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Making Over a Masterpiece

Making Over a Masterpiece

An 86-year-old Quebec cathedral gets retrofitted for sound and the results are breathtaking.

When it comes to the classics, the general rule of thumb is that you leave them alone. You don't want to give Mona Lisa a nose job. An energy efficient sky light in the middle of the Sistine Chapel would be seriously frowned upon. Adding an act or two to Handel's Messiah would be strongly opposed. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Do not mess with the classics.

Surprisingly, there is one recent example where this rule of thumb simply does not hold water. The Church of St. Therese of the Child Jesus in Cowansville, Quebec is a stunning 86-year-old cathedral that instantly takes worshipers and visitors back to a simpler time and place as soon as they enter through its majestic doors. The church received an acoustical overhaul this past year and the use of treatments throughout the building simply adds to its Old World character.

The church was built using the style of architecture invented by the Dom Bellot Modern French School. This design method was based on the data that Dom Paul Bellot, a French monk of the Benedictine order, had painstakingly gathered in his quest to find the ideal ambiance to experience communal worship. With its great simplicity, which is a key component to Bellot's method, the architecture of the the Church of St. Therese boasts amazing feeling and character.

Bellot believed that this great simplicity in design helps people focus on the essentials that unite namely communion and Christ on the cross.

With an enormous traditional cathedral ceiling, walls lined with stained glass windows, exquisite stone arches and a massive cross in the front of the sanctuary, the church of St. Therese of the Child Jesus is a thing of beauty to behold. When it came to acoustics, however, it was a bit of a disaster. To rectify this problem parish leaders contacted Berger International GTE. Berger teamed with other acoustical design consultants and sound engineering firms to make the historic sanctuary as pleasing to the ears as it is to the eyes. The results are nothing short of stunning. Not only did this partnership of firms do an excellent job in greatly improving the acoustics of the cathedral, but Berger International GTE, Melanie Tessier Design, Radial Engineering and their Primacoustic division were actually able to improve on the majestic look of the sanctuary with their visually striking acoustical project designs.

Guy Berger, senior director of Berger International GTE says that the project began when he was first contacted by Father Andre Vincent in March of 2012. Vincent was hoping to fix an acoustic problem that had literally plagued the church for nearly a century. As one would expect with such a project, Berger said that there were many obstacles in the way of improving the acoustics of the building while maintaining its character and charm.

"During our first meeting with Andre Vincent and Danik Savaria, the priests of the church, it was clear that all of the sound equipment [needed] to be replaced, but the biggest problem was the acoustic reverberation time that was over six seconds!" he said. "Our primary goal was to reduce this reverberation time to 1 to 1.5 seconds."

This reverberation time proved to be one of Berger's biggest challenges. In fact, it took him nearly a year of researching products and meeting with suppliers before he finally had a solution that he was happy with.
"After completing [various studies] on different products I finally contacted James Wright of Primacoustics in 2013 to advance the project," Berger said. "We worked together on the specific needs for my project and submitted an acoustic solution for this church."

"[Wright] offered me different solutions with interesting products [that would get us close to the 1.5 second reverberation time], so I proposed the acoustic alternatives to [the church]."
Wright and his team were able to offer products that massively cut reverberation time while not taking the liveliness out of the building so to speak. They took many factors into account including the PA system, choir, instruments etc.

"This church is traditional style worship, so some reverb and echo is necessary to give the organ and choir its expected sound. [Because of this] we ended up using a calculation that would give us control yet keep enough life in the room so the choir and organ had a nice cushion.  This was about 18 percent of the wall surface area covered with 2 inch thick acoustic panels. In this case that was 400 24 by 48 inch panels" Wright said.
Since St. Therese is not "driven" by the sound system, but rather the system is solely used for speech reinforcement, the acoustic panels could be spread evenly throughout the sanctuary without any sound disruption. Wright says that the most important aspect was to ensure that the appropriate quantity of absorption was in the space. The placement of the panels was secondary.

"In a facility where the PA runs the content, you have to take notice of speaker dispersion, layout of musicians and common places where parishioners sit when designing the layout," he said. "The neutral beige color lent itself well to this installation and Guy [used] it well with his placement."

Vincent and Savaria agreed to the acoustic overhaul after Berger explained the acoustical benefits of the plan. When the priests saw the designs that Melanie Tessier Design had created to illustrate what Gerber and Wright planned to do they were even more excited about the project.

Berger and his team seemingly performed the impossible by making the acoustical treatments flow seamlessly through the historic architecture without looking clumsy or out of place. With Primacoustic's distinct products, Gerber was able to create a great design that actually accentuates the historical look of the sanctuary rather than taking away from it.  He said that the rectangular shape of the treatments along with their beveled edges work together to enhance the beauty of the church.

"[The sanctuary] reminds me of the [structures] that Knights Templars used to construct with huge stones that were fashioned at will with extraordinary artistic [aptitude]," Berger said.

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