Professional audio

Acoustics Tailoring with Meyer Sound Constellation System

Apr 15, 2010 10:18 AM

California's Laguna Presbyterian Church needed a different acoustic environment for the pastor, musicians, and choir, so they called in David Lawler of Docktr Dave Audio to install the Constellation system from Meyer Sound. He and church elder, Lorna Cohen, are here to tell us how it all went.

Lorna and Dave, thanks very much for being with me here on the House of Worship AV podcast. I was talking in part one with Steve Ellison about the installation of the Constellation system at Laguna Presbyterian Church, and Lorna, you're with the church there. What were you looking for with this new sound system?
Lorna Cohen: Our situation was that we have an 82-year-old sanctuary building and we were very unhappy with the sound. It was fine for the spoken word, but we had all sorts of music that just wasn't really engaging our congregation because of the acoustics. We had a jazz band, we have organ, a choir, plus the spoken voice, and we needed to find a way that all of these could be enhanced and make it work in our 82-year-old building that we were going to restore, so that was our problem. [In] the church is'actually the sanctuary building itself'we've got everything in terms of acoustic space, from a very high central nave to very shallow low-ceiling balconies and transepts, and I think acousticians who came in said we actually had five different rooms within the sanctuary building. So we had five different spaces and at least four maybe five different types of sound that we wanted to amplify throughout the building and have it be true, and that was our problem.

Well, that sounds like a formidable enough challenge. Now what kind of things have you got going on there? What style of worship do you have there? Do you have, say, live music and things?
Cohen: We've got a praise band; we've got traditional hymns; we have a bell choir; we have a regular traditional choir that does everything from gospel to Bach, and then this treepipe Moller organ, which has 1,600 pipes, and we weren't really able to experience the full range of that because we have a very very dead space.

OK, and how did you first hear about the Constellation system and what made you decide that that was the way to go for Laguna Presbyterian?
Cohen: We first heard about it through a guy named Jerry Christoff with Veneklasen company up in, I think, it's Pasadena, and he came into the sanctuary and noticed all of these different needs and all of the different spaces and all of the different problems, and he started talking about something called, 'VRAS', Variable Room Acoustic System, which is what it was known as at the time, and he knew Steve Ellison and so he said, 'How would you like to go hear a demonstration up in Pasadena of this system?' And we said, 'Sure,' and he said that it would be able to solve all of the different problems that we had from the dead space to the different needs that we had.

So what was the reaction of the church people when you explained this? Did it take some artful conversation or did they pretty much go with you?
Cohen: I would say that we had to explain it, and probably Dave can confirm this, three or four times because it's a hard concept to grasp. People just wanted great acoustics, and they didn't understand that there is no such thing as great acoustics. There's great acoustics for a particular room and for particular uses. So we needed everything from a symphony hall to a lecture hall, and it took a while for them to understand that in order to get that we would have to go to a very sophisticated, high-tech solution, and I think we wanted to make sure that the wool wasn't being pulled over our eyes because we heard that there was a lot of mumbo jumbo in the field of acoustics, so we had to deal with trustworthy people, and it took some time. I would say that we had to explain it and actually go see it in action in different venues four or five times and then they finally saw the light and said, 'OK, we believe you. Do it.'

With these systems, of course, the proof is in the hearing, and when they first witnessed it first-hand, and heard what it was about, what was their reaction to it? Were they really knocked over?
Cohen: Yeah, there was a small demonstration site setup that Steve Ellison did. It was kind of Jerry-rigged in a church and I think his son was playing a musical instrument and all the wires were hanging out. He had just kind of constructed it himself, and the sound was amazing. I'll just never forget how true the sound was, and we stood in the nave of this church, we sang the doxology, and we got to hear the Constellation system for the very first time, and it was just a shocking difference. He turned it off, he turned it on, and it was just the difference between wanting to sing and not wanting to sing.

Yeah, that's really the way you have to be able to do it a lot of times. Sound is such a subjective thing anyway'
Cohen: Yeah.
'not like video at all. Anybody knows when you're looking at bad video, but with sound there's all kinds of nuances'
'and it really helps to be able to AV back and forth'
'and then you can really tell what's going on.
So it sounds like they really did the right thing and went in the right direction and I guess there's no contest in that they won you over with the system.
Cohen: They really did, and then we were very fortunate to run into David Lawler. We got him through a project manager on the building and he, being a local guy, being a sound person, a technical expert in this field, he was able to spend the time with us to explain exactly what was going on and what was involved and in English, not highly technical language so that we all began to understand that this was a state-of-the-art system and then we began to understand how it worked and that it would solve our problems, and from there on, it's just been nothing but positive. [Timestamp: 6:41]

Dave, did you have a particular part of this Laguna Presbyterian Church installation that you liked doing the best?
David Lawler: Sure, I would have to say that my favorite part, I had really three favorite parts, but the main one was the constant diligence of the team and the committees despite a long timeline. They had a unwavering commitment to excellence and also under the worst economic conditions that we will, hopefully, ever experience in our lifetime. A venture of that size, of course, depends on contributions from parishioners and others, and they never value engineered anything out of it that we originally set out to do and that's not just audio, that's the entire project. In fact, they actually added as they went along, which is quite inspiring. The second one was just the quality of the team and the staff, the architects. Lorna was amazing all the way through. Without her, I am sure that a lot of the artistic features in that church never would have been realized, and the bottom line is it was a real commitment to the art. I mean technical is really just there to support art, and now when you go to the services, it is completely and absolutely engaging. It's just a really wonderful experience.

