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St. Peter’s installs new sound system to rival rock concert

Pope Francis celebrates Pentecost mass on May 28 2023

Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

J-P Mauro - published on 08/18/23

The new sound system utilizes modern technology to provide a more authentic listening experience in person and through recording or stream.

Those who visit St. Peter’s Basilica are in for a treat, as a new sound system is promising an acoustical experience to rival that of a rock concert. The new system was first used in late July, for the Mass celebrating the World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly, and it’s said to provide a much better listening experience.

Vatican News reports that the new system replaced one that was installed back in 2000, under Pope St. John Paul II, for the Jubilee Year. With 80 speakers set up in the 163,200 square foot interior and a state-of-the-art digital sound system, the new setup can go toe-to-toe with any secular concert arena. What’s more, it features technology that makes it sound more natural to the space, almost as though there were no speakers at all. 

To achieve this, explains Italian architect Carlo Carbone, the speakers become slightly delayed in their output as they get farther from the altar. This makes the sound feel as though it’s emanating from the altar, rather than erupting from all areas of the sound space at once. The delay is just milliseconds, but the human ear perceives the sound as coming from the direction of the celebrating priest. 

Speaking to Crux, Carbone explained that the soundscape of St. Peter’s Basilica was originally designed to capture the long tones of Gregorian chant, but as the Catholic musical tradition evolved to include faster music with more notes, the flurry of sounds could become confusing as it bounced off all the surfaces and angles. He suggested that speakers installed after Vatican II only exacerbated this problem, as they ruined the “acoustical centrality of the altar.”

He compared the new sound system to that of a rock-and-roll concert hall, noting that the technology that delays the sound is often employed in rock concerts to create a more natural sound. According to Carbone, this is the first time such secular music elements have been incorporated in a Catholic church.

Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, the Archpriest of Saint Peter’s Basilica, called the cooperative efforts of various experts “a great team effort, a beautiful synergy,” while noting that the work was slow as it could only be undertaken at night, when the basilica was closed to the public. The work required the removal of 70 years’ worth of wiring underneath the floor. This was replaced with some 200 kilometers of more modern fiber wires that better facilitate sound. 

The new sound system is said to also allow for a better listening experience on radio and TV broadcasts. Listen through the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly Mass to hear the change.

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