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Lakewood Church designs for a live and TV audience

With the addition of Avid workstations and extra digital Betacam machines, Lakewood Church can simulteanously create multiple versions of its program.

Lakewood Church began with its first meeting in a feed store on the outskirts of Houston in 1959. The church eventually moved to a more suitable building, and its congregation grew through outreach in the community, books written by founding pastor John Osteen and a weekly television program. Upon Osteen's death in 1999, his son, Joel, took over. Since then church attendance has tripled.

The church property and the local infrastructure, such as local roads, parking and other considerations, could not handle the growing congregation. Traffic was backed up for miles. Add to this the burgeoning international television outreach, and the church knew it needed something bigger. The church signed a 60-year lease with the city of Houston for the former Compaq Center and home of the Houston Rockets. After nearly two years of planning and construction, the new church opened in July of this year.

The church can hold 16,000 people in the main sanctuary and hosts an advanced television production facility that feeds programming to an international audience of 200 million people in more than 100 countries. The renovation of the entire arena cost about $95 million.

Lofty goals

The fundamental goal of the television production facility was to be able to produce the highest-quality digital audio and video programs without interfering with the live audience's experience in the sanctuary. The church produces three programs: a half-hour show; an hour-long program with music, requiring a sophisticated audio facility; and a one-hour live Spanish program.

And though the church primarily intended the facility to serve as a source for recorded television programs and for DVD production, there are occasional live broadcast feeds that needed to be taken into account as well. When these issues were under consideration nearly two years ago, the church's technology decision makers, including Jon Swearingen, director of broadcast media, and Reed Hall, director of audio development, chose Beck Associates as the integrator.

Having reviewed a lot of their work, and knowing they worked well with the Russ Berger Design Group, which would be designing the broadcast studio, Swearingen considered it a win-win situation. The church's engineer, Andre Guidry, was instrumental in bringing the parties together, designing the facility and specifying most of the gear with input from Beck.

Three jibs were placed in the sanctuary to offer unique views of the services. The jibs are located by the stage, halfway back in the arena seating and in the rear.

The initial idea, in addition to gutting the entire facility and rewiring it with fiber, involved constructing and wiring a new, connected building to house the actual production gear. The new building is attached to the old arena on the side opposite the sanctuary. The media center takes up the entire fifth floor of the new building.

Bearing in mind that these are live services and production cannot interfere with that experience, set design, lighting design and sight lines for cameras were important issues. The design team chose eight camera locations within the arena. And even though the church is currently running SDI, the design team opted for Sony HDC-900 high-definition models to prepare for the future. In fact, the complete facility is AES- and SDI-compliant. Acquisition is on digital Betacam.

Because signal runs were going to be long — running from the main sanctuary to the adjacent television media center — everything had to be pushed through fiber with almost no copper in the entire facility. The designers avoided analog routing because of the distances, so there is only one analog router and everything is converted at the device. Cable paths were minimized both to save money and maintain quality.

All cable is upgradeable to HD, so when the switch from SDI is made, the facility won't have to yank out a lot of it. The designers also had the foresight to use DAs that handle HD, so those won't have to be swapped out later.

Even though the design criteria dictated that the 16,000 live attendees have great sight lines, the message is also broadcast to a worldwide audience. Three specially constructed jibs placed in the sanctuary offer unique views of the services and increase production value. One jib is located by the stage, one is halfway back in the arena seating, and a third is at the rear.

Heavenly sound

Among the important challenges to address in such a cavernous arena were the architecture and acoustical issues. The Russ Berger Design Group also looked at the live sound design. The issues here may be unique to this type of television production, as each TV program is also essentially a live music event with big JBL Line Array speakers positioned around the stage. This created challenges for recording the audio and video.

As the television production design continued, the church requested that the Russ Berger Design Group also oversee the live acoustics analysis. They worked hand in hand with Audio Analysts out of Colorado, and they came back with more than $1 million in recommendations for correcting problems. That was later modified to more than $500,000 in acoustics treatment, with emphasis in isolation of the underside of the arena so they could have programming in a separate room while the service was going on. Most important, the air design had to be reconfigured and bass traps used throughout.

Because music is involved in the live service and in two of the three televised programs, the audio recording function was a critical element in the success of the facility design. The audio for the entire facility is centered around three Euphonix System 5 consoles, all working off the same engine.

Three Euphonix System 5 consoles, which feature high-quality four band EQ, dynamics, surround sound and a powerful automation system, provide the facility’s audio.

All signals coming off the stage are directed to a room adjacent to the stage, where they are converted to digital signals and sent via fiber to the media center. The signals then are returned via fiber to the FOH position for the live feed. The broadcast feed is mixed on a separate System 5 and recorded for tape-delayed broadcast.

