Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

It’s Too Loud Pt. 2

OK, we’re back to discussing the age old question of loudness in the church. Just how loud is too loud? First, consider this: Volume should be relative to:

  • Attendance
  • Quality
  • Acousitcs
  • Worst Seat in the House
  • Visual Expression
  • Instrumentation
  • Context

That list is courtesy of Chris Gille of Willow Creek. Some of those items are fairly obvious. A lightly attended mid-week service probably doesn’t need to be as loud as a full-house Sunday morning. If the band is sub-par, turning them up won’t help (go ahead, ask me how I know this!). The acoustics of your room play a role, too. How does your room react do different levels, and different loading (the number of people and where they sit). You need to consider how loud (or soft) it is in the worst seat in the house. What type of visuals are happening, and are they served better by loud or soft? Consider instrumentation; a solo acoustic guitar ballad probably doesn’t need to be 104 dB. Finally the context. Is this a rockin’ praise set or a funeral? It makes a difference.

Now that we’ve thought about what affects how loud it should be, we should have a means of coming up with some sort of empirical  measurement of how loud it is. The easiest way to do that is with a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) meter. You can pick one up at Radio Shack for about $50. I suggest you start by placing the meter at FOH and paying attention to it for a few services. What kind of readings are you getting? How loud does it get? What does a soft song look like? Do this for a few weekends and you’ll have some data.

Next, you need to sit down with the church leadership and come up with some guidelines. Look at your data. If the consensus is that it was too loud for those weeks in question and you’re seeing peaks of 100 + dB, then you need to back it down. If it feels like it could go up, take it up. It may take a month or two to come up with a policy, but once you do, you then have an answer to give people who ask about it. 

It’s helpful to know what you should be measuring. The best setting for measuring music is C-weighted as it more closely approximates how we hear. However, there’s very little research being done with C-weighting, so Chris recommends that you use A-weighted, slow. That will give you an average over the last second or so of the level. There is a wealth of data using A-weighting (for example, the maximum allowable daily exposure for 95 dBA is 4 hours—did you know that?) 

The point of all this is to get to a place where when someone says it’s too loud, you can give an answer that will be supported by the leadership. And it will get to a place of consistency if you have multiple people mixing. Everyone knows the target ranges (for example, Willow runs their services between 85-95 dBA), and can mix appropriately. 

Once you work your way through this process, you will have the leadership on the same page and will know for sure if you are “too loud” or not. If you have someone chronically complaining about the level, you can eventually suggest that this might not be the church for them. Everyone has different tastes, and as we said earlier, we will never please everyone. Ever.

10 Comments

  1. chris.briley@brownsbridge.org

    Great blog! Good insight! I would love to share some light on what we have discovered about volume. We have consistently kept our worship sets around 95db A. But the song choices have had the biggest affect on our complaints. When the worship songs are continuous bagging…..symbols bagging…..piano bagging. We get complaints. We have had louder songs but with the band giving better separation to parts and actually had people say, “Why can’t you always run it at that volume?” It was actually louder according to the meter! Some songs just sound louder and often times the the sound guy becomes the fall guy when it comes to volume.

    I love all the Hillsong United songs that a lot of people are using these days, but you have to be cautious with these songs. They, at times, can be a lot of bagging. If you just turn these songs down, they don’t sound right.

    There is a lot to be said for the musicianship. When bands really do their job and work out their parts and make sure they aren’t playing on top of each other. The clarity that can be achieved is beyond any mix. As a sound guy, my biggest struggles with volume has always come to the content.

    Great insight on all of this. We always get asked at North Point Ministries at how loud is too loud. It’s never an easy answer….but people always seem frustrated when we don’t give them a magic number and a weighting.

  2. chris.briley@brownsbridge.org

    Great blog! Good insight! I would love to share some light on what we have discovered about volume. We have consistently kept our worship sets around 95db A. But the song choices have had the biggest affect on our complaints. When the worship songs are continuous bagging…..symbols bagging…..piano bagging. We get complaints. We have had louder songs but with the band giving better separation to parts and actually had people say, “Why can’t you always run it at that volume?” It was actually louder according to the meter! Some songs just sound louder and often times the the sound guy becomes the fall guy when it comes to volume.

    I love all the Hillsong United songs that a lot of people are using these days, but you have to be cautious with these songs. They, at times, can be a lot of bagging. If you just turn these songs down, they don’t sound right.

