Staying Traditional at St. Joseph Cathedral, Part 1

Cathedrals are built big to sound big, but when all that reverberation turns the pastor’s voice into gibberish, a careful mix of sound system tuning and acoustic treatment can keep the lofty sound 1/05/2012 9:33 AM Eastern

Staying Traditional at St. Joseph Cathedral, Part 1

Jan 5, 2012 2:33 PM, With Bennett Liles

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MuSonics outfitted St. Joseph Cathedral, one of the largest in the United States, with a sound system for unattended operation.

Cathedrals are built big to sound big, but when all that reverberation turns the pastor’s voice into gibberish, a careful mix of sound system tuning and acoustic treatment can keep the lofty sound and make it work. Peter Borchard of MuSonics is here to tell us how he did just that at the huge St. Joseph Cathedral, coming up next on the SVC Podcast.

SVC: Peter, thanks for being with us on the SVC Podcast and we’re talking about a huge cathedral sound system installation at St. Joseph Cathedral in Sioux Falls, S.D., one of the largest in the United States. And this was part of a $17 million dollar restoration, a big challenge for installation and acoustic treatment in this big a space, but before we really get into that, the thing was done by MuSonics, so tell me a little about your company MuSonics.

Peter Borchard: It was formed by Dr. Dennis Fleisher, way back in Rochester in 1981 and he primarily deals, I guess mostly, about 80 percent or 90 percent, with churches, and we’ve done a bunch of the cathedrals around the country doing renovation or just partial renovation. I’ve worked with him for 15 years. [Timestamp: 1:3]

OK, so the church wanted an audio system upgrade to something they could pretty much leave unattended without a full-time sound op. Now how much on the detail of this did they know they wanted and how much did they just leave up to you?

They didn’t know a whole lot. It was all just a line item on a very large interior renovation. It ran around $16 to $17 million. They had Duncan G. Stroik, who is a very renowned architect that does that sort of work out of South Bend, Ind. And it was a really complete interior and had not been changed all that much. It didn’t go through what so many of the churches vigils have gone through with the Vatican II or post-Vatican II alignments and all that. So it was still fairly original, but everything had been painted white and all that sort of thing. So it was a very, very thorough installation and the audio system that was in there was very old. I mean, I looked at the big bass bends in horns stuck way up at the crossing—about 80ft. off of the floor—and covering the whole place with two small trans tops of the main nave and I look at those things and wonder if they don’t have a leather diaphragm with a horn. It didn’t owe them very much, that’s the main point. Very seldom we have a CNN house in mixed position in a cathedral these days. [Timestamp: 2:47]


And the other huge factor was because they are a very traditional—especially in terms of music, they have a classical setup with a organ/choir loft at the back and virtually no instruments other than brass occasionally and soloist was about the only thing we had to do. So we made a separate system, a small system, in the floor of the loft so the sound was coming from where it was being made and the main front system was just voice lift. There wasn’t a lot of need for a lot of mixing and that kind of thing. [Timestamp: 3:23]

Now, when they first got you in on this and you saw what it was and sort of got your mind wrapped around what you were going to have to do, what appeared to be the toughest job on this one?

Well, because the place is very reverberant—Dennis measured it at 6.4 seconds empty initially before the project started and they loved to do the high reverberation because of the traditional music—the choir sounds great, the organ sounds great and they had fortunately also learned to live with difficult speech intelligibility so they wanted to retain that—but of course when they do a renovation, what Dennis has always found over the years, is that reverberation tends to go up during a major renovation like that. So he was quite concerned about keeping it about the same and so preserving it but not letting it go passed that point and sure enough, at the end, it measured in at 6.2. But he had to do several things to accomplish that. And the main thing was a material that looks just like plaster—like regular wall plaster and it’s made in Germany. It’s called StarSilent, and it’s handled in the U.S. by Pyrok. And the other main thing was under all of the pews—which were original but completely rebuilt and refurbished—there is about 2in. of Owens Corning 703 fiberglass board fabric-wrapped and that was attached to all the under pew seating, so that was a fairly large volume that it turned into and that helped to keep it throttled back so it came out very well. It’s very hard to predict that stuff. [Timestamp: 5:03]

And you mentioned that they have a fairly traditional worship style, no live music or at least not a live band situation. That would be expected in this sort of place. So what was the first thing you had to do when you got into this project?

Well, the first thing we had to do is really is we had some lengthy meetings with them and Dennis, typically on a new project—any new project—will go in and essentially move in for the weekend and take in the services—especially as most churches have several even Saturday evening and that sort of thing—to get a complete sense and he gets to talk to the music minister. So we have a pretty good idea of what their needs really are and also finding out if they do happen to have somebody who is an audio person or somebody who is at least the keeper of the system—that sort of thing. So we had a pretty good idea of what they needed, and then it was just a matter of assuming we could keep the acoustics under control, have very subtle systems visually. The visuals were an important part of this because of the enormous efforts being put in on the place, so the Renkus Heinz Iconic series speakers were a natural. Though we had a front pair that covered the initial area and then when it transitions to the nave, then we had the bigger IC32 Rs and IC8’s were used to fill the transepts and then another pair up in to cover the area all the way into the apps and then in the old formal traditional high alter. [Timestamp: 6:4]

And you put in a wireless mic system as part of this job. What type of wireless mic system did you choose for this?

