So You Want to Install Your Own Sound System

by Curt Taipale

I know what you’re thinking. You’re getting ready to renovate the existing sound system in your church, and you’re starting to get depressed about how expensive equipment is these days. So you’ve been looking for a way to trim the budget. Then, as if it’s an original thought surely straight from God, someone in the committee pops the question – “Wait a minute, Bob’s in construction. Why don’t we see if he would volunteer his time to install the loudspeakers.” Emboldened by this discovery, he may continue with something like “And surely our sound team volunteers can do the wiring themselves! Nothing to it! If we do the entire installation ourselves, we can save a load of money on that sound system.”

If you’re the head of the sound committee, the moment continues with “Alright, this is going to be great. We’ll save a ton of money!” If you’re the construction guy, you’re probably thinking “Sure, I can do that. Nothing to it!” And if you’re the head of the audio team, you’re thinking “Do what!?!”

You’ve got enough sense to not even go near that installation yourself, but you know for a fact that the committee is going to keep driving their point into the ground until they leave you no choice. It’s either do the installation yourselves, or do without the system upgrade for another five years or so. Neither of those is a good alternative, so you hang your head and say “Okay, we’ll do it.”

So what’s the big deal? That seems like a plausible plan, at least on the surface. After all, aren’t they right? The construction guys do “similar” work every day. Why couldn’t they just as easily do this? Plus Jeff’s in charge of the audio, and he works with computers everyday. Attaching a few wires to some equipment surely can’t be all that difficult.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know there are sound systems all across the world that have been installed by church volunteers, and many of them are doing the job adequately. And I know your church is different. Everyone’s church is. But at least hear me out.

The Problem With Consultants

Audio consultants often find themselves working with people in churches who seem eternally bent on saving money at any cost. This is the kind of church that will call with the seemingly innocent request to have the consultant design a new sound system for them. At some point in the conversation they’ll add that they want to do the installation themselves.

That approach can be a mixed blessing both for the consultant and for the church. On the one hand, at least they’re using a consultant’s seasoned advice to make the best choices of gear for them to use. The problem starts when they begin to think that the process of actually installing the gear isn’t all that difficult.

Momentary Lapses of Brilliance

Here are some textbook cases. In order to protect the innocent, I’ll use their real names. So one day my friend Warren calls me and announces that his church is ready to renovate their existing sound system, and they want to do it right this time. He invites me to meet with their sound committee, and within a few days I’ve got the project to design the system. In order to save money, the church plans to use volunteers to run all the wire, hang the loudspeakers, and wire up the sound booth gear. I insisted on wiring up the amplifier rack myself, to be a friend, save them the work, and me the headache of possibly having to fix it later.

A couple of months later the equipment is all sitting at the church, and the troops are ready to proceed with the install. So I arrive with TEF and solder station in hand ready to talk them through the install. Now right off the bat, I’m scared by what I see. To free myself from any liability in the future, I do what every good consultant does – I don’t give them any advice at all about how to hang the loudspeakers in a safe manner. That’s really the job of the sound contractor. They assure me that they’ve researched their hanging method carefully, and at my insistence have even had a structural engineer sign off on their solution, but I make a mental note to not find myself standing under the cluster for any length of time.

After a lot of scraped knuckles, sweat, grunts and groans, the speaker wire, mics snakes and return lines are finally pulled into place. At around 1:00 am on the third day of the installation, we finally light up the system and start to voice it. By this time, everyone is toast. I’m so tired I can hardly see straight, let alone hear really well. The volunteer crew is absolutely wiped out, but we’re so close now that they’re not about to leave without hearing the system lit up for the first time, so they’re napping on the pews while I continue to work. To their credit, there were no polarity reversals anywhere in the system. Bless God, somebody was paying attention.

Don’t get me wrong. The church loves their new sound system. And I’m sure the crew has good memories of the time they invested on that project. But by the end of the project everyone was wiped out, stressed out, on the verge of being mad at everyone, and just plain in a bad mood.

I recently finished another project like this. My friend Duane had his best “ain’t no way on earth that’ll happen” look on his face when he considered the idea of using a sound contractor to do their installation. So I designed the system, gave them a shopping list, and answered a myriad of questions as the project went from a few pieces of paper to loudspeakers hanging somewhat precariously from the steel.

Here again, the weakness seems to come in not knowing precisely how to safely hang really heavy loudspeakers over people’s heads. Hanging heavy loudspeakers isn’t easy in the first place. Getting them aimed precisely where they need to be aimed is an additional challenge. But when I saw the loudspeakers hanging from S-hooks and swing-set chain, I knew they had ignored my urging to buy their hardware from a professional rigging supplier. They didn’t have a smile on their face when I insisted that they replace the chain and hardware with the real stuff. And don’t even get me started on the points they wanted to hang the boxes from.

Part of the angst of Duane’s project came through the scheduling. All involved wanted the system to be in place in time for their Easter pageant. Flying the loudspeakers meant having to move scaffolding into the room in order to pull wire and hang loudspeakers. During the same time frame, the drama and music team needed access to the stage for their pageant rehearsals several evenings each week, so having scaffolding on the stage was a problem. Just try sharing a stage with those two groups. The installers had to remove the scaffolding and all of their stuff each evening so that the pageant rehearsals could continue as scheduled. That process added undue pressure on the volunteer sound installers.

You wouldn’t make the same mistake!?! I’m sure that’s what Duane felt. Happened anyway. Nobody lost their salvation over it, but it’s certainly something they wouldn’t do on purpose again.

