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Heavenly Sound at Fort Smith's FUMC
Church architecture from the early 1920s may be inspirational, but the sound quality of vintage PA systems is usually less than divine. So when the congregation of the First United Methodist Church of Fort Smith, Ark., set out to restore their 1,100-seat sanctuary to its original glory, they hoped to simultaneously bring the church's sound system up to contemporary standards. The challenge was to address longstanding issues of intelligibility and reliability without detracting from the sanctuary's visual character. The answer, designed and installed by Digital World Productions of Rogers, Ark., was a system based on custom-painted M1D Ultra-Compact Curvilinear Array, UPM-1P Compact Wide Coverage and UPM-2P Compact Narrow Coverage loudspeakers from Meyer Sound.
Before the upgrade, says Digital World Productions' Eric Roa, sound was provided by a 70-volt distributed system with 36 ceiling-mounted drivers scattered both under the balcony and on the ceiling. "There was no processing for time alignment, equalization or level adjustment. This created major problems of different arrival times and consistency throughout the sanctuary. The overall gain before feedback was extremely poor, and the intelligibility was not there. Beyond that, half of the ceiling-mounted speakers were not even operational."
One of the main issues faced in designing a replacement system was tailoring the coverage to existing patterns of reflection. "The hand-troweled plaster on the walls and ceilings is fairly reflective," Roa says, "and an abundance of stained glass serves to increase the occurrence of reflections from the side and rear walls of the sanctuary." Another concern was reflections from the hardwood front of the 450-seat balcony that wraps around the sanctuary above the 650-seat main floor.
In other settings, these acoustical characteristics might have been altered so less precision would be demanded of the sound system. But as Roa says, "the main idea behind the whole renovation project was to maintain the original aesthetics and feel of the sanctuary. So there was no possibility for acoustical treatment of any kind."
Given these constraints, Roa says, the new system needed "extremely tight pattern-control to aid in keeping the sound from being bounced off of the walls. We needed extremely tight vertical coverage to get to the balcony and then jump down to the bottom floor and cover it as well." Also important, he says, was that the loudspeakers be very accurate in the vocal range for the primary applications of speech reinforcement and choral/instrumental music.
Additional considerations that were important to the church included unobtrusive size and color, reliability, and ease of maintenance. And Digital World Productions wanted to be sure that the system had plenty of headroom. "To maintain a natural sound even during the high peaks, we looked for a box that could put out a good amount more than we were actually going to ask of it."
Given all these requirements, Roa says, "we immediately looked for the smallest, most efficient speakers on the market. The concerns about aesthetics were addressed by the extremely compact nature of the M1Ds and the UPMs. And Meyer even custom-painted the cabinets at no charge to exactly match the trim work and wall color in the sanctuary. In addition, the idea that the speakers were self-powered and would not require a large amp-rack was very appealing to the customer. So the Meyer speakers were by far the best choice for the project."
The system's main cluster, located directly above the pulpit area, is made up of seven M1Ds mounted to an MG-1D rigging frame. Roa says that "the ease of rigging with the M1Ds allowed us to concentrate more on the aiming of the cabinets rather than worry about the stability of them. And the electrical side of the installation was as easy as anyone can ever dream of."
The bottom five cabinets in the cluster take care of the majority of the main floor, with acoustical shadows under the balcony handled by two UPM-2Ps mounted in recessed wall pockets. The cluster's top two cabinets, meanwhile, provide coverage for the majority of the balcony, supplemented by a UPM-1P hung on each side.
"The sound coming from the system is very natural and smooth," Roa says. "Even in the choir loft behind the pulpit, which isn't anywhere near the pattern of the speakers, the choir can hear and understand the sermon. Sitting in the worst seat in the house as far as sound goes, it still sounds better than the best seat with the old system. So the clients are very pleased with their new Meyer system."