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Mega RF

Managing RF interference on a grand indoor scale

With as many as 1,000 people onstage and 40 channels of wireless microphones, Prestonwood Baptist Church celebrates major holidays with massive productions that feature many moving parts all taking place in a highly challenging RF environment.

Prestonwood Baptist Church’s main location in Plano, Texas, is an enormous facility that hosts 8,000 to 10,000 worshipers each weekend. The productions can match the scale of the attendance, with no detail overlooked – especially on the major festival days, Easter and Christmas. The Gift of Christmas, the church’s annual seasonal production, is a visually stunning multimedia event complete with special effects, a nearly 1,000-member cast and choir, a live 50-piece orchestra, Cirque du Soleil-style aerialists, and eye-popping virtual scenery on LED video walls bringing the Christmas story to life in a breathtaking way. Award-winning lighting and a bold scenic design give a unique look that inspires and engages the congregation. But as many churches and other large-scale facilities find, it can be hard to implement the right solutions in a typically challenging RF environment, and Prestonwood Baptist is no exception. In this application, RF Venue’s RF Spotlight antennas, a 4-ZONE active antenna combiner and a DISTRO4 Antenna Distribution System were able to tame the church’s RF challenges and eliminate dropouts.

The challenges presented by the RF environment near the Plano church building aren’t small: its 7,000-seat auditorium have an unimpeded line of sight to television and radio transmission towers 40 miles to the west and are even closer to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport’s massive antenna farm, barely 10 miles away in the same direction. The area also has over a dozen DTV stations of varying power levels on the air (one of which, TV 17, had been dormant but popped up suddenly just before last Christmas’ production began). Then there are the corrugated metal elements in the roof and other parts of the building’s construction, which can interfere with RF propagation.

For the year’s biggest holiday events, the stage is expanded to form a larger production area than used on a typical Sunday. For The Gift of Christmas in 2021, for example, it measured over 120 feet across, with a second stage added. “If you were to list the top ten challenges wireless microphones have to face for a theatrical or musical production, most them would be right here,” says Ryan Sartell, the RF specialist that has managed the production’s wireless microphones for the past five years. “The production takes place in a massive space, the ceiling curves left to right and front to back, and the corrugated metal means the multipath in the room is extremely aggressive. Plus, two 12-foot video screens also put a lot of RF into the environment. Previously, we’d used some helical antennas, but things would just dance across them. We’d have regular dropouts. Sometimes we’d have to turn the gain up on the transmitters under the costumes, but that comes with its own problems. There came a point of consensus: we needed a better RF solution.” That solution came in the form of six RF Venue Spotlight antennas, four of which were positioned equidistant 30 feet apart behind the orchestra on stage, and two more placed near the end of the stage thrust built for the production. The Spotlight antennas were linked using an RF Venue 4 ZONE active antenna combiner placed in the stage-right equipment area used to house the wireless-microphone receivers. The RF Venue solution became the pathways for reception of the 40 channels of Shure ADX1M micro bodypack wireless microphone transmitters used during the production. “The Spotlight antennas gave us much more latitude in terms of placement of RF antennas, which was critical for a complex show like this, and as a result there was less distance between the antennas and the transmitter on stage, allowing them to use the Micro transmitters, which are much smaller and really help with costumes and makeup,” Sartell explains

“I now no longer have to worry about wireless,” says Mike Smith, Lead Audio Engineer and Live Production Lead for Prestonwood Baptist Church, who mixes front of house for services as well as the seasonal productions. “For the Christmas production, there were some 70,000 seats sold over two weeks, so the pressure to make it perfect is there. You do not want dropouts, which had been a problem in the past.” Smith says that he and Sartell will work together for next year’s event, looking to fine-tune antenna placements even further. “Because of the extensive staging, once you place an antenna it’s not easy to go back and reposition it, so we’ll learn from this year’s experience,” he says. “But the improvement we had this year because of the RF Venue antennas was very real and very welcome.”

Easter 2022 was another success, with a setup including two Spotlight antennas under the pulpit and integrated with the 4 ZONE active antenna combiner supporting another huge (yet less massive than Christmas) production. And a pair of Spotlight antennas and a DISTRO4 Antenna Distribution System are permanently in place in the church’s student building. “Coverage for RF is no longer a concern anywhere here now,” Sartell sums up.

