Acoustics Tailoring with Meyer Sound Constellation System, Part 1

Steve Ellison from Meyer Sound provides all the details on the Constellation system and how it made the difference for Southern California’s Laguna Presbyterian Church. 4/01/2010 6:11 AM Eastern

Acoustics Tailoring with Meyer Sound Constellation System, Part 1

Apr 1, 2010 10:11 AM

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Most people know less about acoustics than they do about alchemy, but for modern churches, a one-size-fits-all solution just may not work. Steve Ellison from Meyer Sound is here to provide all the details on the Constellation system and how it made the difference for Southern California’s Laguna Presbyterian Church.

SVC: Steve, thanks very much for being with me here on the House of Worship AV podcast. This is a very interesting system. I am going to be talking in part two about the actual installation of it with the church folks, but I was kind of curious on this thing as to how this all works because it looks to me like it almost is a substitute for having a lot of physical work done inside of a venue where you’ve got to change the acoustics around, install acoustic panels, clouds, and so forth. This supposedly, from what I’ve read, maybe does away with all of that. But first of all, what does Meyer Sound do and how long has that company been around? I mean, if there’s anybody who seriously doesn’t know that by now.
Steve Ellison: Thanks, and it’s great to be here. Thanks for inviting us. Meyer Sound started in 1979 with John and Helen Meyer, who established it. It’s a private company in Berkeley, Calif. We create products for audio professionals, ranging from loudspeakers for large installations to very small installations and digital control systems for spectacle shows like Cirque du Soleil all the way to acoustic systems such as Constellation that we will be talking about today. [Timestamp: 2:00]

Yeah, that’s an interesting system because it looks fairly complex on the installation, but from what I’ve read it’s fairly simple in operation, which I guess is sort of the Holy Grail of audio systems anyway. So what’s the general concept behind Constellation, the Constellation Acoustic system?
Well, Constellation is a system that electronically changes the room acoustics that’s in the room, and it was developed to allow venues to have a wide range of acoustics that could help support various types of activity—performance audio—that takes place within the venue from spoken word to reinforced sound to choir and organ. All these uses really have various optimal reverberation time ranges and optimal acoustics, so it’s very difficult if not impossible to create a single space with physical passive acoustics that can be changed into wide range that lots of venues, including houses of worship that incorporate contemporary and traditional music, could benefit from. [Timestamp: 3:07]

Yeah, the churches, especially the larger ones, are really into a lot of stuff now. I mean, it’s not just the pastor and a choir and maybe a church organ. They’re doing dramatic performances. They’ve got live music going, and you can’t, I wouldn’t think, design a church—which usually they’re not designed originally, if they’re particularly in an older building—for all that kind of thing anyway to suit all those different kinds of music and speech and everything. So the ability to change all of that or the characteristics of the acoustics in the venue there, particularly for churches, I would think would be a really valuable thing.
Sure, it does, because we start with a room that is acoustically nonreverberant or dry. I don’t like using the word “dead”, but that’s another word people use. So in a nice dead room for which intelligibility—speech intelligibility—will be optimized and that’s important for spoken words with sermons and readings so that the church—the parishioners—can hear what’s being said, but at the same time, when a choir sings an anthem or the congregation is involved with singing a hymn or a song with the praise band or with the choir, they want to hear themselves, the choir wants to hear themselves, the congregation wants to hear themselves, so everybody sings better and is more connected so the technology. Constellation technology for houses of worship allow that connection to really be supported acoustically. [Timestamp: 4:32]