The track load is impressive: 106 tracks for an hour and a half at each service. They are recorded into custom-designed computers running Nuendo software on the Windows XP Pro operating system with triplicate backup and have experienced no latency problems. Designed by Brian Tankersley, Lakewood's audio systems director, and Advance Design Kentucky Computers, the rack-mounted computers are based on dual-core AMD Opteron processors. They are interconnected via Windows networking and gigabit Ethernet.

After experimenting with dual fiber SAN with 12 drive arrays and with a few guys pulling audio simultaneously, they decided that an affordable system configured like that wouldn't work. So a distributed, redundant system was devised with seven computers running Nuendo with 2TB of storage per system. Operating at 24-bit/48kHz, the systems take audio directly from the mic pre-amps, digitize it and store it. The concept is that storage is cheap, and it provides redundancy.

The uniqueness of AMD's processor architecture allowed Tanksersley and his team to replace two single-core Opterons with AMD's latest chip, the dual-core AMD Opteron, into the existing sockets in their current workstations.

Also, with the dual-core processors, the systems can be easily upgraded. But with the current configuration, the performance has been staggering no matter the demand from Nuendo and any number of plug-ins, all with no latency issues. The church is currently running seven of these custom computers with plans to add three more soon and further plans to continue to swap to upgraded processors as new ones come out.

Once recorded to Nuendo and remixed and edited, audio is then pushed to Avid systems. Presently, a network is being installed to handle this, but until it's finished, the tracks are imported to the systems via disk.

Regarding the Avid systems, the decision to go with one Symphony, one DS Nitris, and two Media Composer Adrenaline systems was a question of workflow. Prior to the new facility, the church had been using nonlinear systems in a limited way. With the addition of Avid workstations and extra digital Betacam machines (now totaling seven), capacity to create simultaneous versions of the shows was achieved. When the taping is finished, all three shows are edited at the same time on Sunday evening and sent out on Monday.

Refining the message

The editing rooms also called for designs to be ergonomic and have appropriate acoustical treatment on the walls and doors to maintain low noise levels and create a positive environment for the editors. All computers are located in a central machine room, and all rooms are isolated from each other to avoid cross-bleeding.

The centerpiece of the video editing rooms is the Facilis TerraBlock server system, which combines intelligent drive management software with low-cost SATA drive technology and fiber channel connectivity. The base server unit combines the server, storage and direct connections for fiber clients, avoiding the need for an external switch. Routing for the facility is handled by NVISION, chosen because of the features offered, such as routing and converting analog to SDI. The cost-effectiveness was also in line with what Swearingen and Guidry had specified.

With only 18 months to complete the facility from its inception, the team worked feverishly. Major architectural renovations and construction of the new building were occurring at the same time as the electronics and live audio installations, leaving the team with about eight weeks to complete 16 weeks' worth of work in order to meet the July 16 live broadcast. In the end, there were few technical issues and the facility met its goals better than expected.

Tim Wetmore is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Equipment list

ADC patch bays

Alesis Masterlink CD recorder

AMD dual-core AMD Opteron processors

Avalon 727 microphone pre-amplifiers

DS Nitris video editor
Symphony video editor
Media Composer Adrenalin video editor

Cobalt 5018 serial digital to analog converters

DK Technologies MSD600 audio monitor

Doremi V1m video server

Euphonix System 5 audio consoles

Facilis TerraBlock 7.2TB video servers

Fujinon HD camera lenses

Genelec 1037C and 1032A 5.1 speaker systems

John Hardy 1032A two channels of mic preamplifier

JBL Professional VerTec Service Line Array speakers

Kurzweil KSP8 effects processor

Leitch FR-6804-1 mounting frame and power supply

Lexicon MPX 1 effects processor

Neumann KM 184 microphones

NVISION NV8256 Plus digital video router

Panasonic AG-850 edit controller

Sanyo PLV-70 projector

HDC-900 HD cameras
PVM-96 video monitor
DMX-R100 audio console
DVS-7000A production switcher
DVW-500 digital VTRs
BVW-75 Betacam SP VTRs

Steinberg Nuendo digital audio workstation

CD-A700 CD/cassette player
DA-98, DA-88 and DA-38 eight-track recorders
CDR-1000 CD burner

Tektronix VM 700 scope and monitor

Telex/RTS intercom

Tubetech CL1B compressor

Design team

Lakewood Church

Andre Guidry, chief engineer
Reed Hall, director of audio
Jon Swearingen, director of broadcast media
Brian Tankersley, senior producer, director of audio technologies

Consulting groups

Advance Design Kentucky Computers
Audio Analysts
Beck Associates
Russ Berger Design Group