunctional meeting facilities - and that too is creating opportunities.
"We're seeing increasing numbers of young people involved in churches," says Brett Downing, sales and marketing director at TOA, "and for those people, music is important."
DiGiCo's David Webster agrees: "Houses of worship are definitely looking to attract young people, so we're seeing a more modern approach - more rock and roll-style, and even theatrical, performances."
"AV solutions are bought primarily to enhance church services," says Kendra Ingram, AV channel manager at Optoma, "but with churches increasingly becoming community centres, used by choirs, youth groups and amateur dramatic societies, for example, AV technology is finding much wider use."
Potential growth is also present as immigrant populations grow, a point made by Jonathan Reece-Farren, president and CEO of KV2 Audio International, pointing to research earlier this year that showed that the Muslim population in Britain has grown by more than 500,000 to 2.4 million in just four years. The number of Christians fell by more than 2 million over the same period.
"That situation is also being replicated in many other countries," he says, "and that will surely create a huge requirement for the building of mosques and other places of Islamic worship. As well as providing opportunities, it will also alter somewhat the direction that has been followed over the past few years, influenced predominantly by the US and Africa."
Growth through diversity
All this seems to be taking us to a growing diversity in the market, where there is no single houses of worship market but rather a set of smaller ones - older church buildings and new church buildings, traditional and modern services, Christians and Muslims, old and young people and so on - that require a broad range of technologies and skills.
March looks at it from the audio perspective. "At one end of the scale," he says, "you might have a simple four-column loudspeaker configuration with a few microphones - perhaps a radio microphone or two. The principle here is to make operation as simple as possible as there are often no skills to operate the system. Systems like this will use a simple APart mixer or a programmable processor with an automatic mixer, such as the Rane RPM series."
"At the other end," he continues, "are churches that produce live music. These require a decent loudspeaker system, with sub-bass and monitors. There are normally one or two church members who are audio enthusiasts and have the skills to mix such systems. A good selection of microphones is required to cope with often a large variety of different instruments."
Reece-Farren has a real-life example. "In the past 12 months, we've specified a simple pair of our EX 26s for a church project in Cyprus," he says, "but in another situation we specified our flagship VHD system with a full complement of subs. One system is suitable for a couple of hundred people to hear predominantly spoken word, while the other would typically be found delivering FOH sound for 5,000 or 10,000 people at a major rock gig or DJ dance event. That's the diversity of the requirement."
The 'traditional' market, however, remains, and it is a market in which architecture provides a significant challenge to audio vendors and projection/display vendors alike.
"Over the past 12 months, we've seen a substantial shift from standard-throw to short-throw and ultra-short-throw projectors," says Louise Hirst, B2B account manager at Hitachi. "The reason is that a large number of churches in the UK are listed buildings due to their age and architecture. They also typically have very high ceilings, which makes mounting a projector on the ceiling very difficult if not impossible - and even when they're not high, they can be very inaccessible. Wall mounting is a much more viable option - but you have to be aware of what you can and can't do with the structure. In some cases, even banging a nail into the wall is prohibited."
"In the UK," she continues, "there are strict insurance requirements when installing high up, so this can become very costly when hiring scaffolding and so on. This again makes wall mounting or boom arm installations much more appealing." She points out that projectors are a natural progression from the OHPs that have been widely used in houses of worship.
Ingram has seen a similar shift in the type of projector being specified. "The combination of a large space, and architectural features such as beams and pillars are a real challenge that's pretty much unique to the church environment," she says, going on to note that Optoma's business in this market has grown over the past year. The company was invited by an integrator specialising in the houses of worship market to participate in an annual houses of worship roadshow which, says Ingram, resulted in excellent sales: the integrator concerned claims to have equipped more than 6,000 churches throughout the UK with projectors.
Audio manufacturers are no less tested. "The acoustic characteristics in the majority of churches are challenging because of the long reverberation time - and sometimes, the indirect field can be equal to or greater than the direct field," notes Downing. "Line-array technology is becoming more compact and affordable, though, and that would be my first choice when designing a suitable system.
"However, there is still the need to optimise the system by firstly sweeping the acoustic space with an analyser to determine hostile frequency and equalise accordingly to increase intelligibility."
"Larger spaces, especially in old church buildings and cathedrals have delay issues that need to be addressed with DSP for optimal results," adds Bearman.
It is often the case that audio companies have to try to defeat the original acoustic design of the building. "Many older churches were not designed for PA systems," says Bush, "but for acoustic performance. The high reverb and early reflections that the designer originally created aren't friendly to deal with when you're trying to design or optimise a PA system.
"We have a range of potential ways of getting around the architectural features, such as modifying the architecture shape or material, adding absorption/diffusion to offending surfaces, and using products, system designs and optimisation techniques that reduce the amount of energy created by the speakers in non-listening locations."
And, as Reece-Farren points out, it's easy to overlook the basics. "Whatever the space, the keys to success are the integrity of the signal chain and careful choice and placement of the speakers," he says. "Starting with a signal as close to 100% integrity as possible and maintaining as much of that throughout the chain helps when it comes to creating clarity at the back of a reverberant space. Avoiding firing the speakers directly at walls or allowing them to reflect off the ceiling is an obvious method of minimising reflections. Good quality microphones are also key - and a willingness to carry out in-depth auditions is always time well spent. Regardless of the quality of a mixing desk or speaker system, you can't replace what is not there at the front end of the system."
And finally, there's the issue of ensuring that what the installer leaves behind is something the users can cope with. "The process of the install - whether it's drilling holes, running cables, taking care of power or whatever, and always with aesthetics in mind - is important, of course," says Bearman. "But you also have to bear in mind that the system you put in may be in the hands of unskilled operators, so it must be simple to operate - if you don't want headaches afterwards."
The issue is one that is regularly faced in this market. "When you compare an AV install in other markets with one in this market," notes Bush, "an important difference is the differing levels of knowledge and motivation of the people who'll be using it - the difference between enthusiastic amateurs and trained professionals. Ensuring consistency of operation can be a real challenge."
The original question was the extent to which the European houses of worship market resembles the market found in the US. It's apparent that there are important differences - the relative lack of homogeneity in the European market and the challenges posed by the predominance of older buildings are two examples. But the two are also becoming more similar in at least one respect, according to Reece-Farren.
"Churches are running more like businesses these days and fighting for market share by raising their game on many levels," he says. "The whole 'experience' is what they're selling, and the lack of appropriate audiovisual capability can have a potentially damaging effect on that overall package."
"Both traditional and modern churches are realising the need to communicate the message clearly with contemporary methods," adds Heath, "and congregations are looking to become more relevant in their communities. The realisation that a speaker has maybe an hour to deliver a message on a Sunday morning heightens the necessity to provide uninterrupted and clear audio with clean visual information."
"We are regularly involved in new-build church projects as churches merge, buildings become end-of-life, or new congregations emerge," he concludes. "In addition, significant renovations are taking place to revitalise and make a traditional environment more relevant and welcoming. While we might have different project approaches, the endgame is the same - to understand the requirement, deliver the expectation, create a solution that the users can easily manage and ensure that the technology doesn't detract from the aesthetics. From that point of view at least, the houses of worship market is no different to any other."