Oh Come Let Us Adore

Oct. 27, 2005
Technology makes a massive space intimate for church-goers

By Dan Daley

Lakewood Church, a mammoth 5-acre rendition of the uniquely American concept of the megachurch, more readily evokes Times Square than Notre Dame: Massive video monitors project the image of its pastor, the quietly charismatic Joel Osteen, to the 16,600 faithful, or just curious, who attend weekly worship within its cavernous 150,000-plus-square-foot confines, while a sophisticated broadcast and post-production apparatus beams that image to millions more globally.

But it would be disingenuous to suggest that what transformed the former Compaq Center and home of the Houston Rockets basketball team into a house of God was based solely on technology. As with the 1986 Mets, belief in the potential for transformation is as important as reality. “I thought this would be an impersonal, even boring space once it was done,” recalls Russ Berger, the acoustical wizard brought in to tackle the sonic challenges posed by the place’s vast interiors. “But more than the acoustics and the technology changed this space. In the end, I was floored by how intimate it actually feels. Joel had a vision for this place from the beginning. I admit I doubted it at first. But now you can see what that kind of vision can do.”

Oh, ye of little faith, come on down.

Lakewood Church is part of a trend, seen mainly in the southern United States, that now comprises the nearly 1,000 worship facilities in which Sunday attendance exceeds 2,000 at a time, according to Church Growth Today, a sector research firm in Bolivar, MO, which further estimates that another megachurch forms on average every 2 days in the U.S.

But Lakewood Church seems almost to demand its own definition. The facility was transformed over 2 years and at a reported cost of more than $75 million. The Osteen family, led by patriarch the late John Osteen, went from a small congregation in an abandoned feed store in 1959 to this spiritual starship in Houston. To the original structure, which was built in 1978, five new stories were added to house a life center, counseling area, classrooms, and other elements that make up the comprehensive contemporary Christian lifestyle experience. (It’s worth noting that one architectural element lacking at Lakewood is crucifixes or crosses; their absence underscores what Osteen regards as a more encompassing spirituality based nonetheless on the Bible, and what some critics suggest is a marketing tactic they refer to as “Christianity Lite.”)

What’s inarguable is how contemporary Christian televangelists in general and Lakewood in particular have embraced technology to deliver that message. Albert Leccese, vice president of engineering at design/build firm Audio Analysts, chuckles at the irony in the fact that Lakewood’s executive technical staff chose the contractor based on the sound and lights they did for a Bruce Springsteen show at the Compaq Center before the church acquired it in 2003. “But what had to be done would go way beyond that,” says Leccese. “The things that had to be addressed - like acoustical reverb times, reflections, wiring, HVAC, lines of sight, and so on - to make a basketball arena into a sanctuary were incredible.”

The first steps, done in conjunction with architect Jared Wood of Houston-based Studio Red, were to lay the staging out and integrate sound, video, and lighting from there. Lakewood, like any church, is essentially a performance space, and surrounding Osteen and a bevy of support preachers are a rock band, two choirs, and a stream of guest performers.

“The mission for audio was to design and install a system that could provide high intelligibility for spoken word while still being able to handle a music performance,” Leccese explains. “The strategy for that was twofold, involving technology and acoustics, particularly in taming the reflections in that huge space. Video had to make what was onstage seem intimate even as it seemed larger than life. And the lighting had to address the realities of broadcasting while still keeping the people on the stage approachable and giving the whole stage a sense of the theatrical. While all this is going on, the sound couldn’t interfere with the other activities that would take place in other parts of the facility, such as in the classrooms or in day care. This was going to be like architectural D-Day.”

Rat-Cunning Acoustics
Leccese is emphatic: “Throwing money into a sound system without dealing with acoustics is just throwing money away.” Russ Berger quickly identified the acoustical problem areas, and nearly as quickly devised solutions. “Control the low frequencies - if you want intimacy, that’s the place you have to focus your attention first,” he states. “That’s where the challenge is; dealing with the rest of the spectrum is relatively easy. The lower frequencies - even the lower registers of the human voice - is [sic] where intelligibility gets clouded. You lose the consonants and then you lose the intelligibility.”

Working with colleague Richard Schrag, Berger zeroed in on the existing HVAC return ducting as a solution-in-waiting for low-frequency management, a cleverness Berger describes gleefully as “rat-cunning - it solved the absorption issue as well as noise control to the areas adjacent to the sanctuary and met fire codes.” The ducts - apertures several inches across, perfectly sized for the frequencies he sought to control (the “Q” value) and located under every other seat - connect to a cavity beneath the interior and together act as a type of tube trap. Berger added some absorptive material to the interior of the apertures to enhance the effect.

A second major area of low-frequency concern stemmed from the fact that the arena’s dome acts as a conduit for sound waves traveling from one side of it to the other. “Crawl” and “lobing” are the terms Berger uses to describe the physics of the phenomenon. Knowing that a line array P.A. system would be used, he anticipated the pooling of frequencies beneath speaker clusters (lobing) and how their energy would travel across the arc of the dome (crawl) at 1,130 feet per second. “Low frequencies don’t reflect like higher frequencies,” he explains. “They behave more like weather fronts.” These areas were addressed with absorptive acoustical treatments including ceiling tiles applied to key areas at the boundaries of the dome.

