(Credit for all images: Tristen Crow)
For decades, Willow Creek has been one of the most well-known and influential non-denominational megachurches in the United States. However, like many houses of worship during the 2020 pandemic, its 7,200-seat Worship Center has switched over to become a streaming-only broadcast site, a change that will continue to be the case throughout the remainder of this year.
To retain some physical sense of community, Willow Creek set up a large tent in its parking lot to host nearly 30 congregational events between August 19 and October 6. The primary focus of these has been the church’s hour-long evening program series of 16 Prayer and Worship Gatherings, comprising a live praise team set, a brief message from new campus pastor Shawn Williams, and a time of prayer for 100 pre-registered and masked guests. To ensure that guests can properly hear both the music and message, Willow Creek turned to Milwaukee-based Clearwing Productions to supply an L-Acoustics X Series loudspeaker package for the tent.
“Our congregation had not been able to worship together since the state closed down in March. The tent was an opportunity to gather small groups of people in a safe way, to worship and especially to get back that essential feeling of community,” says Troy Bartholomew, who has served as Willow Creek’s Weekend Technical Director for the past eight years.
When the tent concept first came to Bartholomew’s attention, his immediate inclination was to find a “one-stop shop” for audio, lighting, and staging. “We were on a pretty tight timeline, and also in the middle of running a large virtual broadcast event during the design and bid process,” he recalls. “We’re lucky to be in the Chicago market where there are a lot of fantastic production vendors. Ultimately, Clearwing provided a solid L-Acoustics system from their inventory that fit within our budget, delivered exceptional coverage and clarity, and provided a professional-grade, weather-friendly solution, since these events would be continuing into the fall.”
Willow Creek’s 116×39-foot tent stands 18 feet tall at its apex and is configured in a wide layout, with only one side of the tent enclosed to block sunlight, maintaining an open outdoor atmosphere. “We wanted the experience to feel intimate, while obviously being safe,” he shares. “Throwing sound 100 feet in a tent didn’t feel like the right call, so we went wide, pushing to a pretty wide coverage area. For speed of setup and strike, I wanted the mains to be flown. Also, we have a number of cross-trained staff teams and volunteers mixing these events, so I wanted a high-fidelity system that didn’t require a lot of work to get a good result.”
To provide blanketed audio coverage to the full space, four L-Acoustics coaxial 12XT are flown from a truss, while six short-throw X8 are spread out across the 24×8-foot stage. Ample LF reinforcement is provided by a pair of SB28 subs located under the stage, and the entire system is powered by a single LA-RAK housing three LA8 amplified controllers.
Because of the band lineup changes, plus a desire to simplify the programming, Willow Creek also opted for six more 12XT to be used as stage monitors driven by an additional LA-RAK. “Even though all our musicians are accustomed to stereo in-ears with a dedicated monitor engineer, the transition has been seamless with no issues or complaints from our artists. That’s a testament to the quality of the 12XT as a wedge,” he adds.
Bartholomew notes that the Willow Creek production team has been impressed with the speed with which they can deploy the rig, “I actually overestimated the time, thinking we’d need two hours for setup and one for strike, but one of our crews recently did the setup in 45 minutes total and strike in only 19 minutes. I attribute this to the thoughtful rigging of these enclosures, and Clearwing’s touring expertise in designing the setup.”
For mixing, Willow Creek’s rotation of engineers usually start from the same file and just tweak—there’s no reason for anyone to go in and have to “fix” anything, Bartholomew describes. “In fact, once Bryan Baumgardner [Clearwing Director of Operations] had time-aligned and leveled everything, we both agreed to just keep the processing flat, no system EQ at all,” he says. “We do see a lot of L-Acoustics PAs come through our main auditorium with touring acts, generally hanging K2. When you know a room so well, it’s a great experience to hear another rig to compare and contrast.”
“I’ve been really impressed with both Clearwing’s service and onsite support, as well as the L-Acoustics PA they’ve supplied for us,” the TD adds in closing. “We’ve had a great response from our congregation and staff on the setup—everyone loves the tent! Having a history of high-quality production experiences here at Willow Creek, it’s nice that even in a tent outdoors during a pandemic we’re able to continue to hold that value.”