Michigan’s largest United Methodist Church, First United Methodist Church of Birmingham (FUMC), had a vision for a house of worship that would reward its rich musical programming without altering its architectural character or breaking the bank. A search for the answer to this dilemma led them to Jaffe Holden Acoustics, Norwalk, CT (www.jhacoustics.com).
The magnificent interior of FUMC (www.fumcbirmingham.org) was decorated with ornamented plaster walls, exquisite woodwork, and stunning stained glass. Unfortunately, that visual beauty of the sanctuary did not extend to its acoustic behavior. The relatively low total acoustic volume and the extensive use of plaster walls made the room’s natural acoustic signature short and brittle. When coupled with other sound-defeating elements (including acoustic wall tile, absorptive carpeting, noisy mechanical systems, and a concealed organ), the result was a space with scant musical warmth for either voice or organ. It was easy to feel isolated when in the pews because the room gave so little sound back to the congregation’s singing, and the organ could not fill the space with a sound to match the congregation’s spirit.
The church embarked on a major campaign to replace the organ with an instrument better suited to the world-class musicians who play there. The organ maker, Schoenstein & Co. Organ Builders of San Francisco, in turn, challenged the church to improve the acoustic environment for the organ. Thus, what started as an organ replacement, turned into a substantial renovation of the Sanctuary’s interior.
Collaborating with architect Kevin Marshall of Jickling Lyman Powell and FUMC project manager, Darrell White, Jaffe Holden provided the acoustic answers to this challenge, guiding the church through important architectural improvements during the renovation.
FUMC’s noisy air-handling equipment (previously located in closets adjacent to the Sanctuary) was replaced with quieter units in remote spaces, connected to the Sanctuary through absorptive lined ducts. Absorptive carpeting in the Chancel and front part of the Sanctuary was replaced with stone, acoustic tile was removed and plastered, and the Chancel woodwork was redesigned to better feature the choir, pulpit and lectern. However, improving the “bricks and mortar” acoustics of the remainder of the Sanctuary simply was not feasible from either a cost or timing perspective. Instead, Jaffe Holden designers implemented an electronic architecture system to fill in electronically and extend the room’s natural sound for acoustic music, and also designed a state-of-the-art audio reinforcement system to provide warm, intelligible spoken-word reinforcement for services and amplification for occasional reinforced music presentations.
Electronic Architecture and a Speech Reinforcement Systems
“One of the keys to understanding good electronic architecture is that these systems are not reinforcement systems in the traditional sense of the word,” says Mark Turpin, Jaffe Holden’s system designer for FUMC. “Electronic architecture creates virtual walls in a space, making existing walls seem to reflect sound differently from their natural ability, or even changing the apparent volume of the room. The objective is to fill in what the room should or could have, subtly, not to create some artificial space unrelated to the real room. An electronic architecture system is very different from a reinforcement system; sound reinforcement systems for churches are about clarity and coherence combined with the majesty of The Word, but electronic architecture is about diffusion, decorrelation, and the art of shaping a musically three-dimensional acoustic space.”
The acoustic solution at First United Methodist consisted of two separate systems—one for electronic architecture and one for sound reinforcement—that are linked together for shared control structures and interoperability. The electronic architecture, built around the Level Control Systems Matrix DSP frames and VRAS algorithms, uses predominantly hidden speakers to create the church’s new “virtual walls”, while a state-of-the-art audio system built around the Symetrix Symnet DSP provides reinforcement for the spoken word.
The relatively simple appearance of the audio racks in the rack room at FUMC, however, belies some of the underlying complexity of the system. All of the electronic architecture processing, matrixing, and output control is handled within the LCS Matrix DSP. All of the input control, matrixing, automatic mixing, compression, EQ, delay and crossover duties for the reinforcement system happen in the Symnet DSP.
“One of the beauties of an electronic architecture solution is its flexibility,” says Turpin. “The room can subtly transition between different states–a relatively dry environment for the spoken word; a normal default state for contemplation, congregational singing, and choral singing; and a bigger, more open sound for solo organ.”
