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The Church at Rocky Peak: Digital Audio in a Volunteer Tech Environment

Founded 30 years ago, the Church at Rocky Peak has occupied its current site on 115 acres in the rocky foothills of Chatsworth, CA since 1986. Two years ago, with a shift in style from large vocal groups to guitar-based praise music, the sound system in the 1100-seat sanctuary, installed in 1997, began showing its age and consequent inadequacy to handle the new musical program.

“The church began seeking input from within the congregation,” says systems designer, Matt Hyde, of Sound Advice (Chatsworth, CA), who maintained the original system as well as adding acoustical treatments to the sanctuary in 1997. “The negative comments from the congregation were that the sound system was too loud. I don’t think they exactly meant that it was too loud, but more that it was harsh, mid-rangy, clipping, and generally unpleasant sounding.”

The change in music styles to a more contemporary, guitar-driven (in the manner of David Crowder or Chris Tomlin), and more participatory worship style caused very few problems for the congregation. It did challenge the mixing skills of the church’s audio volunteers. “To overcome the deficiencies of the room and the sound system,” says one of the church’s Worship Pastors, Dustin Kleinschmidt, “the mixes became louder.” The sanctuary is more than twice as wide as it is deep, and coverage was by an LCR cluster system, not the ideal choice for the space. “The new musical programming required impact, passion and high-energy,” says Kleinschmidt, “but not necessarily volume. That may sound contradictory, but it’s not really.”

The new musical focus also involved the church scaling back on special large productions that were time-consuming as well as expensive to produce, to concentrating their efforts and resources on producing consistently high-quality sound every weekend.

Hyde and Kleinschmidt began working through the sound system issues. Hyde’s background is as a recording engineer, producer, and musician, with experience in building recording studios as well. (His partner in Sound Advice is Bernie Becker, long-time recording and live sound mixer for Neil Diamond.) As his career transitioned from the studio to live sound, and specifically worship music as both a musician and a FOH engineer, Hyde found that achieving a certain standard of sound quality in the worship environment, with volunteer mixers, presented a considerable challenge.

Digital Decision
A long-time Protools user, and very familiar with digital consoles in the studio environment, Hyde gradually became convinced that the digital format was viable in the live sound arena. “The interfaces are simplified enough to where you could move around quickly,” he says. “But the ability to impart your mixing wisdom by saving settings to the computer is what really sold me on digital consoles as a solution in the worship environment, even for churches without a sophisticated sound department.”

For Hyde, the Yamaha M7CL digital console hit the mark, making the technology easy enough to use for a non-professional, while retaining the sophisticated features that digital is capable of. “The ability to program all the EQ’s and compression for worship service, and not have it tweaked, to administer security levels, to program the console offline on a laptop and then just pop the settings into the console… all this was absolutely great,” he says.

In fact, the systems that Hyde specified and installed is entirely Yamaha: from the M7CL console, through the DME24 DSP unit (via the console’s 16-channel In/Out AVY16–ES card and CAT5 cabling), to amps, and the company’s IF and IS series of installation loudspeakers.

The Sanctuary & The System
Their 1100-seat sanctuary of the Church at Rocky Peak is approximately 150′ wide by 63′ from the lip of the platform (76′ wide x 30′ deep) to the mix position very near the rear wall. The room is 25′ high at its highest point.

The FOH speaker system consists of three Yamaha 3-way installation speakers (1F3115/64’s), and six two-way speakers (three IF2215/64’s and three IF2208’s as fills) in an exploded cluster mono configuration. They are supported by four low frequency (33 Hz – 95Hz) cabinets, two per side. All the Yamaha 3-way and 2-way speaker models have rotatable horns (60° x 40° or 90° x 50°). The Rocky Peak system is configured in a 60° x 40° vertical array.

“We did a rough A / B demo with the Yamaha speakers against the existing system” says Hyde. “But it was so night and day that it was a no-brainer.”

Technology & Pastoring
“Part of my approach is that I just don’t go into a house of worship, install equipment, then leave,” says Hyde. “I stay there for a substantial amount of time and integrate the equipment into the church’s style of worship service.

The console is really a blank canvas. I format it to the way the client likes to work, then I mix a few services so that I can set the EQ and compression, and voice the speakers… But the whole process is as much an art as it is a technological skill, and requires my personal involvement, connecting with these churches and their people. It’s my ministry. I really feel that I am giving back to the Lord.”

Working with volunteer mixers in training sessions is, of course, another means of connecting with the style of each individual church client. Getting all those volunteers in the same place at the same time only really happens on Sunday (and sometimes for Saturday services or Thursday rehearsals). “As much as you might think digital would be scarier, it’s actually turned out to be a blessing, especially with the way Matt approaches training. We use the sanctuary during the week for other events. Matt’s usually here for Saturday services, overseeing the mixers, offering advice. So the ability to save settings saves us hours of setup time, and leaves more time for volunteer training.”

“When we talked to Yamaha about the console,” says Kleinschmidt, “we had two criteria: we wanted the highest quality of sound, and technology that could be managed by a volunteer staff.” Though they once considered hiring a professional audio engineer, part-time, to handle services, the church decided that it really wanted to empower its own. “The volunteers have learned a ton about live engineering that they never would have experienced otherwise.”

With four different bands playing at weekend services, each with its own style and sound, there’s plenty of opportunity for volunteers to practice and test their mixing skills, while not being taxed with building a mix from scratch. “We capture and store a base mix for each band and each band member as a start-point,” says church Technical Director, Andy Thomas. “We set EQ and compression, for example, for the particular style of a band’s drummer. From week to week that drummer’s sound may vary a bit, and a mixer can adjust for that if he chooses. But the base start-point is always there, saved to the console.”

Thomas adds that the console’s flexibility can be used to accommodate mixers at a variety of skill levels—both for weekend services where a certain level of quality is expected, as well as for peripheral events where an apprentice mixer might be given more leeway in establishing a good mix. Since the Yamaha loudspeaker system is so revealing, it’s easier now to get a good mix. Even minimal adjustments—EQ’ing a frequency 2dB, for instance—are clearly audible.

“But with all the processing power we have available,” he says, “we adhere to the basic principle of, ‘get it right at the source.’ If something doesn’t sound as good as it could, it may be the arrangement, or the particular sound from the tuning of the drums, or a mic adjustment, or an EQ adjustment on a guitar amp. You can’t rely on the board being the doctor that fixes everything. You have to go back to the source.”

Given the volunteer structure, a certain variability of the mixes is to be expected. In general, the digital console levels the playing field, says Kleinschmidt. “The console minimizes the potential for errors,” he says, “and it provides a kind of digital safety net for learning. If our guys feel that we’ve got their backs, they love the idea of jumping right into a whole new environment with both feet.”

“We’re pastoring our tech volunteers, trying to shepherd these guys.” There’s much more going on here with the use of digital technology than an attempt to achieve technical perfection. “The people come first,” says Kleinschmidt. “In the long run, I don’t think that when we get to heaven God is going to say: ‘Great job mixing last weekend.’”

Audio and the infrastructure for video are the focus now at Rocky Peak; video upgrade and additions will come later this year. But for the time being, the continuity in quality from weekend to weekend that the digital medium has allowed, and the opportunity for the church to empower its own through tech training, has given Rocky Peak all that they asked for from their new sound system.

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