Dominating its namesake town, Lincoln Cathedral is not only an impressive building but it’s also extremely historic, with parts of it dating back to 1092.
Modified, extended, damaged by fire and rebuilt, it was after the cathedral suffered the effects of an earthquake in 1185 that it began to take on the form that’s so familiar today. By 1400 a modern day visitor to Lincoln would have instantly recognised the building which, for a period, laid claim to the title of the world’s tallest building.
Six hundred years later, as you walk into Lincoln Cathedral you still get the sense of awe that its builders intended. The vast nave with its high, vaulted ceiling makes you realise that people really are rather small, insignificant creatures.
To construct such an edifice, the 15th century builders achieved wonders without modern mechanisation to help them. But the down side of inspiring such awe in a congregation by architecturally dwarfing them is that it doesn’t lend itself to good acoustics. You may feel humbled, but can you actually hear the message being delivered from the pulpit?
Distributing high quality audio accurately and equally throughout a cavernous and labyrinthine building is a perennial problem for all large, enclosed structures. And it’s only in the 21st century that Lincoln Cathedral is finally able to boast an audio system that truly matches its architectural brilliance, thanks to Yamaha and audio specialists Wigwam Acoustics,
”We had a real audio challenge that needed to be solved effectively, but without allowing a complex audio system to impose upon the beauty of the cathedral,” says Wigwam’s Mick Spratt. “In other words, the congregation’s ears needed to notice the difference, but their eyes mustn't!”
Wigwam installed 60 custom loudspeakers throughout the cathedral. Measuring just over two inches wide, each was uniquely designed to fit unobtrusively into the contours of the cathedral pillar that it would be installed on, different installation positions requiring different lengths of loudspeaker.
All speakers were positioned at the same height relative to the seated congregation, each one individually painted to precisely camouflage it against its respective pillar. Even the cables were colour matched. The result is a distributed audio system which is barely visible to the naked eye, yet delivers superb audio quality, ever member of the congregation being near enough to a loudspeaker for the reflections off the cathedral’s many hard surfaces not to be an issue.
Unique as they are, however, the speakers would have little impact if the audio reaching them wasn’t of the highest quality.
Key to the system is Yamaha’s DME64N digital mixing engine, a powerful and versatile digital signal processor which provides 64 inputs and outputs of networked audio routing and control. The cathedral is now home to the largest networked system in Europe to use DME64N and DME24N mix engines, which form the backbone of the audio distribution system.
One of the main reasons that the Yamaha products were selected was because the audio system has to be extremely versatile. The cathedral is a central part of the local community and so many different kinds of services and gatherings take place there.
Each one requires the audio to be distributed differently - for example, a small gathering by the Lady Chapel in the South Transept means the speakers and sound sources need to be active there, but all the speakers in the main body of the church and other sound sources are turned off. Conversely, a major sermon won’t need audio to be broadcast to one of the side chapels.
Despite being an extremely sophisticated network, the system has been designed to be operated from a single small control panel.
“It was important that the entire audio system could be operated by absolutely anyone - from a sound engineer to a chorister,” Mick continues. “The ‘magic box’ allows compete control over all aspects of the sound via just a few clearly marked buttons that adjust the desired points of audio focus.”
As well as the loudspeakers being well camouflaged, all the amplifiers and control electronics had to be discreet yet remaining easily accessible. Eventually, the decision was taken to locate these units in the triforium, high above the nave – which is was deemed much more suitable being considerably dryer than the other alternative, the crypt!
During the installation 5.8 km of speaker cable was required, plus a further 3 km of signal and networking cable. Yet from commissioning to testing took just three months.
With its renowned library housing such a valuable collection of antiquarian books and manuscripts - including one of the few extant copies of Magna Carta and the first recorded rhyme about Robin Hood – it is fitting that Lincoln Cathedral should open such an important new chapter in audio design within such an ancient and awe-inspiring building.
The architecture set a new benchmark 600 years ago, and now the same has been done for distributed audio.
Wigwam Acoustics Ltd
Tel: +44 1706 363 400
Fax: +44 1706 363 410