And Lorna, the trick in doing this in large part is handling a sometimes complicated installation in order to make it very simple to operate.
Cohen: Oh yeah, the operation itself, once it's installed, it's just, well, anybody could do it. It's presets, and it's fairly simple that the Constellation system part of it is all done when it's installed, and then it's really very simple to operate, which we also needed.

Dave, how did you go from your standpoint? Did you have to do a sales pitch on this? You already knew what the system could do?
Lawler: I did from my experience in working with LCS in Las Vegas [in] some of those shows there, but it's not really a matter of selling it to people. It's a matter of listening to what their requirements and goals are and then calculating a way to translate that into technical reality and then, of course, artistic reality. I think, as Lorna said, the biggest task was to explain it to people in plain English. I did it with PowerPoint basically, and then we did it several times. We had to remind them because the project took over three years to complete, so people would tend to either forget or they just needed a bit of encouragement so that this was going to turn out as we envisioned. And of course, because there are committees and quite a few people on the committees, people would come and go and sometimes newer folks needed to be educated, but I think all in all, everybody was very cooperative and very positive about the process.

Yeah, working with a committee and getting, sometimes, the technical elements across to people of varying degrees of technical expertise on this is enough of a challenge in itself. Were they looking at doing anything else and came over to this or how was that? Were they looking at any kind of a different solution on this?
David Lawler: No, I have to say that I believe, personally, this is the solution unless you want to do it mechanically. In other words, having curtains moving in and out and that kind of thing. I've been a supporter and an affiliate of Meyer Sound Labs for 24 years, and I know that everything that we've done with them over that time has been nothing but the highest quality, so I have no reason to doubt it now. And especially as I said, I've heard it used in these Vegas show rooms as well as multichannel systems that LCS had done, so I knew that it was going to get nothing but better. This project was done through the transition of Meyer Sound acquiring that company and then redeveloping the product, so it was great, actually, that it took a long time, because we ended up being the benefit of all that development in the end. [Timestamp: 10:45]

And Dave, were there any special challenges that you had on this installation? Was there any kind of surprises in the architecture or anything that you had to kind of think about and go around?
Lawler: The church is—I believe, it was [built in] 1927, or as Lorna says, 82 years old, so maybe 1928—a California a mission-style church. Basically they were trying to—just like building a ship in a bottle with tweezers—they were really trying to renovate it or restore it, and then beyond that, to a really magnificent structure. So the challenge was, on the Constellation side especially, is how to get 90 speakers and 16 microphones to disappear into the architecture of the church. I think on any Constellation job I would have to say that's the biggest challenge, unless it's a contemporary-looking building, because we ended up having a lot of custom wood back boxes, grilles, and a lot of discussion on hiding speaker subwoofers in the walls and under the chancellors steps and what kind of grilles we were going to use. It was enough of a technical exercise, but really the biggest challenges, which we enjoyed, were, as you mentioned, architectural. I have to say too that the timeline being long end up being good. We didn't feel at all that we were pressed for time, and we had lots of time to discuss what we were going to do at every aspect of it because the rest of the construction wasn't going faster than scheduled. [Timestamp: 12:17]

And you had a lot of microphones and speakers, like you said, to put out. Those microphones, I believe Steve told me in part one, they all come back at mic level down to a processor.
Lawler: Well, there are Constellation processors in this job. There are three of them: one of them is the main unit and then there are two units that have eight mic inputs each and 16 line outputs, so it's a total of 16 mics into those two processors. There are 12 hanging mics that are really about the size of a pencil eraser and about 1in. long with a very tiny cable. We got them custom colored to match the barrel ceiling, and there was four boundary mics that were like a PZM kind of thing that we custom mounted on single-gang plates.

Was there anything else that was a part of the Laguna upgrade?
Lawler: That's just the Constellation system, and then there was another system that is a main sound system, I guess you could call it. That has FOH and monitors, and there's choir mics, and the pipe organ has digital voices as well as pipes, and plus it's in two rooms that don't face the actual sanctuary; they come around at 90 degrees, so that's in the final process of being constructed now, and we'll have microphones outside of the louvers and then tie-in the line with the digital voices to the analog voices. We also did all of the acoustics for the church because, with Constellation, you need to have a short enough reverberation time in the basic sound of the church to construct the shortest time you want and then you're regenerating the room back to itself to realize the longer reverberation times.