Sound Systems Integration
To integrate these designs into the new architectural vision of the Sanctuary required a true team effort. Audio systems integrator SPL Integrated Solutions worked hand-in-hand with Jaffe Holden, architect Kevin Marshall, FUMC representatives Darrell White and Mark Theobald, Schoenstein Organ Builders, Construction Manager Jeff Hamilton and Project Superintendent Frank Schmidt of W. S. Auch and Company, and Electrical Contractor Mahalo Corporation. Every part of the system needed to be considered as part of a larger whole: from final mounting and colors of visible system elements, to coordinated locations for audio, lighting and HVAC controls, to conduit routing for technical power, lighting, and audio systems.
“Designing functional systems is only one part of the equation. It’s more about working closely with a client to truly understand their needs so the solution is their solution, not just a solution.”
Many churches employ high-technology in their worship services, and expect that hands-on mixing of the services is part of that system. At FUMC, Theobald was quite clear that for traditional Sunday services, the church wanted a technologically advanced solution to further the quality of their message, but that the solution needed to be a system that was automated, intuitive, and above all, hands-off.
Team members also worked closely to make high-tech sound solutions as architecturally unobtrusive as possible. Elements of the main audio reinforcement system visually blended with the architecture. Discrete line-gradient microphones serve the lectern and pulpit, front fill loudspeakers are hidden behind decorative grilles adjacent to the lectern and pulpit, and the main reinforcement array and smaller reinforcement fill loudspeakers for the transepts and chancel are painted to blend into adjacent woodwork or walls. Smaller speakers used for the electronic architecture are similarly discrete: early lateral energy loudspeakers high in the side walkway arches reflect energy off the side walls, main reverberant field loudspeakers are hidden above the decorative up-lighting cove running above each side wall, and low-frequency support loudspeakers are mounted into the upper wooden trusses.
An Automated System
Providing for a hands-off system added a new level of sophistication and integration. To eliminate the need for a system operator, the electronic architecture system runs a constant background program evaluating the content of the sound in the room, automatically transitioning between the default “music” setting and the dryer “speech” setting. At the same time, the various wireless microphones used for pastors as well as the fixed lectern, pulpit and altar microphones are all being automatically mixed and gain-staged to provide uniform reinforcement of the spoken word.
Normal control of the system is limited to simple Symnet ARC remote control panels that provide system on/off control and a limited-range master overall volume knob. Providing this coordinated functionality was another collaborative effort. SPL’s project engineer, Jim Johnson, and Jaffe Holden’s Mark Turpin together wrote the programming for the Symnet system, coordinating communications and control with Steve Ellison of Level Control Systems, who coordinated the complementary VRAS programming.
When powered up, the FUMC system comes online with the electronic architecture system in the default music mode and the reinforcement system in auto-mix mode. From here, the electronic architecture system immediately starts running speech recognition software to evaluate the room acoustic content and actively switch between modes as needed. Although this highly “hands-off” mode is ideal for most services, the FUMC Sanctuary is also used for guest musical artists where a hands-on mix is both appropriate and expected. The reinforcement system in the Sanctuary was also designed to allow for this use, with discretely located input panels on either side of the Chancel providing a variety of microphone, line-level and video input options, along with patchable monitor speaker returns from eight available channels of remote monitor amplification. Tie-lines connect all these capabilities between the Chancel, rack room, and a FOH connection box recessed into the floor at the back of the main level Sanctuary seating.
The Chancel wall connector panels also provide multi-connectors to allow quick Sanctuary setup of FUMC’s portable sound systems used in other venues around the Church campus. Direct inputs to the Sanctuary main speaker arrays allow the sound technician using a portable system to use the main Sanctuary reinforcement loudspeakers, the portable system speakers, or any combination of the two. Dry speaker lines from the rack room also allow the portable system amp rack to be remotely located in the rack room (where extra power is provided for this purpose) instead of the rack being visible in the Chancel.
The end result for First United Methodist Church is, to quote the Church’s music director, nothing short of miraculous. The church choir spread out through the sanctuary to sing as a congregation and for choir members, looks of wonder turned to tears of joy as they sang. The following Sunday, Senior Pastor Bill Ritter looked out over the congregation after the opening hymn, and quietly said “after twelve years in this pulpit, for the first time today I have truly heard you sing.”