Dynamic Accentuator!



The church I play for, Faith Lutheran in Inglewood, California, has a spacious sanctuary completed in 1958. When it was originally built it had the acoustical and visual properties of a huge living room -- carpeting on the floor, sound-absorbent materials on the side walls, and acoustical tile in the nave ceiling and the soffit ceilings. Oh, and carpeting over the entire floor of the choir/organ loft in the rear. The Casavant organ there (3/24, 1957) is a rather mild-mannered instrument; until recent acoustical renovations* were undertaken it barely made a statement at all in those dead acoustics. You could have someone play the organ sfortzando while you'd go downstairs and walk down the center aisle of the nave, and hear the organ very quickly fade away into the acoustic tile netherworld; by the time you get to the altar, the sound was practically inaudible.

The one area untouched by the Vile Tile was the chancel. So that space is still very live and resonant. But rather than be a good thing, it caused a further odd phenomenon -- sound kinda "wrapped and slapped" around in there before disappearing into the sterile aural void in the nave.

BUT ... under the right circumstances, I thought, that space could be used to good advantage in the interim of waiting to have a chancel organ put in as originally intended --- which is a matter of long-range planning. As ever, the only thing standing in the way is the very big bucks to do it. "The spirit is willing but the purse is empty."

I thought a good temporary fix might be to use that resonant chancel space in an innovative way --- PARTICULARLY since the chancel is flanked by two very large, empty chambers.

Both chambers -- tall, wide and shallow -- are ideal for an organ.

The larger of the two is approximately 15 ft. deep, 22 ft. tall and 19 ft. wide (with a 14-ft-wide x 20'-tall opening into the chancel).

The smaller chamber is of the same height and width but not as deep -- it's about 4 ft. deep [but with the right chest layouts it would still be a great space as indeed Casavant has attested to].

Okay, so here's the deal. It was clear to me that the architect's original intent was for a large chancel instrument in this church. Why it never came to be is still a mystery that I have been investigating so far with no solution.

But I got to thinking ... what if --- again, as a temporary / interim fix --- I put some loudspeakers in the larger chamber ... some mikes in the gallery organ chambers ... well, I guess you can see where we're going here.

The results of my experiment were FANTASTIC!!!

I did a preliminary test with one mike and one good-sized speaker. The results were amazing enough to encourage me to develop my concept more fully. Without spending more than a couple hundred dollars, I managed to put together an audio system that just has had a magnificently thrilling affect on the sound of the organ in there.

What I have, now, is four mikes -- one outside the Swell box (which also picks up the Choir chamber above); one outside the (enclosed) Great and Pedal; then one INSIDE the Swell box and one INSIDE the Great/Pedal, in both cases suspended from the ceiling. I used Shure SM58 wide-range, wide-angle "vocal" mikes.

I then rooted around the church's audio closet and found an unused mixer and a 200-watt amp. I then rooted around some more and found a set of huge, solid-wood speaker cabinets. I augmented these big speaker boxes with some other speakers of my own that I had in storage. The big chamber contains 10 speaker cabinets with a total of 18 speakers, ranging in size and type from massive 18-inch subwoofers to tiny metal, conical horn tweeters. Here is how I arranged them:

Along the back wall of the chamber, elevated to varying heights, are four cabinets with 12-inch "midrange-woofers" and tweeters. Two of the cabinets point outward at about 30-degree angles, and two point slightly upward to throw the sound up in to the chamber.

Then there are two midrange cabinets at opposite sides of the chamber, both facing outward into the chancel at approximately 45-degree angles. One projects sound deep into the chancel and one projects sound more in the direction of the nave. But, again, both are set about halfway back in the chamber and not right at the grillework (another mistake often made with electronic instruments ... more on that directly).

Then there are two smaller midrange/tweeter cabinets hoisted high up in the air, mounted on 18-foot-tall towers made of cast-iron 5/8" plumbing pipes.

Then, last but not least, there are two very carefully arranged big subwoofer cabinets. Neither of them faces straight out. (To do so would greatly minimize their effectiveness -- something that many electronic organ installers have yet to learn.) One is angled into the far-rear corner of the chamber (with the speakers facing the wall, not outward) where that little alcove back there just makes bass notes throb and purr. The other one is closer to the tone opening, catty-cornered on the opposite side of the chamber, facing the interior chamber wall at a right angle to the tone opening; so, here again, the large hard surface reflects and reinforces the bass tones. The way that I "tuned" the position of these cabinets was to wedge down low Db of the Pedal (the room resonates best on that pitch), drew full organ, then went up in the chamber and moved the woofer cabinets hither and yon until I found the best "sweet spots" for them.

I used a pair of Cerwin Vega High-Power Sub Woofer Crossovers (#SW-12B) for the bass cabinets.

When you are standing down in the chancel hearing all these speakers do their thing, you get a very convincing "huge wall" of sound that you cannot get from a pair of bookshelf speakers stuck onto the wall or in a corner with a fake green plant on top of them! The very resonant chamber acts just as it should -- as a gigantic soundboard / mixing chamber. It really makes a very full and rich sound.

