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Meyer Sound Surround System Supports "Virtual Worship" at Buckhead Church
Atlanta, Georgia's Buckhead Church, a new satellite campus of the fast-growing North Point Community Church, is pioneering a bold approach to multi-site worship that enables churchgoers here to feel that they're sharing a common experience with those attending services at the main campus a dozen miles away. Using high-definition video and a six-channel surround sound system based on Meyer Sound loudspeakers, the roughly 1,000 Buckhead worshippers in each service are "digitally transplanted" into a worship recorded one week earlier at the larger North Point main auditorium.
The creation of Buckhead Church's "virtual worship" approach was prompted by the rapid growth of the parent congregation, with its main campus located in suburban Alpharetta. The original 3,000-seat main auditorium was built in 1998, and a 2,500-seat addition constructed only three years later. But as both rooms started to overflow – despite multiple services each Sunday – North Point sought new ways to accommodate the throngs of churchgoers coming from throughout the metro area. Finally, in 2002 the church decided to open a satellite campus in a more centralized location: Atlanta's stylish Buckhead district. The chosen site for the temporary church (construction starts soon on a permanent structure nearby) was a 40,000-square-foot, recently vacated grocery store.
A primary goal behind launching Buckhead Church was to emulate both the substance and the feel of the main campus services. Buckhead would develop its own dedicated on-site music team, but because founding pastor Andy Stanley's weekly message is at the vital core of the church's worship, the new satellite campus would have to integrate his role as seamlessly as possible into the local service – without him actually being there.
"Our goal was to create, as much as possible, a believable impression of sitting in the main auditorium," explains Aaron Hawthorne, media director for North Point. "We hadn't heard of this being attempted at this level before in other churches, so we ended up looking to the cinema for a working model."
Buckhead's novel approach to AV systems was fashioned in a collaborative effort involving a church team, headed by Hawthorne and George Clark, founder and chief engineer of Atlanta-based Clark ProMedia. To create the visual illusion of being at the main campus, the design team decided to use a high-definition video image on a center 18-foot by 22-foot screen using a Christie Roadster projector. This screen normally shows a life-size static image taken from a single camera, coupled with close-ups and supplemental images on the two side screens – again, emulating what would be seen "live" in the main campus auditorium.
As the chief audio system designer, George Clark's challenge at Buckhead was multidimensional. The system would have to carry the full impact of the energetic live music program, provide excellent intelligibility and lifelike voice quality for the pastor's recorded message, and also support with ambient sounds the visual illusion of embedding the Buckhead Church into the larger home campus space.
Clark designed the core of his system around Meyer Sound's self-powered CQ-1 wide coverage and CQ-2 narrow coverage main loudspeakers, employing them for both the main front LCR arrays and the rear surrounds. "The Meyer Sound loudspeakers were preferred for this project from the beginning, for several reasons," notes Clark. "The North Point campus has CQs in the children's auditorium, so all the audio people on staff were familiar with the quality of the sound. But another key reason for going with Meyer was the fact that Buckhead is really a temporary installation. In about two years, all of this equipment will be pulled out and most of it will likely go into the new church building. The way we have it designed and installed, we can take it out after church one Sunday, and have it up in the new location before the first service the following week."
The main front left and right arrays comprise two CQ-2 loudspeakers, with four CQ-2 cabinets in the center array. A single UPM-1P ultra-compact wide coverage loudspeaker serves as downfill under each array. (Clark expects these will soon be replaced by UPJ-1P compact VariO units.) Two UPA-2P compact narrow coverage loudspeakers serve as rear delays for the front clusters, with three more UPA-2P cabinets on each side covering the side alcove seating areas. The matched, high-power rear surrounds are four CQ-1 loudspeakers, supplemented by 10 small, conventionally powered side surround cabinets.
The "virtual worship" surround effect is created from six-channel uncompressed source material (from D5 digital video tape) using the matrices in the system's Soundweb DSP controller. The tape played back at Buckhead is usually recorded during the previous week's service at the main campus, with audio and video post-production done during the week in the church's own studio.
Though the "virtual worship" component of the service was the driving force behind installation of a multichannel surround system, Aaron Hawthorne notes that the technology also has been employed to enhance the live music program. "When we have the choir singing, we will blend some of that into the rear surrounds, to make it seem like the people out there are singing louder. That gets everyone singing even louder still, and bolsters the whole worship experience."
Hawthorne adds that the church FOH engineers also may blend some reverb into the surround speakers "…to put an artificial tail on the sound decay and make it feel like you are in a larger room. It adds some depth to the singers, and we also put some on the speaking voices in the live part of worship, so there's not a stark contrast to the bigger room sound you hear in the pastor's message."
In essence, the goal at Buckhead was to provide a complete worship experience that didn't make those attending the satellite campus feel like "second-class citizens." It seems to be working as hoped. Within a year, Buckhead Church had grown to fill all three worship services, upping the schedule to five services each Sunday in May of 2004. That step required recruitment of a second music team and additional production personnel. However, for Pastor Stanley's "virtual worship" segment, adding two – or even 20 – more services poses no problem whatsoever.