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Our Sound System Situation

Long-time members of the Cathedral know that we have always had challenges with our PA system. I am told that the current system is the best to-date. Yet I also regularly receive feedback from those who experience difficulties hearing at points or throughout Holy Mass. These hearing problems often are related to position in the church (e.g. those seated in the back) or with certain mics (e.g. the cantor microphone, or the lavalier/lapel mics). These reports sometimes contradict: for example, recently I had reports of trouble after the early Mass, but after the later one I heard much the opposite – everyone said they could hear fine!

One question we can ask is: Was the sound always inconsistent throughout the 145-year history of St. Paul’s Parish?

The answer is: Not necessarily.

We should keep in mind that a combination of changes to our church building and to our liturgy have gotten us to our present situation. For example, up until the 1950s there was a raised pulpit in the nave of our church. (Incidentally, if anyone has any old photos, I’d love to see and scan them!) Such raised pulpits were practically de rigeur in any larger-sized church building up until that time. Above the raised pulpit would have been a “clam shell”-like architectural element that helped to project the sound out towards the congregation. Moreover, priests in the past were trained better in effective declamation – i.e., how to speak publicly without amplification, such that the congregation could nevertheless hear well; I theorize that such training in declamation may have included developing that old “announcer voice” that we remember from old movies and public speakers. Such training, in any case, has all but disappeared today: it is understood that public speaking involves artificial amplification, and seminaries differ in how effectively they teach future priests to use good diction over microphones.

With regard to liturgical changes, it must be remembered that what we now call the “Extraordinary Form” or “Old Latin Mass”, which was in place in every Latin Rite parish until the 1960s, is much different from the modern liturgy that is now normative in most of our parishes. At Low Mass – which was the standard at St. Paul’s – parishioners would have read the readings quietly in their hand missals while the priest recited them at the altar. And, while even at Low Mass, the readings are done in a “loud voice”, yet they are generally only audible to the servers who are near the altar and perhaps those in the first pew; and, in any case, they are done in Latin. Back then, the priest might have read them again in English before giving the sermon (from the raised pulpit!) – that is, when he gave a sermon, for sermons were not required at every Sunday or Holy Day Mass, as they are now in the modern liturgy; moreover, sermons were often given at other devotions such as Benediction or Vespers but not necessarily at Mass. For the far less common Sung or Solemn High Mass here at St. Paul’s, the readings would have been chanted (and thus more audible to all) – but again, in Latin, with a possible re-reading in English if there were a sermon afterwards; and, in any case, with all or nearly all following along in their hand missals, which used to be very common. Then, many of the other prayers for the Mass were said in a low voice (“silently”) – including the Eucharistic prayer or Roman Canon – whereas now almost all of the texts read at Mass are done in a high voice, primarily in the vernacular, and there is an expectation by all that they be heard.

In short, the new liturgy, introduced definitively on the first Sunday of Advent in 1969 (but before that point, from about 1962, there had been changes in some places already, due to provisional authorizations or outright experimentation), requires a different sort of sound architecture to accommodate its different “style”, if you will – and this has implications for the building architecture also. In the new liturgy, the priest is no longer primarily addressing the congregation only from the pulpit (in our case, a raised one), but may be speaking in a way that is meant to be heard by all also from the altar, from his chair, from an ambo, and so forth. Modern means of amplification greatly assist the liturgical changes, but at the same time, these means have to be retrofitted into spaces that were designed for the older way. In addition, in the older way, all speaking to the congregation was done by a priest, deacon, or subdeacon – who, again, would generally (not always!) have been trained in a specific way to do such public speaking effectively; whereas now, many lay people assist with readings or prayers also, and not all have the same training – to say nothing of the failure of many members of the clergy to use microphones effectively by speaking clearly, with good diction. This is not intended to criticize anyone. It is simply an attempt at historical reconstruction and commentary on how we got to where we are today.

So what we are dealing with is the ongoing tension between “form” and “function” that exists with any building and the community that uses it. And, as I noted above, our current amplification is apparently the best we have had to date. But there are still challenges to be overcome, and I believe there are also still solutions remaining to be explored in that regard. In the next few months, I hope that we will be able to have mute buttons installed on the mics that are at the celebrant’s chair, on the ambo, and on the cantor’s stand. Then I hope that all who are using these mics will get used to using the mute buttons as well between uses. That will take some time to adjust to. But one of the problems with our system right now is that we simply have too many live mics going at once. And because of where the mics are positioned, this sometimes creates problems.

For example, the cantor stand is right in front of one of the speakers. The lower portion of our two large speakers projects sound towards the front half of the church. The upper portion of those speakers projects the sound toward the back part of the church. This means that, because of the positioning of the cantor podium, sound is being projected directly into the cantor microphone from the bottom of the speaker that is right there. The PA system attempts to compensate for this and the end result is that that mic simply does not sound as loud. Having the pulpit mic and celebrant’s mic muted when the cantor is singing might help with that. Another solution would be to have the cantor sing from the choir loft – a very traditional arrangement that would also make some of the cantors feel more comfortable, no longer having to stand in front of the whole congregation. However, we will try out the mute buttons first.

Because of the number of mics that are live at the same time, there is also a fair amount of white noise coming through the speakers. This can be most easily heard before Mass, when there might be noise in the church which is audible not only through the ambient sound that comes into the sacristy, but through the sacristy speaker that amplifies it into that space as well: the microphones are picking up a fair amount of ambient noise, and this problem could be controlled and reduced through the effective use of mute switches.

I could go on with more reasons and analysis, but the bottom line is: let’s hope and pray that by installing mute buttons and having all get used to using them at the appropriate times, it will help to improve our overall sound experience in the church and lead to more consistent results. From there, we may be able to adjust the speaker levels further (and avoid feedback, which is what happens if we adjust them much from where they are now, in our current set up). In sum, we still have more tweaks to pursue, and I want everyone to know that we are working on it. We also have to keep in mind budgetary concerns: none of this is free!

So please know that I share the concerns that have been raised about our audio, and that I also appreciate your generous stewardship to the parish, which helps us to be able to afford to fix these problems and continue to improve our experience in general! Thank you!

Father Jerabek