The Perfect Volume Pt. 3

That doesn't sound good, I don't care how loud or soft it is!

That doesn't sound good, I don't care how loud or soft it is!

If you want to have some fun, start a discussion on how loud worship music should be in church. It often ends up in a shouting match with people on both sides of the fence hurling insults at each other. OK, that may be a (slight?) exaggeration. Still, it tends to be a lively debate. In the last two posts, we’ve been unpacking a post written on Thom Rainer’s blog. I talked about what I agreed with, and what I disagreed with in that post. Starting today, I want to begin to suggest some solutions (we’re supposed to be prophets, not critics, remember?). 

I find that “volume” in church is often a problem, and yet the problem is rarely as simple as turning the volume down. What follows is a list of some of the most common problem areas I see that are related to volume. And this is in no particular order. 

Sometimes, the band is just not that good. I hate to start off by throwing the band under the bus, but it’s a real issue. If you have a couple of guys on stage sawing away at their electric guitars (generating no small amount of energy between 1-4 KHz), a bass player who thinks 5 string basses are great because he can play more notes and a drummer who has never heard of a half note, it’s not likely to be pleasant. Unless you’re at a speed metal concert. But you’re not; you’re in church. 

And it doesn’t have to be all electric instruments. I’ve seen churches stack up 4-5 acoustic guitars, 2 keyboards plus piano; and they’re all playing the same line! That’s a lot of energy in a region that can be painful at even moderate volumes. My point is, sometimes the best solution to a volume problem is to work with the band.

On the other hand, sometimes the mix is just not that good. Last time I mentioned a few events I’ve been too that were way too bass heavy. Now, I like a good solid low end. I have a sub in my living room and I know how to use it. But when the goal becomes trying to see how many fillings we can rattle loose in our congregants, I think we’ve missed the point. 

We also have a generation of sound guys who were raised on low bitrate MP3 files played through iPod headphones. If that’s the reference for how music should sound for these guys, it’s no wonder the mixes in churches (and everywhere else for that matter) sound so bad. 

A good mix will sound better at higher volumes than a bad mix at low volume. Getting this right is more than half the battle.

Sometimes the PA is not very good. While it’s true a great engineer can make even a bad PA sound OK, most churches don’t have great engineers. In fact, many—especially smaller churches—do well to have one good engineer. Why stack the odds against them by making them work on a crappy-sounding PA?

If the system is not tuned well, it’s going to take a lot of work to make it sound acceptable. If you have a pair of old crappy speakers in a gymnasium, it’s not likely to sound amazing. It’s possible to get to good, or even great, but it is really hard. 

Churches, at least give your musicians and sound guys a fighting chance by providing them with a decent PA before beating them up over the volume.

Sometimes the music selection is simply wrong. I remember sitting in a class taught by Robert Scovill a number of years ago. When asked about volume problems, one of the things he said was, “Sometimes, people just don’t like electric guitars.” 

This goes back to the previous post somewhat. Why do churches who get regular complaints about the volume continue to pick loud, rocking songs? People can worship Jesus at many volume levels. It’s up to the worship leader to choose songs that can be mixed at appropriate volumes for the congregation he leads. 

The bottom line is that people complain about bad (or too loud) sound, yet refuse to upgrade the system or get training for the musicians and sound team. Leading worship is incredibly hard. Not only does it demand high technical skills—from playing to singing to mixing—it also demands high artistic skills, plus a healthy dose of spiritual sensitivity. 

When churches complain about the quality of the mix but fail to provide any training for their sound person, they are only perpetuating the problem. Did the pastor just show up one day knowing how to preach a great sermon? Of course not. Why would you expect a volunteer with not prior experience or training to know how to put together a Disney-quality mix? The same is true for the musicians. Stop complaining, pony up and get them some help.

OK, so those are some of the problems. In our next post, we’ll discuss some solutions.

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