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Halloween special: Houses of Horror!

Forget trick-or-treating this Hallowe’en – join Jon ‘Haunted’ Chapple for a ghost walk through the spookiest church installs in pro audio

Audio installations in houses of worship are rarely simple affairs. Technicians face a multitude of challenges, from the discreet placement of speakers to the difficulties of achieving maximum intelligibility in reverberant, often-mediaeval, buildings.

And then, of course, there are the ghosts, ghouls and armies of the undead…

Haunted Hitchin

As the UK market leader in audio for houses of worship, DM Music is no stranger to eerie installs in ancient churches. However, given the location of Hitchin’s St Mary’s Church – whose audio architecture the Harpenden-based company recently overhauled – it would be no surprise if the project gave even the haunting-hardened installers of DM pause for thought.

Hitchin, you see, is not just a quiet Hertfordshire market town. Hitchin is ghost central. Staying in the Sun Hotel? Watch out for Lord Havisham (he killed himself in his room and now spends his days scaring guests). Visiting the ruins of Minsden Chapel? Don’t go at midnight or you’ll probably bump into a ghostly monk climbing a staircase that’s no longer there. Need some fine home furnishings? Don’t go to Philpotts. There’s apparently a ghost upstairs. In a furniture shop. Yep.

But deceased aristocrats are small fry when you’re doing the work of the original ghost – the Holy one – so DM duly strapped on its collective proton pack and got to work.

Tasked by St Mary’s with replacing an “outdated radio mic set-up” in favour of fixed, hard-wired microphones, DM opted for six Audio-Technica ES915S cardioid condenser goosenecks and a pair of A-T U891RX cardioid condenser boundary mics for the clergy, and six A-T AT897 shotgun condenser mics to be positioned above the church’s pipe organ, to allow for the recording of choral concerts.

The church’s new audio complement also includes a four-channel A-T System 10 Pro wireless set-up, which operates outside UHF frequencies (BEIRG will be happy), an Allen & Heath Qu-Pac digital mixer (pictured right), Apart Audio MASK4T-W two-way loudspeakers and a trio of Apart Revamp 4240T power amps.

Hell’s Own install

While DM Music grappled with the supernatural in Hertfordshire, in the Black Country one installer risked the wrath of Beelzebub himself to update the sound system of a Pentecostal church on the Prince of Darkness’s home turf: Hell’s Own – aka Halesowen – in Worcestershire. (“Hell’s Own” is actually a folk etymology: the town’s name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Hala Owen – Owen’s Valley – but we’re ignoring that for dramatic effect.)

After an appropriately diabolical fire gutted Halesowen’s Zion Christian Centre (pictured right), destroying its existing PA and console, Dudley-based Centrepiece Productions – whose managing director, Gareth Davies, is a member of the church – was charged with sourcing and installing the replacement sound-reinforcement system.

“Wigwam initially supplied us an Allen & Heath Qu-32 digital mixer to get us up and running after the fire in August,” explains Davies. “I and the other sound team volunteers – none of whom are professional engineers – took to it very quickly, so when it came to investing in our permanent system, it made sense to stick to the Allen & Heath brand…”

Davies opted for the new dLive 7000 – A&H’s “next-generation” FPGA-based digital mixer, launched last July – “partly for its channel count, expandability and future-proof nature”, and partly for its vast array of faders: 36 over six layers, or 216 assignable strips in total. “The number of faders on the S7000 has been great for us – I’ve been able to programme the console in such a way that all of the channels the engineers need for normal Sunday-meeting usage are on one layer,” says Davies. “This is important for the volunteers, as they don’t have to flip between layers and pages to get a mix up and running.”

Hat trick

Another company clearly staffed by paranormal unbelievers is RG Jones Sound Engineering, whose 2011 installation at the listed 16th-century Trinity College, Cambridge, had the potential to bring it face to face with potentially the least scarily named ghost in all spectre-dom: the Man in the Top Hat.

Mr Top Hat, so the story goes, was first sighted in 1922 by archaeologist, explorer and ghost enthusiast TC Lethbridge, then a student at Cambridge. According to the Paranormal Database, “he mistook the figure as a porter, though upon reflection realised that the man was wearing a top hat (which porters only did on a Sunday, and it was not Sunday!). Lethbridge’s friend, who was in the same room during the sighting, failed to perceive the figure.” Chilling stuff.

The RG Jones team – who were, thankfully, untroubled by the phantom not-a-porter – were tasked with installing Trinity’s chapel’s first sound-reinforcement system, for which they specified 127 miniature JBL Control 52 satellite loudspeakers.

