Published in April 2005

Willow Creek Redefines Worship
By Jim Stokes

From religious services to musicals to conferences, the new auditorium
accommodates AV needs.

A panoramic view of the Willow Creek Community Church.

     Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC), South Barrington IL, has accommodated its growth and production capabilities with a new $73 million, 7200-seat auditorium, since WCCC had outgrown its 4300-seat venue. The new facility was paid for entirely by the congregation. Completed in September 2004, the venue has the distinction of being the largest legitimate theater in North America. It’s the result of an intense 2½ years of production, planning and integration.
     The nondenominational church provided AV integration using the talents of Willow’s staff and volunteers. Taking into account the combined tasks of AV and staging, the house of worship saved $4.8 million with in-house labor and fabricating equipment themselves. For example, staff and volunteers built lighting bridges, wagon house, LED trucks, hung PA, installed lighting and much of the video, and terminated all patchbays, among other AV and staging tasks.

It All Supports the ‘Message’
     From services to conferences, performance events are used to support the message in the multi-purpose venue. The facility accommodates a unique balance of performance-support space, production roadhouse, theater and lecture hall. Multimedia presentations range from spectacular, fully staged performances with music and multiple screens, to short dialogues supported by a single screen. According to Chris Gille, Willow Creek’s audio and systems director, the new auditorium is “maxed out with event-style programming for services every weekend and mid-week.” Service attendance ranges from 17,000 on the weekend to as many as 7000 for Wednesday night’s “New Community Service.”
     “The weekend services have a shorter message and more music and usually a drama,” Gille continued. “The different kinds of music could be a rock, pop-style or unplugged acoustic band or, occasionally, an orchestra. There are soloists or backup vocalists. It’s just whatever programming comes up for that particular week.”
     Gille noted that a drama could be a two-minute dialog or a 10-minute sketch with a full set and a larger cast. “Real-life scenarios usually raise a question or help people relate to an issue. Then the pastor’s message delivers the biblical answer to help offer solutions. The drama sometimes has a song before and after it, as a package that helps raise the question that the message is going to answer.”

     Christian musicals are presented as well. “We’ve written all the ones we’ve presented,” explained Gille. “Several of our Christmases or Easters have been what I consider a Broadway-level musical experience with major sets that took a month to build and lighting design that took a week. However, we don’t have the two-month rehearsals, like Broadway has.”
     In addition to service events in the facility, Willow Creek puts on more than 10 conferences a year. Attendees come from all over the US, and usually several other countries are represented as well. For instance, a three-day conference would cover church leadership or how to grow your church.
     The seating scenario includes the sloped main floor, a connecting mezzanine and one balcony. The audience seated in this largest legitimate theater in North America has great sightlines for all seats. “There’s pretty significant wraparound seating,” said Gille. “It’s around 160° compared to the stage thrust. We have enough wraparound where people on one side can definitely see the other half of the room, which is part of the sense of community.”
     The massive, fully equipped stage has support wings and a deep backstage, including rehearsal space. There’s a 70-foot fly tower and a 90-foot proscenium with a 54-foot trim height. There are 30 linesets. The wagon house behind the stage has a 90'x30' flying door. When not using the full blackout shades for dramatic effects, the window walls on each side of the stage look out to stonework and greens with live water elements.
     Specifically, stage equipment consists of a forestage grid with six motorized battens; full catwalk access to all equipment, including five flying 100-foot lighting bridges; gala lift for 1000 square feet of downspace from stage level to thrust height, main floor, orchestra pit and down to first floor with 30-foot door to scene shop/prop storage.