    There is a lot to be said for the musicianship. When bands really do their job and work out their parts and make sure they aren’t playing on top of each other. The clarity that can be achieved is beyond any mix. As a sound guy, my biggest struggles with volume has always come to the content.

    Great insight on all of this. We always get asked at North Point Ministries at how loud is too loud. It’s never an easy answer….but people always seem frustrated when we don’t give them a magic number and a weighting.

  3. richard@mycrossroads.org

    Great stuff. We keep it at no louder than 96 dB for fast songs, 89 or so for slow, and 75-82 for teaching. Before we went to in-ears, we were at 104 on a regular basis, 90 db with the mains OFF. Yikes.

    That’s all before it was my department 😉

  4. richard@mycrossroads.org

    Great stuff. We keep it at no louder than 96 dB for fast songs, 89 or so for slow, and 75-82 for teaching. Before we went to in-ears, we were at 104 on a regular basis, 90 db with the mains OFF. Yikes.

    That’s all before it was my department 😉

  5. mike@churchtecharts.org

    Chris,

    Great points. Last week, I was mixing for our contemporary service and I was never quite happy with it. When I thought more about it, however, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t all my fault. We had piano, keys, violin, acoustic, electric, bass and drums, a compliment that’s not always bad. Except…

    The piano was playing the same chords as the acoustic; the keys were playing that same line in a string sound and we had the electric and violin filling in. It all ended up in our highly reverberant room sounding like mush.

    Later that evening, a different band with the same set of instruments (minus piano and violin), the mix sounded great—mainly because the musicians know how to stay out of each others way.

    As engineers, we can only mix what we’re given. If there are seven instruments on stage playing the same line, there’s no way we can make it sound like a tight band. Except of course, to turn a few of them off… 😉

    Thanks for reading!

  6. mike@churchtecharts.org

    Chris,

    Great points. Last week, I was mixing for our contemporary service and I was never quite happy with it. When I thought more about it, however, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t all my fault. We had piano, keys, violin, acoustic, electric, bass and drums, a compliment that’s not always bad. Except…

    The piano was playing the same chords as the acoustic; the keys were playing that same line in a string sound and we had the electric and violin filling in. It all ended up in our highly reverberant room sounding like mush.

    Later that evening, a different band with the same set of instruments (minus piano and violin), the mix sounded great—mainly because the musicians know how to stay out of each others way.

    As engineers, we can only mix what we’re given. If there are seven instruments on stage playing the same line, there’s no way we can make it sound like a tight band. Except of course, to turn a few of them off… 😉

    Thanks for reading!

  7. jblasongame@gmail.com

    Just found this website. Lots of good info here. I prefer A-weighted, and fast response. I’ve figured out how to read the fast response time accurately. Keep up the goods on audio.

  8. jblasongame@gmail.com

    Just found this website. Lots of good info here. I prefer A-weighted, and fast response. I’ve figured out how to read the fast response time accurately. Keep up the goods on audio.

  9. aaron@beawesomeinstead.com

    Mike,

    Great stuff. I have been involved in several church plants and this has always come up as a divisive point. I usually serve the role of tech guy or musician and I usually find my self speaking up for the Sound guy. Most sound people I talk too just want to mix and do an excellent job of it, but when they get the “it’s too loud” complaint it really hinders their ability to do their job the best they could. For one “it’s too loud” is so unspecific (like you covered in part 1) that it’s actually unhelpful if that’s all you get from a staff member, member, or whoever.

    I had a pastor once who I was standing with when someone said this and he told them (not verbatim) “I love you and want you here, but maybe the music is not for you. There is are some other great churches just down the road.” , I was shocked, but he said what he felt was best for our church, knowing what our goals were in that area.

    Thanks so much for this post.

  10. aaron@beawesomeinstead.com

    Mike,

    Great stuff. I have been involved in several church plants and this has always come up as a divisive point. I usually serve the role of tech guy or musician and I usually find my self speaking up for the Sound guy. Most sound people I talk too just want to mix and do an excellent job of it, but when they get the “it’s too loud” complaint it really hinders their ability to do their job the best they could. For one “it’s too loud” is so unspecific (like you covered in part 1) that it’s actually unhelpful if that’s all you get from a staff member, member, or whoever.

    I had a pastor once who I was standing with when someone said this and he told them (not verbatim) “I love you and want you here, but maybe the music is not for you. There is are some other great churches just down the road.” , I was shocked, but he said what he felt was best for our church, knowing what our goals were in that area.

    Thanks so much for this post.

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