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Feature: Faithful sound reproduction for houses of worship

Europe’s style of worship is changing, and it comes as a blessing for the pro-audio industry, writes Erica Basnicki

Europe’s style of worship is changing, and it comes as a blessing for the pro-audio industry, writes Erica Basnicki

Europeans are less inclined to affiliate themselves with a particular religion, according to a study by the aptly named Pew Research Center. A major analysis of the global religious landscape released by the ‘fact tank’ in April of this year puts the number of “unaffiliated” Europeans at one in five, and rising. Only one other geographic region – the US – is seeing the same trend.

What that study doesn’t directly address is how worship is changing. And yes, that change is happening in Europe, too. Rising up along side the traditional “bells and smells” of century-old religious ceremonies is a new form of communing. It’s bigger, it’s brighter and most definitely louder. Crucially, it’s also catching on in a big way: exactly the kind of good news message the pro-audio industry wants to hear.

London-based AV specialist SFL Group has been responsible for multiple house-of-worship audio installations across the UK, including London’s most famous places of worship, St Martin-in-the-Fields. You could consider St Martin’s the ‘godfather’ of contemporary worship, having embraced modern AV technology just over 90 years ago: The world’s very first broadcast of a church service took place there, in 1924. A recent upgrade to its audio system saw the SFL Group install L-Acoustics 8XTi and 5XTi loudspeakers and a Yamaha QL1 digital mixing console (pictured).

This is by no means a typical installation. In fact, pinning down a trend in this market is extremely difficult; according to Horton, buildings vary wildly – as does worship style, “and the two don’t correlate”.

“As I understand it, the pendulum will swing from a very traditional format where you still have the choir and organ – where any AV we’d be putting in would be supporting the spoken word side of things,” says Horton. “The choral traditions are mostly unamplified; it’s all about speech reproduction.

“What a lot of churches are venturing into now is the very contemporary, performance-driven style of church worship where you’ve got your drums, bass, electric guitars, keyboards and so forth. There are all sorts of churches around the world that are modelling that style, and the UK is no exception.”

Epitomising this change to a more contemporary form of worship in Europe is the Alpha Course (known simply as ‘Alpha’), self-described as “an opportunity to explore life and the Christian faith in a friendly, open and informal environment”. According to the Alpha website over 27 million people have completed the course globally.

Alpha traces its roots back to 1977 at London’s Holy Trinity Brompton. Its international success positions Alpha as a leader of this new, evangelical, form of worship, and yet it remains a congregation of the Church of England.

HTB, as it’s now rebranded itself, has four sites in very traditional buildings “with bell towers and balconies and pillars and all that architecture that makes a building aesthetically beautiful, but acoustically horrible,” says SFL Group sales and installation manager Tim Horton.

If there is any point of commonality in house-of-worship installations, poor acoustics would be it. Phill Beynon, technical director at Leicestershire-based pro-audio installer NoiseBoys, elaborates: “Viewing the average church from a purely technical point of view, it looks very similar to a weekly, medium–large corporate event, with a lot of importance placed on the spoken word, music playback and often a full-on band.

“The first, and main difference, though, is that churches don’t usually meet in purpose-built conference centres, gig venues or hotel rooms with nice acoustics; they normally meet in rooms that appear pretty low down on the ‘places I’d like to mix sound’ list.

Valencia-based DAS Audio knows churches like these all too well. Florida’s South Biscayne Church uses a space that was originally developed as a shopping centre. GC Pro (Guitar Center Professional Division) – working in conjunction with Event Resource Group – recently designed a sound reinforcement system for the church using DAS Event 208A three-way active line arrays, Event 218A dual-18” powered subwoofers, Action M12A two-way powered stage monitors, and a DSP-26 stereo/mono processor for loudspeaker management.

These challenging spaces are present all over Europe as well. According to Beynon, “there are roughly three categories of church building in the UK: traditional churches, which are usually centuries old; modern, purpose-built churches; and warehouse conversions. Each carries its own challenges, but it’s rare to find any style that was designed with amplified audio in mind.”

Earlier in 2015 NoiseBoys completed one such challenging – and very high profile – installation at Leicester Cathedral. The discovery of King Richard III’s bones in a car park opposite the cathedral by archaeologists in 2012 sparked a massive refurbishment programme, including a complete overhaul of its AV system. The system includes Pan Acoustics’ Pan Beam steerable column arrays and JBL CBT 50 columns using a BSS Soundweb system controlled via a touchscreen tablet (see ‘Out of my sight!’, PSNEurope April 2015).

“The installation uses steerable array speakers which we have used to digitally direct the sound only to where it is needed, minimising reflections and maximising clarity,” Beynon explains, highlighting another possible trend in the house-of-worship market.

“The market is broad and varied, from traditional churches and mosques to more modern venues, but we certainly see a lot of use of steerable columns,” agrees Tom Williams, EMEA manager of application engineering for Harman Professional Solutions, “which allow sound to be focussed on the listeners whilst ensuring minimum excitation of the room, providing maximum possible intelligibility in what can often be difficult acoustic spaces.”

Column loudspeakers such as JBL’s Intellivox system (pictured) also provide another advantage, says Williams: “These are steerable line-array columns which utilise advanced DSP algorithms that advance beam shaping to maximise the focus of sound on the listeners. Because the sound is electronically steered, the speakers can be installed flush against the building structure to allow for aesthetic requirement – such as being less visually intrusive.”

The visual aspect of an installation is of particular importance to heritage groups, who “generally don’t like archways being obscured because they like the architectural purity of the sightlines,” explains Horton – hence the appeal of column-style speakers. However there is also the structural integrity of heritage buildings to worry about, which can trump aesthetic concerns: “Sometimes we’ve been able to put in a line array system and we’ve sold it down the thought process of, ‘It’s a single hang of speakers, we’re not running cable front to back in the venue, there’s only one set of drill holes to mount it…’ The weigh-up is that you then have this mono hang in the front of the church and it might obscure a stained glass window. Sometimes we’ve done a distributed point-source system, other times its columns… it really depends on the customer and on the art form and the venue.”

How the house-of-worship market continues to grow depends on the pro-audio market itself, says Rik Kirby, vice-president of sales and marketing at Renkus-Heinz: “Audio for houses of worship has evolved along with the rest of audio technology. As audio systems have got more efficient and more economical, they have become increasingly ubiquitous in houses of worship.

“Customer demand has evolved as well… The worship market has also seen a great deal of internal competition with churches ‘needing’ to have bigger and better AV to attract, or even retain, their congregations.”

But not every congregation has staff trained to use modern AV equipment, which makes user-friendly technology (such as apps run on tablets) increasingly attractive options for this market: “There are real advantages to churches getting into this technology, as they can have a control surface that’s customised to their particular way of working without the risks of someone messing up the settings or not having anyone who knows how to work the system,” comments Beynon. “We go to many churches where the users are in the dark about how their technology works and what it does, either because the people who know have moved on or forgotten or because they were never shown properly in the first place.”

Offering the right training, then, and encouraging congregations to ‘see the light’ is also increasingly important. “Most of the churches don’t have anyone full-time employed to oversee this stuff,” explains Horton. “Even if they do, they’re still relying on a large volunteer base to make the services happen week by week.”

Bless ’em.