It’s been a while since we’ve discussed everyone’s favorite live sound topic in the church; volume! Almost nothing will get people fired up more than trying to figure out how loud to run a service. If you ask 10 people in the congregation, you’re liable to get 11 answers. When I was a TD regularly mixing, I would get complaints from some people that it was too loud and from others that it wasn’t loud enough. And that was for the same service. The reality is, it will be almost impossible to please everyone in the congregation when it comes to volume. However, there are some things that we need to know before we even enter into the conversation.
It May Be a Style Thing
A service mixed at 85 dBA SPL 10 second average may be too loud for someone if they don’t like Hillsong-style worship music. But that same person may have no problem with a pipe organ cranking away at 105 dBA SPL 10 second average. Some people see guitars on stage and say, “It’s too loud!” even if the guitars aren’t playing. Before you get into a heated argument about actual level, make sure you’re really talking about volume.
It May Be a Mix Balance Thing
I’m an old guy now, but I still like music reasonably loud for worship. However, I’m not digging the current trend to make the kick and bass the lead vocal. I’ve heard several mixes—if they can be called mixes—where pretty much all I could hear (and feel) was the kick and bass. No vocals, no guitar, no keys, no anything else. And the low end was flappy and all over the place anyway. But for some reason, that’s how the guy mixed it. In all of those cases, the mix was too loud for me. It was just plain unpleasant to listen to. I really wouldn’t have mattered if it was 100 dB or 85 dB.
I’ve also heard a few rooms where the system was tuned with so much energy in the 1-4 KHz range that it felt like an ice pick to the forehead. Again, it doesn’t really matter what level we’re talking about at that point, it’s too loud. This is where an RTA can be really helpful to see what’s going on in the room. If you see a big hump in the middle of the frequency range, you need to fix that because you’re going to get complaints.
At that point, you have to figure out if it’s your mix or system tuning. But either way, you need to fix it.
It May Be a Acoustic Instrument Thing
Live drums are generally pretty loud. When churches put a full drum kit on a stage in a small room with all hard surfaces, the drums are going to be loud. In fact, they will probably louder than you want without even putting them in the PA. And you can’t turn them down at that point. I’m not going to go into how to solve that problem here (we’ve talked about that already—search for it), but those cymbals can be a chief source of complaints. Similarly, if you have guitar amps or bass amps on stage, they can often overpower the PA if the musicians aren’t disciplined.
In this case, it actually is too loud. If you have to run the level of the mix higher than you ordinarily would just to make it work with the drums or guitars on stage, you have some work to do. Floor wedges can present a similar challenge. When I arrived at Coast Hills, when I turned off the main PA and measured just the stage wash, we were at about 86-88 dBA at FOH 90 feet away. At that time, our volume limit was 88 dB at FOH. I was pretty much done, so I went home.
No, I didn’t go home, but you can see the challenge. It took a lot of energy, time and no small amount of money to fix that issue. But we did.
The point of this article is to get you thinking about volume in a different way. It’s a much more nuanced problem than just what the Radio Shack SPL meter says. Or worse, the uncalibrated SPL app that everyone has on their phone. And by the way, the next time someone walks up, phone in hand telling you how loud it is, just ask them when the last time they calibrated their phone to an industry standard reference calibration. Then show them the calibration page and ask them where their calibration source is. That usually settles them down.
Before you go getting into an argument about how loud it is, make sure you identify the real problem. What’s your favorite volume-related issue?
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One of the most common questions we get at CTA is how to build volunteer teams. We dig deep into that topic tonight with a guy who is really doing a great job with it. Get out the pencil and paper, you're going to want to take notes...
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Last week while in Atlanta for the Catalyst conference, I got to hang out with my friend Nick Rivero and his new wife, Sarah. Not only did we have some great BBQ, but we had a great time talking about production, touring, and building stuff. As we talked, I was reminded of a night a few years ago when Thomas and I got to hang out with him at the Staples Center in LA. Nick was touring with Lady Antebellum as a video system tech. We got a tour of the entire production; backstage, the stage itself and FOH. And then there was the show, which was also pretty impressive.
I won’t go into a lot of details about the evening itself as that is not the point of this article. I will say the show was great; and everyone we met was very gracious and friendly. We felt very welcome there and stayed all the way to the end of tear down. I tend to really pay close attention whenever I get to do something like this as there are always things I can learn to make my processes better. What follows are some of my key takeaways.
Predictability and Consistency is Important
On multiple occasions I asked Nick how much things changed up for the evening’s show over the course of the tour. And on each occasion he said, “Not much.” At one point we were talking about how they wire their system up each day and he said (and I’m quoting from memory, so it may not be word for word, but it’s close), “When you’re doing this every day, you want things the same as possible.” Another time I asked him about the walk-in playlist, wondering if it changed up each night. Again, the answer was, “Nope. It’s kind of nice to have that predicability. After a while, you know when you get to this song, you have a few minutes to go.”
As I am a huge fan of consistency, this was really more of a reinforcement for me than a lesson. But still, it’s always good to challenge your thinking, then come to the conclusion that you’re headed in the right direction. Doing things the exact same way has saved me on many, many occasions. Once I find a process that works, I repeat it over and over again until I come up with a better process.
Many Hands Don’t Make Light Work; Many Skilled Hands Do
We’ve heard that verse repeated over and over again in church and in many respects it’s true. However, I loved watching the union hands come out to strike the show after the concert was over. The various team leaders on the tour would give a bunch of guys some brief instructions and off they would go. Near the beginning, I watched Nick say, “OK, green shirt guys, my name is Nick. I need you to take all these cables, coil them up to the end and bring them back here. Thank you.” Within a few minutes all the projector and camera looms were neatly coiled and returned to video world. Even more fun to watch were the riggers. Without hardly a word, trusses starting coming down, fixtures were removed and returned to road cases and lines coiled. The whole show was loaded out in a few hours.
Contrast that to the typical church “y’all come help teardown” party. It’s chaos! One or two technical people will try to herd the army of cats on stage as cables get coiled improperly, equipment gets put away in the wrong spot (or worse, lost), things get taken down that should be left up. Sometimes, people even get hurt.
I prefer fewer people with more skill. Give me a few guys that know how to wrap cable and ask good questions over a dozen completely unskilled people every time. During my last few years as a TD, I adopted this approach for our big events. Instead of recruiting huge teams, I hand-picked a few guys who I had worked with and knew would do things the right way. It went much better.
Being Together Still Matters
With the rise of “online church,” some of us are wondering what the future holds for the weekend service experience. At the show, I was again reminded of the power of being in a large group, experiencing something together. I am not typically a fan of large crowds, but I will say there was an energy and excitement in the room that doesn’t exist when I listen to their CD or watch a video in my office. One of the big things we still do well as the Church is bring people together for a common experience. When God is doing something in our midst, it is palpable, and being part of that with a few hundred or a few thousand others is powerful. We mustn’t forget that.
What do you learn when you go to a concert?