     WCCC personnel we spoke with include audio and systems director Chris Gille and video designer/integrator Dave Cooke. TC Furlong, founder and owner of TC Furlong, Inc, Lake Forest IL, offered his audio expertise as consultant, co-designer and equipment supplier. “Most of all, he [Furlong] helped us realize we had the expertise for a project this size,” said Gille, “and inspired us that we could do the integration ourselves, resulting in savings of hundreds of thousands of member-contributed dollars.” Consultants and suppliers involved in the project are credited in the accompanying sidebar.
     According to Gille, special recognition is due to recently departed Bruce Smith, who had the rare combination of skills as WCCC executive and production guru. “It’s such a strange timing that things turned out where he wouldn’t be with us after the completion of the project,” said Gille. “He was head of our production department and a member of the building design. He was a champion for so many of the production capabilities: LEDs being on curved track so they can move around, blackout window shades that block out the room completely for a drama or video, catwalks so volunteers can get to everything and the wagon house behind the stage so volunteers could set up entire services.
     “He was a dreamer and a design guy. He could be up drilling holes in steel and integrating the system with us. But then he’d put on a tie and go into the board room to tell board members why we needed a million dollars for the speakers.”

House Speaker System
     The new auditorium’s house speaker system is comprised entirely of Meyer Sound components. Configurations include left/right music and left/right audio line arrays flown above the stage as well as fills throughout the house. Almost all the speakers are self-powered. “Put an AC cord on it, give it an audio cable, and that’s it!” said Gille. “That’s very nice because our amp rooms are practically empty.” The exceptions are the UPM-1 under-mezzanine and under-balcony fills, which are powered conventionally by QSC amplifiers.
     According to audio specialist TC Furlong, the self-powered Meyers allow for an aspect that most people don’t think of. “When you align a sophisticated system like this, a lot of times you have to make changes per component. And with amplifiers sharing loudspeakers, such a cost-conscious configuration with, say one amplifier for four speakers, won’t allow a slightly different amount of processing. It can’t be done.” Summing up the advantages of the self-powered speakers, Furlong said, “It helped in the overall cost of the system because you don’t have to allow real estate for the amplifiers with the resulting HVAC. And you can have better control of each component of the sound system.”
     The complement of self-powered speakers includes seven MILO L/R music arrays with two MILO 120 expanded-coverage boxes on each array. Then, next to the music arrays are 11 L/R M-2D voice arrays. Center seating is served by an MSL-4 center fill. Additional MSL-4s provide sidefill coverage, and M-1Ds supply frontfills. House system M-3D subwoofers are flown, and the stage deck has USW-1P subwoofers. Diagnostics are via Meyer RMS remote metering software.

Speaker Time Alignment
     Furlong noted that the speaker time align was a “cooperative effort.” Bob McCarthy, an independent design and system alignment expert, originally aligned the system before the auditorium’s opening. Thereafter, Meyer director of technical support John Monitto and Furlong provided alignment. All three used a Meyer SIM 3 audio analyzer. “When you align a system like this, your goal is to have uniformity throughout the entire space,” said Furlong. “From that perspective, after careful adjustment, it’s amazing how uniform the coverage is. Visually, there’s not a bad seat in the house. Same thing with audio. The coverage is entirely even!”
     Speaker processing is via BSS Soundweb control. SIA software and Earthworks mics provided measurement. Feeding into the Yamaha PM1D master console system are three separate CS1D control surfaces, comprised of a house board and a monitor board located in the audio control booth at the back of the venue, in addition to the broadcast recording board, which is co-located in video production control downstairs. The AV broadcast area records Willow Creek services, which are then taken to the affiliated regional churches. Thus, the auditorium services aren’t actually broadcast, although the production equipment is professional broadcast quality. More on this aspect later.
     In addition to the effects and dynamics within the PM1D 96-channel mixer, house outboard gear includes a CD recorder and player, a Mackie hard-disk recorder and a pair of Yamaha near-field monitors. Then the monitor board has control over the on-stage wedge monitors and bass shakers, which are QSC powered. Broadcast mix equipment downstairs includes Mackie hard-disk recorders and CD recorders. Monitors include near-field active and passive monitors and a subwoofer.

AV helps Willow Creek Community Church spread the word to its congregants.

