Preparing for a significant anniversary

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It is facile to imagine all life’s difficult questions can be distilled down to a simple choice between black and white. Much as we’d like the easy answer, time and consideration point to a more reasoned response. St Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church (presently known as St Paul’s United Methodist Church) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa is listed on the United State’s National Register of Historic Places and is essentially the work of architect Louis Sullivan, the so called ‘father of skyscrapers’. Sullivan’s aspirations however, were high, beyond what the church’s congregation could reasonably afford back in 1912. The restraint exercised back then by architect W.C. Jones, when he re-drew Sullivan’s plans under instruction from the church, meant that two years later Bishop William Quayle was able to dedicate the freshly completed St Paul’s. The church building remains true to Sullivan’s clean modernist design, sacrificing only his more elaborate ornamentation. In the intervening ninety seven years just the lightest of touches has been required to keep this building aligned to purpose, not least a new organ in 1946; however the acoustic of the sanctuary had always been problematical.

“The church’s acoustic is quite a challenge, the Sanctuary is a semi-circle,” began Wes Nygren, the man responsible for soliciting technological proposals at this most traditional of churches. The fact of St Paul’s Historic listing added a dimension of complexity that many found challenging, as Nygren explained. “We consulted with different people but found we were not able to get proposals from any of them; not one single person we consulted would submit.” Succinctly, the shape of the room produced a confused sound image but due to the Historic listing, acoustic modification of the church’s interior demanded a very particular sensitivity. Fortunately Nygren and the church elders were made of sterner stuff and spread their research further afield.

Jason Kartak hails from Audio Logic based some three hundred miles away in Bloomington Minnesota; he found the conundrum of St Paul’s just the sort of challenge he enjoys. “The room is large, it holds a congregation of eight hundred, so some amplification had always been desirable, but their 1980’s vintage horne based system produced more problems than it solved. To the front of the pulpit is one huge parabola and reflections from the front edge of the balcony were a disaster.”

Audio Logic first submitted plans in late 2009 to apply acoustic treatment to the balcony front and other areas of the Sanctuary; these are under consideration and as is the nature of such things, will pass through many revisions before all vested interests are satisfied. As was stated earlier, this is a long and considered route. Meanwhile Kartak has turned his attention to the audio system, which has brought immediate benefits. “For the hall itself, again Historic Building restrictions apply; we ended up having to create suspension systems concealed above the ceiling for the three clusters we eventually installed. We drew up a design based on d&b audiotechnik’s White range, a new range of loudspeakers that launched when we were maybe twelve months into the project. The White loudspeakers, in this instance the xA-Series, provide a really elegant solution for a visually sensitive environment such as this, as well as proving highly economical; fund raising had been underway for some time and unknown to us hit budget pretty much as we submitted the proposal. The three clusters are identical; each has a 10A-D 110° cabinet at the top, and then beneath a pair of 10A 75° boxes flanks another 10A-D. The services here are very much in the traditional fashion, heavily speech based with choir and organ accompaniment to the hymns. However, there is a discrete nod to contemporary worship, but that’s with a small ‘c’, as such we have installed three 27A-SUBs, an inherently cardioid cabinet, in an array up in the organ loft.”

Nygren assessed the whole process thus, “The people at Audio Logic have been very patient with us as we went through the process. They first suggested an acoustic treatment to the walls; it’s only an inch thick but we have to adhere to the recommendations of the preservation architect, who found the proposal unacceptable, so we will have to find another way to deal with that. But the new audio system equipment is now installed, and very sensitively to the Sanctuary’s interior. Audio Logic has been very attentive throughout as far as any problems are concerned, and they have corrected or amended as needed. It has been very pleasant dealing with them; when they first presented their proposal we price checked and they were very competitive. As for the new d&b system, it has definitely improved the situation.” Progress for St Paul’s has been almost three years in the making; another three will see its hundredth anniversary which falls in May 2014.

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