04 December 2012

On microphones

Not being assigned to a parish I often find myself celebrating the Holy Mass in a variety of churches.  It means - often early in the morning - remembering the differences in set-up at the churches and slight differnces in how things are done, not the least of which are the sound systems.

In his essay "Drop the Mic" in the current issue of First Things, Kevin White notes that "Catholic clergy and laity seem to accept the use of microphones at mass without question as something good," a presumption with which White disagrees.

Consider this observation:
To a member of the congregation, the prayers, the dialogue, the readings, the sermon, and the parish announcements are all emanations from one and the same source, the nearest loudspeaker.  In my pew, I see the priest look towards me, but I hear his voice coming from another direction, that of the loudspeaker.
This experience has always been disconcerting to me.  White continues:
This disparity between the direction of sight and the direction of sound is a cognitive dissonance typical of some of the contemporary events mentioned above [political rallies, concerts, air ports, etc.].  Yet the priest's face and his electronically magnified voice at least agree in both pointing toward me.  But then there is the further, more jarring dissonance between, on the one hand, his facing me and speaking in my direction, and, on the other hand, his addressing God the Father.  It is not easy to construe a voice relentlessly projected at oneself as meant for someone else.
I quite agree.

Contrary to popular belief, in most churches, microphones are not necessary for the priest and the lectors to be heard by the people.  As one case among many, last week I celebrated Mass in a large church in Springfield and for whatever reason the sound system was not working.  From the chair, from the ambo, and from the altar, I simply projected my voice.  The next day, a man who sat in the last pew of the church commented on the homily I preached.

I would be very happy if the microphones in churches were removed, especially because they aren't always very helpful.  People often will complain that they cannot hear the priest when what they really mean is that they cannot understand him.  He speaks too quickly for the sound system.  The natural sound reverberates and collides with the amplified sound and is jumbled.  Most of our churches were never designed for sound systems and most of the sound systems in our churches were never designed for them.

It should also be remembered that "different parts of the Mass callf or different rhetorical attitudes" and this is often lost in the presence of microphones.

1 comment:

  1. CarpeNoctem7:45 AM

    I think I know what church you are talking about, and I would affirm you in the assessment that it is a particularly bad sound system--and probably no amount of money (short of giving every attendee a personal radio receiver and headset) would be likely to improve things, either. I agree that in general, sound is significantly improved in our churches by simply projecting one's natural, unamplified voice.

    Two comments to add, first of all, one of the best things that most people can do--particularly in this church but in all of them in general--is not sit all the way in the back, but to be at about the 1/3 point towards the front (with 2/3 of the seats behind). Around here tends to be a sweet spot in many churches, whereas in the back, not only does the sound dissipate, but there can be reflections off of side and back walls, dead spots, noise from the doors, the external environment, and from people coming late and leaving early, etc.

    Curiously, I would also add that there are a number of places where the unamplified voice is unbelievably good in large churches when the priest celebrates ad orientem- towards a big, stone reredos. It's true at Blessed Sacrament... the sanctuary there is nothing more than a big, stone ampitheater. I would imagine it is the same at the Cathedral in Springfield.

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