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Shaping the environment

Shaping the environment
Valley Presbyterian Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Image courtesy of Clearwing Systems Integration

Shaping the environment

Meyer Sound explains how Constellation has enhanced the audio quality within houses of worship

Whether someone is attempting to understand speech or listen to music, a house of worship rarely provides a perfect acoustic model. In addition to reverberant sound levels, early reflections, refraction and absorption all contribute to intelligibility problems and the overall “acoustic signature” within a space. When designing a modern house of worship, subjectivity and empirical measurement combine to create an optimal result, whereby a compromise has been struck between spoken word and music.

In their attempt to distinguish themselves as dedicated audio problem solvers in this sector, several prominent developers have significantly increased their R&D efforts. By blending and adjusting direct and early reflected audio levels, the same room can be made to sound alive or dry depending on whether speech or music is required. With the launch of the Constellation Acoustic System in 2006, Meyer Sound entered a new universe and in doing so became one of the first to tailor room acoustics that could deliver favourable results for any type of event.

Meyer Sound Constellation design manager, Pierre Germain
Meyer Sound Constellation design manager, Pierre Germain

With Constellation, the same physical space can share the acoustics of an ideal classroom, chamber music hall, symphony hall or, indeed, a vast cathedral. The adjustable acoustics available exclusively in Constellation are accomplished using the patented Variable Room Acoustic System (VRAS) algorithm. VRAS incorporates a multichannel reverberator that is electroacoustically coupled to precisely installed loudspeakers within a room, together with microphones that locate and capture the audio in the space. VRAS redistributes the resultant audio through the outputs to create a room with a different tonality (if desired) or longer decay time than the natural reverberation.

The Constellation Acoustic System was created by Meyer Sound at its Berkeley headquarters in California. Located within the University of California in Berkeley, the Zellerbach Hall was the first to experience how a room’s reverberant characteristics could be extended and modified at the touch of a button. “The stage and auditorium acoustics are configured by increasing reverberation and adding beneficial reflections that help reinforce the direct sound from an acoustic instrument or human voice,” explains Meyer Sound Constellation design manager, Pierre Germain. “The effect is so natural that listeners often don’t realise that Constellation is being used until they perceive the striking difference when the system is turned off.”

MM-4XP speakers hanging from the ceiling at Valley Presbyterian Church. Image courtesy of Clearwing Systems Integration
MM-4XP speakers hanging from the ceiling at Valley Presbyterian Church. Image courtesy of Clearwing Systems Integration

Over the 15 years that followed, Constellation has rescued numerous concert halls with poor natural acoustics. In addition to supercharging presentation spaces, an increasing number of churches have employed the same technology to enhance congregational involvement in both contemporary and traditional worship within the same space. “Constellation allows one worship space to adapt to a wide variety of worship styles,” adds Germain. “The worship leaders and congregation sense a sharing of common space, and this helps to break down the wall between the chancel and nave. For example, it encourages robust congregational singing in a space that, with Constellation off, would be too dry to provide the acoustical support needed.”

To minimise long reverberation and echoes from impairing voice intelligibility, most contemporary worship auditoriums are designed with relatively dry acoustics. “This also means that the sound is perceived in a flat plane bounded in the front by the main PA loudspeakers, in other words, a one-dimensional sound arriving only from the front,” continues Germain. “Constellation creates a larger, more three-dimensional acoustic space by adding subtle envelopment to complement the PA.”

Constallation has helped Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, provide an enhanced level of natural-sounding reverberation
Constallation has helped Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, provide an enhanced level of natural-sounding reverberation

Constellation can also be adopted in other applications that aspire to create similar acoustics to those found in houses of worship. “Constellation provides flexibility when creating acoustic spaces. A modern church auditorium principally designed for worship with amplified music, for example, would not be suitable for orchestral music. However, with Constellation, an orchestra or string quartet can be integrated into worship with ideal acoustical support. In addition, the church auditorium can host community events such as classical concerts. One Constellation-equipped church in Florida has hosted both the Dallas and Detroit Symphony Orchestras.”

The exact tuning and development of acoustical presets depends on the size of the venue and the physical acoustics. “Constellation is a digital approach to controlling reverberation time, early reflections and other key ingredients vital to the sonic clarity, warmth and resonance of a space. As such, it has been successfully applied in scalable settings ranging from large corporate boardrooms to small arenas.”

The Constellation system at Northland, A Church Distributed includes MM-4, UPM-1P and UPJ-1P loudspeakers
The Constellation system at Northland, A Church Distributed includes MM-4, UPM-1P and UPJ-1P loudspeakers

The successful implementation of Constellation begins with well-controlled physical room acoustic characteristics. “In existing spaces, prior to the design phase, the Constellation team carries out a thorough acoustical analysis of the space, measuring the RT60 reverberation time in addition to the frequency balance of the warm or bright reverberation. The combination will determine what types of acoustic treatment may be required to complement Constellation. In new construction, the same team works closely with the architect and acoustical consultant to make sure the physical acoustics will allow Constellation to meet or exceed all expectations.”

