To the delight of the commercial AV market, contemporary worship models that rely on high-end sound and attention-grabbing displays are winning the day, even in churches that skew more traditional. For proof, look no further than the increasing amount of Catholic churches that are adding contemporary worship services to their weekend mass schedules, while also adding more AV tech to their sanctuaries than ever before. Although Catholic churches, in general, tend to prize traditional worship styles more than contemporary models, flagging attendance numbers among younger worshippers have forced a paradigm shift. As a result, some forward-thinking Catholic churches are following the example of non-denominational startup ministries that have become quite popular with millennial worshippers thanks, in part, to their use of modern praise bands and concert-level audio, video and lighting.
St. Joseph the Worker, in Dubuque IA, is one such forward-thinking Catholic church. The church’s leadership recently decided to adopt a more contemporary style of music in two of its three weekend services. To pull that off, the church needed to overhaul its outdated audio system. The church also wanted to add some video capabilities to complement the new, more modern musical approach. However, it was important that the venue’s AV systems not be geared just to the new contemporary services. The new audio system also had to improve intelligibility at the traditional, spoken-word-driven service, and the visual impact of any video components had to be kept to a minimum during the traditional service.
Platteville WI-based integrator Lifeline Audio Video Technologies was contracted to make St. Joseph the Worker’s vision a reality. Lifeline’s President, Scott Wright, quickly realized that the installation’s success would hinge on understanding exactly what the church needed in terms of AV for each of the three different weekend services, and then delivering a system that would meet the expectations of the attendees at each individual service.
“The Saturday-night service is straight traditional—what I would call a typical Catholic mass,” Wright said. “The Sunday morning mass is traditional with a touch of contemporary, meaning there are a couple of contemporary songs and there’s a little bit of a more contemporary feel to it. Their later service on Sunday is what they consider a full contemporary service.” In addition, St. Joseph the Worker hosts daily masses during the week that are, for the most part, entirely spoken word.
As if balancing the needs of those different types of services wasn’t enough, the project was also complicated by the sanctuary’s design quirks, of which there were several. “First of all, it’s a completely round church, and they have a platform on one end where the altar is,” Wright described. “The sanctuary seats 800 people, and it has fan-shaped pew seating in four sections with a center aisle. It’s a beautiful facility—absolutely gorgeous—but it’s not symmetrical left to right. It’s a circular building, but, behind that platform in front, they ended up building out the back section. So, you look at the space from the entrance, and it looks symmetrical, but, dimensions-wise, it’s not.”
“And,” Wright continued, “it has a suspended drywall ceiling, so getting access to the ceiling deck for the purposes of hanging stuff wasn’t going to be impossible, but it was going to be a monumental challenge.” The suspended drywall ceiling is approximately 18 feet high, and the sanctuary is about 80 feet long, front to back.
St. Joseph the Worker’s leadership had one major concern that will ring familiar to integrators with experience in the worship market, especially working in Catholic churches. “The aesthetics of the design were critical, as was the performance,” Wright said. “They told us, ‘We want to be contemporary in terms of our music, but it needs to match the aesthetics of this church, meaning we don’t want large, black line arrays hung in the middle of the church.’ So, we were up against the challenge of, ‘How do we create a system that can support contemporary music, along with having the aesthetics match the existing aesthetics of the church?’”
The first order of business was the audio system overhaul, and it was long overdue. “The speakers were 30, 40-plus years old,” Wright said. “There were a lot of problems. Intelligibility was a big factor, and reliability was a major issue.” He added, “The front-end main system components were replaced probably 10 years ago, but it was a standard mixing console without much control, and it wasn’t very user friendly.” To get a better handle on what, exactly, the church needed out of its new sound system, Wright volunteered to play guitar at one of the weekend services. “Overall, the big complaint was that the system didn’t sound very good, and they didn’t have nearly enough microphone inputs for what they wanted to do,” he recalled. “And, they wanted to make the contemporary service happen while also increasing intelligibility for their traditional service.”
The original speaker placement also left a lot to be desired. Because of the age of the system and the subsequent advances in speaker technology that came in the intervening decades, the original speaker positions simply wouldn’t work with the newer speaker models that Lifeline was considering. “Their original speaker design was circa 1970, and it was three speakers that were behind a grille cloth left, center, right along a façade in the ceiling,” Wright explained. “We did an EASE design on this, and we just couldn’t get the full coverage that we needed from that location. So, then, we started talking to them about speaker options, and that was when aesthetics became a critical factor.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one—the client wanted the new speakers to be as invisible as possible.