Before I continue, please understand. The guys that find themselves in these predicaments aren’t dolts. They’re bright, sharp, astute, focused, detail-type personalities. But by the time they realize that they’re in over their heads, it’s too late to drop back and do anything else about it. They’ve got to see it through and get on with life.

So what makes such a rational, educated person think that they can install a sound system just as well as a seasoned sound contractor? Contractors have years of hard-won experience they can draw upon every time they hang a loudspeaker or wire up a rack. As well meaning as they are, churches who set out to do this work on their own are in no better position than that sound contractor on his very first install.

I talked last month with my new friend, Rod, who was just then receiving the equipment that I specified and he ordered. His conversation with me then was filled with the usual confidence that both Duane and Warren shared in their first dialogs with me. He was certain that he could have the cluster in the air and ready to get sound out of it within the next couple of weeks. I tried my best to cool his optimism while still being encouraging. I knew that if his experience was anything like most of the others, he’d be in for a real surprise!

Well, I just spent this past weekend commissioning the sound system that I designed and that Rod and friends installed. I called him last Thursday night before I left to make sure that he was really, truly ready for me to be there, and he assured me that all would be fine. When I arrived in his town, I called again and his response was, “Well, we’ll be ready, but don’t hurry over here.” As I walked into the church, he had just finished making the final connections in the amp rack. To their credit, our system voicing process wasn’t delayed.

Rod finally realized – just like Warren, and Duane, and others have – that installing a sound system properly isn’t as simple or as easy as many want to think early on in the process.

Yeah, But ...

Look, I know your church is different. I know y’all won’t make the same mistakes that most other churches make during this process. And I know your church will end up with an award-winning sound system that will make every sound contractor green with envy. But, just humor me. Tell me you’re at least going to consider hiring a first rate sound contractor for your next system installation. It’ll make me feel better.

For what it’s worth, I also know that there are some contractors out there who shouldn’t be in business. Frankly, you probably could do the work better than some sound contractors out there. Even though we’re not professional painters, I think that my wife and I do a more careful job of painting our house simply because it’s our house – we live there every day and care about it more than your typical painting contractor would.

But as much as I know about electricity and electronics, I’m not going to volunteer to wire our next house. I might do some extra stuff – like putting lights in the closets, adding phone outlets in all of the rooms, and so on. But I’m not interested in doing the entire job myself.

While installing a sound system isn’t exactly rocket science, it is more complex than painting one’s house. That’s one reason why you need to do your homework on the contractors you’re considering.

Please at least seriously think through all of the realities before you let your church go off the deep end in their eagerness to simply save some money. They may save a few dollars during the installation, but the toll that the process exacts from the church’s volunteers may not be worth it in the long run. People are more important than money. And it may be that later on y’all will find yourselves doing the work all over again.

A Quiet Voice of Reason

Now, don’t go around telling everyone that Curt said that no church should install their own sound system. I didn’t say that. All I hope to offer here is a voice of reason in your eager pursuit to save a couple of bucks. If you’re thinking about installing your own sound system, please determine now that you will sort through every possible issue. Develop a contingency plan for all of the things that are going to go differently than you plan, because they will. Step back and think it through before your eagerness gets the best of you.

For example, what are you going to do when the input panels for the floor pockets don’t come in with the connectors laid out the way you told them to? What are you going to do when you discover – after the scaffolding and scissor lift are long gone – that you hung the cluster two feet higher than it should have been? What are you going to do when the mic snake you ordered arrives with totally the wrong connectors? What are you going to do when your consultant discovers through his acoustical testing that two of your four main loudspeakers have their woofers wired out of polarity – that they came that way from the loudspeaker manufacturer!?!

No, really. Tell me what you’re going to do. Because if you’re installing the sound system yourself, you ARE the sound contractor. It’s your job to make sure the installation and every device in the project is working correctly and installed properly. And if you’re like most churches, you’re not only installing the sound system, you’re also installing the video system, and the stage lighting system, and ... The size of the task can mushroom beyond your wildest expectations in no time.

I assume you’ll be trying to accomplish this task while gainfully employed in another job, so your installation efforts will be done in the evenings and on weekends. You’ll probably need to take vacation time during the last few days of the project when everything comes together. And I assume that, if you can find volunteers as eager to help you as you are to take on this project, that they too will be there whenever they can. Be prepared to discover that their available times might not be the same times as you plan to work, or nearly as often.

Do your best to step away from the project long enough to see the big picture and what the process is going to do to you, to your life, to your family, to your friends who are going to help you get this job done, and to your church. The church as a whole has enough people who have been burned out or hurt emotionally through their service to their local church. We don’t need to add any new people to that list.

Uncle, Uncle

Okay, I’ve beat you up enough. If after all of this you’re still convinced that you need to do the install yourself, get prayed up and go for it. As long as you know up front that it’s not as easy as you think it will be.

The reality is that there can be tremendous value to having church staff and/or volunteers install their own sound system. More important than the money you’ll save is the fact that they’ll emotionally take ownership of the system more quickly. Also, if anything ever goes wrong with the system – and we both know that will be discovered on Sunday morning before the service – your volunteers will know where every piece of equipment and scrap of wire is in the entire facility, and how it’s hooked up. They may even be able to track down the problem and fix it before the service instead of sometime later next week when the sound contractor’s audio technician can schedule an appointment. That works of course until the folks that did the install get relocated by their job, or move to another church for some reason.

Remember that, whatever happens, God is still on the throne. So have fun. Or else.

Copyright 1997. Taipale Media Systems. All Rights Reserved.