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Expert Roundtable: Church Sound Trends

Jul 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley

Six experts weigh in on what matters in house-of-worship audio systems.

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Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Ga.

Clayton Acoustics Group specified two steerable line-array loudspeakers to cover the nave and transepts at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Ga.

The megachurch trend continues to be strong. What are the challenges for integration in these cases? Is it just a matter of scale, or do very large houses of worship have issues specific to them?

Budd: Scale is an issue. Larger churches also tend to have more people involved with the process, and unless there is a clear-cut structure of responsibility, designing and installing an AV system can sometimes be affected by internal politics.

Dempsey: Lighting for video production and broadcast. Electrical systems that are properly isolated and grounded. Sound systems that can handle concert-level audio while still being able to deliver the spoken word.

Carlson: I don't see a difference between megachurches and medium-sized churches in terms of issues; they just have a different dollar value. I've found that once you reach a certain size, the church will likely have personnel on staff that can act as a bridge between the pastors and the volunteers who work with the technology. As a result, the larger churches tend to be more open about their technology and go after higher production values. They're not as rigid as churches that have less experience with systems, which tend to put their [loud]speakers behind grille cloths and walls.

Thrasher: Finding general contractors, electrical contractors, and specialty contractors that have actually worked on a large similarly complex projects like a performing arts center, another large HOW, or a convention center — or any large project that requires a great deal of coordination and careful scheduling. They are just used to flying by the seat of their pants, and on any large project, that is certain trouble.

Westra: The biggest challenge with very large spaces is getting the client to make the structure high enough to allow for full-height catwalks integrated with a proper ceiling. Access to lighting fixtures in large spaces is not practical without a complement of catwalks, and the tops of the catwalks should be below the bottom chords of the trusses. The media systems are largely a matter of scale until they get so big that supplementary video screens are needed.

In audio, where is the technology emphasis being placed these days: loudspeakers, loudspeaker management, processing, etc.? Which products are the most popular and why?

Budd: [Loud]speakers, the audio matrix/processor, and the digital mixing console. Each of these areas has seen changes over the past few years and will continue to do so. Again, the concept of line arrays is very popular at this time. The line array is not always the correct solution, and in some cases, it is difficult to explain that to the congregation since the line array is currently such a popular concept.

Dempsey: DSP [digital signal processors], line arrays, and digital consoles and snakes. Control and storing of multiple setups for different uses.

Carlson: Right now where HOWs are starting to spend money is on digital mixing consoles. Yamaha in particular has a huge family of consoles that spans the needs from large to small. There are also a lot of [loud]speaker options out there now, but from our perspective, the biggest growth area is in consoles.

Westra: To us, the fundamental issue is the loudspeaker/room interface. This factor has the greatest influence upon the sound quality, and [it] is the most difficult to upgrade later. You can always upgrade to a large mixer or add accessories in the future when additional funds become available.

Dewees: DSP has become the standard for almost all systems. I can't remember the last analog EQ and crossover we installed. We also have put a big emphasis on acoustics and computer modeling to help take some of the surprises out of the final outcome and eliminate problems before they happen. The industry has done quite a bit to make the line array a prominent buzzword. Many of our clients ask if a line array would work for them before we even start the design. I haven't had end users get this specific about a product since the [Shure] SM58.

Can you identify a particular systems challenge and how you resolved it?

Budd: Our most significant problem on an installation has resulted from differing expectations between church members. We try to be really careful with our paperwork to make sure there is good agreement on what will constitute the finished product. However, as often happens, when church personnel change during the installation or someone different from the ultimate end user signed off the paperwork, we can end up with expectations not being met. Solving such an issue requires good communication and a willingness to work with the customer. Even though the problem was not ours, it was important for us to be part of the solution.

Dempsey: Aesthetics is a big one. Budgets another. Reverberation and the right [loud]speaker application. Some churches key in on line arrays, and that is not always the right solution.

Carlson: At the Bel Air Presbyterian Church [in Los Angeles], they wanted a multi-use room that would have multiple stage locations and control locations within it. They wanted the ability to re-orient the room quickly for a variety of uses. We used a combination of CobraNet and EtherSound [an open standard for networking digital audio that's fully compliant with the Ethernet standard IEEE 802.3] and portable racks that let them plug into three possible wall panels that let them choose where they wanted the mixing position to be for each use.

Westra: We don't really have design hurdles. The problems occur later, during construction, when you find that other trades have deviated from the plans. Electrical contractors frequency put in the wrong conduits or route them to the wrong boxes. HVAC contractors put ducts wherever they want them, despite what the plans specify — getting in the way of suspension for loudspeaker systems, ceiling clouds, catwalks, etc. Equally bad are the contractors putting in the sprinkler systems.

Dewees: I believe this industry will rely more and more on networked technologies. From signal distribution to system monitoring and control, eventually every aspect of the AV system will somehow be tied to a network. Not all new technologies are going to be successful or the right choice for everyone. It will be your responsibility to work with a contractor and make the right decisions. A good basic knowledge and understanding will help that process greatly.

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