Making Sound Work in an Historic Church Structure

1stAlexandria

The Alexandria First Presbyterian Church’s main sanctuary was built in 1843 and the building is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Even with periodic updates, its interior looks much the same as it did for over a century, with hard-surfaced, parallel walls that can make intelligible sound a challenge. It’s also a relatively small church, seating about 200, so the line array solution that has become more common in mid-sized and larger churches wasn’t a suitable solution for it.

Fortunately, there is a relatively new technology that offers a perfect fit for smaller churches and that can address aesthetic concerns that many older, landmarked structures have. How Ken Wieder, a church member and its ad hoc sound consultant discovered it is how more and more churches in this situation are doing just that.

“I Know How to Connect Things”

Wieder’s pro audio knowledgebase accrued from a combination of some academic work in college but perhaps more from his years as a drummer and later as a club DJ. “I know how to connect things and adjust them,” he says of his practical knowledge. But he also knew what he didn’t know, so when the church last year came into a small windfall in the form of a willed bequest from an elderly member of the congregation — who specifically asked that it be put towards a new sound system — he was asked by the church committee to head up the task of determining how best to spend the money.

Wieder put out a call for bids to several local A/V integration companies. He says the responses were complex and in many ways vastly different. “We got bids for everything from a basic PA system with a mixer and amplifiers to some fairly complex solutions that you could pretty much tell would be overkill,” he recalls. One company, Blackwood, NJ-based JD Sound and Video, suggested a columnar array, specifically, Community Sound’s ENTASYS system. Wieder likes the fact that JD Sound owner Joe DeSabatino made the effort to explain how a properly aimed columnar line array would project a nearly consistent level of sound from front to back in the sanctuary, with a deviation of no more than 5 dB from front to rear, and do so nearly invisibly, when a system with white components was mounted on the white interior walls of the church. The fact that JD Sound was a Community dealer and was able to secure a better price essentially sealed the deal.

A Niche Solution

The columnar line array is at once a descendant of the modular line array — the often-huge tentacle-like series of loudspeaker enclosures that are hung from the ceilings of large arenas and stadiums — and its predecessor, a design similar to the that of 1960’s portable PA that is like the iconic Shure Vocal Master, which was famously part of the PA system used when the Beatles played Shea Stadium in 1965.

Modular arrays are more versatile. Designers can add or subtract enclosures as needed and the curvature can be shaped to make coverage very precise, and manufacturers have created lines of so-called compact line arrays in recent years. The column array, on the other hand, tends to be more cost effective, easily installed, and its thin design often makes it a more aesthetically preferable solution, particularly for churches and landmarked structures that need to avoid architectural distractions.

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Column line arrays are generally passive (versus the self-powered active-electronics options that most modular line arrays offer) and have limited steering (i.e., directionality) capability compared with highly steerable self-powered modular line arrays. But manufacturers are innovating around those limitations. PA-maker Community’s ENTASYS system, for instance, has multiple mechanical steering settings and also offers a low-frequency-only column with 6 3.5-inch drivers that reinforces the low end from 200 Hz to 1.6 kHz. This enables low-frequency reinforcement without having to increase the size of the full-range column. (Array height directly influences low frequency directivity: the taller the array, the better its low frequency output.)

After DeSabatino spectrum-analyzed the sanctuary, it was determined that a pair of ENTASYS columns and two Community VLF208 subs would be sufficient for the church’s needs. As DiSabatino explained, the building’s stone walls and hard surfaces make for a highly reflective acoustical environment, and achieving good spoken word intelligibility has long been a challenge. “It’s a large, boxy room with high ceilings, hard plaster walls, and lots of hard wood,” he says. “It sounds great for the choir, but not for the sermon.”

The array columns are installed on the side walls, by steps leading up to the stage; the subwoofers are installed underneath the stage. Control of the system is purposefully simple: A Rane HAL 1 DSP system that automixes the sound system as well as checks system and peripheral status, CAT 5 wiring integrity, and other functions. This level of automation was desirable, says Wieder, because of the wide range of possible users of the system, including the church’s youth group.

“We needed to keep it simple, and this does,” he says, noting that the wall-mounted controllers, one each at the rear of the sanctuary and on the stage, are essentially little more than microphone input selectors and overall volume controls. More parameter control is available via a USB-connected laptop, but Wieder says they have not had to go beyond the basic programming that DeSabatino left the system set with. The system also includes four channels of Shure SLX wireless microphones, and Shure lavaliere and podium microphones. A Tascam SSR-200 digital recorder was installed to record services.

The project also included extending video to an adjoining hallway and social hall, to accommodate overflow attendance for services, using LG 47CS570 LCD displays and a Panasonic HDC-TM900 HD digital video camera. Each display has a pair of JBL C2PS speakers attached linked to the main PA system.

The entire project came in well under budget, at about $18,000, says Wieder, due mainly to using a single contractor for the entire project and taking advantage of the installer’s distributor relationship with the manufacturer. But Wieder also points out that to get to that point, he had to consider a wide array of options and strategies offered by several vendors, and had to learn as much as possible about a technology he had never encountered before. “There was a lot to figure out,” he says. “But after you spend time with it, you begin to see what works and what doesn’t.”

By Dan Daley, Worship TechDecisions


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