Using SFX in a Liturgical Setting
by Bruce Richardson
Bruce Richardson Music
Dallas, TX

Of all the activities in the church, the most public and recognizable one is the liturgy--the church service itself.  While differences exist, a great deal of common ground also emerges when looking at services of different faiths.  Among these are readings from sacred texts, communion in the Christian faiths, music, sacramental activities, statements of belief, invitations to join the faith...a lot of common ground.  The liturgical experience is one of mystery and awe.  People look to religion to inspire them, to explain the mysteries of why we exist and what our purpose could be.  Sacramental rituals like communion are abstract expressions of faith that evoke mood and create an atmosphere.  And more than ever before, we see people using combinations of beautiful music, sounds, atmospheric lighting, and motion to create an experience that helps heighten that sense of mystery.

Luckily, the advances in computer technology have made some wonderful things possible.  This article focuses mainly on sound, or rather, the possibilities of using sound in liturgy with today's widely available tools.  Soundscapes that were once attainable only in the most well-appointed theatrical venues can run on a budget-conscious computer and sound system.  One tool in particular, Stage Research's software program SFX, allows the easy and effective design of soundscapes (and even lighting automation, but we'll skip that for now) which can greatly enhance a worship service.
 
SFX is essentially an advanced version of the "playlist" a person would find in their computer's media player, where a list of musical pieces or cues can be sequenced and played in a particular order.  What makes SFX different than these typical media players is its specific focus on precision--it is very specifically a theatrical tool.  It is a mainstay of the theater sound design market, from local market theaters all the way up to national acts like Blue Man Group.  An SFX-based sound design system can be as simple as a single stereo output, no different than plugging up a CD player, or it can be scaled up to have large numbers of outputs.  The design tools work the same with any system, simple or complex, the only difference being the number of discrete "locations" from which sound is desired.

The sounds are organized as Cues, made from different building blocks like sound files, fade times, wait times, clock-triggers.  While this seems a bit unwieldy at first, it doesn't take long to understand the basic premise.  Think of SFX as an automated lighting system, only for sound.  Sounds can be programmed to start and end, fade up and down, overlap, crossfade, go from speaker to speaker -- all in just about any combination you care to try.  Once you get the hang of it, you start to see the possibilities this very basic but flexible structure offers.

Here's a simple example that uses a few of SFX's tools to build a soundscape:  Suppose your church is located near a busy intersection, and you would like to create a calming atmosphere as people enter the building and prepare for services.  You might find a recording of some ocean waves breaking, and you could load this into SFX as a "sound cue."  Using SFX's mixer panel (a set of multiple, tabbed panes which contain mix and playback information for each cue), you could set a volume for this cue you've just created.  When you hit the on-screen "GO" button, you'd hear the sound of these waves exactly as you had set it up.

So, fine, you could do this with a CD player, right?  Hold on, here's the fun part.  Using other programming features as building blocks, you can create a new "cue" to take you out of this sound and into the service itself.

Let's continue with our atmospheric idea.  In our imaginary cue, we'll say that the next sound we'd like to hear is the sound of pealing church bells, a nice call to worship.  First we'd find (or record) our church bells, and get this sound file into our system.  Then we can create a new "cue" after our ocean, the sound of these bells, and set its volume just as we did the ocean.

With the second "bells" cue created, we have a new cue on our cue list.  Hit "GO," the ocean plays and the selection drops to the next cue on the list.  When we hit the "GO" button again, we hear the bells over the top of our ocean.  Gorgeous.  But how to we get rid of the ocean sound?  Let's say we'd like it to fade out gradually as our bells play.  With SFX's different building blocks, this is very easy to do.  We will use a combination of cue types called "waits" and "fades" to design our little soundscape so that a single push of the "GO" button executes the entire sequence.  Although this can seem a little complicated, keeping things clear is actually very easy.  The thing to remember is the order in which we'd like our events to occur.  That makes it very simple to just drag in the building blocks and make it happen.

In our imaginary cue, we now have two separate events and they happen in the order we'd like them to occur.  The only problem is that we want that additional event--we want that ocean to fade away under the bells.  First, let's set that up.  By dragging a "fade" event into our sequence, right under the new "bells" cue, we get a new event type that gives us a choice of which event we'd like to fade out.  By default, it will show the last event (in our case, the bells) on a drop down list--but we don't want that to fade.  We simply click on that list, and choose to fade the ocean instead.  We also get a choice of how many seconds this fade should take, and what "shape" the fade should be--whether it should happen in a straight line like a simple ramp, or whether it should be a more gradual curve.  In this case, let's choose the gentle curve (also called a logarithmic fade), and say that we'd like it to fade away in 12 seconds...a nice gentle fade.

So now we have three cues in our list.  We can push the "GO" button once, and the ocean appears.  Push it again, and the bells peal.  Push it again, and the ocean fades under the bells.  But let's refine our list one step further, so that we can fade the ocean automatically when the bells begin.  This is where the "wait" cue type is used.  By dragging a "wait" cue between the "bells" cue and the "fade" cue, we not only eliminate the need to push the "GO" button for the fade, we get to determine exactly how long the system should wait before automatically executing it.  This can range from immediate to seconds or even minutes.

 

Although SFX offers several more types of cues which can be used to design soundscapes, these are the three major building blocks that can be used over and over to create an entire service's worth of sounds.  You can string up just about unlimited numbers of cues, fades, and waits to create an ever changing atmosphere.  Not only can soundscapes be programmed but music as well...there are no limits to the creative ways it can be used to enhance the worship experience.  Because the "GO" button can be triggered easily in a single push, the computer keyboard could be located on the organ console, for instance, or next to the music director if he or she is not doubling as organist or pianist.  Since things can be programmed to happen automatically, or be tied to specific events with the "GO" button, it is very easy to integrate any number of elements into otherwise "live" music.  Really, it can be as little or as much as the imagination can summon.
Much like a library of music, you can save and recycle these soundscapes, and use them over and over in different combinations.  If you configure your system to have lots of discrete outputs, and you have lots of discrete audio channels and speaker placements, you can really create some striking soundscapes.  Are your lobby speakers separately routed?  Maybe you can create a different soundscape routed to that area.  Remember, you can use your Wait commands with a timing of zero to make all sorts of things happen simultaneously.  Many churches have an outdoor PA system to play bell sounds, rather than actual bells in a tower.  This is a speaker and amplifier combination like any other, and a set of SFX outputs can be routed to the bell tower.  You could make a dynamite soundscape putting the sound of your pealing bells in the actual bell tower, and experimenting with balances and levels to bring some of that sound indoors.

The possibilities are very wide ranging.  SFX is a great tool for this purpose, and is a proven performer in the most rigorous theatrical applications.  Even if you've never had any experience as a sound designer, the simple and logical tools in SFX will get you moving in no time.  And it can support as complex a system and design as you care to imagine.  Highly recommended!