Sound Options for Historic Churches

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

If your congregation worships in an historic building and you know your present sound system is inadequate, we have good news and not-so-good news.

First, the good news. New audio technologies on the market today virtually ensure your sound system will outperform your old one in every respect: more power, greater speech intelligibility, less feedback, increased reliability and simplified operation. And there’s even more good news. Some equipment costs for equivalent performance are actually lower than they were a decade ago.

Alas, there’s the other side of the equation: installation costs. Many historic churches are listed on the National Historic Register, which requires that the essential look of the sanctuary remain unchanged. Loudspeakers must be either relatively small and blend with the architecture, or be hidden away altogether. Running new wiring can be problematic in older buildings, equipment space can be tight, and often additional electrical circuits are required to power the upgraded system. All of these factors tend to raise installation costs, though in some cases (as illustrated in the following examples) the new technologies can help ease the overall cost crunch. So, let’s look first at the good news.

A Self-Powered Solution

The First United Methodist Church of Paris, Texas presents a typical dilemma faced by many older, mainline denomination congregations. The church building was completed in 1924, and the steel frame structure represents a unique juxtaposition of Mediterranean and Classic Revival architecture. In addition the sanctuary auditorium features unique period decorations, including paintings and intricate stencil work. The church was placed on the National Historic Register in 1983.

Like many church sanctuaries of that era, the acoustics here are not friendly to sound systems. The room holds about 700 in the main floor hardwood pews, and another 200 in the surrounding balconies. Walls are plaster lath, broken only by stained glass windows, including a mosaic window crowning the ceiling dome 40 feet above the floor. The reverberant acoustics were both a blessing and a curse.

“All the church choirs in the area love to come here and sing because of the acoustics,” says Janet Dodd, the church’s business administrator. “But with our old system we just had sound bouncing off the walls. It was hard for most people to understand anything that was spoken through the old system.”

Further complicating matters, many younger members of the congregation were beginning Wednesday night services with contemporary music, and the old system lacked both the necessary power and frequency response.

The easy and obvious solution would have been to fly a big center cluster in the middle of the room and aim it down at the seats. That was the recommendation of the first contractor consulted by the church. But this was unacceptable to many in the congregation, and likely would have removed the church from the Historic Register. Through word of mouth recommendation, the church contacted AV Pro of Desoto, Texas. Company principals Tom Fowlston and Amy Jackson surveyed the situation and determined that, with a flown center cluster ruled out, the only option would be two powerful but highly compact speakers mounted on the side columns and blending in with the balcony fronts.

Further investigation, however, revealed other complications. “There was no room nearby to put large amplifier racks,” notes Fowlston,” and power was inadequate.”

The solution was to use self-powered speakers. Unlike conventional speakers, self-powered speakers actually include the amplifiers and dedicated signal processing inside the cabinet. This approach not only improves overall sonic performance by optimizing all components in a single system, it also boosts efficiency so less AC power input is needed for produce the same output levels. And, of course, no external amplifiers are needed.

For this application, AV Pro recommended a pair of Meyer Sound UPA-1P systems, custom painted to match the balcony fade. Though highly regarded in theatrical and concert circles, the Meyer speakers are less familiar in most church installations, primarily because the initial costs are higher. But, as Fowlston points out, other factors can make the overall installation more cost effective when using self-powered cabinets.

“Using the UPA-1Ps we could get by with one less additional 20-amp power circuit,” says Fowlston, “Also, without amplifiers we could fit the rest of the equipment in a smaller rack that fit available space, so they didn’t have to remodel to create the extra equipment space.”

Despite the inherent difficulties of using a split, side-mounted approach, Fowlston was able to achieve a uniform coverage across the entire main floor with the two inconspicuous loudspeakers. The tightly controlled dispersion patterns of the UPA-1P curtailed leakage onto the walls and ceiling, cutting room reverberation and improving intelligibility.

