Located in South Kensington, The Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary – better known as Brompton Oratory – is the second largest Roman Catholic Church in London after Westminster Cathedral, and its nave is exceeded in width only by Westminster Abbey and York Minster. Built between 1880 and 1884, the interior is swathed in marble and statuary and much of the decorative work predates its construction.
With busy services held throughout each and every day, the great liturgies of Christmas, Holy Week and Easter attract packed out congregations. In order to enable visitors to hear words and music clearly, Brompton Oratory has utilised audio equipment for many years. However, with an increasingly ageing system, it was felt that the latest technology would enhance the experience for all concerned. As a result, Worthing-based System Design Audio was called in to specify, configure and install a new solution.
“As a specialist in church sound systems we have grown our business purely through word of mouth,” explained Peter Hearn, MD at System Design Audio. “Our reputation has spread throughout the religious community and now this type of work forms 99% of our business activity. Having already completed projects for hundreds of churches, I was delighted to receive a call from Brompton Oratory and, after carrying out a full survey, we presented our recommendations.”
Brompton Oratory’s previous audio system had been in-situ for over 30 years and although still functional, the sound it produced was quite distorted by today’s standards.
“Audio technology has moved on considerably over the last two decades and it was clear that we would be able to configure a system that improved overall quality of sound,” said Hearn. “About 12 years ago TOA Corporation UK introduced one of the first line array speaker systems, which we installed at Arundel Cathedral. During that installation we took out 44 speakers and replaced them with just four. This resulted in a massive improvement in sound quality and I have been convinced of the benefits of this technology ever since. Therefore, I was confident that it could also provide excellent results for Brompton Oratory.”
“Acoustics are an important factor and all churches are notoriously challenging environments in which to get sound right"
Explaining some of the considerations that needed to be addressed, Hearn stated: “Acoustics are an important factor and all churches are notoriously challenging environments in which to get sound right due to high ceilings, objects such as pillars and a building fabric that includes large amounts of glass. Furthermore, feedback, reverberation, unbalanced mixes and volume levels that are too high or low are just some of the common problems that can literally ruin the atmosphere of a service or the composure of those imparting words and/or music.”
In most celestial environments sound originates from the front and is often relatively direct. Lower frequencies are omnidirectional and higher frequencies are directional – the former can become problematic if they are not controlled by an audio system and are often the frequencies responsible for feedback.
To address these issues, the solution System Design Audio came up with was based around TOA’s SR-S4 line array speakers. Malcolm Crummey, TOA Corporation UK’s sales manager UK and Ireland, commented: “SR-S4 speakers are designed to perform optimally with ideal sound dispersion characteristics in spaces that pose difficulties for more conventional speaker systems. Available in different configurations and with a wide range of mounting possibilities to suit particular requirements precisely, these slim tower configured devices offer a perfect solution for difficult sound reinforcement problems that require effective coverage.”
Peter Hearn and his team removed the previous speakers that were in 18 different positions and replaced them with SR-S4s in just six positions. Located near the pulpit are three SR-S4s on each side that are fixed on top of each other to create a one point source. Each speaker is individually tuned to a particular set of pews and while it looks like one large speaker, each separate device has a specific job. These are complemented by two arrays of two SR-S4s at the nave, which ensure that sound is projected evenly and consistently throughout the entire area.
"In celestial buildings an audio system must perform as intended but the aesthetic is just as important as its sound"
Complementing the SR-S4s is TOA Corporation UK’s M-9000M2 digital matrix mixer – a modular matrix mixer and DSP that combines an enhanced GUI programming interface with exceptional audio quality.
“In celestial buildings an audio system must perform as intended but the aesthetic is just as important as its sound, so it must but be inconspicuous,” explained Hearn. “Therefore we covered the speakers with black cloth, which not only looks good, it also blends into the surroundings and has no negative impact on the quality of sound produced.”
With regular services and other events taking place on a 24/7 basis, the System Design Audio team had to stop work at certain times of the day and base its installation schedule around a significant amount of evening and weekend work. This flexibility resulted in minimal disruption and ensured that the work was completed in as little time as possible.