     In a large installation such as this, patchbays are vitally important because the facility offers a wide variety of events, from simple staging to full-blown sets requiring full audio resources. “Most of the patchbays are in the video machine room,” explained Gille. “Then the rest are in miscellaneous audio patch rooms to patch BSS processing or tie lines from different rooms. My favorite patchbay in the world is the Audio Accessories Mini Shorti Quick-Switch. We spent a year deciding this.” These patchbays offer the flexibility of normalling or reconfiguring options.
     In addition, more than 100 Panel Crafters custom connector panels loaded with Neutrik, WW Mass, Triax and other connectors are located throughout the facility. “We’ve worked with them for two years,” Gille pointed out. “For custom fabrication of all the wall panels, they’re top-notch.”
     Stage mic trunk hardwired mics include a large assortment of AKG, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser and Shure models, among others. Shure UHF wireless systems and Shure PSM in-ear monitoring make up the balance of on-stage audio devices. Crew communication systems include ClearCom and Telex wireless.

     The sheer theatricality of the two Mitsubishi Diamond Vision 14'x24' LED displays captures the congregation’s attention. For instance, the two screens can part in a combined huge 14'x48' display from a central platform and move into other positions away from what’s happening on stage. In whatever positions, the LEDs maintain the same high image quality and brightness throughout. “They’re on our homemade ‘LED trucks’,” said Gille. “And those trucks use Show Distribution Chain Master trollies and hoists, which enable the displays to go side to side, up and down, and pivot.” SEW-Eurodrive equipment was used as well. Thus, the large LEDs were chosen because of the movement and freedom of sightlines capabilities, which conventional video projectors can’t allow. Low maintenance was another factor. The LEDs were assembled, rigged and framed by White Way Sign, Chicago IL.
     In addition to the two LED displays, there are various plasmas serving the lobbies, under balconies, front-row prompters, bullpen in front of the stage and green room. LCD TVs provide viewing for seatbacks, parents room and backstage, among other areas.
     Rear-screen projection is used for the center-stage and balcony screens. Two Barco projectors were taken from the original, existing auditorium and double-stacked for brightness when projected onto the center-stage truss screen, which serves as a background for the person speaking on stage. Four Sanyo projectors fire on four balcony rear-projection screens for those balcony seats all the way around to the sides. “People can still see the LEDs,” explained Gille. “But we thought they were so far away that it helps to have a closer image there.”
    Cooke noted that several display remote-control systems are deployed. The Mitsubishi LEDs had their own dedicated remote. “Contemporary Research controls all the TVs that are receiving a TV channel through the auditorium’s RF (MATV) system,” said Cooke. “We do have 12 Panasonic plasmas that we send direct, such as SDI feeds under balcony. The Extron IP controls all those. The four Sanyo projectors in the balcony have their own IP network-control cards.” The venue’s RF distribution head end features Blonder Tongue components.

Video Production Control
     The Ross Synergy 4 digital production switcher is at the heart of video-production control located downstairs in the facility. Ross Talia Kondor audio and video routers route the AV signals throughout the venue. At the front of the room is a large videowall comprised of various-sized LCD and plasma screens mounted in a row of racks. The router can put any source or any camera on any monitor, so different video directors can arrange the wall in any configuration to fit their needs. Working in conjunction with the router are Miranda Kaliedo Alto virtual monitor wall processors. “We priced both monitor and projected walls, and they quickly get up to $100,000,” said Gille. “We took the three Mitsubishi 50-inch plasmas that are part of the videowall and hooked them up to the Miranda, which lets you put 10 images on each plasma. That’s 30 images in any size or layout we want.” Other major facets of Willow Creek video production are the Inscriber systems that are used, variously, for backgrounds, matteing and worship lyrics on top of picture.

The screens can be used together, in a 14'x48' display, or separated as needed.

