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Automated Expertise

Jan 15, 2013 11:49 AM, By Cynthia Wisehart

Affordable DSP and expert programming transform a small church system.

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Mike Wentz knew what he wanted: a hands-off, professional AV system. As the operations manager for St. Lucy Catholic Parish in Campbell, Calif., he wanted clear music and intelligible speech in the sanctuary, and a locked-down rack with a simple touchscreen and iPad control behind the scenes. He didn’t want anyone to be able to touch an analog button ever again.

St. Lucy Parish is in California’s Silicon Valley and Wentz expected a modern IT-style system design. As a former high-tech engineer and executive responsible for parish operations, he’s passionate about things that work elegantly. But as he walks me through the building, he explains that his driving priority was in fact theological. Catholic teaching states that weekly liturgical service is the “primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit,” he explains. “A central part of that teaching is that ‘The faithful should be led to fully conscious, and active participation.’”

“When you consider the ramifications of these teachings with respect to a sound system in the modern world, it clearly requires that it accurately and clearly reproduces the spoken word as well as supporting a wide variety of musical forms and instruments,” he continues. “The challenge is that most churches, including ours, do not have experienced sound engineers on staff, so we must find a way to simplify and automate that process so that we can meet the requirements of our teachings.”

Zamar updated the existing rack in the church sacristy with a lockable door, cooling, and power support for the heart of the system—the Symetrix DSP and the Extron touchscreen processor. Video and source controls are in the upper rack as is the one remaining analog button that controls level in the church lobby. The other buttons are just for looks.

It’s no secret that many churches face intelligibility issues. At St. Lucy, as with many churches, there are many voices, most of them amateur speakers and singers. In a single service, a wide variety of readers will participate, each with very different vocal characteristics and volume.

Wentz says the existing system did very little to reinforce music or speech. The ceiling speakers were distributed throughout the square box of the sanctuary with no focus or delays, the busy RF airwaves created mic interference, and the analog controls were subject to infinite adjustment by well-meaning amateur operators, which translated to volume and feedback problems. The various bands and choirs that accompany the many services at St. Lucy’s were essentially heard acoustically, faintly emanating from one corner of the boxy room.

Since Wentz was so clear in his mind about the theological implications of the inadequate system, he set out to secure funding for the upgrade on those grounds. He succeeded, and after a search for a modern, IT-savvy integrator he hired San Jose-based Zamar Media Solutions. President Michael Dow did the systems design personally, intrigued by the opportunity to create a mid-scale system that could—through DSP and programming—meet Wentz requirements and deliver quality sound in a hands-off manner.

“It’s a classic dilemma for many churches: how to get and maintain high-quality sound without professional operators,” Dow says. Dow’s experience as a programmer is part of Zamar’s value proposition and as a Christian business, he is keenly aware of a church’s mission and logistics. “They are not going to have a professional operator, so we try to capture that expertise through the programming—we essentially try to build our sound knowledge into the system during the programming phase. Many times, end-users don’t know to ask for that level of detail in the programming, or integrators don’t know how to do it, or they don’t put enough programming time in the bid—for whatever reason, it doesn’t happen. As church specialists we make sure that we spend enough time to give the client what they are looking for to support their mission.” Which means, Dow says, giving them an automated version of a sound professional, crafted through careful programming.

“The concept here was trying to provide a complex system for amateur operators,” Dow says. “The challenge is to integrate as much of our sound knowledge as possible into the fixed system.”

The core of the system is the Symetrix DSP. Dow is a longtime Symetrix user, but St. Lucy was his first opportunity to use the new SymNet Radius 12x8, which had just come out; the system uses two Radius 12x8 connected via Dante. “We’d originally specified the Express 8x8, but we were excited to use the Radius. With it’s fixed I/O (12-in/8-out), it falls at an accessible price point, so it lets us bring our programming approach to churches that need more affordable systems. It’s more processing horsepower for less money and it also incorporates the Dante networking capabilities. The cost-per-power is so good,” Dow says.

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