The Perfect Volume Pt. 4

It just looks loud doesn't it?

It just looks loud doesn't it?

Hasn’t this been fun? We’re talking volume—everyone’s favorite subject! I actually enjoy talking about it because it often tends to bring to light other issues that haven’t been dealt with. In the last post, I talked about some of the issues I see in many churches, and how those issues relate to volume. Today, I’ll throw out some suggestions for solutions. 

The music selection needs to be appropriate for the congregation. I don’t understand why all churches think they need to be the same. A pastor of a small church with an older congregation will go off to a conference at a big church, hear some loud, rocking worship, see the many hip young people showing up and come home thinking his church needs dramatic change. Maybe it does, but trying to change a church used to choir and organ into Hillsong United is going to be tough. 

One is not better than the other. The music selection should reflect the congregation, and the band should be able to do it well. I’ve had this conversation with our leadership. When we were struggling with volume, I said, “Look, if we want to be a quieter worship church, that’s OK. But we have to stop playing big Hillsong United and Planetshakers tunes. That stuff needs to be loud. But there’s plenty of great worship music that works well at lower volumes.” 

Choosing the right music that is appropriate for your congregation will go a long way in making whatever volume you end up at more acceptable.

The level needs to be appropriate for the music. You’ll notice I’ve deftly avoided quoting SPL numbers throughout this series, at least as far as guidelines go. The actual number is far less important than making sure everything is appropriate. Saying we need to mix all our music at XX dB SPLA is just silly. Sometimes XX is going to be too loud for a given song, other times it’s too quiet. Strive for appropriate. It’s a fine line, but it’s not impossible to find. 

See, the problem with defining an absolute SPL level is that SPL meters are stupid. All they can measure is the pressure at the surface of the reference microphone in dynes per square centimeter. That’s pretty useful, huh? An SPL reading doesn’t tell you anything about how the mix sounds, what the overall spectral content is or if it feels too loud or too soft. And truth be told, it takes a lot of experience for an engineer to learn how to discern what is too loud or soft. There is a much bigger conversation to be had than quoting a blog post from someone who measured the level of Disney shows with his iPhone (see the first article in this series). 

You need a good band, good engineers and a good PA to get good sound. A lot of churches want to simply blame the sound guy when it’s too loud. And sometimes it’s his fault. But as we’ve discussed, it’s often the fault of the band or the PA. All three issues need to be discussed and dealt with. 

If the real problem with volume is an acoustic drum kit, no amount of yelling at the sound guy “turn it down” will help. This is a holistic discussion. And it’s best had on a Tuesday night, not Sunday morning. 

Dynamic range is a good thing. Now I’m showing my age. I remember when music, and even entire albums had dynamic range. Ever since the volume wars began about 15 years ago, some seem to think that the goal is to start loud and stay as loud as possible for as long as possible. This is exhausting. The worst services I’ve ever been to were just one crazy loud song after another, with no breaks in between. 

Song sets that build, rest and breath feel so much better. It’s a lot easier to get loud when you also get soft. Range feels good. Pink noise, not so much. 

If you have a congregation made up of both older and younger members, doing a louder song, followed by a medium one then a softer one will take people on a journey and make it easier to keep everyone happy. Most people can take loud for a short time (as long as it sounds good), especially when it’s followed up by some really good sounding quieter moments. Your service doesn’t have to look like a square wave. 

So there you go. That’s about 3,000 words on volume. In truth, we could go on for another 30,000 words and not exhaust the topic, but hopefully this will start some productive conversations around it. But please, put away the iPhone, OK?

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