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Fewer Design Compromises, Stronger Audio for Worship

A major design consideration for houses of worship is great sound–both for music and intelligibility of the spoken word. For new designs, adaptive reuse, or upgrades of existing worship spaces, getting great audio has traditionally provided church designers and technology integrators with design challenges and compromises. Too often, achieving the best audio experience has become a balancing act, as traditional sound systems, often sizable, can’t be hidden. New speaker designs that can better control and direct sound energy, however, provide an impressive alternative to traditional sound systems.

A new approach

“The physics behind the design of new speakers,” says Bob Langlois, president and founder of Second Opinion Audio LLC (SOA) in Colorado Springs, Colo., “is taking what the industry knows as line arrays to a whole new level.” SOA is an AVL systems designer and installer, as well as a member of the National Association of Church Design Builders (NACDB), recently called upon to provide new audio for the First United Methodist Church of Colorado Springs.

“Our approach to audio not only needs to match the room and the seating, but also the culture of the church and its design,” Langlois reports. To accomplish this, the company’s signature audio design for the 1,200-seat church sanctuary employed a unique design of column speakers with beam steering technology. Beam steering was specified because it is able to direct sound energy precisely where it is needed in the room and away from reflective surfaces. The result is high-quality audio that comes in a very small package.

By nature, even the best speakers benefit from being located on axis (on the same plane) with listeners, and that often puts them at odds with the materials and interior designs of spaces for worship.

By nature, even the best speakers benefit from being located on axis (on the same plane) with listeners, and that often puts them at odds with the materials and interior designs of spaces for worship. As a result, speaker systems are often rigged high in the room to protect projection and sightlines, as well as to make sound systems less obtrusive. “Trying to hide speakers by rigging them high above listeners’ ears dramatically decreases audio quality, as speakers are then further off axis from the listeners,” Langlois notes. “Because we expect sound to be coming from the stage, and not in the air above us, this produces an unnatural sound.”

In addition, with traditional audio systems, special acoustical treatments are often required to improve the acoustical properties of the space in an effort to control reflections of detrimental excess sound energy. As a result, achieving great sound has all too often forced design compromises with the integration of unpleasantly obtrusive or disjoint architectural elements.

Better coverage/smaller package

For the First United Methodist upgrade, Langlois used no acoustical treatment and was able to install his speakers “‘hidden in plain sight,” perfectly aligned with the congregation. The project replaced a bulky center cluster of speakers using two wall-mounted Meyer CAL 96 self-powered loudspeaker columns as mains. Designed to produce vertical beams of sound with programmable width that can be digitally steered in patterns up to 30 degrees up or down, CAL columns provide precise room coverage, Langlois notes. “With that kind of precision,” he says, “we can steer the sound energy to the seats where it is needed and off the walls and other reflective surfaces that would compromise the sound.” Sound beams from the CAL units can also be split or combined as needed. For example, a split beam might be configured to avoid sound hitting a reflective balcony or other hard surface.

Unlike traditional speaker systems, SOA’s design with CAL speakers provided a loudspeaker system that could be tuned to provide extremely even coverage throughout the room. “The stereo image covers every seat,” says Langlois, “and every seat in the church, first row to the back row that is over 120 feet away, is at the same level–within about 2dB.” This prevents a common problem of traditional sound systems that might be too loud in the seats closest to the installation, but not loud enough for those seated in the back.

The tunable directionality of the church’s CAL 96s allowed SOA to install them directly onto the wall just behind and close to the stage without typical concerns for feedback. Plus, the column’s slim design and the manufacturer’s free color-matching finish allowed speakers to be installed both on axis with listeners for optimal sound performance and to compliment the look of the room by their alignment with the room’s other vertical elements, including the church’s columns, tall archways, organ pipes, and a decorative proscenium.

Two Meyer 750-LFC compact low-frequency control elements were added at each side of the stage to provide low-frequency support for the system. In addition, two ultra-compact Meyer MM-4 self-powered speakers that boast a remarkable maximum SPL of 113 dB and a wide operating frequency range of 120 Hz through 18 kHz with very low distortion were added as monitors. Two Midas Pro2 mixing consoles complete the installation, with one at front-of-house and the other in the church’s broadcast studio.

Better Results

First United Methodist technical director, Bryan Hurst, is pleased with the result for the church’s musical productions, more realistic voice quality, and the system’s appearance. “It’s a complete turn-around for our audio,” he says, pointing to a recent production that featured a 75-voice choir accompanied by a 40-piece orchestra and pipe organ. “The voices would have been lost with our old system,” he notes, “but the new system put the choir into the mix. It’s a very crisp and present sound.”

Another benefit for Hurst is that his audio engineers can now mix more efficiently. “Because sound levels are equal throughout the seating areas, the mix is the same at the balcony mix position as in the front rows,” he says. “Engineers hear what the congregation is hearing.”

“It’s not just the sound of the new system that’s impressive,” Hurst closes. “The mains are so compact and well color matched that, for many in the congregation, they have gone completely unnoticed. I often have to point the new speakers out, since they don’t look like technology hanging on the wall.”

Article Source: https://church.design/education/less-design-compromises-better-audio-for-worship/