Churches are designed to be places of worship. Pastors deliver sermons. Congregations pray, sing and clap. It’s a simple setting with a simple purpose. What can go wrong?
Advent Systems of Elmhurst, Ill., is a 25-year-old company that specializes in creating large, integrated electronic systems. It confronted problems with sound coverage, sound intelligibility, excessive reverberations and echoes, and more, in revamping a sound system for the Prince of Peace Catholic Church, a diamond-shaped church in Lake Villa, Ill., with a high ceiling and a peak at its center.
At St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Houma, La., Soundworks System Integrators—the audio/video division of Frischhertz Electric Co.—has discovered similar challenges in the reconstruction of the historic French-Gothic church built in the 1850s. However, with rigid constraints on making the new building exactly the same as the original, Soundworks faces significant obstacles.
What is a contractor to do?
Advent gets inventive
In churches, form often takes precedence over function.
“We talked about acoustic treatments to help cut back on the reflections, the echo, but those at the church did not want us to do that for aesthetic reasons,” said Andy Barys, sales engineer, Advent Systems.
Advent solved some problems at Prince of Peace electronically but also contracted with consultant Barry Grzebik of Grzebik Design Group, Petaluma, Calif.
Grzebik used the original architectural drawings, then plotted out speaker locations using Enhanced Acoustic Software for Engineers (EASE), which simulates how the sound will be projected.
“People think of speakers like flashlights, in that you can aim the sounds like you aim light, but really, they are sloppier than that,” Grzebik said. “Sound kind of goes everywhere. It’s difficult for a loudspeaker to cover straight down and all the way into a room. It’s a wide coverage angle, and very few speakers can do that well.”
Acoustic design isn’t a simple science. It poses complicated problems even with straightforward ceiling structures; however, Prince of Peace church features diagonal lines.
“It took a little more attention to detail to get it right,” Grzebik said. “That’s what I was helping them with. There was a spot we’d want to hang a speaker to cover the audience properly, and then there was a spot we could actually hang one because that’s where the load-bearing beam was. It’s always a compromise. Some beams are not always able to support the weight of a cluster of speakers that can weigh 300–400 pounds and usually hang from the ceiling.”
The solution was an adjustable line-array speaker that has more flexibility in terms of its coverage.
“Line-array speakers do a good job of sending sound where you expect it to go, a slightly better job of focusing the sound, helping sound quality in terms of voice reinforcement by keeping sound out of the ceiling, and flexibility to cover the front rows a little better from a mounting position,” he said.
Advent Systems chose an SLS Audio product because of past experience with the company and because of its Ribbon Driver Technology. The SLS Audio line-array speaker system was important in sound coverage of the front rows. It was harder to find a strong mounting point to cover rows further out in the room. The line array added a vertical coverage angle, which could be increased if needed.
“In this case, we were also able to make adjustments to the loudspeaker itself to accommodate the mounting position,” Grzebik said.
Advent Systems’ biggest problem was the sound reflections—echoes and reverb—that the church’s glass wall created. To deal with it, the company physically and electronically fine-tuned the line array, adjusted the curve of the speaker array, and altered the hanging method.
Advent Systems also employed BSS Audio’s BLU-100s, which are digital-signal processors (DSPs) used to tune and equalize the sound in different areas of the church. The rear of the church, which was behind a large, low-hanging arch, needed special attention. In that area, Advent placed two smaller speakers that were programmed on a time delay so that the sound reached those parishioners at the same time as the sound from the front speakers. Since sound waves travel at a set speed, Advent could calculate the delay and use discrete outputs from the BSS processor.
You gotta see it to believe it
When combining audio and video, the challenge is in ensuring the speakers don’t block sight lines to video displays.
A year prior to the sound revamp, Advent Systems installed elements to provide video in the church. The beams in the building’s center form a diamond shape, and there are parallel beams at the front and back of the church. Behind the front beam, Advent Systems installed a retractable video projection screen, and on the back beam about 65 feet away, the company set up an InFocus projector, programmed to respond to a Crestron wireless control system. With the system, the priest can use a wireless touchscreen pad with a control panel from anywhere in the church to raise or lower the sound levels or to select, start or end a video projected on the screen during services. The musical director also has a touchscreen that enables volume control for different musicians.
Wayne Trouten, manager at Electronic Design Solutions Inc., Murrieta, Calif., a company that provides design, installation and maintenance of audio, video, communication and security systems, said that the company works with architects on positioning projection screens so that the congregants have line of sight and the needed coverage.
“If you’re sitting 70 feet back and the church has a 12-foot screen, it will be a little tough for the people to see the screen,” Trouten said. “You have to determine the proportional sizes before the video screens are installed. If you have a room that’s 75 feet deep, as a rule, you place the projectors 1½ times the width of the screen away from the screen. That will give you the image size needed. For example, if you have a 12-foot-wide screen, you need to go back about 19 feet.”
Electronic Design Solutions provides a variety of services for its customers from a full installation of audio and video systems including structural drawings to product recommendations along with installation instructions.
“Funds are hard to come by for many churches now, so rather than giving them a bid, we will in some cases tell them what to buy and give them directions,” Trouten said. “Often one of their parishioners, one who’s handy, will do the install.”
In one case, church members called to ask about the problem they were having with existing equipment. They had purchased a $1,000 projector, but they had to regularly replace the bulbs at the price of $400 each.
“At the rate they were going, they were spending almost the cost of the projector quite often,” Trouten said. “I advised them to invest $2,300 in a new Casio projector that uses [light-emitting diodes] that they won’t have to replace.”
St. Matthews from the ashes
In New Orleans, Soundworks System Integrators, a division of Frischhertz Electric Co., is contracted to install a new sound system in St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Houma, La. Unfortunately, an electrical fire burned the church to the ground in November 2010. The aim of the reconstruction is to replicate the original building.
“It will have the same acoustical issues as the original building,” said George Picone, audio/video project manager, Soundworks System Integrators. “If they would have been willing to change the aesthetics of the building, we could have improved the acoustics, but that wasn’t a possibility in this case. The architect and the congregation wanted it to look exactly like the former church, which locks us into the same acoustical environment that previously existed. Building materials, the ceiling height and other factors are already decided upon. As in most jobs, we have to take what we have and make the best of it. It’s aesthetics versus acoustics.”
Soundworks’ audio/video consultant, JBA Consulting in New Orleans, chose the Renkus Heinz Iconyx speaker for the project. It electrically manipulates the sound waves to minimize the amount of acoustical reflection off of the walls, ceiling and floor by steering the audio into the center of the seated congregation. Also, it was perceived to be less intrusive visually than other speakers.
“For one, it’s a smaller box that’s tall but narrow and can be painted to match the environment,” Picone said. “While most patrons like the smaller speakers, which are not so intrusive, the digital steering is the main advantage of the Iconyx. It features speaker drivers that are acoustically aligned with each other. Each driver has an independent amplifier and independent DSP control. Using the Iconyx software, Soundworks will define where the first row of seating is located and also define the furthest row of seating. The speaker will then digitally steer the audio into the area between the two defined points.”
Controlling sound in churches is an art. Architects and church leaders strive to create designs that enhance the religious experience yet can sometimes challenge the skills of audio/video professionals. The constant improvements of technology, however, make refined and targeted sound a more frequent reality.