Sounds like there might have been a lot of cabling involved in that.
Lawler: Yes, the low-voltage contract was significant, plus with a barrel ceiling, a lot of it had to go over the top and back down and then all over the church. We had to do a lot of cutting through wood areas and just trying to find paths to get the cable to go up to the racks room, but the cable is very tough and it's DC, and control are in the same cable. It's a five-conductor cable for those speakers, and I think that it's a very reliable system in that way because they're like phantom. They're phantom-powered speakers in other words. The power supply is in the rack room and the amplifier is in the speaker.

Yeah, Steve was telling me something about that. I was thinking when he first said self-powered speakers, “Well, you got to run AC everywhere”, but that's just DC coming out of the processors apparently.
Lawler: Yes, there's one U-8-channel power supply that lives in the rack room, and the only AC powered speakers were the subwoofers, of which there were seven for that system.

Well, it sounds like it was a pretty big job and a challenging situation, but I guess it's all worth it when you demo the system and you get the reaction that apparently you got with this.
Lawler: Yes, it was quite satisfying, and of course, Laguna Beach is 25,000 people, and this church is a whole city block in my home town, and they have a school there and another center beside it and all kinds of outreach programs and all that, so it's a significant part of the downtown village there.

How many people were involved in the installation all together? What kind of a crew did you have for this?
Lawler: On the audio side, there weren't many because either you do it quickly with a big crew or something that takes this long, you do with a small crew. The low-voltage wiring was installed by two people and the rest of it was installed by three of us, depending on when things happened. A lot of the equipment was built, or custom things were built offsite, but then, of course, there was a significant amount of carpentry involved because of these custom back boxes that was provided by Burch Corporation, a general contractor. So I suppose it was about 10 people, just as an estimate, did it, and it took about three and a half years to complete from when we started talking about it.

What did you have to do? Sort of in order here, what were the steps in the installation process? Obviously you've got to have a game plan to start with?
Lawler: Sure, well, the first thing you have to do—which has nothing to do with the actual hardware of Constellation—is you have to design the room acoustics. It's not only what reverb time you want in the space, you have to decide what areas you want to be live-er or deader than others and what type of EQ curve you want it to have, and then you have to decide what products you're going to use to take your reverb time down in conjunction with the architects. We used the Sonicrete to absorb the spray on foam—I guess it is—and fabric on Corning board panels inside the extensive wainscoting that's on ceiling and wall areas. So the next step, number two, would be to design the Constellation speaker locations because it's not only hiding the speakers, it's tough to work and you actually put them to correspond to where they need to be for Constellation to work properly, and then we would edit one and two as many times as it took with acoustics and speaker locations and choice of speakers. So the next step, number four, would be to install the low-voltage cabling. Then five would be the custom back boxes and wall cut-outs, and then the subs are up in the aisles—some are under the stairs. It's quite tricky how that was done. Six would be to design the mic placements, locations, and custom colors and that kind of thing. Seven was install the racks and the rack room and build that room, which is the master control of the main system and the Constellation systems with UPSs online and things like that. Eight would be install all the speakers and microphones. Nine was custom grilles and finishing. [Asking,] “How do you want this to look?” There were foam grilles, fabric grilles, metal grilles, and all them were not grilles that come with the product. Ten, which is a big one and a fun one, is system tuning; it's a pretuning day where a representative from Meyer Sound comes in and thins through the system and does some initial calculations and sends that data to the factory and then a team of four of us tune that system for about a week using two different types of software that Meyer has for that, and then, finally, we did another tuning several weeks later after we had listened to it for a while. A lot of that was by ear, just making sure that everywhere in the sanctuary, we believed we were somewhere real, and so we ended up with five different reverb times going from 1.1 seconds up to 2.4. And now a lot of that end of it is fairly subjective. I mean, what reverb times and EQ curve of that reverberation do you use for different applications?

And you had to have them do everything they're going to do, expect to do, in there while you were in this process.
Lawler: Well, yes, we additioned the different presets several times with either the praise band or the choir. In fact, the pipe organ room we haven't done yet. I mean it's there and it's tuned, but the organ isn't finished being put back in there, which is a massive task, which it will be next month, and then we will go in and work on that again. So you have to have them sound like you want them to sound on each preset, but then you have to hear the application being done in itself to really judge it, and plus, as Lorna said, she's saying there's five different areas in the space, and I think there's actually almost seven, but whatever the number is, you have to not just enjoy it or delete it in one place. Everything affects everything. As soon as you change it in one area, it's going to affect another area. So I have to say I really enjoyed the process because it's very creative, more so than just generally doing audio in my opinion.

Lorna and Dave, thanks very much for being with me and I really appreciated having you here for part two. This has really been great.
Cohen: Great. Nice to talk to you.
Lawler: Thank you very much. I have enjoyed it myself.