Lifeline decided that the best speakers for the space would be a pair of Renkus-Heinz Iconyx IC-16Rs fixed to the walls on the left and right sides of the chancel (that is, the stage on which the altar is located), where their visual impact would be limited. However, one of the speakers is located more or less directly behind where the praise band sets up on the left-hand side of the chancel, and the band is often using as many as eight microphones; that necessitated some DSP trickery to avoid feedback issues.
“Essentially,” explained Adam King, Lifeline’s Lead Installation Technician, “on the side where the worship team is, I just increased the height of the acoustic center through the DSP, so that the majority of the audio is actually coming out of the top of the stack, and then just aiming down.” The left-hand Iconyx array uses three lobes to provide audio coverage to the sanctuary: the top lobe fires down from above the band to cover the front of the church, a second lobe covers the middle of the seating area and a third lobe covers the back of the church. All three lobes are positioned in the top half of the Iconyx array, which mitigates feedback from the mics in the band area.
Two Danley Sound Labs TH112I subs handle the low end. They are hidden, according to Wright, “out of sight and out of mind” above the walls on either side of the altar in custom rigging. “To isolate everything, we built a framework up there of Unistrut and isolation pads, just to keep rattling to a minimum,” King said. “I tested the subs just to make sure, and there was no rattling other than the windows.” A QSC CX902 amplifier powers the subs.
Another major hurdle to overcome was that the main sanctuary lacked a front-of-house mixing position; for that reason, Lifeline had to build one. “We build our own custom furniture here at Lifeline, so we ended up actually building a standup front-of-house mixing desk for them in the back,” Wright said. “It only required them to take out one 12-foot pew in the very back of the church.”
Lifeline also upgraded the main sanctuary mixing console, installing an Allen & Heath Qu-16C mixer. According to Wright, Lifeline prefers using Allen & Heath mixing consoles for installations in venues that are just transitioning into digital mixing. “The person who’s doing the mixing is also the drummer, and he has never mixed on a digital console before,” Wright said. “So, it’s really our go-to board for people who are analog mixing people, but who want to jump into the digital mixing age.” Lifeline also made use of the Qu-16C’s Scene feature to program recallable presets for St. Joseph the Worker’s various masses. “The Scene recall was important, because they do a lot of stuff that’s consistent from week to week,” Wright added. “So, it allows us to have easy Scene recall for the different types of masses.”
One of the major priorities of the audio upgrade was to increase the amount of inputs in the band area, because the old system simply didn’t have enough inputs to support a contemporary-style praise band. To solve that problem, Lifeline installed an Allen & Heath AH-AB-168 remote stage box in the band area. “It was impossible to put in floor pockets for XLR mic inputs,” Wright said. “So, Allen & Heath makes a really small, nice remote stage box, and that allowed us to put a stage box underneath the piano. You can’t even see it. That’s the location where all the inputs are plugged in.”
The audio system also includes a Biamp TesiraFORTÉ AI DSP. Lifeline did extensive DSP work to streamline as much as possible production of the three different services, essentially setting up a system for the traditional service that can be used autonomously, and allowing the mixing console to be routed into the traditional system for more extensive mixing during the contemporary services.
“We talked to them in detail about what they use for inputs during the traditional service,” Wright explained. “Once we got that list of inputs, we then used a 12-channel DSP with a very simple volume-control system that allows them only to be able to change volumes, and we set a maximum on it.” He continued, “Basically, their traditional service is, ‘Turn on one switch to turn the entire system on,’ and they can change volumes in the front or back of the church, and that’s it. It’s completely hands-off. No one ever has to sit at a mixing board and know anything about mixing in order for traditional service to happen. And that traditional service setup is used for daily mass, weddings, funerals—multiple functions in addition to the traditional weekend service.”
Wright continued, “And then, what we did for the contemporary service is, we tied the digital mixing console into the same exact system that they use for the traditional service, and then we use the digital console to bring in the multiple inputs from the music area.” He elaborated, “Father’s wireless sounds the same whether it’s at a contemporary or a traditional service; we’re just allowing them more inputs and more control for the contemporary service. That doesn’t affect the other service, though.”