At the Desk

Working closely with integrator Paragon 360, Prestonwood installed three DiGiCo Quantum7 consoles in the 7,000-seat auditorium of its main campus in Plano, Texas, used for front-of-house, monitors, and broadcast. The 140-acre Plano campus is also now fitted with an ample complement of I/O stations, including two SD-Racks backstage, along with an Orange Box loaded with DMI-DANTE 64@96 and DMI-OPTO Optocore cards for wireless microphone inputs. On stage are two more SD-Racks, plus an SD-Nano Rack for tracks, with yet another SD-Rack found in the church’s broadcast studio. Also, SDMiNi Racks are located at both FOH and monitors, with another SD-MiNi Rack in the amp room, and an SD-Nano Rack positioned up in the catwalk.

When Mike Smith, Prestonwood Baptist Church’s Live Production Lead and Lead Audio Engineer, first arrived over two years ago, he quickly realized that the church’s existing audio console infrastructure was nearing the end of its useful life. “We created what we called a ‘failure log,’ and in a little over a year we had between 60 and 70 entries,” he recalls.

“We have a big service, a full choir and orchestra, and lots of inputs, so we needed a big input count, and with auxes and submixes we’re pushing 48 outputs,” he says. “The monitor desk runs over 50 outputs and we’re running close to 200 inputs. We’ve multed all 15 vocal channels and split them into two channels, which allow us to have separate mixes,” Smith says. For the holiday spectaculars the channel count goes up further still with a full percussion rig and a whole rhythm section with drums and two guitar players and full tracks. “The macros are super powerful and the Waves integration is very helpful,” Smith points out.

The installation was able to utilize much of the existing fiber infrastructure for the Optocore network, with a few additional strands installed by Paragon 360 to accommodate the Q7s’ bandwidth requirements. Mark Coble, Lead Audio Designer at Paragon 360, says he was aware of both the scale of the church’s production needs and the level at which they operate. “The need for seamless backup in the event of a failure was just as important, and the Quantum7 fulfills all of those requirements. It’s one of the few dualengine consoles on the market—if one engine were ever to fail, the other takes over immediately and seamlessly.” Coble also cites the Q7’s operational features that make managing live production at this scale easier. For instance, utilizing virtual soundcheck, engineers can use previously recorded tracks to fine-tune the mix prior to musicians and singers arriving for rehearsal. The Q7 also allows sessions to be saved and loaded, which can be especially useful for broadcast, ensuring optimizations made each week are saved for future services.

Risen Again: Ground Zero

It was a moment both solemn and celebratory: the re-establishment of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Manhattan, in the form of a new structure with a distinctive transparent dome. Monday, July 4, 2022, was a fitting date to restore one of the iconic structures damaged by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. St. Nick’s predates the World Trade Center: founded in 1916 by Greek immigrants, the church was one of the first stops in the U.S. for new arrivals from Ellis Island, where they would light a candle and give thanks to the patron saint of seafarers.

The reopening event, during which sanctified relics of the saint were sealed within the altar table, saw a procession circumnavigate the new church building three times, each time employing 17 channels of wireless microphones used by clergy and other VIPs to commemorate the event, while operating within one of the densest RF environments on earth, home to dozens of nearby law enforcement facilities, government agencies, media enterprises, and other intense RF spectrum users. The stakes were high, and interference was likely, but New York City-based One Way Event Productions, which handled the production for the event had RF Venue on its side. In this case, five RF Venue Diversity Fin Antennas, one 4 ZONE active antenna combiner, and a pair of RF BandPass Filters were used along with a Shure Axient wireless microphone system.

“We knew RF was going to be a challenge,” says Miguel Peguero, head of production at One Way Event Productions, noting that a much smaller event on July 2 with fewer microphones had some areas with no coverage, prompting the use of far more microphones and transmitters for the July 4th event. “The procession would be circling the new church building three times outside, with stops along the way during which church leaders, media, and VIPs would make speeches and announcements using wireless microphones. We had 17 transmitters ready to go.” One Way Event Productions’ audio engineer JP DaLeo used Shure’s Wireless Workbench to coordinate frequencies for the event, but the potential for interference and dropouts remained significant in the RF-heavy environment. And as many event producers do, Peguero called Don Boomer, Senior applications engineer at RF Venue, who made some very specific – and successful – recommendations. They included the deployment of five RF Venue Diversity Fin antennas, placed at every corner of the new building and pointing down towards the walking path. These were run into additional RF Venue hardware – a 4 ZONE active antenna combiner, with a pair of RF Band-Pass Filters implemented post combiner. “Everything worked perfectly, with not a single dropout,” he says. “The new church is literally built on top of the headquarters for a major transportation authority, plus T-Mobile’s 5G was being rolled out in the area, so you know the RF was everywhere. But we had zero interference, zero dropouts. We had strong signal going into the receivers. It was an important event for a lot of reasons, and it had to be perfect.”

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