Apart from being world-famous for the majesty and longevity of its structure, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco gained notoriety in the Internet heyday of the mid 1990s as one of the first churches to stream live webcasts of many of its services, a tradition that continues to thrive. Over its long history, Grace Cathedral has hosted many of the world's most cherished religious leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, and Desmond Tutu, and many of its most celebrated weddings, including the ceremony for Courteney Cox and David Arquette. With such an illustrious history and such an early Internet presence, it is a bit surprising that until Art Yeap, director of San Francisco's Novo Group, recently overhauled their microphone collection with Sennheiser MKH 8020 and MKH 8040 high-end condensers, the recorded sound of Grace Cathedral was middling at best and marginal at worst!
"The church had been using some noisy 1970's-era Austrian mics with acoustic properties that were poorly matched for the job," explains Yeap. "The church itself is huge—220 feet from the choir to the back wall—with a nine-second RT60 on the low-end. Those peaky old mics accentuated footfalls, rustling papers, and other such distractions so that listening to a recording or webcast became an exercise in keeping focused."
While Yeap initially selected the MKH 20 and 40 Series for Grace Cathedral, area Sennheiser representative Marke Burgstahler demonstrated the new line of MKH 8000 high-end condensers. The MKH 8020 omni, 8040 cardioid, and 8050 super-cardioid deliver extended, flat frequency response (up to 60kHz), very low self-noise, and uncolored off-axis response. Moreover, all of the MKH 8000-series microphones are small, a factor that was aesthetically important for Grace Cathedral. Although the mics would hang from a hundred feet above the floor, they would still be below windows that would provide revealing top light.
Yeap ordered four cardioid MKH 8020s to cover the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys (only one of a handful remaining in the States). He placed two more MKH 8020s above the congregation to capture congregational singing and orchestral performances, and two more at the back of the space to capture the rear gallery organ. For the main organ - one of the largest in the state and famous to organ enthusiasts throughout the world - Yeap carefully positioned two MKH 8020 omnis. The extra octave at the bottom end of the omnis (down to 10Hz) conveyed the instrument's rich bass, and placement at the appropriate distance allowed the sound to bloom and blend with the room.
"The experience has been amazing," reports Yeap. "The Sennheiser mics have made a profound improvement. I'm particularly taken with the off-axis response...It comes across as 'effortless.' The noise problem is gone completely. Overall, the MKH 8000 Series mics sound accurate and sweet." So sweet, in fact, that Yeap didn't require any processing. Each mic feeds into an APB-DynaSonics analog console with the EQ section left completely flat.
With the webcast sound securely rescued and archival and promotional recordings now at an audiophile grade, the church is contemplating using the choir mics for subtle reinforcement. "They clearly have the quality now," says Yeap. "It's just a matter of receiving the blessing from the church leaders. I'm convinced the quality of the live services would be noticeably improved." Time will tell!