Broadcast Profile: Willow Creek Community Church

US megachurch Willow Creek now has a new broadcast studio, bringing high levels of control for its sermons and live performances that are streamed to thousands each week. We find out why this was a move that made sense.

Not just one of the largest houses of worship in the USA, Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago is also extremely well equipped in the audio department.

With an AV offering that makes European equivalents look prehistoric in comparison, Willow Creek has been taking its mission to bring high quality audio to its followers very seriously, but until recently there was still one important area that needed to be addressed.

The audience figures associated with Willow Creek’s main South Barrington campus are impressive – its main auditorium seats 7,200, but for those who can’t make it in person for one of its three weekend services, the Church broadcasts a live stream that averages between 15,000 and 20,000 viewers.

But then there’s the special two-day Global Leadership Summit event each August that really pulls the numbers in – approximately 100,000 tune in live at more than 600 satellite locations nationwide and around 200,000 when it’s rebroadcast. The previous setup consisted of an automated broadcast mix that could not be easily adjusted or set to offset the choices being made in the live room, which is why Willow Creek felt that the time was right for an upgrade that would give the team full control over the broadcast mix and access to the campus’ existing Dante audio network.

Willow Creek’s audio systems engineer Matt Wentz is excited about having a setup that remedies the previous setup’s limitations. “We were broadcasting to all these sites and they wanted more/less music, they’re saying ‘we can’t hear these vocals because they’re mixing for the room’ and so that was what was going out – the mix for the room – and decisions were being made [only] there,” he explains.

“So now with the broadcast console we can have more finite control when we’re thinking ‘OK, the room wants the vocals buried while on broadcast we’re going to make sure the vocals are out front’ etc. The decisions that can be made for the broadcast side – we have a lot more control about how that sounds as oppose to [just] what the room sounds like.”

The outgoing system was often unmanned, but the new arrangement will always have an engineer, benefiting from individual channels of all instruments, as well as video playback and speaker mics.

The console selected was a Yamaha CL5 supported by ten Dante-MY16-AUD2 cards and three RSio64-D interfaces. The broadcast room also now features various Genelec monitors, a DBMax Level Maximizer and Clarity M loudness meter from TC Electronic and BSS Soundweb London BLU-806 signal processor.

Across the board

When asked why they opted for the CL5, Wentz was quick to answer. “It’s reliable, we’ve never really had a major issue and we’ve got Yamaha in all of our venues, all the way from the TF Series through the LS9, QL, CL and now the PM10,” he notes. “It’s easy to train somebody on it – outside of our main room most of our rooms are run by volunteers and so it’s so easy to get somebody up and show them ‘here’s how you get signal going and routed out’. The learning curve is not large and when moving to the PM10 [now at FOH and Monitors in the main auditorium] it’s very similar to the CL Series.

“Because the main room is the Yamaha PM10s running at 96kHz, we needed to get everything down to 48kHz which required the RSios and the ability to do SRC (Sample Rate Conversion). We also invested heavily in Waves to allow the engineer to mimic closer the sound of the PM10 and to also have auto-tune, which is not currently inline in the main room.”

Wentz is a staunch backer of Audinate’s Dante networking protocol, without which the current levels of interconnectivity across the South Barrington site simply wouldn’t be possible.

“When I was first introduced to it about four years ago my mind went to the unlimited possibilities,” he recalls. “I thought that if the creative team here said ‘hey we want to start in one venue and move to another’ – which has happened before, and it’s been limited because it was copper, patch bays, you introduce ground hum and all sorts of other issues – now I can say ‘yep, we can absolutely do that’ because I can route networked audio from this venue to this venue and it’s seamless, it’s clean and it just works.”

This all goes to show that Willow Creek is not your typical house of worship with ageing gear crying out to be replaced. It’s certainly a great example of an organisation that considers the AV needs of its members a top priority, with a kit list that wouldn’t look out of a place in a major performance venue elsewhere. With more work scheduled to bring some of its smaller rooms up to date in the near future, there’s more to come too.