It’s been a while since we’ve discussed everyone’s favorite live sound topic in the church; volume! Almost nothing will get people fired up more than trying to figure out how loud to run a service. If you ask 10 people in the congregation, you’re liable to get 11 answers. When I was a TD regularly mixing, I would get complaints from some people that it was too loud and from others that it wasn’t loud enough. And that was for the same service. The reality is, it will be almost impossible to please everyone in the congregation when it comes to volume. However, there are some things that we need to know before we even enter into the conversation.
It May Be a Style Thing
A service mixed at 85 dBA SPL 10 second average may be too loud for someone if they don’t like Hillsong-style worship music. But that same person may have no problem with a pipe organ cranking away at 105 dBA SPL 10 second average. Some people see guitars on stage and say, “It’s too loud!” even if the guitars aren’t playing. Before you get into a heated argument about actual level, make sure you’re really talking about volume.
It May Be a Mix Balance Thing
I’m an old guy now, but I still like music reasonably loud for worship. However, I’m not digging the current trend to make the kick and bass the lead vocal. I’ve heard several mixes—if they can be called mixes—where pretty much all I could hear (and feel) was the kick and bass. No vocals, no guitar, no keys, no anything else. And the low end was flappy and all over the place anyway. But for some reason, that’s how the guy mixed it. In all of those cases, the mix was too loud for me. It was just plain unpleasant to listen to. I really wouldn’t have mattered if it was 100 dB or 85 dB.
I’ve also heard a few rooms where the system was tuned with so much energy in the 1-4 KHz range that it felt like an ice pick to the forehead. Again, it doesn’t really matter what level we’re talking about at that point, it’s too loud. This is where an RTA can be really helpful to see what’s going on in the room. If you see a big hump in the middle of the frequency range, you need to fix that because you’re going to get complaints.
At that point, you have to figure out if it’s your mix or system tuning. But either way, you need to fix it.
It May Be a Acoustic Instrument Thing
Live drums are generally pretty loud. When churches put a full drum kit on a stage in a small room with all hard surfaces, the drums are going to be loud. In fact, they will probably louder than you want without even putting them in the PA. And you can’t turn them down at that point. I’m not going to go into how to solve that problem here (we’ve talked about that already—search for it), but those cymbals can be a chief source of complaints. Similarly, if you have guitar amps or bass amps on stage, they can often overpower the PA if the musicians aren’t disciplined.
In this case, it actually is too loud. If you have to run the level of the mix higher than you ordinarily would just to make it work with the drums or guitars on stage, you have some work to do. Floor wedges can present a similar challenge. When I arrived at Coast Hills, when I turned off the main PA and measured just the stage wash, we were at about 86-88 dBA at FOH 90 feet away. At that time, our volume limit was 88 dB at FOH. I was pretty much done, so I went home.
No, I didn’t go home, but you can see the challenge. It took a lot of energy, time and no small amount of money to fix that issue. But we did.
The point of this article is to get you thinking about volume in a different way. It’s a much more nuanced problem than just what the Radio Shack SPL meter says. Or worse, the uncalibrated SPL app that everyone has on their phone. And by the way, the next time someone walks up, phone in hand telling you how loud it is, just ask them when the last time they calibrated their phone to an industry standard reference calibration. Then show them the calibration page and ask them where their calibration source is. That usually settles them down.
Before you go getting into an argument about how loud it is, make sure you identify the real problem. What’s your favorite volume-related issue?