The modern worship environment presents unique challenges to the design and integration of audio and video technologies. As worship services and other church functions continue to embrace higher production values as ways of reaching out to their congregations the level of performance for designers and integrators must increase accordingly. Happily, for every challenge there is always a solution.
Expressed in general terms there are four unique forces at work in the integration of production systems in the church market today. They are: diverse requirements placed on the systems; unique budget approval process; increase in demand for high quality performance; and the variety in shapes and sizes of the buildings.
First, the diversity of requirements placed on modern audio and video systems is presenting real challenges to designers and integrators. This is because the typical church plays host to so many different activities in a short period of time, each requiring the support of the audio system. Every church, of course, must have a system that can handle spoken word in a clear manner while also offering complete coverage within the seating area. There may also be drama productions which require the spoken word as well as, perhaps, sound effects and other audio and video elements. Beyond this, one is likely to encounter demands for the audio system to support traditional music which could be anything from piano to organ to a larger selection of acoustic instruments. Of course, now more than ever, there is a demand for contemporary music which includes reinforcement for electric instruments, microphones and all kinds of processing. And these could all occur, and often do, in the same physical space. In addition, there are any number of variations to these requirements, demonstrating the unique demands in today’s diverse church installation.
The solution begins with the architectural design of the space. It’s essential that decision makers at the church understand what the production needs are and that they communicate those clearly to the architect and the systems designer. According to Vance Breshears, President of Sound Technology Consultants, a design firm in El Cajon, California specializing in acoustical design, auditorium planning, sound systems, theatrical lighting and video systems design, this becomes more critical as production values increase.
“We are trying to work more with the architect at early stages so we have input on how the rooms work from a production standpoint,” Breshears says. “This begins first with the people in the room – how people circulate around the room, how the congregation interacts with people on the platform, how the congregation interacts within itself, and how participants move around the stage. From there we need to look at the interaction of the people with the technical systems and the interaction of the systems with the architecture of the room. It’s vitally critical to integrate sound, lighting and video systems into the architectural design so you need to have an architect who will embrace this concept and work with the systems designers when designing the architectural space.”
So, once the church has a good grasp on how diverse their requirements will be for the productions they plan the designers can use that information to create the technical systems needed and have those systems be integrated into the complete facility design. Breshears and STC had recent experience with this at Christ Church of The Valley near Phoenix where they were able to exert some influence on the design. Even though they were brought in halfway through the design process they were able to integrate the ceiling design with the theatrical lighting and speaker systems and coordinate all those elements with the video projection screens.
“While we would have liked to be involved even earlier in the initial design in the CCV project,” recalled Breshears, “we got in early enough to design a system of drywall ceiling clouds that are suspended below the roof structure. These clouds reflect some of the acoustic energy back to the seating area to enhance congregational singing. The configuration and layout of the clouds was carefully coordinated with the theatrical lighting positions and speakers and could not have been done at the intended budget had we come in later in the project and had to move or change the design.”
Which leads us to the second item in our challenge list, the unique budget process encountered with churches. This, naturally, has an impact on system design and approval. The real test comes in balancing the needs of a congregation with the amount of money available for that purpose. Sometimes it matches, but often it doesn’t.
The best approach to dealing with this issue is to design as complete a system as possible to meet the church’s needs, both short and long term. This is effective because you will have a complete design in place, but it can be implemented in phases so the church can grow with the system as the need arises and budgets open up.
So, selecting the right kind of systems that can be applied in “modular” form can be the best approach depending on the application. For Breshears one area that has allowed him to take this approach is in audio processing.
“We’ve been able to apply this concept using a variety of signal processing devices, in particular, the Biamp Systems’ AudiaFLEX. This type of processor is a scalable, modular DSP device and we can put in, say, one unit then add more units as the need and budgets arise. As a DSP-based device, it makes that approach easy because the programming can be modified and has lots of flexibility.”
In the Christ Church of The Valley system, which supports 3000 seats and boasts a huge media ministry that integrates audio, video and lighting together, there are five AudiaFLEX systems networked together to handle several multi-purpose rooms in the building as well as the main system speaker processing where it manages all EQ, delay and crossover functions as well as cross matrix processing in a Renkus-Heinz multi-channel left/center/right configuration. The church has a computer hooked up to the system to monitor levels, yet because of the complexity of the systems and in order to maintain balance and consistency, they don’t need to touch the settings.
When budgets are an issue and flexibility in systems design is critical, look for speaker systems that can expand in a cohesive manner as needs change, as well as control systems that permit this approach. Also critical is matching the budget with the quality of the system needed, which raises our third challenge, the rapid increase in demand for quality audio and video systems.
Like the rest of society, churches are demanding good audio and video systems and good acoustics. It must be remembered that even amidst the demands for high production values the central issue of communicating a message cannot be lost. That is the reason the church is there in the first place and nothing can detract from the clear communication of that message. Audio and video systems must serve the dual role of supporting that basic message while meeting the elevated demands of high production values.
An area that increasingly affects perception of quality in church systems, is video. As with all well-designed systems, this relates to the previously mentioned practice of working with architects early in the design phase. “When working on systems design for a facility,” Breshears notes, “the first thing we look at is the size and location for the video screens that will provide the best viewing for all seats. Often times the video screen locations will have the greatest impact on the architectural layout of the facility and will require the greatest amount of coordination. Ideally, the layout and configuration of the video screens is a joint effort between the AV system designer and architect.”
Finally, our fourth unique characteristic of church technology that makes its implementation different than in any other market is the diversity in size and type of churches. This is more critical here than, say, in a large public auditorium because of the degree of intimacy required in a church setting. That sense of intimacy is required no matter the size of the church, both in the room space and in the audio systems as well.
“Intimacy is first addressed by looking at how people relate to each other in the room,” says Breshears. “This is largely an architectural issue, but has direct impact on the design of all the technical systems as well. From a sound reinforcement standpoint we address the intimacy issue by improving intelligibility and clarity,” Breshears says. “One way to provide intimate sound is to shorten the distance from speaker to listener. We generally do not try to cover the entire room from each primary speaker location because of the aspect ratio and the distances involved. In order to get good coverage and a sense of intimacy to the rear of the room we generally utilize delay speakers. Each delay speaker covers a certain portion of the seating area and has the audio signal delayed back to each primary speaker source.”
The variety of church structures extends beyond size and shape to include everything from new acoustically designed spaces and materials to older, stone rectangles. In every room achieving consistent tonal response is the unique challenge. Some systems might sound good in certain seating areas but too bright or boomy in others. “The most important thing in these instances,” declares Breshears, “is getting frequency response consistency throughout the entire room to ensure that when the mix sounds good in one location, it will sound good in all locations.”
A traditional space that STC is working on that has had its usual burdens was St. Martha’s Catholic Church in Murietta, California, which wanted to integrate its traditional mien with advanced technologies. The latter included AMX touch screen control panels and the use of AudiaFLEX to process the sophisticated SLS line array speakers that provide better distribution of sound throughout the space without exciting the reverberant field. “Sometimes,” Breshears laments, “the only option is to put speakers wherever you can; but we try to integrate it into the traditional environment when you can’t redesign the space. And we must always remember, these are tools for the church to achieve the goals of their ministry so it must be flexible, functional and easy to operate.”
Power, flexibility, unobtrusiveness and transparency in all these systems will meet the challenge.