When Valley Presbyterian Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona, decided to renovate its 50-year-old sanctuary, a principal goal was to host both traditional and contemporary worship services in the same space without compromising either of the musical programmes. At the same time, the church wanted to enhance the acoustic flexibility of the 600-seat sanctuary by hosting a range of special concerts and classical music recording sessions.

The very spacious campus includes one sanctuary for traditional worship at one end and a multipurpose space for holding the contemporary services at the other end. Owing to the distance between, the church had a split congregation with little interaction between the two groups during social hour. Aware that reverberant acoustics would be a major problem, the church committee wanted to bring the contemporary service into the sanctuary.

Valley Presbyterian Church. Image courtesy of Clearwing Systems Integration
Valley Presbyterian Church. Image courtesy of Clearwing Systems Integration

Appointed to provide expert acoustical analysis for Valley Presbyterian, specialist consultancy McKay Conant Hoover (MCH) recommended electroacoustic enhancement. In addition to significantly altering the acoustical characteristics of the sanctuary for both amplified and unamplified music, MCH also comprehended the requirement to instantly switch to a relatively dry acoustic for improved speech intelligibility during the spoken word.

“The church leaders agreed to the recommendation in principle,” notes Germain. “However, they were largely unfamiliar with the technology and decided to evaluate a working Constellation at Laguna Presbyterian in Southern California.” Suitably convinced by the demonstration, MCH specified acoustical treatments that reduced the baseline mid-band RT60 from 1.75s to less than 0.7s and dropped the background noise level from NC 43 to NC 17, resulting in significantly improved speech intelligibility.

To create the desired reverberation characteristics, the Constellation selfpowered loudspeaker system incorporates 97 MM-4XP miniature loudspeakers surface-mounted on the walls and hanging from the ceiling, as well as 11 Ashby-5C flush-mount loudspeakers in the low ceiling area. Low-frequency extension of the reverberation envelope – critical for the church’s renovated pipe organ – is furnished by 16 MM-10XP miniature subwoofers. Ambient room sound is captured by 28 miniature cardioid microphones and the eight-module Meyer Sound D-Mitri Digital Audio Platform includes two D-VRAS processors for hosting the patented VRAS algorithm.

Following tuning, the results of Germain’s work were praised as “spectacular” by the church’s technical staff. “Constellation now allows for a variety of acoustical environments, from a minimally transparent setting for a rock band or for when the pastor is speaking to longer settings enabled for sonic immersion by adding natural sustain and decay to the music. Vocal and instrumental soloists performing in classical styles as well as the church’s distanced contemporary band have also been enhanced.”

Valley Presbyterian incorporated 97 MM-4XP speakers. Image courtesy of Clearwing Systems Integration
Valley Presbyterian incorporated 97 MM-4XP speakers. Image courtesy of Clearwing Systems Integration

In addition to music enhancement, Constellation in conjunction with acoustical treatments has improved speech intelligibility. With Constellation off or on a very short setting, the congregation hears only direct sound without destructive reflections. Volunteers can select fixed presets from a touchscreen, yet the ease of operation system architecture also promotes custom tweaking of parameters.

This capability was put to good use when the renowned early music vocal ensemble Helios came to the church to record a concert. Two special presets were programmed for the occasion, with the ensemble auditioning both prior to recording. According to Helios tenor Kenny Miller, the results exceeded expectations. “We were incredibly impressed with the acoustics and the aural flexibility in what is normally a space unsuitable for early music,” says Miller.

Most of today’s new-build HOW auditoriums display relatively dry acoustics like other venues hosting amplified events. “Constellation allows these auditoriums, whether they be HOW or secular, to create church acoustics from a bygone era, such as the long reverberation ideal for choral music associated with cathedrals. As a fully integrated, standalone system, Constellation’s controls are hosted by a web browser on a laptop or tablet. In some instances, a venue may wish to integrate the system operation within a third-party controller.”

Room dimensions and ceiling heights may be fixed but, by applying specific absorptive treatments together with the active acoustics of Constellation, the acoustical signature of the room can be enhanced. Constellation empowers ministries by transforming a fixed space into a multipurpose venue suitable for all types of programming, including spoken word, traditional and modern worship. “During the pandemic, churches with limited attendances successfully reprogrammed Constellation to create the perception of a larger congregation, particularly with participatory singing,” adds Germain. Some 15 years on and Constellation’s journey is only just beginning.



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