It is not uncommon for a church to go decades without upgrading its sound system. And when it’s finally time to revamp, the long-overdue upgrades can, of course, present challenges for integrators in terms of modernizing the technology, and the system infrastructure, in the space. Sometimes, however, the more difficult obstacle for integrators to overcome is the firmly entrenched status quo; if a system has been in use for 20 or 30 years, change can be a slow, difficult process.
When Arcadia CA-based Platt Design Group was tasked with overhauling the sound system in Pasadena CA’s Lake Avenue Church, the installation presented all those challenges, in addition to some unique to this particular church. The venue’s preexisting sound system had been in place since the 1980s, and it would take a lot of hard work to bring it into the 2010s. Three decades worth of advances in speaker technology had to be considered, the building’s infrastructure had to be converted from analog to digital, and many doubts had to be mitigated and concerns addressed along the way.
Complicating matters were the sanctuary’s unique acoustic design and architectural pedigree. The sanctuary interior was designed by Paul S. Veneklasen and Jerry Christoff of Veneklasen Associates, and its 70-foot ceiling boasts meticulously designed acoustic treatments. “They designed a classic fan-shaped room with about a 200-foot width, so it’s a very wide fan shape with a balcony,” Bill Platt, Principal at Platt Design Group, described. “Seating in the room is roughly 4,600 to 5,000 seats, which is a pretty big room. The room shaping, acoustically, was done by Veneklasen to make it more of a concert hall, so the extensiveness of the wall shaping, the panels—everything—is very unique for a church.” The sanctuary design was focused on its central feature: a massive, 120-plus-rank pipe organ that still sees heavy use during weekly services.
Another unique feature of Lake Avenue Church is its AV oversight committee. Given the church’s location in Pasadena, which is part of Los Angeles County, its congregation counts among its members some pretty heavy hitters in audio production, all of whom had a say in the new system design. “One of the guys was one of the leading mastering engineers in Hollywood,” Platt recalled. “Another one of the members on the sound committee used to be the sound engineer for the Johnny Carson show.” Christoff, one of the venue’s original designers, was also consulted on the project.
In addition, the church features a team of AV professionals that handles production for each service. Such a discerning group of experts would prove difficult to please; fortunately, though, the team at Platt Design Group was up to the task. In fact, Platt has his own impressive audio pedigree, with two Emmys for broadcast sound mixing on his mantle and 15 years’ experience designing theme park audio for The Walt Disney Company.
Before Platt and his team could design a new sound system for Lake Avenue Church’s main sanctuary, they first had to understand the church’s needs, as well as the shortcomings of the preexisting system. Fortunately, Platt himself has attended services off and on at Lake Avenue Church for about 15 years, giving him a firm grasp of what the church is all about. The main sanctuary is the central hub that serves Lake Avenue Church’s diverse congregation, and it hosts a service each Saturday evening and two services each Sunday morning. The services are divided more or less evenly between praise music and spoken-word preaching, meaning musicality and speech intelligibility had to be considered in equal measure. And worship music at Lake Avenue Church is often a major production that changes from week to week, with large vocal choirs, modern rock bands and multi-piece orchestras all sharing the same stage, accompanied by grand piano, as well as the massive pipe organ.
After 30 years, the old sound system was showing its age, and the technology just didn’t match up to the quality of performance that Lake Avenue Church’s weekly services required. According to Kenzo Perkins, AVL Manager at Lake Avenue Church, “The system was just old. It was a bunch of point-source speakers crammed into a box and delayed to certain times to create kind of a line-array feel. Coverage-wise, it didn’t do very well. It didn’t cover the worship center in its entirety. It was very spotty. And maintenance was getting annoying.” Perkins elaborated on the old system’s spotty coverage, adding, “The main problem areas were the sides of the worship center, near the walls. The under-balcony was pretty spotty—almost impossible—as well. And the first few rows in the front, on the ground level, didn’t have very accurate coverage, either.”
“The system that was in there was designed in 1984, installed in 1986, and it was kind of a primitive line-array technology that never quite got the even coverage that the guys at the church really wanted,” Dan Gold, Platt Design Group’s lead integrator on this installation, explained. “Everyone agreed that the speech intelligibility in the room with the system they had was lousy. It was nearly impossible to maintain the old system, because of difficulty getting parts for the backend of it, and the logistics of bringing the thing down and getting it back up. And it just didn’t cover the room evenly enough to be acceptable in this part of the country. People have very high expectations when they enter a space like that, and those expectations were not being met.”
In addition to failing to meet expectations at the weekly church services, the old sound system left a lot to be desired for the other groups that use the main sanctuary as a performance space. Lake Avenue Church hosts several events for Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary each year, plus an annual two-day choir festival for the Association of Christian Schools International. However, some organizations would arrange to have a rental sound system shipped in for their events. “They rented speakers and flew them on Genie lifts,” Perkins shared. “Appearance-wise, for them and for us, it always looked kind of bad—like our space is big enough, but we don’t have anything to support it with.” Platt added, “They were getting into a lot of expenses getting these systems in and out all the time.”