Wright added, “We took a couple of outputs from our Tesira DSP, and used it as two channels so that they can actually mix wireless from the traditional system on the Qu board when they do contemporary service, as well. That was one of the requirements that was a little odd—the guy who’s doing the mixing wanted to be able to mix and change settings for Father’s wireless in the contemporary service, as well as have the same wireless in the traditional setup, and the Qu board allows them to do that.”
Speaking of wireless mics, Lifeline managed to convince St. Joseph the Worker’s pastor to switch from a lavalier mic to a Point Source Audio CO-8WS-XSH-BE earworn mic. “We told them they could try it and return it if they didn’t like it, because we were confident it would work significantly better. And it did,” Wright recalled. “They tried it and loved it.”
With the audio system sorted out, the next order of business was to add video capabilities to the venue for use during the contemporary services. Because of the 80-foot distance from the front of the sanctuary to the back, projection technology was the only viable approach. “Even a 90-inch TV was not going to be readable from the back,” Wright said. “And, really, the budget took us completely out of play for any form of a dual LED wall or something like that.”
Implementing video in a Catholic church tends to be a big step for both the clergy and the parishioners, so Lifeline rented projectors and screens to the church on two separate occasions, so everyone could get used to the idea. St. Joseph the Worker’s leadership also hoped to use those trial periods to raise some funds for the AV budget by getting congregants excited about adding video to the church. The approach proved successful.
However, placing the projection screens within the space would prove tricky. “There’s a crucifix right in the center of the front wall. We couldn’t come anywhere close to covering up the crucifix,” Wright said. “We only had so much screen size to work with that would be wide enough that we could see in the back of church, not cover up the crucifix and not shadow anything from somebody standing on the platform. We did a CAD drawing that showed screen sizes and images with people standing on the platform, and we measured the crucifix out. So, they knew exactly what those screen sizes were going to look like before we installed them.”
Wright continued, “Our original recommendation was to place a screen above the worship band on the left side, and then another symmetrically on the right side. The challenge with that was, the actual sightline of the audience was going to be away from the platform, and they really, really wanted to make sure that the eyes of the listeners were on Father. As we spread the screens further out, there was a concern that, even though the coverage might be nice, [congregants would] actually be looking away from the platform. So, then, we talked about bringing them in, which actually helped us a lot. That allowed us to be able to choose a better speaker placement.”
Lifeline decided to place the screens on either side of the crucifix behind the altar. The massive amount of ambient light around the altar, however, created a new set of problems.
“They had multiple lights that were lighting up the front wall,” Wright said. “We had to make sure that those lights did not hit the screen, so we had to change a little bit of the lighting layout in the front.” He continued, “And then, they have this massive skylight above the altar. To get our images on the screen, we had to go through the sunlight. There was just no way around it, and there was no way that we could put in a shade or tamper with the light that came in. It’s beautiful, but there’s a huge amount of sunlight reflecting off the altar, and we had to be able to get a bright enough image on the screens for people to see.”
Lifeline overcame the ambient-light challenge by using two 8,000-lumen Vivitek DU8090Z laser projectors that fire a distance of 25 feet onto two motorized Da-Lite Tensioned Contour Electrol screens with HD Pro .06 screen material. The projectors are hung using Chief mounts. The screens are only in use during the contemporary services; they are retracted during the traditional services.
Content is fed to the projectors through a Liberty AV video switching system that includes an FLX-64 matrix switcher and two AS-1H1V-WP-B auto-switching wall plates. “With the FLX-64, they have a desktop PC at front of house running ProPresenter as an input,” King said. “They also have an auto-switching wall plate at front of house for guests to bring in a PC and hook up there via HDMI or VGA. And also, on the chancel, there’s a second HDMI and VGA auto-switching wall plate.”
Operation of the video switching system is handled by an Extron MLC-226 wall controller. Liberty AV extender/receivers and transmitters transmit the signals from the various inputs to the projectors. Onscreen content includes graphics, lyrics, call-and-response prompts, announcements—the usual fare. No live video or IMAG is shown on the screens, although the church plans to add some PTZ cameras to the sanctuary in the future.
The parishioners and leadership of St. Joseph the Worker couldn’t be happier with the finished AV system. “They’re ecstatic about it,” King shared. “We’ve gotten multiple phone calls of people saying they love the system. It exceeded their expectations, it met their aesthetic concerns, and they’re really excited about the intelligibility and the ease of use.”