Show Time!
     So now we’ve come to show time. There are two modes of production: live and recorded. “We use cameras for IMAG (image magnification) in the room on the Mitsubishi LEDs because of the size of the space,” pointed out Gille. “So the primary function is to image magnify for the room during the live event. And at the same time it’s being viewed by the congregation, that’s all being switched and recorded to Sony DSR-DR1000 video hard-drive units [recorders].”
     There are nine cameras that can be selected to capture a service. They include two robotics in the mezzanine face. The seven conventional cameras are used, variously, for lock-down wide shot, shoulder cams for roving shots, and cameras at the main floor production booth and mezzanine areas. This gives the director a lot of flexibility, from dramatic close ups to wide pull-backs to aspects and angles to cut-to during a production.
     Now that the service has been recorded, how does it get broadcast? “We have broadcast capabilities. But we don’t ‘broadcast’ per se,” explained Gille. “We’ll take two of those units [hard-drive recorders] and use them for playback for our three regional [church] sites to hold their services the next day. We have a fourth site on the way as well. The sites are between half an hour and an hour away.
     “The reason we don’t do fiber or satellite is for image quality. So the sites will roll two of the units synchronized together. With the dual video feed, they’ll always have an IMAG and a wide shot to help them feel they’re in a room with us, instead of just watching a single shot on a screen. The regionals do their own bands and their own programming. When it comes time for the message, they’ll push ‘play’ on the hard drive.”
     In closing, Gille emphasized “the unbelievable fleet of volunteers who put in work for years, and the unbelievable amount of hours put in to save the church money. It wasn’t just people showing up to get the job done. It was hundreds and hundreds of people believing in their church and how the gear would be used, then turning around to tell the church that it saved some $4.8 million!”

Integrating Acoustics and Technology at Willow Creek Community Church
     “While it’s easy to focus on the impressive equipment list in this project, the real magic is actually in how the room works as an integrated whole, seamlessly merging technology with architecture and interior design,” explained Craig Janssen of Acoustic Dimensions about Willow Creek Community Church’s new 7000-seat auditorium. ”When you stand on the stage, you feel very connected to the congregation. The congregation has a sense of envelopment with other worshippers in the room…and yet you don’t feel like you are in an arena. This was deliberate design intent.”
     Acoustic Dimensions was brought onto the project during the earliest stages of the auditorium design to work hand in hand with architect Goss/Pasma to develop the auditorium design. Although technology and architecture often are in conflict, Willow Creek Community Church used a process where the two were designed in synergy…letting the architecture and technology evolve together.
     “The complexity of this project was immense. It was critical that the technologies be designed at the same time the room was developed,” Janssen continued. “The control booth was designed in scale and position to integrate with the balcony and allow the cameras to be correctly positioned while not obstructing sightlines. The catwalks are designed to allow both a four-point lighting for stage and congregation while supporting the acoustical reflections for congregational support and being correctly positioned for loudspeakers and video screens. The back walls are specially angled and coordinated with the line-array design to eliminate reflections back to the stage without killing the acoustical presence of congregational worship.”
    The result of this approach was highly successful. When participants step into the room, the technology fades into the background. Worshippers are simply aware of a feeling of connection throughout the space without stopping to realize that it is the result of carefully planned and coordinated acoustics, audio, video and lighting.
     “It was a powerful opportunity to integrate our skills in auditorium, sound, lighting, video and acoustics design and partner with an extraordinarily knowledgeable client supported by great design assistance of contractors and manufacturers,” said Janssen.
—Cathy Hutchison

Willow Creek Community Church
Willow Creek Community Church’s origins go back to the early 70s when a dynamic youth ministry was created at South Park Church in Park Ridge, near Chicago. Using contemporary music, drama and Bible teaching, the services grew from a handful of teenagers to 1000 students a night. Inspired by the response, recent college graduate Bill Hybels and other young leaders felt compelled to offer the service style to an adult audience. Renting the Willow Creek movie theater, which became the church’s namesake, they launched the church on October 12, 1975.
     Three years later, attendance grew to 2000. Faced with standing-room-only crowds, the highly motivated congregation bought 90 acres of farmland near South Barrington IL. The first service in the main auditorium was held in February 1981, and the congregation has continued to grow ever since. From the start, the founders’ goal was not to become a big church but to be the church to each other and the community. Small groups offer opportunities for people to develop spiritually while building lifelong friendships. Bill Hybels reflected, “I’ve come to believe more deeply than ever that the local church is the hope of the world!”


