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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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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The Perfect Volume Pt. 2

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Last time, I was reflecting on an article I found on Thom Rainer’s blog entitled “How Loud Should Our Church Music Be?” In the last post, I took issue with a few points, namely that iPhones are useful for determining volume and that there is one perfect volume for all churches (I disagree with both those statements). But like I said at the end of that post, I agree with more of what he said than I disagree with.

I completely agree that spectral balance is key. He made the observation (from his free, RTA Lite app) that the overall sound was balanced and smooth. I would argue that spectral balance is more important than actual SPL levels in determining what is acceptable to a congregation and what is not. 

For example, even if we agreed that 75 dB (A- or C-weighted, it doesn’t matter for this illustration) SPL is the “perfect” volume, I could drive everyone out of the room by playing a 1KHz square wave at 75 dBA SPL. I could also put together a mix that sounds so offensive at 75 dB SPLA that people would still complain. On the other hand, I’ve heard mixes that averaged well over 100 dB SPLA and not only did people not complain, they had their hands up and wanted more. 

The key is getting the spectral balance right. Too many young engineers (and to be fair, some old ones) put way too much emphasis either on the extreme low end, or the top end. I’ve been to a couple of conferences lately where this was certainly true. At both, the low end was so over-emphasized that you could almost see those 8’ long waves gobbling up everything else. It sounded terrible—the volume didn’t matter at all.

But in a well crafted mix, people want more. At least up to a point. But we’ll get back to that. 

Like other things, content is king. He didn’t point this out as much in the article, but in subsequent comments, he pointed out that Disney has professional talent on stage and in the booth. So, the quality of the content in the mix was very high, and the mix itself was well done. It was also being played through a well tuned Meyer PA. He also intimated that there was the appropriate amount of dynamic range to the program. Because the average level was comfortable, loud portions of the show felt good. 

If most of the congregation thinks it’s too loud, it’s too loud. I’ll probably take some flak for this one, but I believe it’s true. I can’t figure out why churches with a mostly older demographic hire young worship leaders “to attract the younger people” then get upset when the worship gets loud. On the other hand, I can’t figure out why worship leaders and sound guys go into older churches and try to “turn the tide,” crank it up to 11 and then wonder why people get mad and leave. 

If you are standing in the sound booth looking out over the congregation and many of them have their hands over their ears, something is wrong. You need to figure out what it is. It may be a mix issue, the drums on stage may be too loud, or the music might be entirely wrong for the congregation. Or it may just be too loud. Either way, you’re not doing yourself or anyone else any favors by quoting OSHA guidelines or bible verses about loud worship. 

Most of the time, the absolute volume is not the issue, but when something is wrong, we need to investigate it and fix it. We’ll tackle what I think the most common issues are next time.

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The Perfect Volume

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Back in April (which gives you some indication of how long it took me to come up with a way to process this…), a worship leader named Jordan Richmond wrote a post on Thom Rainer’s blog. The post is entitled, “How Loud Should Our Church Music Be?” and it incited no small number of comments. In fact, if you have some time, go read the comments; some are quite amusing. 

I think the article raises an important point, and is a good starting point for discussion. However, I do take issue with a few things he said. His premise is that as a worship leader, he’s not unfamiliar with volume complaints. But how do you solve that? While on vacation at Disney World, he pulled out his trusty iPhone and measured the SPL at the shows he saw there. He came up with 75 dB [sic] as “the answer” to the correct volume. I put [sic] at the end of 75 dB because he didn’t specify A- or C-weighting, and that makes a big difference. But that’s not the only thing.

Uncalibrated iPhones with free SPL apps cause more harm than good. Now that every member of your congregation has an SPL meter in their pocket, the number of people telling us they have proof it’s too loud is going way up. The problem is, an uncalibrated iPhone or Android phone is not at all accurate. When I attempted a calibration on mine (using an actual SPL calibrator), I found my (paid and “professional”) SPL meter was off by −10 dB. That translates to about double the perceived volume. Even after I calibrated it, it’s not truly calibrated, it’s just close. 

So before we start talking absolute numbers, let’s be sure we are using an actual and calibrated SPL meter. Even those are not super-helpful in determining the appropriate volume, but we’ll get to that shortly.

I respectfully disagree that there is one perfect volume for all venues. Shoot, I won’t even agree that there is one perfect volume for one venue. Our church’s average and peak volumes vary by a good 5-8 dB depending on the song set, arrangements and band makeup. Some churches demand loud, energetic worship. Others prefer quieter, more contemplative music. This is OK!! I get really frustrated when I hear people talking about setting a universal standard for music levels. If you like quieter music, find a church that does quieter music. If you like it loud, go to a loud church. But don’t go to a church known for loud music and complain it’s too loud! Likewise, if you’re a worship leader or FOH guy, don’t go to a quiet church and try to recreate a Hillsong concert. That’s just—dare I say it?—stupid.

I would also disagree that Disney is the standard. Sure, Disney gets a lot of things right. I like going there when I can. I think we can learn a lot from how they do things; they create great experiences for their guests. But to say that the volume of their shows is the ideal volume is a bit of a stretch. First of all, I suspect the actual level was higher than 75 dB. Second, it’s totally different material. 

Realistically, I think you could find just as many people who think Disney shows are too quiet as those who think it’s too loud. And you can probably say the same for many churches. So I guess this another way of re-stating my previous point. Finding the appropriate volume for a particular church is a tricky thing, and it’s a very individual thing. 

I suspect many a church member, pastor and board member read that blog post and ran into the sound booth yelling, “Here it is! Proof that it’s too loud. Never more than 75 dB [sic] again!” This does about as much good at solving the volume problem as painting a green lobby blue does at placating those who don’t like anything but yellow. 

The article was not all bad, however. In fact, aside from those three points, I think he is on balance. In fact, I agree with more than I disagree with. Next time, I’ll unpack those thoughts.

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