Network services at St Andrew's Church

Working alongside a consultant and integrator, a church elder has overseen the conversion from analogue to digital at a local church in northern England which could transform its future.

A community church in a small town in northern England isn’t the  natural  habitat  for  high-end networked AV systems, but that is what St. Andrew’s United Reform Church in Monkseaton is now home to.    

Built in 1933, the church is typical of thousands across the UK, in that it hosts a variety of events, secular and non-secular, every month, catering for the whole community.  Like most churches, volunteers play a large part in maintaining the upkeep of the church, including the technology.

Loudspeakers  in  the  church  dated  back  to  the 1970s, so church elder, and IT engineer in the public sector by  day, Tim Cooke took it upon himself to do a full survey of the IT and AV in the church to see what they had and what they needed. From there an initial tender document was created. The tender was to replace the existing audio systems throughout the church and attached church halls with an extensive and flexible system that was easy to use in its default state, but provided the ability to accommodate a variety of uses on top of the typical Sunday worship i.e. concerts, stage shows, dance classes, parties and general background  music. The primary audio installations in the building are in the church itself and in the main hall, but there
was a requirement to be able to feed audio from the church  into  the main  hall, foyer, meeting room and minor hall too. AV consultants Sound Directions took on the job and began working with Cooke to fine tune the technical requirements.  


There were a range of issues Cooke had found while doing his survey that Sound Directions had to address. "The  loudspeakers  were  getting in the way of everybody, and there was horrendous feedback and squealing from various parts of the system,” says Cooke.  “The system that was in place had been expanded as time had gone on; some bits had been soldered on to it, and the kit included an amp that had been extended with a custom-made mixer which increased the number of inputs.”

However, such work had resulted in the  original  balanced sources and cabling to be  terminated in unbalanced  connectors. In addition the mixer and amplifier  didn’t  give much control over the sound levels and tone.  Also, during the relocation of the amp from the front to the rear of the church, and also following modifications to the layout of the chancel area, the original speaker and microphone cables had been spliced  together with newer cabling  of various types and was causing degradation  of the  signals coming from the microphones and going to the speakers. Local systems integrator MRM  Solutions was brought on board for the installation.

MRM handled all the cabling (audio and IT network), cabinet and loudspeaker installation. The installation took place over four weeks, but access was limited to 1.5 hours a day in some rooms due to the venue (and the existing audio systems) being in regular use.

What were the challenges for the integrator on this project? “The hardest part was getting cables from the ground floor of the church up to the loft area,” says Chris Darling, operations director, MRM.  “Luckily the cables came through a grill in the loft space so we didn’t have to do any drilling in the ceiling.”

In the church three Sound Tube RS102i-T64 3-way 10-in pendant speakers are hung  from the ceiling along the central spine. Getting the speakers to be exactly the same height took a lot of care says Darling. Two additional Sound Tube SM890i loudspeakers  were  also  wall-mounted in the church to give stereo reproduction.  One Ashly Audio NX4004 amplifier has been installed in the rear of the church powering the pendant speakers, and a Bittner XB800 amp has been fitted in the front of the church for the 890is.  

An  additional  Ashly  Audio  E8250  amp  was installed in the main hall, connected to existing speakers  in  the  main  hall  and  other  rooms, plus a pair of Sound Tube SM500I-II that give stereo  reproduction  for  the  churches  monthly film club showings. “The advantage of the amp in the main hall was the ability to configure all the inputs, DSP, and zoned routing to outputs via the Ashly Protea software on a laptop, with a pre-set configuration for normal use, but the ability to easily change to a completely different configuration for special events. The connected WR-5 wall remote means users just need to push a few buttons to select which speakers they want to use and whether to enable the feed in from the main church,” says Cooke.  “They can also adjust the overall volume via the unit, whilst the volume controls on the front of the amp have been disabled to stop people fiddling and mixing up the balance.”
 In the church, and the central point of the new audio  installed,  is  an  Ashly  Audio  digiMIX24 digital mixing console.  The system in the church is connected via a Dante network, which although not unusual in a large state-of-the-art house of worship, is rare in a church of this size, so why go digital? “When we first got in touch with Sound Directions they initially  proposed  an  analogue system, and that was going to be the plan,” says Cooke. “We  were  going  to  run  a  16x4  Snake from a wallbox at the front of the church, where we were going to plug in all the microphones we wanted, to the back of the church into whatever analog mixer we put in.” So why did they change their minds,  and  make  the  move  from  analog to digital? “It was partly the logistics of trying to run a snake from the front of the church to the  back and then get it through  a  half-metre brick wall, from where it would have been run to where the mixing desk would have been,” adds Cooke. 

“It was going to be really difficult to put all the terminated XLR connectors from a snake through a wall like that. It was at that point Sound Directions suggested a Dante-enabled network run over IP. The price difference wasn’t that much because it was going to involve less infrastructure work. All we needed to add was a few Cat6 cables, instead of a big snake and all the other cabling. Having to install a PoE network switch to support the Dante devices was an extra expense, but it was realised that would  also facilitate Internet and WiFi connectivity as incidental projects identified during the original IT survey.”

“It’s not a massive building, sitting in a footprint 35m wide by 30m deep, so we could have run  it  all  analogue,  but  when Dante was suggested, it became obvious we could keep it simple to start with and expand later.  We put in the network cabling, with a PoE switch and a small Dante  breakout  box  at  the front of the church (to connect the microphones in the Chancel area of church to), then feed via Dante network to the mixer at the back, where radio mics and other devices are also connected.  

The Dante network also extends through to the Ashly amp in the hall, enabling audio to be heard throughout  the  whole  building  when  required. The Digimix24, Auvitran BOB and 8250 amp are also networked, which allows us to manage them remotely via a laptop or the Ashly iPad app. If we have any big concerts we have the option to hire in another Dante breakout box and some more microphones, and we can run it all off the same Digimix24 mixer.  Dante will make it a lot easier, as time progresses and we find our needs change, to be able to expand and reconfigure the system”.

With  the  new  system  still  bedding  in,  what would Cooke say was the biggest difference the installation  has made so far? “It’s definitely the sound quality it has given us.  It has also given us  a  simplistic  day-to-day  setup  for  running services  -  we  are  close  to  having  the  scenario where we have a system you can just turn on and even non-techies can operate it - but we also have the expandability that enables us to facilitate much bigger events in the future and the  ability  to  take  advantage  of  digital sound and  Internet  connectivity  to  make  the  church more accessible  to  those  who  can’t  physically attend. Those  were  the  main  aims  for  the project,  and  thanks  to  Sound  Directions and MRM Solutions we achieved it, all within budget and on time.”  

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