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The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, “The Grotto” (as it is commonly called) a beautiful 62 acre Catholic Shrine and botanical garden, has served since 1924 as “a place of solitude, peace and prayer” in Portland, Oregon.

Conceived and designed as an outdoor cathedral that blends religious significance with natural scenic beauty, The Grotto is one of the most beautiful Marian sanctuaries in North America and perhaps the world. Dramatic rock formations, towering fir trees and lush gardens combine with artistic creations including over 100 religious sculptures and two glorious chapels. The Grotto welcomes more than 200,000 visitors of all faiths annually from around the world. Light and sound are the focus of the annual Festival of Lights during the Christmas season, hosting more than 140 choirs, and play a prominent role in The Grotto’s activities throughout the year. The central attraction, Our Lady's Grotto, was carved from solid basalt in the cliff wall in 1925. Above its natural rock altar is a white marble replica of Michelangelo's Pieta.

Although the Pacific Northwest is known for its rainy climate, there’s little precipitation from May through October. That’s when The Grotto for which the entire property is named comes into its own as the focus for Sunday Mass, weddings and other religious celebrations. It’s a challenging place to run a live sound system. The winter brings heavy rain and occasional freezing temperatures. The seating area slopes down and away from the actual grotto and the altar in front of it. The Friars are not experts in modern audio technology, yet the requirements can range from simple background music to elaborate services combining singers, musicians and the spoken word.

Fortunately, The Grotto has a strong partnership with Design Sound Northwest, a Portland-based systems AV design & integrator. Craig Leppert, the firm’s principal, advised The Grotto during its most recent construction phase, when the outdoor worship space was remodeled. Among other things, he had the foresight to install extra conduits under the concrete and asphalt from the altar area in front of The Grotto to a small building that houses much of the electrical and audio infrastructure.

Making a multi-use facility is one job: making it easy to use is another. Leppert has linked an wireless AMX NetLinx control panel with an Biamp AudiaFlex digital signal processor to create a simple yet flexible interface that is easy to understand. There are three operating modes: Daily (low-level background music), Small Group and Large Events. They are selected as needed from the AMX panel. Normally, it sits on a desk inside the control room, but DSN also installed a high-gain directional antenna so that musicians can take the panel outdoors to control input levels.

“We gave the end users a very basic, limited set of options,” Leppert explains. “We programmed presets into the Audia with individual level and EQ settings for every channel, for quick and easy setup. The wireless AMX panel allows simple adjustments to be made on the fly from any location, so the musicians are in control of their performance.”

For small services, the “Small Group” preset gives users access to four wireless microphones and allows them to control the CD player. For larger events, Design Sound Northwest pulled a multicore snake through one of those spare conduits: it is terminated with a 60-pin LK disconnect in a waterproof box near the musician’s staging area. To set up for a large service, the staff simply picks the right preset and connects the remote mic snake, instantly giving them 16 wired mic channels, foldback monitors, four wireless mics and CD/Tape playback.

The celebrants are well served by this system, but what about the worshippers? How was Design Sound Northwest to provide good sound to a extremely wide, downward-sloping seating area with residential neighbors across the street from the rear, without compromising The Grotto’s unique fusion of natural and manmade beauty?

“We tried lots of different ideas,” Leppert reflects. “My first thought was to hide some big directional speakers up in the trees, but there were too many practical issues. Portable speakers work, but there’s no way either to fill the hole in the middle of the seating area or to keep the sound from shooting over the heads of the listeners. Portable speakers also require a labor-intensive setup process. The light poles have arms from which we could have hung some compact loudspeakers (the Disneyland approach) but Father Jack thought they would have too large a visual footprint.”

A digitally steered column could mount flush to the light pole, becoming almost invisible. Or could it? Even though the speakers can be removed and stored inside during the winter, they still need protection from the unpredictable Portland weather.

“The first major manufacturer we considered told us we would need a separate fiberglass enclosure around the loudspeaker,” Leppert recalls. “That would have been too bulky and clumsy-looking.” Visual aesthetics are so important to The Grotto that Design Sound Northwest actually build a full size mockup in the shop so that the staff could assess the visual impact.

“After having it mounted on the light pole only one day,” Leppert says, “Father Jack and the staff rejected it, saying it would be too intrusive”.

Iconyx IC16WR Robert Flatt of Design Sound Northwest

Another year passed with a compromise portable system. Then Renkus-Heinz announced its Iconyx series of digitally steered arrays. The modular Iconyx arrays could be made weather-resistant without expanding the aluminum enclosures. Each Iconyx module has an 8-channel DSP-driven amplifier inside to accomplish the array steering: for reliability, AC power is supplied via Furman power conditioners, with ground fault interruptors in line just in case excessive moisture does appear in the electronics compartment.

Renkus-Heinz also brought years of color-matching experience to the table, exactly matching the existing light pole color. But a dummy installation was still a pre-requisite for final approval. Leppert reports that “We mounted a dummy enclosure on the pole for over a week, and Father Jack told me that he walked right past that pole numerous times without noticing it.”

Although the client was satisfied, Design Sound Northwest spent a further 2 months of research to develop specialized stainless steel mounts with built-in security features and UDP inserts that fit the light poles tightly without marring the paint. The mounts are tamper-proof, but also so simple that Grotto grounds staff can remove the Iconyx enclosures in only 15 minutes for winter storage, then re-install them just as easily once the rains take a break.

With the visual & mounting hurdles surmounted, Design Sound Northwest turned to the acoustic problem. “We did a basic EASE model in order to optimize the coverage,” says Leppert. “The wide 140 degree horizontal pattern works well in this application, even though the two light poles are very far apart. With the digital steering we can mount the arrays flush on the poles, yet aim the sound downward so it covers the seating area well without annoying the neighbors.”

Clearly, attention to detail is key to Design Sound Northwest’s approach to the business of installed sound, and one of the main reasons Leppert and crew have forged long-term relationships with The Grotto as well as many other corporations, religious & educational institutions in the Northwest & Alaska.

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