Sound Transformation

Transforming itself from a cathedral of sport that housed the former NBA champion Houston Rockets to a church sanctuary that serves a congregation numbered in the millions, the Compaq Center reopened in July as the Lakewood Church, the largest house of worship in the U.S. In fact, church services are viewed by nearly 200 million households in the U.S. and Canada and are broadcast in more than 100 countries throughout the world.

With the ability to seat more than 16,000 people live in the main sanctuary and hundreds more in each of three other rooms, the conversion of the facility and design of a new sound system to meet such lofty demands required years of planning, lots of money, and reliance on some of the industry's most renowned audio experts.

The project involved three separate but related challenges: live sound, television broadcast, and audio/video recording and post production. Reed Hall, director of audio and technical production at Lakewood, initially sought out the Russ Berger Design Group (RBDG) to design the broadcast and production facilities, but also asked them to oversee acoustics within the main worship space. The transformation of the sanctuary was truly a team effort, requiring a carefully orchestrated collaboration of the architecture, lighting, sound, theatrical, acoustics, and HVAC designers. In particular, it was essential that the new live sound system designed by Audio Analysts work in concert with the acoustical modifications.

After Lakewood requested that the RBDG team oversee the live acoustics analysis as well, they came back with acoustical treatment recommendations emphasizing isolation of the underside of the arena so programming could occur in a separate room while a service was going on. Most importantly, the air design had to be reconfigured, and bass traps used throughout. A critical advisor in this process was Albert Leccese, president of Audio Analysts, whose vision for integrating the live sound system into the overall plan was essential.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the design was interconnecting all aspects of the system. "The whole facility is intertwined," Hall said, "and we centered this on the use of three Euphonix System 5 consoles, all working off the same engine. All signals coming off the stage are directed to a room adjacent to the stage where they are converted to digital signals and sent via fiber to a separate building. The signals then are returned via fiber to the FOH position, and then the broadcast feed is mixed on a separate System 5 and recorded for tape-delayed broadcast."

The live sound system was designed by Audio Analysts' Leccese, who turned the implementation of the design over to Audio Analysts senior project engineer Robert Langlois. Of course, the system is large and complex and involved at least seven people from that sound company. Beyond the two years of planning, a big challenge was choosing the equipment and then assembling, wiring and testing at the company's Colorado facility before installing it in Houston over time. This was necessary as the complex and massive construction schedule opened only intermittent windows of opportunity around electrical installation, physical construction and other scheduled building issues.

The first issue was to choose a system, said Langlois. "Albert's design called for line arrays, so we took several different brands to Houston and did a shootout for them and they chose the JBL VerTec line arrays. Subsequent engineering meetings resulted in using Crown amplifiers and VerTec VT4889i and VT4887 speakers. Because the nature of the space, weight, size, throw and pattern control were critical issues, we felt the VerTecs were perfect for that application."

It's worth noting that, in addition to services held at the new mega-church facility, Lakewood Church sponsors about 20 live tours per year throughout the U.S., and Audio Analysts handles these using VerTec line arrays.
Beyond the live sound system is the technology supporting recorded sound for broadcast tape delay and for other projects, such as DVDs. To set up the recording system, Hall turned to Brian Tankersley, formerly an independent consultant in Nashville who now works for Lakewood Church. Tankersley believed this type of state-of-the-art facility had to be approached from an IT point of view, and that the computers and network had to be as robust as possible.

The system at Lakewood Church was designed by Tankersley and Advance Design Kentucky Computers. The rackmounted computers with AMD dual-core Opteron processors inside are interconnected via Windows networking and gigabit Ethernet. After experimenting with dual fiber SAN with 12 drive arrays and with a few people pulling audio simultaneously, they decided that an affordable system configured like that wouldn't work. So a distributed, redundant system was devised with, currently, seven computers running Nuendo with two terabytes of storage per system. Operating at 24-bit/48k, the systems take audio directly from the mic preamps, are digitized and the same data is stored in each system. The concept is that storage is cheap, and it provides redundancy in case of computer failure.

In building the computers to run the software, two dual-core AMD Opterons fit into the slot of a single processor to create a "quad processor" system that gives them a level of performance that Tankersley felt no other processor manufacturer will have until 2006. "We wanted whatever would yield the best performance," he stated. "AMD processors were chosen because of superior performance, especially when running Nuendo. And with the dual-core Opterons, the systems we have can be easily upgraded. But even what we have now in terms of performance is staggering."

This level of performance proved necessary because of the high track counts, recording 106 tracks for an hour and a half at each service. "So we run three systems at that load," declared Tankersley, "providing live triplicate backup with no latency or drag problems. No other system can do it."

The church is currently running seven of these custom computers with plans to add three more soon and further plans to continue to swap to upgraded Opterons as new ones come out. In that way, it hopes to remain on the cutting edge.

Certainly the church, with its size, design and fervent belief in advanced sound systems, hopes to lead "electronic-based" ministries. These are ministries that choose to spread the word with new technologies from dynamic live sound systems to highly developed recording technologies to a broadcast system that could easily compete with any international state-of-the-art broadcaster. And to think, it used to be a basketball court.

A Quality Display At The Altar

When the Lakewood Church needed to integrate a video display system into a former basketball arena, several companies stepped up to the challenge. In December 2003 the top contenders converged at a groundbreaking ceremony, set up their proposed displays and engaged in a competitive "shoot-out." A Daktronics ProStar display and LED displays from two other manufacturers were lined up side by side to compare image quality and other capabilities.

"Product, service and price were the criteria we needed to consider," said Duncan Dodds, executive director of Lakewood Church. "From the 'shoot-out,' we easily came to the conclusion the Daktronics display had the best image and provided better overall value. The video display stood out amongst all of the others."

The Daktronics installation is comprised of three LED video displays above the stage, allowing the stadium audience a crisp, full-color view of the action. The center, main screen is a 480 x 848 12mm ProStar video display, 20-feet tall by 34-feet wide, and is flanked on each side by 480 x 848 12mm ProStar displays, each 20-feet tall by 34-feet wide. Different content may be programmed to show on one or all three of the displays simultaneously, routed through a Daktronics' V-Link 400 processor. The integrated display system is among the most sophisticated of any indoor facility.

"It's the largest single screen we've done indoors," said Jody Kress, senior project manager from Daktronics for the Lakewood Church project. "Everyone is impressed with the display. They like the image quality, and they're very happy with them."

In the coming years, Lakewood Church hopes to install a marquee in the front of the building. With such high quality screens indoors, it only makes sense to take the show outside, and Daktronics is up to the task.

-Mary Bakija

The AVNetwork staff are storytellers focused on the professional audiovisual and technology industry. Their mission is to keep readers up-to-date on the latest AV/IT industry and product news, emerging trends, and inspiring installations.