Working under English Heritage restrictions, the installer was given a brief that called for the speakers to be installed discreetly on shelving under the pews (pictured right), with the transformer distribution boxes similarly concealed. To complement the Control 52s (supplied by UK Harman distributor Sound Technology), RG Jones project manager Jeff Woodward and installation manager Jon Berry chose a networked BSS Soundweb DSP set-up to broadcast sound from seven fixed mic positions at the lectern to 14 speaker zones around the chapel.

When two people are speaking from different positions, explains Berry, two Soundweb BLU-100 devices, programmed by Soundweb’s London Architect, will automatically recall a different preset compromising between the two mic positions. “The system simply auto-configures and triggers the delay time via the Logic preset recalls,” he says.

New speaker and star-quad mic cabling was also run from the organ loft (Trinity has a Metzler Orgelbau – one of only two in Britain), where the equipment cabinets are located, concealed under the pews and colour-matched to its surroundings.

“This was the first time the chapel had used sound reinforcement, and given the restrictions and number of mic positions it proved to be a particularly challenging project. But thanks to the discreet and versatile nature of the Control 52s, and programming flexibility of London Architect, we have been able to deliver an optimum localised sound to every seat in the room via a simple interface.”

Back to school

Four years later – having clearly grown weary of not living in fear of crap ghosts at England’s great universities – Sound Technology donned its cap and gown once more to supply AKG mics, Crown amps, a Soundcraft mixer and another Soundweb DSP for an installation by City AV at All Souls College, Oxford (pictured top).

Faced with a chapel whose reverberation times varied wildly depending on how full it was, City AV proposed an amplified system centred on a pair of AKG C747 shotgun condenser mics installed in the lectern.

Also sourced from Sound Technology’s Harman portfolio were Crown CT 475 four-channel amps and a BSS Soundweb London BLU-101 DSP, with a Soundcraft EFX8 eight-channel mic mixer for manual override.

“By providing the Chapel with system presets and the correct AKG microphones, we succeeded in making a massive difference to the sound quality,” comments City AV’s managing director, Peter Gunn, who at press time could not be reached for his thoughts on the rather more important matter of local spectre the ‘White Figure’, which is said to float from the rear of the chapel to All Souls’ library before vanishing without trace.

“A strong smell of burnt toast”

While Sound Technology demonstrated an admirable scepticism towards ghoulish goings-on in its spooky Oxbridge installs, the ghosts of All Souls and Trinity haven’t been spotted for a number of years – almost 100, in the case of the latter – making it difficult to judge the level of peril in which its hardy technicians willingly placed themselves.

That the gung-ho installers of Production AV have balls of steel, however, can be in no doubt: Descending upon the quiet English seaside town of Clevedon in 2013 in the midst of a full-blown haunting, the Gloucestershire-based company threw caution to the wind to install a new AV system at Christchuch Clevedon (pictured right) while all around them local media buzzed with lurid tales of “ghostly figures” on Clevedon Pier, and, most terrifyingly of all, a “strong smell of burnt toast lingering in the air”, as reported by piermistress – apparently a real job title – Linda Strong.

Working with architect Chedburn Dudley and construction contractor CS Williams, Production AV installations director Stephen Roskilly specced a Roland M-380 digital desk, eight-inch Electro-Voice Zx1i speakers (mounted on either side of the nave, and additionally on the balcony for fills) and E-V EVID ceiling speakers for the grade II*-listed church, which is shared between local Anglicans and Methodists.

The “ergonomic” M-380, explains Roskilly, and accompanying digital multicore system, were selected for “ease of use” and to “enable rapid recall of presets via push-button interfaces” from a control position in the church’s balcony. He’s also satisfied with the E-V boxes, which “give good sound throughout both the main room […] allowing the service to be relayed clearly” to congregation and charred-bread-smelling ghosts alike.

Doctor’s orders

Q: What’s scarier than the ghosts of dead men? A: Their mangled, decomposed, stinking BODIES!

A ongoing £5.5 million extension to St George’s – a ‘Waterloo church’-turned-concert hall in Bristol, where since the 19th century ex-Bristolians have been quietly killing time until the Second Coming in its now-disused graveyard – has necessitated the exhumation of over 275 bodies (pictured right. Credit: Avon Archaelogy Ltd) , many of which are believed to have been dissected by medical students after their deaths.

As the Bristol Post reports, “one rather macabre discovery has been of skeletons in which the tops of the skulls have been neatly sawn off. […] Their relatives were presumably promised a decent burial in return for the ‘loan’ of the corpse.”

Still, Bristol’s insatiable thirst for high-brow live music must be quenched, and according to Charcoalblue, which carried out acoustic testing on St George’s in preparation for its redevelopment, the venue is almost acoustically perfect.

“Looking at the objective results of our reverberation time measurements […] we [found] that the clarity and detail of sound that the hall provides trumps the traditional standards for reverberation,” says Charcoalblue team leader Ian Stickland.

So there you have it – acoustics worth risking a zombie apocalypse for. This we have to hear…