Wheaton, IL | April, 2012 – Founded in 1861 with close ties to Wheaton College, College Church has achieved a reputation as one of the most influential churches in America.
The stunning Georgian Revival-style building on Washington Street that the church calls home was built around two decades ago. It’s an architectural gem that boasts high glass ceilings, soaring columns, and a U-shaped wrap-around balcony. The room’s acoustics provide a wonderful complement for the piano, pipe organ, and choir that typically accompany most services. But that same architecture has represented a long-standing challenge for spoken-word intelligibility. As Greg Dieckhaus, President and CEO of Bolingbrook, IL-based Practical AV Solutions explains, the church has been through more than one attempt at addressing the issue.
“It’s a gorgeous building, but problems with intelligibility and consistency of coverage have plagued them since the beginning,” says Dieckhaus. “It’s not just the high ceilings. The room itself is somewhat U-shaped, with gallery seating along the sides and back, covered by a balcony level. The resulting acoustics tend to cause some odd reflection patterns.”
The sanctuary’s original audio system comprised several hundred small speakers mounted underneath the seating, pointing downward to reflect off the tiled floor. “It was a distributed, under-pew system, the concept being that it would bring the sound very close to the listener,” says Dieckhaus. “It was a great idea in theory, and it did address their aesthetic concerns, combined with some full range loudspeakers built into the organ loft above and behind the chancel platform. But in practice it failed to deliver the desired results.”
“We abandoned the under-pew system within a matter of months,” says Tim Hollinger, the church’s Technology Manager. “We experimented with several alternative options over the next year, eventually settling on a more traditional center cluster design. That served us for about 18 years, and was considerably better than the original system.”
Eventually, though, it became clear that the main issues were with the building’s acoustics, which needed to be addressed before the audio system itself.
“It’s a gorgeous but somewhat cavernous space that, frankly, has the potential for standing waves that can go on for up to two or three seconds, no matter how good the sound system is,” says Tim Hollinger, the church’s Technology Manager.
Recognizing that, Acoustician Gregory Miller of Chicago-based Pin Drop Acoustics was brought in to evaluate the space. As Dieckhaus observes, Miller was chosen for his unique approach toward acoustics.
“Greg is a person with a strong performing arts and music background,” says Dieckhaus. “He has a great love for traditional, unamplified music, and is very conscious of the acoustics of a space and how they affect the music. He approached the project with the clear mission of improving speech intelligibility without destroying the room’s unique musical acoustical characteristics.”
To that end, Miller designed a system utilizing diffusers, rather than absorption, to treat the room’s excessive reflectivity. “The musical aspect of our service is very important, and the sound of our organ and choir in particular,” says Hollinger. “Sound absorption was never an option for us, so Greg Miller’s approach of using diffusion was really the right one for us.”
“Greg determined that the best solution would combine acoustic treatment with a redesigned sound system, and brought us in to look at revamping the speaker system as well,” says Dieckhaus. “The first thing that came to mind for me was the Iconyx IC² digitally steerable array from Renkus-Heinz. I had used Iconyx in many other churches and knew it worked well in very challenging acoustical environments. I had educated myself on the new IC² model and was confident it was the right system for this application. This particular church has a rather wide chancel stage, without a lot vertical elements to position a column array.” The IC² system, comprising a two-box array mounted above the chancel platform, was installed by Pentegra Systems of Elmhurst, IL.
The IC² system is augmented by four Renkus-Heinz SGX81 two-way 8-inch cabinets, installed to provide coverage to the over-balcony seating. Another pair of SGX81 boxes are installed as monitors for the chancel choir.
Dieckhaus says the IC² proved to be the ideal choice for controlling the sound within the space. “It was clearly able to place the sound where we needed it and keep the directivity under control without firing at the walls, ceiling and other reflective surfaces.”
For Hollinger, the challenge of treading the fine line of improving the room’s intelligibility while retaining its signature acoustics has indeed been met. “Spoken word intelligibility is vastly improved, and as our organist put it, we’ve done no damage to the music. Given that he’s one of our most discerning listeners, that’s perhaps the ultimate compliment.”