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In March 2020, one of the earliest coronavirus superspreader events in the United States occurred when a church choir met for a rehearsal in Washington state. Of the 61 participating singers, 53 developed symptoms of Covid-19. Soon after, churches across the country held their final in-house services of the year.
Tariro Mzezewa, a reporter for the New York Times, recently spoke to churches to see how they had adjusted. “My favorite part of going to church as a kid was the music and the sense of community,” she said. “I wanted to know how the pandemic changed that.”
Some churches had a soloist sing from home during the live stream. Others created little pods of some singers performing from an empty sanctuary. Some had placed choir members in the pews or on the balcony.
Churches are designed for their acoustics. When Tariro told our Narrative Projects team about these socially distant choirs, we asked ourselves: How does that sound? Three months later, we created a special function to give you a feel for this sensory experience.
As a visual editor at the Times, I work on innovative journalism and work with colleagues to leverage new technologies such as augmented reality, photogrammetry, 3D modeling and visualization, and volumetric video (moving 3D images of real people like a hologram). One of the best parts of my job is the thrill I get when I try new things.
For a year now, we’ve been experimenting with a technology called environmental photogrammetry, which allows us to create photo-realistic 3D models of a room or a neighborhood.
We wanted to take our readers to a church to hear the new sound of these choirs. With the help of the Bethel Gospel Assembly in Harlem, we created a 3-D model of his sanctuary and embedded 3-D audio in it, which we have never done before for the Times website.
Times journalists and technologists spent two days in church in April. They used lasers and sensors to measure the size of the room and the distance between all objects in it. They also took more than 7,000 photos, many of which used a drone in the sanctuary (with the blessing of the Church) to take pictures of the upper reaches of the balcony and ceiling. This data was combined using photogrammetry software to create the 3D model in this interactive article.
Using 31 microphones, two mixers, and a sea of cables, our team recorded a live rehearsal with a small group of singers, a band, and Bethel’s leader, Bishop Carlton T. Brown. Using binaural audio that mimics the acoustics of the human ear, we created a 3-D audio experience designed to mimic what it sounds like in this room.
“You really get a sense of the energy and the importance of the live part of making music,” said Jon Cohrs, technical producer on the Times research and development team and audio engineer. In the two days he spent at Bethel, Jon witnessed the camaraderie and bond between the choir members. “It’s really something special and you can see how effective it is for everyone involved.”
The music you hear when you open the interactive feature is picked up by two microphones in the back of the church, as if you were sitting in the pews and hearing the voices echo through the cavernous room. You move around the room in the 3D experience and the sound changes as you approach the stage and fly over the instruments.
While I’ve been working on this project for the past few months, I’ve spent many minutes a day listening to the ethereal music we recorded, often with my eyes closed, with my mind floating somewhere between my home office in Brooklyn and this sanctuary in Harlem.
Our coverage confirmed why so many churches went to great lengths to bring music to their communities during difficult times. Time and again pastors, parishioners and choir members have told us that a church without music is never an option. Music is healing, they said, and it brings people together for a shared spiritual and cultural experience, even when we have to be physically separate.
As part of her research, Tariro attended an Easter Sunday service at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, which a small number of parishioners can now attend in person. “There was a real sense of people sighing in relief like, ‘We did it,'” she said. “A year ago they didn’t know if they would make it.”