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ERIE, PENNSYLVANIA – JUNE 2009: Built in grandeur amidst the economic tide of the Great Depression, First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Erie, Pennsylvania is a spiritual and architectural gem. It is the only gothic style church in Erie, boasting amazing stonework, Tiffany stained glass windows, the largest pipe organ in northwestern Pennsylvania, and seating for 800 parishioners. First Presbyterian’s recently-completed $2 million renovation returned the gleam to those aspects of the building that were showing their age and, in addition, added an articulate sound system that blends seamlessly into the impressive stone columns of the sanctuary. For the first time in its eighty-year history, the church has a sound system possessing intelligibility and musicality worthy of its magnificence and at its heart lies a SymNet Express 4×12 Cobra with ARC-2i remote control panels.

In many ways, First Presbyterian’s cavernous stone interior complements the traditional music of its services. The rich reverb accentuates both its large standard choir and its celebrated children’s choir. Local musicians frequent the stage with acoustical instruments of every type. Of course, the pipe organ builds much of its sound in sympathy with the structure of the sanctuary. But sound reinforcement of the spoken word has always been a challenge in this sanctuary. Separating the clarity from the muck with so much natural reverberation is no small feat. And about that speech intelligibility in the previous systems? To say it was passable would be generous.

Dramatic events precipitated the $2 million renovation. “The ceiling was literally falling down,” deadpanned John Malek, co-designer and installer of the new sound system. Malek is president of Ann Arbor Audio, (A_) a Michigan-based design/install firm with over thirty years of experience that specializes in acoustical computer modeling and resolving speech intelligibility problems in challenging acoustical spaces.

Dave Hosback of Riedel & Associates had developed the acoustical specifications to support the pipe organ and updated their original sound system design to include a 32-channel digital snake, 40-channel digital mixer and the CobraNet DSP interconnection in collaboration with the A_ staff.

Malek continued, “The old acoustical panels in the ceiling were coming unglued. It was messy. Since that work had to be done and would involve the parishioner’s relocating somewhere other than the sanctuary for a while anyway, the church seized the opportunity to renovate a number of other things as well.” Over the course of a year, the First Presbyterian staff coordinated getting all of the pews refurbished, repositioned the choir to the chancel area, improved the choir’s acoustical environment with custom diffusers of stone and wood, reinstalled the refurbished pipe organ wind chests, repaired and enhanced insulation to all of the stained glass windows, repaired the massive amount of stonework and applied new coats of paint and clear wood finishes where needed.

The church has had about five previous sound systems, none of which had raised intelligibility beyond mediocre. “Until about ten years ago, the digital technology to address the speech intelligibility requirements to work with the spaces highly reverberant acoustic environment had not been commercially affordable.” said Malek. “Now we regularly use predicative modeling software to model the acoustic space and the interaction of steerable line arrays to control the sound coverage inside of each space. Then we implement the DSP capabilities to finely tune the finished system for both speech and music reproduction, as well as facilitating very articulate, analog and digital music, including spoken word recordings.”

Part of the challenge was an inability to move or install conduit, combined with the church’s request to run 32 channels of audio, both, to a recording rig and to the house mixer location up in the balcony. Fortunately, digital audio over CAT-5 cabling now has a proven track record and Malek and Hosback were able to specify an Aviom digital snake system to transfer a large number of mic and line channels through undersized or non-existent conduit. All the analog wired and wireless mic signals go into the rack located in the basement near the boiler room and through a Whirlwind mic 1 x 2 transformer splitter with one set of all inputs routed to a custom, back of the chancel area, recording output panel. And the main splitter output feeds the Aviom A to D mic preamps, and proceeds, digitally, up to the Yamaha M7 digital mixer in the balcony. There they are converted to a CobraNet protocol via a Yamaha plug-in module and are routed back to the SymNet DSP located in the basement rack. There they are then converted back to analog, and on to the Crown amplifiers and self-powered Duran Audio Intellivox DC-500s DC-180s steerable line arrays, and the fixed negative pitch steering angle V-90s.

The SymNet Express 4×12 Cobra is combined with an ARC-2i remote control panel for additional local control for the system. “Since First Presbyterian is big on music and does a lot of archival and special program recording, the fidelity of the DSP was critical,” said Malek. “The SymNet processors are sonically transparent. In addition, we were pleased by how easy the SymNet ARC-2i user interface was to configure, install, and be used by the facility’s staff. Despite the signal complexity of all that the 4 x 12 DSP is providing, the users simply have a modest handheld, programmable, remote volume controller to assist in matching the needs of the service or performance in the discreet areas of the narthex, transepts, choir area and balcony speakers aside from the main sanctuary sound levels achieved at the main Yamaha mixer.”

When church officials first heard the new sound system, they were blown away. “They had never heard that kind of sonic clarity before in that room,” said Malek. “It was better than anyone had expected because the sheer reverberation of the space seemed impossible to overcome. In addition, architecturally it looks great. You have to get within a few feet of the speakers to even realize that they’re there!”

In the near future, Ann Arbor Audio will begin making adjustments to the system in Erie, Pennsylvania from their offices in Brighton, Michigan using SymNet’s new SymVue technology and the Internet. Walking five seconds to a computer across the room, rather than driving five hours across Ohio and Michigan, will save time, money, and help reduce carbon emissions.

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PHOTO CAPTION Symetrix’ SymNet Express 4×12 Cobra with ARC-2i remote control panels, easily handle the signal complexity of the new audio system in the Gothic-styled First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, Erie, Pennsylvania.