Yeah, there’s, like I said, a lot going on in these churches now a days and a lot of times, on short notice, they decide to change things. I’ve talked to a lot of pastors and tech guys for churches who sometimes even when they come in that day to do a service, there might be something else going on that they didn’t know about before so hopefully they have a little lead time. I would think that would be a good thing to know how to operate a system like this and have it set up or preset, and I guess that’s what you guys do when you come in and do the installation.
That’s right. Yeah, it’s the key part of the process. I want to talk a bit about the process of developing a system for a room briefly and then how it is that it’s used on a day-to-day/week-to-week basis. From the beginning, we sit down with all of the parties involved—the end user, the consultants or our dealers, the installers that we are working with—to discuss what is the range of acoustics that are required for the room. What is the room starting like? Sometimes when we put a system into a room, the room might need a little bit of acoustical treatment to bring it down a bit first, then we can bring it back with Constellation. So we’ll talk about the goals and then work as a team to determine what locations in the room we can use for loudspeakers and microphones. It is an electronic system, and there are a lot of microphones and loudspeakers that have to be hidden within the space so that the focus of being in the space is not on seeing the microphones and loudspeakers but it’s on experiencing being in the room and listening from all of your senses, including visual and aural of course. So once that plan is done—once it’s been [decided] where the processing equipment is going to be located, [if there is] a sufficient air conditioning/HVAC for that for the equipment to run etc., etc.—once that’s all planned and designed, the installer will install the system, and then once it’s all installed, we’ll come in and calibrate the system and voice it, but this tuning process we kind of split into two phases: One is the calibration, which basically brings the system up and normalizes its performance and optimizes its behavior and power distribution and so forth, and then the subjective part, when we dial in the various presets, this part we’ll do in conjunction with the end user and bring in musicians, and with the consultants or installers involved, and that’s a real fun part is when we are able to adjust the presets for the various uses from speech to bands to choir and organ as well, and we have different settings. Once that’s all done, the settings are stored in our system and are controlled via a number of ways. The most common of which is a touchscreen controller such as would be used in other AV systems, and this controller may have five or six buttons on it that would be the various acoustic conditions for the various types of performances that would happen in the room. So once it’s all done—It’s a complicated process to design the system, install it, calibrate it, tune it—but once it’s done, it’s really easy to use. It’s just pushing a button on a controller for sermon—in the case of Laguna Presbyterian, which we’ll be talking about in part two—a sermon or band or choir or organ. So when the system is done, anybody who volunteers within the church can operate it, and it’s a very simple system to control. [Timestamp: 8:11]

Acoustics Tailoring with Meyer Sound Constellation System, Part 1

Apr 1, 2010 10:11 AM

What does this system consist of? You’ve got loudspeakers, you’ve got microphones. How does all that connect up, and how do they interact with each other?
Steve Ellison: There’s a couple of principles involved in Constellation, which I’ll talk about and then I’ll talk about the pieces of the system. Constellation works in a couple of ways: One is by reducing the apparent absorption of the room. By reducing the absorption, we can make it more reverberant, or by increasing the apparent room volume, because reverberation time increases as you increase volume and as you decrease absorption. So those are the two principles that we work with in Constellation. To do that, we’re picking up the sound of the room itself with microphones that are distributed throughout the space. In the case of Laguna Presbyterian, there are 16 microphones throughout the room. These are then picked up by our processors, which have integrated microphone amps and that energy is then coupled to an internal reverberator that’s a 16-channel patented munitary reverberator that creates a set of 16 discretely different decorrelated reverberant signals that are then placed throughout the room. In the case of Laguna, there are two processors, so they have actually 32 discrete reverberant signals that are all different. They are then placed in matrix through a set of loudspeakers that are both on the side walls and overhead. So there are microphones that feed signals into the processors. The processors then generate very decorrelated complex and natural sounding reverberant field that is distributed both laterally and overhead through a range of loudspeakers that include subwoofers all the way to small 4in. compact speakers. [Timestamp: 10:02]

Okay and that’s a lot of stuff to get connected, right? And you said the installers come in. Do you work with specific installers who know all the ins and outs about hooking up this particular system?
Well, certainly the installers that would install this are Meyer Sound dealers, and they are well-versed in dealing with multichannel systems. There is not anything in particular that makes this different from a multichannel system say in a Las Vegas show room, but certainly you have to take care to follow recommended practices in terms of wiring to make sure that this system is free of hums and buzzes. There’s also other environmental issues we have to be aware of such as air handling systems. We don’t want air from a diffuser blowing into a microphone. So any of our dealers can install this. We work very closely with them to make sure that it’s installed correctly in terms of pre-installation training and also during system checkout phase when we’ll send a tech support person with them to check over input and output. So that way when we come back to calibrate and voice the system for the tuning, we know that it’s going to work because it already does work. It’s not just the science and art of tuning the system. [Timestamp: 11:16]

And, of course, it consists of a lot of microphones. Are those just run back like any other microphone…balanced lines, mic label…
Are they phantom powered?
Yes, they are phantom powered, and they’re microphones that we sell. We use, in some cases, boundary mount omni. We also use a miniature omni or a miniature cardioid, depending a bit upon the size of the venue and the proximity to other loudspeakers and so forth. We’ve been talking a bit about reverberation, another aspect that the system can do and often does in venues is to provide early reflection support. This is another aspect of the system that uses more directional microphones to pick up the sound field of an orchestra and create a set of early reflections out to the room, and we can also, for our orchestral settings, bring those signals back to the orchestra to create a electronic shell, so that’s another application of the technology that’s is now in use that I’ve mentioned. [Timestamp: 12:21]

Okay, and it all goes back to a processor, which, I guess, is in a rack someplace?
Yeah, the processor is in a rack, separate away from the room. That’s very simple. Typically on Constellation systems, most of the loudspeakers are remotely powered via DC amplifiers. So those DC amplifiers will also be in that equipment room with the processors and then we use a multicore cable to send DC power and audio signal to the loudspeakers such as the MM4-XP, the Stella-4, Stella-8, and the UP4-XP and MM-10. We use your subwoofers.

