Automated Expertise

Affordable DSP and expert programming transform a small church system. 1/15/2013 6:49 AM Eastern

Automated Expertise

Jan 15, 2013 11:49 AM, By Cynthia Wisehart

Affordable DSP and expert programming transform a small church system.

Mike Wentz knew what he wanted: a hands-off, professional AV system. As the operations manager for St. Lucy Catholic Parish in Campbell, Calif., he wanted clear music and intelligible speech in the sanctuary, and a locked-down rack with a simple touchscreen and iPad control behind the scenes. He didn’t want anyone to be able to touch an analog button ever again.

St. Lucy Parish is in California’s Silicon Valley and Wentz expected a modern IT-style system design. As a former high-tech engineer and executive responsible for parish operations, he’s passionate about things that work elegantly. But as he walks me through the building, he explains that his driving priority was in fact theological. Catholic teaching states that weekly liturgical service is the “primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit,” he explains. “A central part of that teaching is that ‘The faithful should be led to fully conscious, and active participation.’”

“When you consider the ramifications of these teachings with respect to a sound system in the modern world, it clearly requires that it accurately and clearly reproduces the spoken word as well as supporting a wide variety of musical forms and instruments,” he continues. “The challenge is that most churches, including ours, do not have experienced sound engineers on staff, so we must find a way to simplify and automate that process so that we can meet the requirements of our teachings.”

Zamar updated the existing rack in the church sacristy with a lockable door, cooling, and power support for the heart of the system—the Symetrix DSP and the Extron touchscreen processor. Video and source controls are in the upper rack as is the one remaining analog button that controls level in the church lobby. The other buttons are just for looks.

It’s no secret that many churches face intelligibility issues. At St. Lucy, as with many churches, there are many voices, most of them amateur speakers and singers. In a single service, a wide variety of readers will participate, each with very different vocal characteristics and volume.

Wentz says the existing system did very little to reinforce music or speech. The ceiling speakers were distributed throughout the square box of the sanctuary with no focus or delays, the busy RF airwaves created mic interference, and the analog controls were subject to infinite adjustment by well-meaning amateur operators, which translated to volume and feedback problems. The various bands and choirs that accompany the many services at St. Lucy’s were essentially heard acoustically, faintly emanating from one corner of the boxy room.

Since Wentz was so clear in his mind about the theological implications of the inadequate system, he set out to secure funding for the upgrade on those grounds. He succeeded, and after a search for a modern, IT-savvy integrator he hired San Jose-based Zamar Media Solutions. President Michael Dow did the systems design personally, intrigued by the opportunity to create a mid-scale system that could—through DSP and programming—meet Wentz requirements and deliver quality sound in a hands-off manner.

“It’s a classic dilemma for many churches: how to get and maintain high-quality sound without professional operators,” Dow says. Dow’s experience as a programmer is part of Zamar’s value proposition and as a Christian business, he is keenly aware of a church’s mission and logistics. “They are not going to have a professional operator, so we try to capture that expertise through the programming—we essentially try to build our sound knowledge into the system during the programming phase. Many times, end-users don’t know to ask for that level of detail in the programming, or integrators don’t know how to do it, or they don’t put enough programming time in the bid—for whatever reason, it doesn’t happen. As church specialists we make sure that we spend enough time to give the client what they are looking for to support their mission.” Which means, Dow says, giving them an automated version of a sound professional, crafted through careful programming.

“The concept here was trying to provide a complex system for amateur operators,” Dow says. “The challenge is to integrate as much of our sound knowledge as possible into the fixed system.”

The core of the system is the Symetrix DSP. Dow is a longtime Symetrix user, but St. Lucy was his first opportunity to use the new SymNet Radius 12x8, which had just come out; the system uses two Radius 12x8 connected via Dante. “We’d originally specified the Express 8x8, but we were excited to use the Radius. With it’s fixed I/O (12-in/8-out), it falls at an accessible price point, so it lets us bring our programming approach to churches that need more affordable systems. It’s more processing horsepower for less money and it also incorporates the Dante networking capabilities. The cost-per-power is so good,” Dow says.

Automated Expertise

Jan 15, 2013 11:49 AM, By Cynthia Wisehart

Affordable DSP and expert programming transform a small church system.