Given Lake Avenue Church’s expert oversight committee, its experienced AV staff, the high-end acoustical and architectural design of the building itself, and the high standards brought to the project by Platt Design Group, the process of designing a new audio system was not taken lightly. The oversight committee insisted on a series of trial runs of speaker systems from a long list of manufacturers; the process took approximately three years. It was during that trial period that Platt Design Group won the bid to design the sanctuary’s new sound system. At the time, Platt was already involved in designing AV systems for Lake Avenue Church’s recently renovated Children’s Worship Center (see sidebar), and the company coordinated some of the trial runs in the main sanctuary, as well.
After much trial and error and some back-and-forth between the integrator, the oversight committee and the church’s AV staff, the Meyer Sound LEOPARD line array was selected as the winning speaker system. Originally, a different Meyer Sound line array was considered, but a trial run was organized for the LEOPARD once it came out in 2015. Platt determined that the LEOPARD more effectively covered the farthest reaches of the sanctuary’s fanned seating.
“In doing a lot of walking around and listening tests with the group, we had an issue in that we couldn’t quite get the full outskirts of the sides covered,” Platt recalled. “When the LEOPARD came out, I realized that it’s a wider cabinet. Meyer has a program called ‘MAPP,’ so we mapped the facility again, and I was able to get the edges quite well with the LEOPARD system in place of the other system. So, Meyer agreed to bring in the LEOPARD system as a second test. It was somewhat expensive for the manufacturer, but they agreed to it. So, we did the listening test again, and everyone was very satisfied with the results.”
There are two arrays flown in left/right configuration on either side of the stage. “In this large of a room, we couldn’t do a typical left/right spread,” Platt explained. “We made it a left/right system that’s more mono, because we needed the coverage. And, of course, with the width of the space, we wanted to get the coverage all the way to every seat. The LEOPARD gave us the extra width we needed to get out there with a left/right panned system.”
Each array consists of 12 speaker cabinets. “Placement was a concern to me…to have it physically time-aligned with the center of the musical group onstage,” Platt said. “For the alignment left and right, we needed to spread the cabinets from the center far enough left and right to cover this very wide seating correctly. The center seam was our main concern on how these two systems work together. So, I finally found the right placement, we did testing and we confirmed it.” He added, “The mapping we did in the software was very helpful to judge and make many changes in the positioning of not only the array, but also the cabinet splays. We had challenges to get to the upper balcony, and then get all the way down to the front floor area, and seam the 12 cabinets where the balcony rail is.” Six Meyer 900-LFC subwoofers—three left and three right—are located under the front of the stage.
As Perkins mentioned, covering the first few rows of the ground floor seating presented its own challenge. Platt and his team installed eight Meyer UP-4XPs as front-fill speakers to cover that particularly problematic few rows. “Even though we had most of the image coming down from the array, it’s a very high image for the first two to three rows,” Platt described. “So, we have eight front fills that are helping to pull the image down for the first two rows all the way across the front, and those are individually delayed and EQ’d.” The EQ’ing is via a Meyer Sound Galileo GALAXY 816 digital signal processor.
Platt solved the “impossible” under-balcony area with 16 UP-4XPs that are used as delay speakers. The under-balcony seating is divided into eight sections, with four on each side of the center aisle; two delay speakers serve each section. “I chose to place the delays by looking at the seating itself in relation to the point source of the cluster in that particular seating area,” Platt explained. “We placed the under-balcony delays based on where the source image would start, and then how it would come forward under the balcony and then continue with the delays as a supplemental EQ’d addition to the initial wavefront of the sound.” He elaborated further, saying, “We didn’t do even spacing of the under-balcony delays across the eight sections. We did the spacing according to the seating—that way, we got perfect coverage in the seating areas, and the aisles could or couldn’t be part of the crossover between these imaged speaker delays.”
The sound system is controlled via two Allen & Heath dLive S7000 digital mixing consoles; one is located at front of house and the other is in the building’s broadcast production booth, where both the in-house and the online streaming video feeds are produced.
“The Allen & Heath system is 128-in by 48-out in its current configuration. It’s expandable beyond that,” Gold said. That proved to be a big jump in terms of inputs for Lake Avenue Church’s AV team, curing a lot of the headaches caused by larger productions. “Before, we were limited to 40 inputs at front of house. Our board in our broadcast operation room had a few more channels in it, going up to like 56,” Perkins explained. “We were continuously running out of channels, especially on big productions like Christmas and Easter, and the graduations that some of the local schools have on our campus. Sometimes, we even had to bring in a secondary board just to get some extra channels to make things work.”
According to Platt, Allen & Heath was instrumental in helping the AV staff adjust to the new system’s greater capacity. “Allen & Heath sent a rep a couple of times who was one of their main mixing guys, and who mixes a lot of big concerts,” he said. “He came down and did a very thorough, full-day training session for all the mixers who are going to use this console. And the follow-up on the phone has been there on a 24/7 basis.”