Yeah, they have a fairly extensive need for that. We used the Lectrosonics Venue series. We ended up with eight channels of that, so it took two main frames, but they have four or five more slots available if they should need that. That, and they have three regular priests besides the Bishop there and everybody was willing to wear a over the ear microphone—the DPA 4066. [Timestamp: 7:14]

Oh, well that helps tremendously.

Absolutely, especially in that reverberant field. So we made it a “You will wear these,” but we had one young priest who had absolutely didn’t want anything to do with it, but fortunately he had a great big booming voice so the DPA lapel did the trick for him. But they’re all assigned their with their bodypack. I physically helped each one of them adjust the mic to be comfortable and then showed them how to store so it was pretty straight forward. The daily operation there is a matter of going to a Lintek AC power sequencer remote and bring the system on and then putting on their bodypack and headset. So that made it very simple. They also have a beautiful little day chapel just off the main cathedral, which they can use their wirelesses if they want to; we just have a simple pushbutton setups, so mutes everything else in the system, it just runs into there. [Timestamp: 8:13]

And sort of at the heart of this thing you used the Lectrosonics Aspen SPN 1624 processor?

Yeah, I’ve been using their stuff for quite a while and have been very happy with it. The way that they deal with the automatic mixing and the way you can control it is just great—any configuration you want in there plus, the really nice thing too with the Aspen is that it also has the ability for an IP address. You can configure the rest of this lovely software to let you use an iPad 2, an Apple iPad 2, to control the system. So if they should ever get to the point or if in the future that they felt they needed some control over the gooseneck microphone that’s in the ampo and all the wirelesses and the handheld and all that they could do that by simply getting a iPad or getting a Wi-Fi antenna somewhere near the space and then they’d be all set for that. But at this point they don’t even need that so… [Timestamp: 9:08]

Yeah, in such a huge place I would think that eventually they’d probably need that.

They might, yeah indeed. The one thing that is an exception there is they have a very big and very important Christmas concert series that they do and the gentleman who did the video part of this thing has worked with the diocese before also did this other temporary audio mix system; the gentleman by the name of Roger Wiley and he is up in Hot Springs, S.D. So he did that system and it’s all removable. It’s just that plug-in point—plug in a multi-channel mixer, which they already had, and some easily hidden mic input connector boxes out of sight up in the chancellor area. So they can hook up and do this concert thing, which they record and the local television station comes in and does the video on that. It’ll be interesting actually this year because they have the system to Vaddio high-definition robotic cameras. They can, if they want to, roll a truck right up, or a van in this case, up outside; there is a little pier out there where they can connect and for the sake of that, I also added a mic splitter system so all the microphones in the place including the room ambience pick-up microphone on the ceiling are split so they can have them all independently if they want to do their own mix. [Timestamp: 10:27]

Yeah, it probably sounds a lot different out in the truck than it does inside in that super reverberant environment.

Oh yeah, but that’s why we always use at least one and often two, three high-quality boundary-type microphones hidden up in the ceiling somewhere. We have ours about a third of the way out from the front of the choir loft. So the choir and organ get picked up real well—in a pick-upable place actually otherwise the sound of the mic is a unintelligible thing if you don’t do that. And we blend that signal in to any signals going out, even into the Narthex so that was like the whole place. [Timestamp: 11:06]

And who did the actual installation for you?

I owe my soul to these people because it was not a typical installation. An operation just up north of Sioux Falls in Brookings, called Audio Connections. The principal there was Jeff Engen, and it was an informal bid—more like a quotation situation. They won that and the amazing thing there, and I’ve never had this happen before, he being the principle is the on-site boss. He was there all the time through the entire installation job, which was really very comforting because we made it extremely clear that, “No, we can’t have cables coiled up behind the speakers. They got to be cut full length and everything has to be painted just so.” For instance, I wanted to originally have a couple of suspended 1/2in. DPA microphones hanging out from the choir loft and I was nixed on that just because, not that they’re exactly very big, but the architect said, “No, no, no—please.” So we ended up with Clock Audio boundary mics up in the ceiling. I’m very much for it—I’m not for seeing this stuff. I have a very politically correct saying about loudspeakers that I say that they’re the opposite of showdom: They should be heard but not seen. So that doesn’t always go over very well, but anyhow that is the principal; we don’t go to church to see all the equipment, which is not necessarily the view of most audio contractors. [Timestamp:12:34]

Well, I know that was a huge job and in part 2 we’re going to talk about how you dealt with the church staff, which is frequently going to be your first big hurdle. And a little more about the Electrosonics Venue series mainframes, but for now thanks for being with us for Part 1 Peter and we’ll be seeing you again in Part 2.

Thank you.

Thanks for joining us for the SVC Podcast with Peter Borchard of MuSonics in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Show notes can be found on the website of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at Join us for part two with Peter as he provides more details on the Lectrosonics VRM Venue Series wireless mics, next time on the SVC Podcast.

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