A new DSP system uplifts Temple B’nai Jeshurun.
When Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills NJ decided to replace its antiquated and underperforming audio system, the synagogue deployed a multi-purpose solution that would meet the diverse needs of a dynamic and rapidly growing congregation. From religious services on Fridays that may bring in a hundred worshippers, to High Holy Days and special events that draw more than 2500 people, the speech and music distributed across the multi-room space had to offer consistent high quality, and be easy to adjust.
Reforming and rebuilding the synagogue’s legacy sound system was no simple task, given the architectural constraints, aesthetic requirements and conservative approach to spend- ing. The acoustical redesign and complexity of the installation called for considerable prior experience with similar projects and superior techni- cal skills.
Among several recommen- dations received by the synagogue, audio systems integrator Monte Bros. Sound Systems Inc. of Dobbs Ferry NY was commended specifically for its successful experience in designing and installing sound systems in houses of worship. The company sub- mitted a proposal, and was awarded a design and build contract to provide a turnkey audio system solution.
Heart of the System
At the heart of the new system are Biamp AudiaFLEX and Nexia digital audio platforms. In addition to the Biamp DSPs and control panels, Monte Bros. deployed Audio-Technica wireless receivers, microphones and powered wireless antennas, CAMM line array speakers, Crown amplifiers and a Raxxess console. The design and integration of a new sound system for the temple was accomplished in two phases. In the first year, old elec- tronics were replaced with a new DSP- based system. New microphones and amplification were installed as well, and the system was programmed with control presets to suit the varied uses and physical configurations of the building. Last Summer, new speakers were installed and the complete system was fine-tuned to deliver the best possible sound for every planned use.
Renowned architect Pietro Belluschi designed Temple B’nai Jeshurun, or TBJ, as it is fondly referred to by its members and friends, in 1968, and the temple was built from the ground up on 24 acres of land purchased by the congregation. The Main Sanctuary is a diamond-shaped room with a raised platform at one point that anchors and elevates the bimah (pulpit) and Ark. A center aisle separates two banks of seats, and four balconies provide sta- dium-style seating. The walls under the balconies are retractable and can open up to additional rooms, including a 250-seat chapel, for expanded seat- ing capacity. The exterior walls are solid brick.
Discussing the architectural as- pects, Cantor Howard Stahl said, “The sanctuary is a very interesting space. It seats close to 1200 people and can be opened up to seat more than 2500 people for the High Holy Days. So, from a sound perspective, it’s not a simple matter to accommodate the acoustical needs that vary depending on the type of service or event.”
Bob Pelepako, the lead designer on the TBJ project and co-owner of Monte Bros., noted that, “The open- floor design and other factors, such as the platform for the bimah and Ark, which is raised six to nine feet above the central floor seating, posed chal- lenges to achieving an evenly distrib- uted sound throughout the area.” An- other example Pelepako cited was the ceiling height, which ranges from about 80 feet where the Ark is located, to 40 feet in the rear balcony.
Aesthetic considerations in the main sanctuary required that the installed audio speakers not impact the archi- tectural design. For example, the woodwork on either side of the Ark, which hides the actual organ pipes from view, was designed to have the appearance of tall—10 to 14 feet— wooden organ pipes. Any visible speaker enclosures would have dis- tracted from the beauty and symme- try of this design.
The acoustic design had to factor in all the seating spaces, including the chapel, additional rooms and hallways. “We were mindful that the rooms could also be combined in several con- figurations, as well as used separately, and would require independent sound reinforcement in each room,” ex- plained Pelepako.
Programmable audio DSPs have become an essential component in the design of virtually every versatile, cost-effective, new sound system, and the solution developed for Temple B’nai Jeshurun was no exception to this rule.
“We designed a DSP system, using Biamp processors, that is very user- friendly,” reported Kevin Pelepako of Monte Bros., who programmed the system. “The DSPs allowed us to de- fine presets for different room combinations, while maintaining great con- sistency in the quality of sound.”
Sometimes, the single quiet voice of an elder statesman, such as Elie Wiesel, had to be amplified to fill the entire synagogue. At other times, the sounds of a gospel choir or classical orchestra required careful balancing and distribution.
Because the rooms are used in vari- ous configurations and for a variety of services and special events, including rock bands and guest speakers, it was important to provide multiple inputs. “We had to provide enough inputs and outputs for all possible room con- figurations. We used a Biamp AudiaFlex, a Biamp Nexia CS and a Biamp Nexia SP to provide three dif- ferent configurations, with a total of 27 inputs in use with a couple of spares, and a total of 20 outputs in use, again with a few spares,” Kevin Pelepako stated. In addition, he programmed five different presets for different types of events in the rooms, as well as ones for muting specific mics when necessary. “The preset panels enable temple personnel to switch automati- cally from one room configuration to another by simply pushing a button,”he explained.
Kevin Pelepako also sat through a lot of different services and events to get a real-world feel for what was needed. “We met with the choir and musicians to see exactly how they would be utilizing the system, and worked with them to tweak it until it sounded exactly the way it should.”
The music program changes dra- matically from a normal Friday, when it is more traditional with a few clas- sical instruments and voices, to First Friday service, when it can involve amplified guitars, a keyboard and other electronic instruments. “The bands go right into the house system, so we had to make sure there was a preset available for traditional Friday services and another for First Friday services,” Kevin Pelepako said.
