Who Is To Blame For Volume Problems?

I just finished reading an article by John Stackhouse on the terribly high volumes of worship bands during congregational praise times.

He claims five reasons why the band must turn down their volume.

  1. Cranking up the volume is just a cheap trick to add energy to a room.
  2. When your intonation is not very good turning it up only makes it hurt worse, specifically among harmony singers.
  3. Old speakers in most church PA systems cannot take that much energy.
  4. "Consider that you might be marginalizing older people, most of whom probably do not like Guns N’ Roses volumes at church."
  5. "By the time church music matured into Palestrina and Co. in the 16th century, it had become too demanding and ornate for ordinary singers. So Christians went to church to listen to a priest and a choir."  Or to paraphrase – simple is better.

I think  Stackhouse fails to recognize several points.

First, he does not mention the "sound guy" anywhere in his article.  It is ultimately the sound guy who has control over the volume levels.  If the sound is too loud (for a majority) or blares well above the congregation’s singing, then I agree it’s a problem.  Most sound tech’s I know run in the 92-96 dBA (slow) range.  This is within the "PERMISSIBLE NOISE EXPOSURES" as deemed by OSHA.  In fact, I know one who said when he runs the sound a little hotter, the congregation feels energized as can be observed by their actions (more hands in the air) and positive comments to him.  Bottom line here, it’s the sound guy, not the musicians who are usually to blame for volume problems.

I have made a generalization in saying it’s all on the sound tech.  There are times when the sound levels come straight from guitar and bass amp’s on a stage.  But when it comes down to it, someone has to take ownership and Stackhouse doesn’t mention the sound tech.

Second, the phrase "consider that you might be marginalizing older people, most of whom probably do not like Guns N’ Roses volumes at church" leads to the eventual understanding, at least for me, that only songs that appeal to an older crowd should be sung.  I think what he fails to capture is song arrangement and mixing. 

For example, listen to a song on CD while driving in heavy traffic.  Now listen to it via headphones.  Suddenly you hear instruments you never noticed before.  If all instruments are played at the same level, the music mix is no good.  Listen to classical music such as a piccolo that plays "in the background."  When everything is played at lower volumes then it’s even harder to separate out instruments into their appropriate space and you are not respecting the arrangement of the song or the listener’s ears.  This is not to say that levels have to be head-bangingly loud.

Third, the argument that "the speakers in most church PA systems" are not meant for such loud music (or wide frequency ranges) is a poor example.  If correct speakers were present, then it’s not an issue.  Such an argument should be used so churches have modern technology which can reproduce sound with a much higher quality. 

The only argument which I believe he properly raises is this…"But a church service isn’t a concert at which an audience sings along with the real performers."  This I see as a valid point in light of the emergence of worship teams over the last years, thanks in most part, I believe, in the popularity of praise albums. 

Refering to his Concert comment, why then, do performers like to play loud?  Human nature is my guess.  If I love a song, I crank up the volume in my car.  If I’m emotional or having a lot of fun, I’m more likely to strum harder on my guitar.  You combine these two things and you get loud music on stage.  This is where the sound tech has to step in and take control.

A sound tech can create a great mix that rocks the house without knocking out Uncle Chester’s false teeth.  How do we do that?  Easy, crank the volume until you see his teeth rattle out, then back it off a bit.  No, seriously, we have a responsibility to the congregation, and ultimately to God, to provide the best music mix so the best worship experience can be had by all.  We do that through proper stage monitor usage, proper lighting (prop’s to the light crew’s out there), proper music mixes, and proper sound levels. 

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  1. says

    All good comments guys, However, one thing I’d like to add is this. It isn’t to anyones advantage for you to post the levels that you run your house mix at without also providing some dimensions / seating capacity of your room, as well as the location of your FOH booth (distance from stage), which i assume is the point you are monitoring your SPL levels. Is your PA a flown array, or groundstacked, or speaker on a stick. All make a difference in how you and the audience hear the mix as well as area of coverage. Its great if you can tell your pastor,” Im running at 87 db A weighted.” if you are 100+ feet from your Mains, its a lot different if you’re only 20 feet from the stage.
    My booth sits under a balcony in a a 650 seat venue, with one balcony. 2 flown NEXO boxes over 1 dual 18 PAS sub/ side. I run @ 95 db A weighted (Slow) AVERAGE. sometimes i push 100db, sometimes in i’m in the mid 80’s depending on the song, and how how the band is playing. Usually in the 93-98db range.
    If you have a dynamic band and are struggling to really hone in on a consistent program level, or contain it to a hard ceiling, remember our good friend Buss Compression. I find it helps the mix ‘gel’ and FEEl louder without actually metering louder.
    hope this helps.

    Happy Mixing.