The choir area is supported by a digital snake, Audix microphone, and PreSonus mixer.

Another key component was the Extron touchscreen processor, which allowed for a simple interface (and an upcoming iPad interface) and unified control of both the audio and video systems.

St. Lucy had existing racks for the old audio system as well as a video system that Zamar had installed several years prior (two Christie projectors that can be independently sourced via a TVOne dual output switcher/scaler). Zamar reorganized the racks and modernized them with Furman power conditioning and UPS (the new F1000-UPS) and Middle Atlantic temperature sensing fans. “It’s really important with a digital system to have stable power, especially for the touchscreen,” Dow notes. “And they had reported difficulty with power glitches in the past.”

Dow liked the performance of the Audix podium and choir mics, which improved gain before feedback. “The microphones had to perform very well with all the different types of readers,” Dow says. “So between the mic performance and the programming we were able to support that range.”

The simplicity of the Extron touchscreen allowed Zamar to develop an easy, intuitive, bulletproof GUI with profiles for the various liturgical scenarios.

“One of the features of a Catholic service is a lot of microphones are open at the same time,” Dow explains. “Which can be challenging with an operator, much less without one. We spent days bringing up mics until we got it nailed down, where we had balanced all the microphones and provided good tonal characteristics while eliminating feedback. We made it through Christmas holidays with no EQ or volume issues and no complaints.” “That’s huge,” Wentz interjects.

Additional help came from an Optogate device with an IR sensor that shuts the mic off when someone walks away from the podium. The improvement was truly astounding even to the casual listener,” Dow says, because the band was no longer competing with two open podium mic; he estimates there was a 60 to 70 percent increase in intelligibility. “You might ask why we didn’t just put a gate inside the Symetrix. The problem is they’re volume sensitive, so they can come on with other sounds in the room. The Optogate physically shuts off the mic as opposed to electronically. It senses the proximity of a warm body and turns the mic either on or off.”

For wireless, Dow went with Shure’s ULXD4Q quad-channel digital wireless receiver and mics. Using the Wireless Workbench from Shure, Dow says they succeeded in completely eliminating what had been a lot of RF interference in St. Lucy’s busy neighborhood.

For the choir, a simple digital snake and PreSonus StudioLive 16.4.2 mixer allowed Dow to do presets for all of the different bands. On Sundays, for example, there are five different bands. He brought each band in, established the presets, and locked them in.

Playback is via Martin Audio OmniLine arrays—small and white, the way many churches like them—focused on the seats, not on the highly reflective ceiling. “Right now the biggest driver for our business is to make sure that the technology of these churches is serving their mission,” Dow concludes. “Can they hear the priest or pastor? Here in California we’re in a very technologically sophisticated society. People understand good video and good audio—maybe it used to be that good enough was OK. But now if people can’t hear something clearly it’s hard for them to sit through it.

“Our claim to fame is being able to program the digital devices in more sophisticated ways that even sometimes the manufacturers themselves don’t understand,” Dow concludes. “My background includes 18 years in computers, so we were doing digital programming before a lot of people were into it. I’ve been accused of being a DSP hog, but there you go. That last 10 to 20 percent you wring out of the system makes all the difference to a client’s mission.”

“Zamar used the Symetrix DSP to effectively build a sound engineer into the system,” Wentz says. “That allows us to have a high-quality sound system with amateur musicians. That in turn met our need for a consistent, reliable, and repeatable liturgical experience. The community has told us that they are really happy with what they hear, and we have the same reaction from visitors. And I have a system I don’t have to babysit every week.”

PRODUCT AT WORK: Symetrix SymNet Radius 12x8

The SymNet Radius 12x8 is a Dante-enabled, fixed I/O digital signal processor. It can be installed as a standalone processor or used in conjunction with additional Symnet Radius, SymNet Edge, or third-party Dante-network enabled hardware; multiple units can function as universal building blocks in a scalable system design. Onboard 10/100 and gigabit switches lower system cost and reduce complexity with less hardware and fewer potential points of failure. Control options include free ARC-WEB browser based interface, Symetrix ARC wall panels, and SymNet SymVue GUI.

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