Some of you may wonder, well, why in the world would he have situated those speakers in such odd, varying degrees and positions? Here is why.

Indeed, the very success of this project lies within the fact that I used a large number of speakers, installed at different angles and heights from the floor.

One thing I do know a little bit about is configuring big audio systems for organs, from having done it a few times -- and having done a lot of experimenting over the years. One secret I learned from an Allen oldtimer is that to get good sound from an electronic organ (or, as it follows, an electronically amplified pipe organ), you need lots and LOTS of speakers and they need to be angled about in different directions and situated at different height levels.

You can't think of an organ's audio system the way you would think of your stereo set -- with "left" and "right" channels and the speakers arranged thusly. However, that is precisely the way many audio systems for electronic instruments are designed. And that is, in large part, why so many of them sound so lousy (other inherent shortcomings notwithstanding).

Also, many electronic organs have been carelessly installed -- too-few speakers, and all of them pointing in the same direction -- again, as if it's a stereo set! -- usually aimed right toward the hapless parishioners. The sound is too loud, too direct, too flat and non-dimensional.

Indeed, far too many electronic organ installations have been ruined [or, at the very least, made worse than they needed to be] because the slithery salesman cut corners on the speakers, and/or installed them improperly or poorly. We've all heard the tales, some of them apocryphal to be sure, about speaker cabinets thrown inside pipe organ chambers, right atop ranks of pipes. Whether or not that is really happening on a wide-scale basis, the point is that grave errors are routinely made by electronic organ installation "experts." How many churches have you walked into where TWO puny speaker boxes [for a 4-manual 80-stop rig] were just rudely stuck onto the chancel wall, naked and in plain sight?! And people wonder why the thing sounds so ghastly.

You'd think that electronic organ salesmen would know better / care enough not to shoot themselves in the foot in this way. But the vast numbers of horribly installed electronic instruments betray the truth -- that they either do NOT know better, or else do not care.

Anyway, Rant Mode off ---- back to the project at hand.

NOW ... what do we do with all this stuff? I am so glad you asked.

Having the mix from four microphones gives me many "tonal" possibilities.

For normal use, I have the mikes set at a level where the natural sound of the pipe organ is just supported a little -- particularly the bass-end. Not enough to really detect "extra sound" coming from the chancel -- not when seated in the nave, at least. But just enough to add some aural dimension and "subbass meat" to the organ.

Then, I can "crank up" various mikes for special uses. And that flexibility can be further enhanced with the mixing board. Want a big, smooth, fat Tuba? Turn the level up, emphasizing the midrange and diminishing the trebles. Want a paint-peeling State Trumpet? Turn the level WAY up, crank the treble WAY up, and you get "One Helluva Honk!!" Want a Dolce Echo Viola and Celeste? Close the swell box and turn off all the mikes. The sound "down below" is very faint and distant. Want a Solo Gamba? Well, you get the idea...

I must say, this experiment really has worked remarkably well.

Sorry to go on so long. But I thought someone else with a similar situation might benefit from my experimentation and maybe my narrative might encourage others to experiment if their instrument suffers from bad acoustics or bad installation. But you do have to do it the right way, and have the right facilities to do it in, or the results will be dreadful. I have done a similar setup in my other church and while the results are passable, they are nowhere nearly as spectacular as in this instance.

Following this narrative are a few photos of this project. You will clearly see that I have used a mix-match of speaker cabinets (but, yes, was careful to match impedances and wire it all correctly -- no crossed polarities etc.) and that the method I used for elevating some of the speakers is secure, but very rudimentary --- one good earthquake and the whole bit would probably topple onto the chamber floor. But that would be no big loss, all things considered. Again, the idea was to do this "on the cheap" as a very temporary alternative pending the real thing.

Sure, I could have really gone all out and spent thousands of dollars on brand-new, matching speakers and top-of-the-line subwoofers, and a complicated mounting system for them. However, that surely WOULD be the end result. "This will do" for the time being.

All in all, even considering the "mongrel" speakers and on-the-cheap installation, you would truly be amazed at the result. And I invite anyone who's interested to stop by and hear for themselves. Just contact me off-list and let's make a time to meet down there.

Finally ... I am fairly sure I am not the only one who has done this sort of thing. I'd be most interested to hear of other people's "Dynamic Accentuator" projects and whether or not they were considered successful. If you are too timid to "come out" on the list, you can email me privately. I promise not to tell a soul.

* In 2005, as a part of commemorating the church's 50th anniversary, considerable acoustic remediation was undertaken in the sanctuary. The carpeting was removed, along with the acoustical tile in the nave ceiling. That alone made all the difference in the world. The next stage will be to remove the rest of the acoustical tile covering the soffit ceilings and treating the absorbent panels in the nave side walls with a hardening, reflective surface.
















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