Working Within Volume Limits

The topic for this post comes from a reader who wants to know what he should do when faced with the requirement to mix no louder than 85 dB SPL peaks. That’s right, 85 dB peaks.

Why I Hate Volume Limits 

I used to own a video production company. We were often hired to do video based on length. I always tried to talk the client out of imposing a length limit on a project saying, "The video needs to be as long as it needs to be, then it's done." I feel the same way about volume.

Ideally, the worship leader, FOH engineer and church leadership are all on the same page when it comes to volume. In that ideal world, the music will be mixed as loud as it needs to be to convey the power and energy (or lack thereof) required. The band, the song and the crowd will tell you how loud it needs to be. Go over that and it's too loud; go under and it's too soft.

Imposing a arbitrary limit on volume to me seems a bit like telling the pastor his sermon needs to be 3,000 words, no more, no less. But we live in a less than ideal world, and we have to live within arbitrarily defined volume limits. So what's a sound guy to do?

Investigate

The first thing I would do when faced with a limit like that is find out where the number is coming from. Is it based in an inaccurate reading of OSHA hearing protection guidelines? If so, educate yourself and have a rational conversation with your pastor. Help him to understand that 8 hours of exposure to 85 dBA SPL in a machine shop 5 days a week is a whole different animal than 85 dBA SPL peaks for 15 minutes of worship music.

If that's not the case, dig a little deeper and see where the number came from. Did someone wander by the booth one day and see 85 on the meter and think, "That sounds about right?" Are people complaining that it's "too loud?" Is it really too loud or are there spectral balance issues? Or perhaps the setter of the number doesn't like electric guitar. Or drums. 

Acoustic drums will generate 85 dB peaks with the PA turned off, so you need to figure out where this is coming from. 

System tuning and spectral balance are huge issues that can be addressed and give you a to more leeway in mixing at an appropriate level. 85 dBA mixes can still be excruciating, while 100 dBA can be enjoyable if done well.

Live Within Your Means

Or in this case, your leadership. In my current church, I have a different definition of “too loud” than my Sr. Pastor does. Since his is lower, I have to adapt my mixing style to suit him—he’s the boss after all. The challenge for me is that his definition changes week to week.

I’ve been told it’s “awesome” one week at 92-94 while it could be “too loud” at 90-91 next week. So I’ve spent a lot of time working on getting my mixes right, the balance correct and the system tuned to his liking.

I’ve also adapted a different way of metering my loudness. I use a software program called LAMA, which can display both a standard SPL readout (I use A, Slow) and an average (I have chosen 10-seconds). LAMA allows me to set colors at various levels so I have my average number turn yellow at 85 dBA SPL, and red at 91, which gives me a “corner of the eye” indication as to where I am.

I keep an eye on the standard readout as well, and occasionally my peaks run into the low to mid 90s, but for the last month and a half, if I keep my 10-second average below 90, my pastor is happy. Personally, I’d be happier if it was louder. But I’m not paid to be happy; I’m paid to make him happy. I often say, “If you can’t abide by the limitations your leadership puts on you, then you need to leave.” Same applies here.

Again, I would talk to my pastor and find out where this is coming from. As him if it would be OK to try mixing to a 85 dB 10-second average and see how that feels. Address the spectral and mix balance issues; you might be surprised.

Beware Compression

The reader asked if he should compress the inputs, and bus compress the mix to give him the power he wants, while staying under the “legal limit.” To me, that’s a little like putting your phone on speaker and holding it in front of you while you drive. 

Yes, you could compress the inputs a few dB, then bus  compress a few more, then compress the master another a little further, and compress it again in the DSP. That would certainly raise your average SPL while keeping your peak below 85. 

However, it’s very likely that this technique will result in the perception that it’s even louder, which may cause your limit to be lowered further. You could also hard-limit your DSP so you can’t exceed 85; but again, if you suck all the dynamics out of the music, all the life goes with it, and it will also sound louder. This would be self-defeating on two fronts. 

At the end of the day, I think you’re better off dealing with the root cause of the problem rather than trying to figure out how to stay below an arbitrary number. 

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