Screens, Projection
2 Barco ELM R12 projectors 12,000 lumen, w/0.8:1 lens (center stage)
2 Mitsubishi Diamond Vision AVL-ID5 LED 14x24' 5.08mm dot pitch
main side screens
16 Philips 17PF8946A 17" LCD TVs (handicapped seating)
16 Philips 17PF8946A 17" LCD TVs (parents rooms)
10 Philips 17PF8946A 17" LCD TVs (backstage)
11 Samsung PPM42S3 42" plasma displays (lobbies)
4 Samsung PPM63H3 63" plasma displays (lobbies)
12 Panasonic TH-42PWD6UY 42" plasmas (under balconies)
3 Samsung PPM42S3 42" plasma displays (front row prompters)
3 Samsung PPM42S3 42" plasma displays (stage front)
2 Samsung PPM42S3 42" plasma displays (Green room)
4 Sanyo PLC-XF35 6200 lumen w/0.8:1 lens (balcony)
1 Screenworks HDTV RP truss screen (14'x24'9" rear-projection
(center stage)
4 Screenworks Permscreen 6'8"x11'4" rear-projection screens (balcony)
Video Monitoring
4 Marshall V-R63P LCD monitors (shading)
8 Marshall V-R44P LCD monitors (tape op)
1 Marshall V-R25P LCD monitor
3 Philips 17PF8946A 17" LCD TVs
2 Sony PVM-14MR4 (shading)
1 Sony PVM-14MR4 (tape op)
20 Sony LMD720W dual 7" LCD monitors
Monitor Wall
1 ESE ES943U time code clock
3 Miranda Kaliedo Alto virtual monitor wall processors w/RCPs
3 Mitsubishi PD5030 50" hi-def plasmas
2 Sony PVM-14M4U 14" 4:3 CRT monitors
5 Sony LMD720W dual 7" LCD monitors
9 Zenith L17W36 LCD monitors
2 Communications Specialties Scan Do Pro II/D scan converters
2 Dell computers for PowerPoint
1 Inscriber Video Carte still store system
1 Inscriber VMP CG system
1 Inscriber CG Extreme system
Routing, Switching
1 Ross Talia Kondor video router 96x96 SDI
1 Ross Talia Kondor audio router 64x64 stereo analog
1 Ross Talia Kondor data router 32-port RS422
1 Ross Talia Kondor UMD talley router 128 routable 2-color tally
4 Ross Talia RCP-SN spin knob remote router control panel
XY remote controls
7 Ross Talia KM1 40 button remote router control panel
40-button remote controls
1 Ross Synergy 4 Digital Production switcher 4 ME, 32-input,
4 DVE, 2 ARC
2 Extron IP devices control of 12 Panasonic plasmas
1 ICC-HE coax headend network controller
1 ICC Commander 4 system software
16 ICC CR ICC2-VDC 2 way devices RS232 plasma controls (lobbies)
65 ICC-IR devices control of LCD TV’s
4 Sanyo projector network cards control of 4 projectors (alcony)
12 Allen VIT-75 video isolation transformers
1 AXISTV tei channel server (lobby infochannel)
1 Blonder Tongue OC-16 combiner
10 Blonder Tongue AM-60-860 stereo agile modulators
3 Blonder Tongue  AM series mono agile modulators
10 Blonder Tongue BIDQ 750-30 amps
1 Dell CPU control software
1 Extron VSC 75 scan converter
5 Behringer Eurorack UuB802 audio mixers
1 Blue Sky SAT 6 .5 powered monitors, sub (control room)
1 Mackie 1202-VLZPro 8 channel audio mixer
1 Panasonic amp
8 Tannoy Reveal systems
1 ADC component patchbay
18 ADC HD super video patchbays
18 analog DA cards
2 ADC RS422 patchbays
8 ADC Triax patchbays
30 AJA digital converters
11 Applied Engineering bantam audio patchbays
1 Belkin 4-port KVM switch
1 Blonder Tongue off-air rooftop antenna
1 Cherry keyboard/trackpad in Middle Atlantic keyboard drawer
1 Dell CPU
1 ESE GPS time code generator, re-generator
1 Extron Hi-Def wideband video DA
1 Extron USP-405 Universal signal processor
1 Fast Forward F30 time code reader
1 Hamlet Microscope waveform/vectorscope (LD position)
1 Horita TVC time code clock keyer
3 Leader LZV-5100DE waveform/vectorscopes (shader position)
1 Leitch SDI multiplexer/demultiplexer, frame