Bob Pelepako noted that a major problem with the old system was the difficulty that non-technical users experienced with adjustments on three separate mixing boards. “Now, each room has a control panel and there are two in the main sanctuary,” he said. “Presets provide a simple way to select the proper setting for a wide range of setups and room configurations.”
The placement of microphones and adjustment of audio levels is also critical to the success of the diverse uses of the synagogue. Cantor Stahl appre- ciates the skills involved in locking in sound levels, given the differences in range of various presenters. “Lay people don’t quite understand public speaking the way the rabbis or I do,” he said. “They may not project their voices, and so switching from a lay person to a rabbi can become a challenge.”
Variety of Music
Similarly, the variety of music pre- sented at TBJ had specific require- ments. “There’s a big difference in lev- els when I’m singing solo and when I have musical accompaniment,” Stahl noted. “Likewise, audio levels and equalization would have to be adjusted based on the type of music. Some- times, we have a large choir with our very powerful pipe organ, and at other times we may have a cappella singing. So, it is not simply a matter of putting microphones out there. It really had to be a well-thought-out system that could provide great flexibility and acoustic range.”
The temple requested that each choir member have his or her own mi- crophone for High Holy Day services, so its 20 existing Audio-Technica ES915s were used for the choir sys- tem. Two new Audio-Technica ES915s were installed in the cantor’s podium and bimah, and an Audio-Technica ES935S was set up at the candle table. Three Audio-Technica ESW-T211 wire- less beltpack transmitters were used for the two rabbis and the cantor, and each uses an Audio-Technica AT- 892C-TH headworn condenser micro- phone. Additionally, two Audio-Technica ESW-T214 handheld wireless micro- phones are used.
Speaker placement was critical be- cause the space truly is three-dimen- sional in terms of seating area. Bob Pelepako’s acoustic design called for strategic placement of speakers, and the use of DSP units to alter speaker vol- umes and delay settings so the focal point of the sound emanates from the bimah. “We used various speaker placements for different room configura- tions,” he said. “In a traditional service, for instance, when the presenters would be on the bimah, which is approxi- mately six or seven feet above the first pew, we had to use fill speakers under- neath the steps to fill in that area.”
Additional CAMM DT-400 speakers were flown high up on some of the beams above the balcony to fill in those areas where people on the bal- cony had not been able to hear clearly with the old system configuration.
Several different types of speakers were used to blend in with the archi- tecture and render them invisible to the congregation. “We were able to match the wood finish on the organ pipes and utilized CAMM CA-43L line array speakers, finished with the same stain that was used on the faux pipes, to blend in at the front. The speakers were almost exactly the same width as the wooden ‘pipes’ and, once stained, seemed invisible among the vertical lines,” explained Bob Pelepako. CAMM DT-800 speakers were also hidden inside the structure to provide coverage for seats in the side balco- nies adjacent to either side of the or- gan pipes.
For the rear balconies with steep stadium seating, there was no obvious location for speakers. “We decided to use the ‘spine’ of the building, a set of wooden beams that run up the middle of the sanctuary, starting 40 feet high over the rear balcony and continuing to 80 feet high above and behind the Ark,” said Bob Pelepako. “We chose CAMM DT-400 speakers because of their abil- ity to be splayed and widen their cov- erage pattern. We flew two sets of two splayed DT-400s, one set covering each of the rear balcony areas.”
Underneath the balconies, Monte Bros. used custom-built speaker baffles from CAMM in order to place ceiling speakers at the rear of the central seat- ing area that would provide coverage for those seated in the back pews. These were designed specifically to aim the speakers properly while stay- ing out of the way of the retractable walls that separate the sanctuary from the additional seating areas.
Because a dedicated sound system, including a Biamp Nexia CS, two CA- 84L line arrays in the front and three CAMM DT-2x speakers along each side wall, was installed in the smaller chapel during the first part of the project, no additions or changes were necessary there during Phase Two. “The chapel system works well in its normal orientation,” reported Bob Pelepako. “During High Holy Day services, when the walls are retracted, chapel seating is turned around and the system from the main sanctuary feeds directly into the speakers on the side wall of the chapel.”
Rebuilding the Sound System
There is a particular satisfaction in creating a really useful audio solution for an important place that has been poorly served by a previous system. “When I got here in 1999, the audio was woefully inadequate, unmanage- able and unpredictable,” said Cantor Stahl, reporting that the sound would have feedback and static, and would cut out abruptly. “The people who had installed it several years earlier were no longer in business, and it was left to others to figure out how to cope with it and make it operational.”
Since completion of the new sys- tem, the congregation has enjoyed a vastly improved sonic experience, but Cantor Stahl cautions that a pre-programmed system is no substitute for skilled technical assistance. “For a normal service, we basically do the same thing musically, so it is not so complicated. But when we have an event such as the High Holy Days or when we do a special program, we need the expertise,” he noted. “During the High Holy Days, we may have al- most 40 people up in the choir loft: 20 choral singers and different instru- ments including a cello, an oboe, a French horn and a harp. So we need a different kind of micing than when we just have the pipe organ.”
“We are moving forward to have someone here who can tweak the sys- tem,” Cantor Stahl said, “and we’ve put it into our budget to have some- body from Monte Bros. here when we have a more complex event.”
Kevin Pelepako noted, “The beauty of this system is that any of our tech- nicians can access its basic functions and make whatever changes are necessary for a special event. Once the event is over, all it takes is the push of a button to restore the system to its starting point.”
Re-engineering the system for a house of worship with reconfigurable spaces and varied sound reinforce- ment requirements can present a real challenge, but a successful result should be cause for celebration.