Transitioning to a digital interface was one of Platt Design Group’s major goals for the installation; that goal met with some resistance, given that the venue’s idiosyncratic analog infrastructure had been in use for 30 years. The analog system relied on a smattering of stage floor boxes that were routed to the building’s broadcast booth, and then into a series of ancient patchbays.
“In broadcast, they had old analog splitters that put voltage on the line—48-volt microphone phantom powering—into patchbays, and then those patchbays went out to feed broadcast, to feed front of house and to feed other locations,” Platt said. “The original cabling system for this church had something like 300-plus mic input channels that were located not only on the stage, but also throughout the balcony areas and the main floors.”
“One of our biggest challenges was figuring out how to interface with the existing cabling system,” Platt recalled. “We spent a lot of time with the committee, talking about it. I can’t even explain how many meetings and diagrams, and hearing out everyone’s various opinions.” He noted that the engineer who worked with Johnny Carson had a very specific idea of how he wanted to do it, whereas some of the people whose work centers on touring and rental just wanted to do drop boxes.
“So,” Platt continued, “we came up with a compromise solution where we left the entire patchbay system in. We moved all the patchbays over to one rack, so, now, we have like a 300-plus analog-split patchbay sitting in a rack next to the new preamps. We went to a Whirlwind-based system of multi-pin connectors at various points on the stage with 12-channel drop boxes like a rental system, all color-coded and numbered.” Altogether, there are eight Whirlwind Mini-12 drop boxes. “The original design of the floor boxes wasn’t in the right places for how they’re doing their worship music now, so this cleaned up all the spaghetti mess that was on the stage,” he added.
Much to the relief of the AV staff, the analog patchbay system has been largely abandoned; however, much to the relief of the old-schoolers who didn’t want to let it go, it can still be routed into the new digital system. “If they decide they have an odd position somewhere in the sanctuary that they need a microphone plugged into, we can do that, and we can patch from the old patchbay system into the preamps, which are next to the patchbays,” Platt said. “But when these things have been in for 20 or 30 years, they’ve oxidized to a point where they were failing a lot, and the guys whose day-to-day job was to make the system work were very frustrated with them. One of the key things that changed everybody’s attitude was realizing that they could patch something anywhere they want, have gain sharing on the channels, and make it all work without actually having to move cables in and out of a patchbay.”
To round out the system upgrade, Platt Design Group added a few amenities for the choir and band; those include two Eiki LC HDT2000 projectors that fire on two retractable Da-Lite Cinema Contour screens, which are used as confidence monitors that face the stage. “We were blessed to have the finances for those donated by a longtime church and choir member,” Perkins said. “The choir wanted to be part of the service, instead of just sitting back behind the stage. That was very important to the donor, so we did that. We also made it easier for them to read the lyrics of the songs they sing, instead of looking at a binder of music all the time.” In addition, a pair of Renkus-Heinz CFX121 speakers was installed in the choir rehearsal room, along with a pair of Whirlwind WP1/1NL4 wall plates for inputs.
Platt also devised a unique placement for the choir monitors. “It turned out that the back side bottom of the array was a perfect position for a choir monitor on each side,” he explained. A single Meyer UPA-1P is flown from the back of each array. “We physically pointed it in space where we wanted it, and then my rigging specialist, Roger Smith, came up with a way to rig it off the back of the array so that, visually, it wouldn’t be very intrusive, but it would give a great near-field monitor for all the choir on left and right.”
Although Lake Avenue Church’s sound system has been fully modernized, the upgrade process is far from over. The church is currently planning to overhaul its video capabilities and set up separate streams for in-house and online video, as well as the ability to transmit video signals to different locations on the campus. But, for a project like this, it’s best to take things slow.
“Something I think helped make this particular project very smooth was that we didn’t throw everything at them at once,” Gold suggested. “We put the speakers in and let them get used to that. Then, we put the consoles in once they were comfortable with all the speaker stuff, instead of just dropping everything on their heads and saying good luck. And that typically works well with churches. You have to make sure they’re comfortable and not overwhelm these folks.” Platt added, “It’s like turning a large ship. You don’t do it quickly. It’s not like we’re in a speedboat here.”
Children’s Worship Center Upgrade
While Lake Avenue Church’s three-year speaker trial period was still ongoing, Platt Design Group was also designing AV systems for the church’s recently renovated Children’s Worship Center, located in a separate building on the church campus. The Children’s Worship Center features two large classrooms that are used for children’s ministry, small-scale musical performances, plays, presentations, educational programs and the like.
In each of the two spaces, Platt Design Group installed a Soundcraft Si Expression 1 digital mixing console and Whirlwind stage inputs. Each room also features two JBL AM5215/95 two-way loudspeakers and two JBL PRX412M stage monitors, powered by Crown amps, as well as a Shure QLXD24 wireless mic system and six Beta 58A vocal mics. A Jands Vista Stage CL lighting console controls a number of Elation lighting fixtures in each space.
The two classrooms also feature their own video presentation systems. Each room contains two Visio 55-inch LED HDTVs, with content fed from an Apple Mac Mini that runs ProPresenter. Each video system is supported by Extron infrastructure, including a video switcher/scaler and HDMI transmitters and receivers.