3 Miranda Picolink ARC-371P aspect ratio converters
11 Ross Gear terminal frames
3 Ross Gear Analog audio frames
89 Ross video DA, converter cards
1 Samsung SIRT351 HDTV OTA receiver
2 Symetrix 422 stereo audio AGC/levelers
2 TC Electronic Finalizer Express audio processors
1 VBrick MPEG4 dual channel encoder
1 Videotek VSG-204D digital sync generator
1 Videotek VTM-320 waveform/vectorscope
1 Wohler AMP2 L8 8 channel digital audio meter
2 Wohler VAMP-1 analog AV monitor panels
Beldon cable
Gepco cable
1 Canon YJ12x6.5KRSA lens lock down wideshot
2 Canon HJ40X14BIASD/V Tele 40x w/image stabilization
1 Fujinon 15x wide angle handheld
5 Fujinon 22x w/studio kits
1 Panasonic AWE800A camera lock down wideshot
5 Sachler Vision 18 tripods w/fluid heads
8 Sony DXC-D35 WLS cameras w/ CATX7 triax back
(widescreen version)
1 Panasonic RCP Camera 9 remote
8 Sony CCUTX7/1 CCU Triax base stations
5 Sony RCPD51 Camera RCP CCU remotes
3 Sony RCP-TX7 camera RCP CCU remotes
1 Kramer VS-601XLM 6x1 vertical interval switcher (control room)
1 Marshall V-R63P LCD camera 7 monitor (control room)
1 Philips 17PF8946A 17" LCD TV camera 7 monitor (control room)
2 Sony 9" camera monitors (camera platform)
1 Vinten MCS-4000 joystick controller (control room)
1 Vinten HS102 robotic head camera 7 (stage)
2 Vinten Lynx control system tripod encoder controller (camera platforms)
2 Vinten 3880-3 tripod encoder controller (camera platform)
2 Vinten HS105P robotic head camera 2 & 3 (balcony edge)
1 ClearCom Compact 72-port Matrix Plus digital intercom frame, incorporating:
13 I-1430 i-Stations
ICS-200, 3ICS-2000, ICS-92, ICS-102
1 ICS-1008
3 ICS-1016
1 IMF-3 w/ PSU-101
CCI-22, FOR-22, TEL-14, MS-232, RM-220, MS-440, SB-440,
RS-501/502, PS-464, RCS-2000, FL-1
Wireless Communications
10 beyerdynamic double muff headsets
3 BTR-500 UHF RadioCom wireless 2-chan base
Lectrosonics used as RadioCom IFB
20 Telex PH-88 lightweight headsets
6 TR-500 UHF 2-chan beltpack for BTR-500
L/R Music, Voice Arrays
14 Meyer Milo main L/R line-array speakers
4 Meyer Milo 120 expanded-coverage boxes (bottom 2 boxes)
22 Meyer M2Ds L/R line-array speakers
1 Meyer MSL-4 fill for center seating
4 Meyer MSL-4 - L Track sidefill coverage
2 Meyer DF-4 downfills
7 Meyer M1D frontfill speakers
58 Meyer UPM-1 conventionally powered delay speakers
4 Meyer P-1 processor UPM speaker controllers
16 QSC CX702 amplification for fill system
Balcony Delays
9 Meyer UPA-1P upper delay rungs
4 Meyer M3D flown subwoofers
4 Meyer USW-1P stage deck subwoofers

Chief plasma mounts 
Sanus LCD TV mounts
Middle Atlantic equipment racks

List is edited from information supplied by the Willow Creek Community Church Production Department.

Many companies were involved in this installation, including:
• Acoustic Dimensions, Dallas TX: project designer/consultant • Barbizon: lighting sales
• Chicago Flyhouse: custom window shade line shafts
• JR Clancy, Syracuse NY office: rigging control system/rigging
• Goss/Pasma Architects
• Maron: electrical contractor
• Meyer Sound: Sandy Macdonald, sales representative,
Larry the O, communications manager
• Pepper Construction: venue contractor
• Roscor: video systems integrator
• Rosebrand: custom braille-style window shades

Sound & Communications Contributing Editor Jim Stokes has been involved in the AV industry for 33 years as an AV technician and recording studio designer among other areas.

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