Other acoustical challenges included the mechanically transmitted vibrations from an air chiller built atop an adjacent area that had once been a food court. It was mechanically decoupled with new floated floors and walls enclosing it, as well as with modifications to the ducting. “When we started, the [noise control] factor in the sanctuary was NC 45,” he says. “By the time we were done, it was NC 25. Now, you had intimacy between the stage and the seats.”

Sound Systems
Leccese was convinced that a line array type of P.A. was the best route in the sanctuary, but audio supervisor Reed Hall initially disagreed with him, lobbying for a multisource distributed sound system. “I understood his thinking, which was to keep the speaker-to-seat distances short,” Leccese says. “But an array is lighter and we had to hang the system from a series of catwalks above the stage. We had to think about weight distribution.” For one week, they supervised a shoot-out between four array manufacturers who set up systems and played the same music and spoken word source material through them, testing the boundaries of issues such as gain-before-feedback and intelligibility. It is inevitably an ambiguous and subjective process, but compared to video, audio has always been less about hard metrics and more about gut instinct. The array idea prevailed and, specifically, so did JBL’s Vertec array, which was selected as the P.A.

Hall approved, and was happy to have Audio Analysts finish out the “stacks and racks” portion of the sound, putting in 80 Crown I-Tech 2,000-watt amplifiers into racks proximal to the stage to reduce the wire runs. Hall wanted Euphonix consoles (three System 5 and one MaxAir) for both FOH and monitor positions, a decision based on the fact that each service had substantial music programs - Hall is a veteran live sound music mixer - and each would be ready to go out as a home video within hours of the service, edited on the fly as they were recorded to video in the church’s digital video suite.

Recording capability is just as sophisticated, with Digidesign Pro Tools and Steinberg Nuendo software multitrack systems. “Nuendo and the System 5 both have MADI compatibility, so there’s no 192 or 725 MADI-to-AES converter I/O interface necessary between them,” Hall explains, noting that as elaborate as the technology is, it still had a budget to answer to. (Ultimately, Lakewood’s media technology costs were about $3.3 million - about 5 percent of the overall $75 million cost of the facility renovation, helped considerably by the fact that many key systems, including one Euphonix console, were already on hand from the church’s previous facility.) The wire runs between stage, consoles, and broadcast center use an IMT fiber-optic system, with a redundant copper back-up. Monitoring is with Aviom wedges.

There is a saying among more cynical evangelists that you know you’ve crossed the line into megachurch when you begin referring to the congregation as the studio audience. One could be forgiven for confusing Lakewood with a large television production stage, given the eight Sony 900 and 950 HDC cameras that cover each service. Two are fixed, one on the centerline 65 feet in front of the podium, the other slightly off center; the other six cameras are either handheld, dollied, or on jibs. Director Jon Swearingen directs the service from a production control room on the fifth floor, part of a 200,000-square-foot adjunct structure added to the original structure, bringing the entire facility to a total of 605,000 square feet.

The cameras feed three huge LCD screens - the 34- by 19-foot, 12 mm-pixel main screen above the stage and two 20- by 11-foot, 8 mm-pixel screens that flank the stage on either side. A J.C. Clancy hoist system rated for 15,000 pounds - 1,000 more than the screen itself weighs but rigged in such a way that no single suspension point holds more then 2,500 pounds - supports the main screen. The video monitors are widescreen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. The picture is later letterboxed to a 4:3 ratio for broadcast.

There are formulas for calculating the appropriate sizes for the screens for such a large space, but as they did with the sound system, the staff at Lakewood preferred to use object-based methods. Chief Engineer André Guidry supervised the raising of huge sheets of fabric upon which projectors beamed images. It was ultimately determined that three screens could cover 85 percent of the 16,000-plus seats in the sanctuary, and specs for the main monitors were given for custom fabrication to digital signage company Daktronics in Billings, SD. The remaining seats are covered by 10 Sony SX VPL51 front-projection monitors arrayed in a semicircle around the catwalk.

Lakewood’s lighting system is proactive and dynamic; lighting designer Tom Stanziano, working from a system design done by Bill Klages (who lights the Republican National Conventions), created presets on the Grand MA lighting console that follows the moves of the sermon at each service. “The content changes week to week, of course, but there is a format, a kind of script the service follows, and I have presets set up to follow those,” he says.

Stanziano will review the video images prepared for each week’s services and create lighting transitions between live and prerecorded action. In fact, the lighting would not be unfamiliar to patrons of heavy metal concerts: Smoke generators provide a focus for moving lights, while Arri 5K Frennels and Color Kinetic LED fixtures create a brilliant cloud effect in the atrium above the stage. Catwalk/trusses are trimmed at 82 and 42 feet above the stage, creating the opportunity for high-contrast positioning angles.

“[Lighting] varies in color and intensity as the service progresses,” says Stanziano, who will ad-lib color chases, color scrolls, and flashes as needed during the program, giving motion to the set design by Rene Lagler. “We approach lighting differently than most churches do,” he says. “Moving lights on haze, follow-spots on the performers. It’s a live concert, a live TV show. It’s a great TV product.”

It definitely is a TV product. The broadcasting needs are paramount in the lighting design and execution. Joel Osteen’s lighting signature is relatively calm - a single key light with two fill lights and two backlights, filigreed with some curtain lighting and architectural lights. The simplicity does, indeed, make him natural to focus on in the midst of an otherwise complex context.

Lakewood Church is biblical in its proportions as well as its message. It’s also a testament to what a combination of technology, talent, and dedication can achieve.

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