How Loud is Too Loud?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about how loud we run our services. I got to thinking about this recently while going through a thread on the church sound forum. The question was posed, "How loud at FOH?" The answers varied greatly, from in the mid 80s to well over 105 dB SPL. Then a debate ensued about whether the metering of the sound should be done with A-weighting, C-weighting, fast or slow response and where the meter should be placed. Because I'm a geek at heart, I really enjoyed the discussion, and ended up doing a bunch of extra research to better understand the whole topic of sound level metering.

But something was bothering me. The thought that we can quantify how our various congregations perceive loudness and represent that with a single empirical number troubled me. There are so many factors that affect perceived loudness. Consider these factors as a non-exhaustive list:

  • The acoustic signature of the room
  • The tuning of the speakers
  • The quality of music on the stage
  • The skill of the FOH engineer
  • The type of music
  • The temperature, humidity and loading of the room
  • The mood of the congregation (are they into the worship, or more passive?)

Those are just some of the factors. Some we can control or change, and others we may be stuck with. For example, consider the tuning of the loudspeakers. A while back, we had an issue with the tuning of our room. People were actually leaving the worship service because it was "too loud." From a purely SPL standpoint, it wasn't that loud; maybe 90-92 dBA. However, when a vocalist really belted it out, or the drummer hit the cymbals hard, it would just about take your head off. It hurt to be honest. Because we were still using floor wedges, we had to keep the FOH level high to cover up the stage wash. Now, when people are walking out of the worship service because it's too loud, there is a problem. So we fixed it.

By switching to personal monitors and EQ'ing and time aligning the all the speakers, we've improved the situation by a large margin. Now we can mix the house sound without having to just cover up the stage wash, and while we still run peaks between 88-92, people have actually thanked me for turning it down.

Or take the skill of the FOH engineer (and I have no one in particular in mind here...). If the sound tech is not particularly adept at mixing, he or she could construct a mix that is painful to listen to regardless of the actual level. Improper EQ on vocals is a prime offender. Because our ears are generally more sensitive in the mid to upper midrange, if the vocals are too hot between 2-3K, the entire mix will sound "too loud." Or if th music is overtaking the vocals and the mix lacks clarity, it will sound "too loud."

Even the style of music will dictate what is too loud and what is not. A soft reflective ballad of a worship song may sound just right at 80 dBA in our room, while a really rocking number feels perfect at 92 dBA. However take that same ballad up to 92 and it sounds "too loud."

So I propose this: If it sounds too loud, it is - regardless of what the meter says. Now, if this doesn't open up a can of worms I don't know what will. Who is to be the final arbiter of what "sounds too loud?" I suspect that will vary from church to church, but there should be consensus between the music pastor, senior pastor, sound tech and the congregation. This is not to say that we take a poll, but let's face it, if the congregation is leaving during worship or complaining because it's too loud, it's too loud. Once a philosophical level has been agreed upon, the SPL meter can be useful for making sure things don't get out of control.

For example, in his book The Heart of Technical Excellence, Curt Taipale talks about a plan where more experienced sound techs are allowed to mix with peaks ranging in the 90-92 range (this range will depend totally on your room), while less experienced techs are only allowed to go to 86 - 88. The techs then need to be trained to understand what music needs to be near the top of their allowed range and what needs to be lower. In any case, exceeding the top of the range can be cause for a "time out" of no mixing for a while. The ranges were set and agreed upon by the music director, technical director with input from those in the body and pastoral staff.

This is getting long, but I guess my point is, don't blindly follow the number on a little meter as your final determining point of loudness. There is so much more to it that we can't simply say, "The meter says 92 - it's not too loud!" That may be true, or it may not. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the matter - this is by no means the final word on the issue!