Acoustics, A-frames & other audio challenges

By Daniel Keller

PASTOR SOUND ICONSince 1968, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Md. — a suburb of Washington, D.C. — has faithfully served its community.

Until last year, its original sound system had been ‘serving’ just as long.

When the church decided to replace this antiquated system, the most clear, present (and unalterable) challenge was the church’s unique A-frame architecture. According to the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Advanced Study, this type of structure was popular among post-WWII-era churches — especially those in suburbs — for a reason: While obviously churches, they “signaled a contemporary spirit.”

A New Republic article affirms this, adding:

“The architect Henry Kamphoefner described it enthusiastically: ‘The whole auditorium becomes the spire … This daring concept puts the steeple under the roof, and gives the whole structure a symbolic upward reaching.’”

This desired effect was achieved at stunning St. Patrick’s. Worshipers enjoy 35-foot-high ceilings, a center altar area, an abundance of windows, and handsome wooden pews. The pipe organ and choir haven always sounded majestic, thanks to reverberance. Indeed, the fellowship potential was (and is) fantastic in this space.

But, these same structural elements and reverberance create a veritable “reverb-a-thon” — an echo which, prior to the new system, severely diminished speech intelligibility. Although the music sounded great, almost no one could understand a word the pastor was saying.

rusnockphoto_5d3_7830b_printBack to the drawing board!

Gene Ingham represents systems integrator RCI Systems. Last year, his company was behind the design-build of the church’s new system.

Ingham confirms the original sound system didn’t project far enough. “So, it was like a cloud of sound coming out of the sky, lacking clarity and intelligibility.”

He and his team specified a pair of Renkus-Heinz Iconyx IC16-RN digitally steered arrays for the sanctuary, marking the first installation of Renkus-Heinz Iconyx Gen5, the fifth generation of the company’s acclaimed Iconyx steered beam technology. Gen5 versions of Iconyx were set up and controlled via RHAON II System Designer, the company’s latest version of their highly acclaimed software control and beam steering application. This professional software enables the installer to point the beam up or down, tighten or widen the focus, and more. Once it’s configured, it’s locked down.

rusnockphoto_5d3_7863_printWith the sanctuary’s high ceilings and transept, installation and tuning could have been tricky. Transepts are a challenge in their own right; echoes and late reflections — which occur as sound bounces into, around, and back out of a right-angled corridor — wreak havoc with intelligibility. (Stated another way: Imagine trying to listen to several different versions of the same speech, all within fractions of a second of each other, and all coming from different directions. It’s essentially a cacophony.)

For this challenging space, Ingham used two beams for each loudspeaker to cover the room; this solved the issue with relative ease. “The beam coverage was so wide that I only had to put two IC16-RNs in,” he says. “And it still covers the main room and at least half of the transept.”

This was a pivot from his original plan of putting the loudspeakers close to the audience, he points out.  “When we looked at the modeling, we found that if we could place the loudspeakers to the left and right of the altar, about nine feet up, we could shoot over everything and still get plenty of sound in the back.”

He credits the new RHAON II software with making it easy for him and his team to get all the elements to come together, quickly. “And with the IC16-RN’s low-profile design, half the people don’t even know the speakers are there,” he says.

This discrete design was extremely important for St. Patrick’s — and for so many churches. From the architect to the pastor, most house-of-worship clients want sound systems to be heard, not seen. That’s one reason the RH Iconyx speakers are popular in churches: they’re super low-profile.

Also, Renkus-Heinz offers paint-matching. As a result, worshipers often don’t even know the speakers are there.

A brand-new experience in a well-known space

Ingham and his team finished ahead of schedule. But the bottom line, of course, is sound quality and intelligibility. Mission: accomplished.

“The best part is the direct field; when you’re anywhere in the main body of the church, the coverage at every seat is the same,” Ingham says. “I attended a service, and whether the vicar used a handheld wireless mic or a gooseneck mic or the altar mic, his tone sounded the same through the Iconyx speakers. It was a pleasure to hear.”

Others also noticed the difference. “While we were tuning the system, a parishioner remarked, ‘I’ve never heard it sound this clear back here before,’” Ingham says.

Daniel Keller is CEO of Get It In Writing, Inc.® 


Leave a Reply