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Sound for Historic Churches - Beauty and Versatility Combined
Sometimes the needs of past, present and future collide when it comes to sound system design - as they did last year at the First United Methodist Church of Paris, Texas. Built in the early 1920s, this three-story, steel frame structure comprising both Mediterranean and Classic Revival architectural styles has a sanctuary housed under a 40-ft. high octagonal, rotunda dome and is noted for some unique period features, including intricate decorative paintings and stencil work . It was placed on the National Historic Register in 1983.
The main floor pews in the church sanctuary accommodate around 700 worshippers, with seating for approximately 200 more in the surrounding balconies. This church's acoustics were well-suited for choral music, but the old sound system did not transmit speech very clearly, and was not even used for the contemporary-style worship services, which required a separate, temporary sound system. The job at hand was to upgrade this historic church's sound system for improved intelligibility and accommodate the demands of new-style worship music while preserving its architectural integrity and beauty.
"It's a fairly live room for its size because of the octagonal shape and the dome overhead," says Tom Fowlston of DeSoto, Texas-based AV Pro, the company contracted to design and install the new sound system. "All the area choirs love to come in here and sing because of the acoustics," says the Janet Dodd, the church's business administrator. "But with the old sound system we just had sound bouncing off the walls. With all that reverberation, it was hard for people to understand anything that was spoken through the system." One solution to the intelligibility problems - and offered by other sound contractors - was a single, point-source cluster suspended overhead in the center of the sanctuary. This, however, would likely be received as an unwelcome eyesore by the congregation, and could perhaps remove the church from the Historic Register.
After visiting the site, AV Pro's sales manager, Amy Jackson, started investigating the use of high Q loudspeakers mounted on the side columns. However, even that raised difficulties, since the chancel area was short on both AC current and available space for amplifier racks. "There was no room anywhere nearby to put amplifiers," notes Tom Fowlston, "so they would have to go under the platform. Also, the power was inadequate. We would need additional circuits no matter what, but in a 76-year-old church, each added circuit comes with a big price tag." Jackson then decided to recommend covering the main sanctuary space with a pair of Meyer Sound UPA-1P self-powered loudspeaker systems. Though widely used in theatrical, club and concert sound reinforcement, the UPA-1P is not often specified for church systems. "The price of the Meyer box is high, and it's often difficult to explain to non-technical laypeople that they are also getting the amplifiers and the processing in the package," admits Jackson. "But in the Paris church situation we pointed out that the self-powered UPA-1Ps would cut back drastically on the rack space requirements, and because they are so much more efficient we could get by with one less 20-amp circuit."
Jackson then addressed the task of selecting loudspeakers for coverage of the balcony and under-balcony areas, the choir loft and the bell choir area. Community CPL28 units were specified for the balconies and choir, with Lowell FMS30TW surface and ceiling mount speakers installed under the balconies. The old system's main loudspeakers were reassigned to duties as bell choir monitors. A Media Matrix X-Frame digital processor and router supplies EQ and delay as needed. Ten outputs would feed the auxiliary speakers systems, with the two remaining outputs connected to the main Meyer UPA-1P systems and the Williams PPA-T-20 assisted listening system. Two Crest Vs900 one each Peavey AA PZS-140 and Samson Servo 4120 amplifier supply power for the auxiliary speaker systems, with two channels of Samson amplifier's four channels used to drive the TOA SL122M stage monitors.
Fowlston took over the daunting task of wiring the system. The job was complicated by the necessity to conceal all wiring to the greatest degree possible, and to recess many speakers in the hard ceilings. Making the main Meyer speakers as inconspicuous as possible also was a primary concern. Fortunately, the compact cabinets were virtually the same width as the columns, and the same height as the balcony front facade, so once painted to match they almost take on the appearance of an original architectural embellishment. Fowlston was concerned about getting AC power and signal to the main speakers, but then found an easy solution revealed by an old photo. "We came across a picture of the church under construction when it was still just the steel framework. You could tell that each one of the interior columns was framed around one of the steel beams supporting the dome. So we knew that all we had to do was open up the space between the facade and the beam, and then drop down the audio line and the grounded BX cable for the AC. That part was actually quite simple."
Despite the inherent difficulties involved in the side-mounted approach for main loudspeakers, Fowlston was pleased to achieve uniform coverage across the entire main floor. The tightly controlled dispersion of the UPA-1P dramatically curtailed spillage of sound onto the walls or domed ceiling. Intelligibility was greatly improved in every pew, as evidenced by the comments of many attending the system's debut services. "It has turned out to be a real blessing," says the church's business administrator, Janet Dodd. "I've had a lot of people coming up and telling me that finally they can hear distinct voices in the choir and understand every word of the sermon. Everything just has so much more clarity, and we aren't having all the feedback problems we had before."
After the new system was installed, the church found it now had all the power, clarity (and inputs) necessary for all but the most energetic of contemporary Christian music styles. Tom Fowlston notes that the UPA-1Ps can easily go louder and deliver all the levels the reverberant room could handle. If more bass is desired, the system in pre-configured for easy addition of a Meyer powered subwoofer system.
So at least in Paris, Texas, the needs of the present have been satisfied without disturbing the architectural legacy of the past. Amy Jackson remarks: "Our competitors said that the coverage and clarity couldn't be achieved using a side mounted approach. They said it couldn't be done, that you had to fly a big cluster in the middle. But I said, 'I think we can make it work without making it ugly in the process.' The technology is available to do that today, in products like the Meyer Sound speakers. It's not always the cheapest way to go in the short run, but over the long run it usually ends up saving money. And when you have a beautiful church like the one in Paris, it's really the only way to go."