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Church of the Highlands Thinks Big in New, Smaller Worship Space

Church of the Highlands Thinks Big in New, Smaller Worship Space

Despite the new chapel being small, it still needed to deliver big sound for the 550 attendees each week.

Church of the Highlands (COH) in Birmingham, AL, is the fastest-growing church in the state, according to Outreach Magazine in 2008. It is the largest church in Alabama, hosting more than 25,000 people across their 11 campuses on an average Sunday.

Recently, COH added their third venue at their main Grants Mill campus. The new chapel, a small, 550-seat venue, is different than what Production Manager Justin Firesheets and his team is used to.

The goal of the chapel was to offer a little bit more of traditional space, but still have the same presence-filled worship, just presented in a softer, more traditional style. "You still have to package the content in a way that's going to make it easy to be received by everyone that's in attendance," Firesheets says.

Because the other buildings Firesheets and his crew have opened have had more of a contemporary feel, he knew going into this was going to be different. He says they had been used to electric instruments, moving lights, haze and creative video elements. "We just had to creatively rethink how to best present to create an effective Sunday experience," Firesheets says. "It's not about the technology. It's about the content you are presenting."

Wanting to keep the aesthetic beauty of the room, Firesheets made sure the chapel had more of a traditional feel. "When we were designing the sound system, the first thing we had to do was figure out if we can do this in a way where you hear what's happening, but you don't see the speakers," he says.

In order to accomplish this task, a different combination of boxes made by Meyer is used throughout the Chapel. There are also several Mina boxes, 700hp subs and UPQ's as down fill boxes in the center cluster. "We had to design enclosures on either side of the stage to put the speakers and subs in," says Firesheets.

He continues, "The front fills are hidden behind the stairs at the front of a room. We have a center cluster that's high above the stage opening that's hidden by an acoustic fabric. None of that is visible when you're in the room. You just hear the sound and feel it."
The speaker system, according to Firesheets, is a very high-quality line of equipment. "We feel we can get a very good and a very consistent sound."

Firesheets says the entire back wall of the room was built according to some very specific design parameters. There's different layers of sheetrock that is done a certain way, along with acoustic treatment, also done a certain way. "All of that was done very specifically to eliminate as much as possible any type of slap back or reverb off the back wall."

With how the speakers were hung and aimed in the room, the team knew it could be an issue with the sound just bouncing straight off the back wall and right back to the stage. "That's why we put as much care into treating the back wall as we did," Firesheets says.

A very high ceiling accents the worship room, which Firesheets and his team did not do a lot of treatment on. "We wanted the room to still feel alive so the sound of the worshippers would still carry through the room and help make it feel full," he says.

Once the back wall was properly treated and the speakers were hung, the team moved on to get their other equipment into the Chapel.

The house lights featured in the Chapel are full LED house lighting systems. "They're different degree-angled lenses," says Firesheets. "There's a couple of different ones based on where we're using them in the space."

All of the lights are rolling around 3,000 degrees Kelvin and are intelligent fixtures that are recessed in the ceiling. The EPCD40 Luster Fixture, used for the theatrical lights, do not move during services. The theatrical fixture the Chapel uses typically lights up the stage where the pastor is. "We're using them for a static wash of the stage or the stairs if we're doing a wedding," Firesheets says.

Because they were going for a more traditional feel in the Chapel, no color-type lighting is really used. "Everything theatrical against the stage is all white. We're not highlighting individual position," Firesheets says. "Everything is a full, even wash all the way across the board."
All of the lights are controlled through the Road Hog 4, made by High End Systems, which is used at most of the campuses with Church of the Highlands. "We try to customize as much as much as possible," says Firesheets. "It's what our staff is familiar with and it's what we train our volunteers on." Firesheets says the Road Hog 4 has always been a reliable console because it's easy to use and easy to train on.

Another piece of equipment Firesheets and his team is familiar with is their control board an Avid Profile and is used in a majority of the Highlands' campuses. "It's much easier for us when we have consistent equipment across the board," Firesheets says. "It makes it easier to train volunteers and it's easier for the staff to handle troubleshooting or maintenance."

He added that keeping the equipment consistent makes it easier for people to move from room to room when everything is designed and functions the same way.  "When you can step into something that you're comfortable with and know how to set it up, run it, troubleshoot it, it takes some of that in-the-moment stress out of there because you already go in with a comfort level."

Because the Chapel is a smaller venue, there is no IMAG used in that space. "We have a small camera in there that's wall-mounted," says Firesheets. "That's just used as an eye-in-the-sky-type camera because the production booth does not have a direct line-of-sight to the stage for every position in there." The booth is positioned in the back corner of the building, making it difficult for all of the crew to see the stage from where they're standing.

The eye-in-the-sky camera is only used in the production booth and is not seen on any screens in the auditorium and is primarily used as a reference camera so that, "People sitting at those stations can see what's happening on stage without having to get up and walk across the room," says Firesheets.

The new Chapel doesn't record anything that happens in the worship room, as it is strictly a video-venue on Sunday's. Live worship is done in the room and the Chapel has a local pastor who hosts the service. The venue simply just receives feed over a fiber connection and doesn't send anything back. "We are playing it back locally just in the room during the message part" [of the service], Firesheets says.

A Grass Valley T2 hard drive appliance is used to manage the time slip that occurs during the service. "We take the video feed from the main room to manage the time slip functionality so that we can do however long of a welcome we need to, do announcements and then be able to seamlessly merge in with the feed from the other room," explains Firesheets.
Firesheets says the hard drive appliance is a great piece. "It's really easy to use and has a lot of functionality with time slip capabilities. It's also a great piece of hardware that can be used as a video server if needed just to play back standard files you're not trying to do a time slip on."

Emphasizing the room as more traditional, Firesheets says it's more acoustic feeling. The room has a baby grand piano and a stripped down, much simpler drum kit than in their other places of worship. "We're doing a different style of worship in this room," Firesheets says. "Normally, we deal with electric guitars and a full standard drum kit."

The Chapel also uses a violin and an upright bass so, "It was a big change when it came to how we were going to mic those instruments," Firesheets says. "That's one thing we were trying to determine what was the best way to get good quality sound out of those string instruments and help them still feel alive in the room, but still amplify them through the sound system."

When it comes to his favorite piece of equipment, Firesheets says it's the lighting console from High End. "Those have always been very reliable for us at all our campuses. Everything in the High End family has worked really well for us." He also speaks highly of the Meyer PA systems, which is used in most of the Highlands' venues. "We feel very comfortable with our teams mixing on that," Firesheets says.

Despite the new Chapel being different from what they are used to, Firesheets says everything has flowed very smoothly during this process. "All of the equipment has been working exactly how we expected it to." He added there has been a learning curve in trying to make sure they are taking full advantage of the capabilities of the room to have the best possible service for their attendees.

Firesheets and his team had to answer questions like, How can we mix it better?,' What's the appropriate volume level for a space like this so we don't overwhelm anyone but still make the room feel alive and vibrant?,' How can we best present the different types of instruments we have on stage?.' He says it's really just about learning to embrace a new style of worship and learning as they go. "The biggest thing we've been working on is how to continue to do that effectively and improve it from week to week."

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