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Virtual recreation of St. Paul’s Cathedral captures the sounds of 17th-century worship

J-P Mauro - published on 10/09/21

The team from NC State University created new software to track the movement of sound through the virtual cathedral.

There have been a number of virtual reconstructions of historic churches in recent years. The projects serve to connect Christians with their long and storied heritages. While these glimpses of the past are usually splendid, they are missing one of the most important aspects of a church: the building’s acoustics. 

This is one of the most impressive aspects of the Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project. A team from NC State University is reconstructing the 17th-century London cathedral to such an extent that viewers can hear the sounds of the church and even the surrounding streets. It should be noted that the St. Paul’s in focus is not the current iteration, but rather one that burned down in 1666.

The project is unique because it is not trying to recreate just the building, but the Church of England services that were once celebrated within. Using copies of sermons delivered from the 17th-century pulpit along with documented liturgies, the team made recordings of famed homilies and choral repertoires. 

These recordings were then placed through filters that make them sound as they would have in the St. Paul’s of old. The reconstruction of the cathedral is so accurate that they can even show how a choir would sound from different spots in the building. The result of their work is an experience that is much more immersive than similar projects. 

New audio technology

According to Phys, the project required the team to create new software that could accurately simulate acoustic models. This program allowed the team to better understand how sound moved through the building, which helped them to fine tune the filters. In a bid to make the most authentic audio possible, they paid special attention to ambient noise and how it would affect the experience. 

To date the team has created recordings of an Easter Sunday service, celebrated on March 28, 1624, as well as an ordinary service conducted on Tuesday, November 27, 1625. These services include readings, prayers, and Psalms sung by a choir. They even had voice actors record homilies by Anglican Bishop of Winchester Lancelot Andrewes and the poet John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s from 1621 to 1631.

The rich reverberations can make it hard to understand the preachers. After all, this was well before the advent of electric speakers. While the echoes make it difficult, that is all part of the authentic 17th-century worship experience. Some of our favorite recordings are the songs played on organ, which attempt to show just how the pipes rang over 400 years ago.

John Wall, one of the leaders of the Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project, commented to Phys: 

“This project, and others like it, make the past available to us in new ways,” Wall says. “I can read a worship service, but hearing those services performed as if I were in St. Paul’s cathedral in the 1620s is a completely different experience. It’s a dramatic way of helping us understand the past, and the art, music, architecture, and literature that have come down to us from that time.”

Wall has made some 20 recordings available to view on his YouTube page. These include sermons, songs, readings, and even a “fly-through” of the virtual premises. The website expands on this, giving a detailed account of their work, as well as providing more recordings. They demonstrate the sounds of the church’s bells, as well as responsorials, so that the viewer can hear the whole church alive with song. 

Visit the Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project to learn more.

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