Designing for optimal sound in worship performance and gathering spaces.


At New York’s Central Synagogue, sound system designer and acoustician John Storyk, principal at Walters-Storyk Design Group, employed an active electro-acoustical solution when the landmarked interior of the synagogue couldn’t accommodate passive treatments.


If all of your knowledge of current events was derived from reading just the headlines, you’d have a very good idea of what has transpired but very little sense of why or how, and by extension little idea of what might happen next as a result. But that’s exactly what takes place when a house of worship puts a sound system into its sanctuary or other part of its venue without taking into account the acoustical nature of those spaces. Think of acoustics as the story below the headlines—the who, the when, the how, and the why that give meaning to the event. Acoustics is the context in which we experience sound.


—MARK GENFAN, Owner, Acoustic Spaces, Martindale, TX

Unfortunately, getting that context right, or even acknowledging it at all, is a critical component of choosing, designing and installing a sound system that all too often fails to happen.“There is a pretty huge knowledge and awareness gap which applies to the committees making decisions, their architects and builders,” in the process of specifying a new sound system in a house of worship, says Mark Genfan, owner of AV systems integrator and acoustical consultancy Acoustic Spaces, located between Austin and San Antonio, Texas. “A short consultation with an acoustic designer at the very onset of projects would go a long way towards better results. I get a lot of calls for remedial work after spaces are completed, and of course at that point there’s no money left for adding acoustical materials, when it could have been included in the original design and aesthetics.”

Churches changed, and so did their sound.Acoustical considerations are more important now than ever for houses of worship. When liturgical music consisted mainly of Gregorian chants with long intervals between notes and no percussion, the highly reverberant interiors of traditional cathedrals offered the perfect acoustical context. That kind of environment, however, is anathema for contemporary worship music.


Central Synagogue in NYC. Courtesy of John Storyk.

There are a number of ways to address acoustics. In ground-up construction, acoustical considerations can be built into the architectural design in ways that include the absence of parallel reflecting surfaces such, as walls, or the integrated use of absorptive or diffusive materials, such as Helmholtz resonators in ceilings, that allow for the use of reflective materials, such as wood, by creating a cavity behind them that retains some of the energy of the sound. In fact, resonators like these can be set to specific frequencies, literally allowing the room to be “tuned.”
When it comes to renovations, it can be harder to adjust the acoustical properties of a space—because you’re constrained by the architecture. A high, curved ceiling may be causing significant reflections that create intelligibility problems for the spoken word, but aesthetic considerations may preclude the use of such common acoustical treatments as absorbent “clouds” suspended above the sanctuary or panels attached to ceilings and walls. These kinds of situations can become so complex that most types of passive responses won’t be enough to solve the acoustical problems. John Storyk, a noted sound system designer, acoustician and principal at Walters-Storyk Design Group in upstate New York, recalls that his work on Central [Synagogue] in Manhattan required the use of an active electro-acoustical solution when the landmarked interior of the synagogue couldn’t accommodate passive treatments. In this case, a Lexicon LARES system was installed. An active-electronics approach, also employed by the Meyer Sound Constellation system, LARES uses microprocessors to, among other functions, control multiple microphones placed around a performanc