All-in-One DSP

Another new technology of particular benefit to older churches is all-in-one integrated digital signal processing (DSP). These units give the sound system designer far more flexibility in custom-tailoring the sound for different areas of the sanctuary, and for aligning all the speaker sources in time. This is particularly crucial in larger historic churches where quite often several speaker subsystems must be placed around the church—sometimes even on the backs of pews—to keep the sound echoing around the room.

The two leading products in this category are Media Matrix from Peavey and the BSS Soundweb, though other companies (e.g. Symetrix and BiAmp Systems) are now marketing similar units. Though offering different user features and varying levels of external computer control, all these units are built around a powerful DSP “engine” that performs all of the functions formerly assigned to separate boxes with knobs: equalization, compression and limiting, signal mixing and routing, signal delay, and even loudspeaker processing functions when self-powered speakers are not used.

In the Paris Methodist church, AV Pro installed a Peavey Media Matrix system, which sends separate tailored signal not only to the main Meyer self powered speakers but also to the smaller speakers for the balcony, under-balcony area, and separate monitors for the choir and bell choir.

“Prices have come down to the point where I’d say over 90% of the church systems we put in now have an integrated DSP unit,” says Tom Fowlston. “In some cases they actually save money, particularly in older churches where you need many delay zones. Before if you had four zones and your delay had only three outputs, you had to buy a whole other unit to get one more zone. With integrated digital system, you build your virtual processors to fit whatever your requirements happen to be.”

Lou Jones, of NBS Media Systems in Charleston, South Carolina, is another big fan of integrated DSP in historic churches. Jones estimates he has put sound systems in at least 15 churches that are over a century old, and all the recent installations have used integrated DSP. In some cases, he maintains, just switching over to the DSP units can improve performance of an existing loudspeaker system—and have other benefits as well.

“We just upgraded a system at Grace Episcopal, one of the oldest historic churches in Charleston,” says Jones. “We replaced a 15-year-old automatic mixer system with a BSS Soundweb, which includes automatic mixing and a host of other functions. The church has a pew-back speaker system, and the old processing just didn’t have enough zones and flexibility. With the open architecture of the Soundweb, we could do more precise processing for each pew area, which greatly improved performance from the existing speakers. Plus we reduced the rack space needed by two-thirds!”

Jones adds that the new DSP systems also make sound systems more user-friendly by offering preset programs for different uses. At Grace Episcopal, Jones installed a touch panel control system for the Soundweb that allows the user to pull up programs for Sunday worship, music events, or funeral processions in the courtyard. All microphone levels, speaker output levels and delay times are set instantly with the push of a button. Also, the DSP systems can save on installation costs as well, since the controllers can set levels remotely via a single cable, rather than having—as with a traditional mixer—all the microphone lines running back to the mixer position.

Installation: Be Prepared

For many historic churches, installation costs can eat up the lion’s share of the new system budget. This is particularly true in cases where all loudspeakers must be completely hidden from view, which can require partial demolition of walls and recessing of speakers in old plaster ceilings. “We wear out a lot of drill bits and saw blades doing these old churches,” laments Tom Fowlston.

Yet Fowlston also points out that, in some respects, a 100-year old church can be easier to retrofit than a 30-year-old church. “Access is critical,” he notes. “If the church has an attic, as many historic churches do, it’s easy to pull wires. But if it has a combined roof and ceiling, you either have to dig underneath or figure out ways to hide the wires.”

As an example, in the Paris church, Fowlston notes how he discovered an open space between the steel beams and the plaster column exteriors that ran all the way from basement to ceiling. This space made it relatively simple to drop down both the audio cable and the BX power cable for the speakers.

Nevertheless, cautions Lou Jones, historic churches that want to preserve a look that predates the invention of loudspeakers completely should be prepared for a hefty installation bill. “Compared to a brand new church, where you have all your conduits laid and get in at the right time, an equivalent system in a historic church can run from fifty percent more to twice as much.”

Fortunately, when the costs are spread out over ten or fifteen years, the cost of a new sound system that preserves historic architecture is not an undue burden on most churches. And as congregations from Paris, Texas to Charleston, South Carolina will testify, it’s an investment fully appreciated with every crisply articulated word, and every clearly reproduced musical note.