Okay, so you’re running DC all that distance up there to the speakers? That’s kind of a different concept.
Well, it makes it for a less A-STEEP power that has to be installed. For some of the larger rooms that use our larger subwoofers or some of the more high-powered loudspeakers such as UP Junior or UP-J, those do require AC power, but even in those systems, there are usually a large percentage of the loudspeakers that are DC powered to simplify the installation. [Timestamp: 13:34]

So that avoids, I guess, a lot of ground loop problems with things getting power from different places and being hooked audio together?
Right, yeah.

Okay, and the processor, I guess, is what? It has a user interface there somehow? Is that like a touchpanel or something?
Yeah, the user interface is a touchpanel. We also provide some additional diagnostic capabilities for this system that can be accessed by the end-user via a webpage. So you can hook up a Mac or PC and run your web browser of choice, type in the IP address of the processor, and be presented with options for testing. For instance, testing the outputs. There’s a handy function where you can start a sequence and the system will ID with a sample of a number, the output number, sequentially through the system so you can, maybe every six months or something, just run through this and verify that all the outputs are still working because there are a large number of outputs, and it can be a real question [whether] the system is working or not and all, and we try to provide those tools built-in to make it easy for the end user to check and verify that everything is working. [Timestamp: 14:44]

Now, do you usually go back when they’ve got live music, some kind of live performance in the church? Do you go back and watch the show and are you using the equipment and setting up things at that time or do you just kind of get it in the ballpark and then go back and listen?
Usually we’ll arrange for representative ensembles to come and perform in the venue while we are there during the tuning process. We will still have our measurement gear set up, and we will be able to walk around and listen and make adjustments with performers sometimes, and I would say maybe two-thirds of the time. So usually we will then also return for a performance to hear how this system is working in live context. Typically after the end-user has had some use of the system and may want to make some slight adjustments perhaps. We try to learn as much as we can during that initial tuning visit. Although, sometimes it’s really not practical. For instance, in the case of a new construction, we may be finishing the tuning before the building has officially been turned over to the end-user, so it can be impractical at times to actually have performers doing the tuning. [Timestamp: 15:51]

Is there a particular type of venue, a type of church that can benefit from this more than others? Is there a particular case where they really need this more than another venue might?
Certainly, multipurpose rooms at schools, whether it’s high schools or undergraduate institutions that need a venue both to support theater and drama as well as music performance. This is a slam dunk for those types of facilities because for drama, if it’s unamplified and say it’s a 500 [or] 600-seat venue, the optimal reverberation time is under 1 second—so it might be about 0.8 seconds is ideal. Whereas, if a chorus wants to perform in the same venue, they need a reverberance of 2 seconds or more. That’s a big range of 0.8 to 2 seconds. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to do that with physical passive acoustics with curtains and panels and so forth. So we can do that with Constellation, and it just allows that venue to be used by more and more people so you don’t have to both build a recital hall and a drama theater. You can build one building to suit the needs of all the organizations—arts and musical and performance arts organizations, houses of worship as well, especially houses of worship that want to do both contemporary music as well as traditional. That is a big appeal to our system. For the same reason, if there are drums and guitar and base, and it’s amplified, you want a room that’s less reverberant so you can get the intelligibility on the vocalist, and the sneer and the kick don’t wash out through the whole room. Yet if you’re going to do a cappella hymns during the Christmas Eve service, that same acoustic will really not be appropriate once again—a lot more rich reverberant and enveloping, so Constellation can provide that range once, both for small and large venues. Laguna Presbyterian, I believe, has a seating capacity of around 450-500 people. Whereas some of the other churches we’ve done range up to 2,500, and one of those, in fact, has even supported concerts by Dallas Symphony and Detroit Symphony, among others, in addition to their worship. So here’s a case where a worship facility, which it was the Northland Church, being used both primarily for worship but also for community outreach to bring people into the church who normally wouldn’t attend that can come and visit the world-renowned orchestra that’s visiting. So Constellation really opens doors, I think, both for performance within the church and the facility but also in terms of bringing in outside organizations, and they want to take advantage of a great facility, but the acoustics just aren’t right, and now they can with our system, the Constellation. [Timestamp: 18:42]

Alright, the system is Constellation from Meyer Sound, and it sounds like this is really a special benefit to churches because, like we talked about, all the different things that they’re in and it’s sort of push-button acoustics. It’s going to be really interesting to talk to the folks at Laguna in part two about the specific installation on this, but for now, thanks for being here Steve. It’s been great.
My pleasure. Thank you very much.

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