Who Is To Blame For Volume Problems?

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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.

  2. Anonymous says

    Good content. Don’t have much time or I’d contribute more thoughts. One thing I’d caution – from purely a technical perspective – is that you further clarify your ‘dB’ reference. As you probably know, weighting curves on an SPL meter can adjust the readout levels by 12-15 dB at times.

    I would suggest you clarify further by specifying the weighting curve. For us, we average 91dBA slow and peak at 96dBA slow. During a worship set at 91dBA slow, when my meter is switched to ‘C’ weighting, my readout would be 103dBC slow. Just a caution to clarify further so that everyone is on the same page regarding weighting.


  3. Admin says

    Thanks.  Ah, the difference a filter level makes!

    For those new to dB measurements, humans are more sensitive to sounds in the frequency range of 1 kHz to 4 kHz.  Sound measuring devices don’t take that into account, therefore they might read differently that what we actually hear.  Therefore, filters are applied within the devices to meet a specific need.

    A-weighting (the A filter) is similar to how we hear as it is less sensitive to very high and very low frequencies.  C-weighting (the C filter) is much more linear in it’s analysis and thus "weighs" the lower and higher frequencies much more than the A filter.  Therefore, like Travis mentioned, a higher dB readout would occur with a C-weight compared to an A-weight.  dBA = A filter, dBC = C filter.

    Regarding the words "slow"…this referes to the response rate of the instrument.  Specifically, it determines how quickly the instrument responds to fluctuating noise. Fast response has a time constant of 125 milliseconds. Slow response has a time constant of one second.

  4. says

    Good stuff. I’m with you all the way and support with these thoughts:

    …leads to the eventual understanding, at least for me, that only songs that appeal to an older crowd should be sung.

    Exactly. Humans have this strange tendency to diminish everything by finding equality in the lowest common denominator.

    The spiritually mature should care deeply whether or not we are evangelistic and relevant in our approach. Modern worship music (band, production and all) has doubtless been a driving force in church growth and life-change the last couple decades. If 20 minutes on Sunday morning is your only time of worship and you care more about your brief experience than reaching the current generation in a media-saturated culture, you might lack spiritually maturity at any age. Just sayin’.

    “But a church service isn’t a concert at which an audience sings along with the real performers.”

    It doesn’t feel that way to me or most of my friends. We love it. It engages us. Older folks like to sing the music while we like to sing and worship *in* the music. The band and FOH engineers (if truly humble) serve us in an act of worship to God.

    You can’t give everyone in the congregation a drum kit, a mic, a guitar, or keyboard so only a few will lead. If that, coupled with loud volume, constitutes a performer/congregation barrier for a church then they have bigger issues to tackle.

    After 7 years of fielding volume complaints at my church I can confidently say it’s more generational than anyone cares to admit. On days we get complaints from the over-50s we get compliments from the under-30s. Every time. I’m curious; is it the same for you?

  5. Phil says

    Whats really sad is people spending all this time complaining about levels instead of stepping up and volunteering. Not everyone has the “ear” to mix, but if we could take these folks out for coffee and come to some understanding on the levels, then maybe the “complainers” could help us coil up cables or reset the stage on occasion. Our church once received a letter from an experienced sound tech critiquing our mix and how we’re doing this and that all wrong. Of course, our response was “great! we need more folks on the team and this guy seems to know what he’s talking about” But, the response is usually “oh, I’m too busy for that” or whatever. Its all just petty excuses and they will have to account for that before God when He asks us what we did w/our time,talents and treasures.

  6. says

    I am the Tech Director and primary FOH guy at my church. I consider the safety of our ears on Sunday mornings my responsibility. I did a lot of research and trial and error before we arrived at our current state. We run low 90s A-slow. Deemed entirely safe by all standards when you factor in average levels over the duration of an event.

    I think the article you referenced is a very biased and opinionated article presented as if it were fact and I’d be a little ashamed of it if I were the publisher. That’s just my OPINION though.

    Many of his thoughts are spot on in many churches. And way off in others. If there was one way to do it for churches we wouldn’t have so many in the first place. Style & volume of worship is as much a preference as anything. And please, don’t assume that because your PA is old and insufficient for your current services that mine must be as well.

    Thanks for bringing a good counterpoint to that poor article. Thanks for mentioning that missing link whether he/she is good or bad, the person mixing has a TON to do with the end product of a band on stage. You can’t ignore that if you are writing an article on volumes. Quite an oversight on his part.

  7. says

    Great post, bro!! You hit on the balance between rocking and not being self-indulgent. I agree that we can be louder than we think we can. But if it’s so loud that it’s impinging upon people’s ability to worship the Lord, we gotta back it off no matter what the meter or our ears say. Very informative post, bro!

    On a side note, it’s interesting that the ‘older’ generations are not so ‘old’ anymore as we get further into the future. A 60-year-old now, would have been born around 1950. Which puts him or her in their teens and early 20’s in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s……chances are a lot of our ‘older’ members might have grown up on some Zeppelin. :)

  8. Michael @ NCFF says

    I’m sorry I didn’t see this post when it first came out. I would’ve liked to join the discussion.

    I agree with John on his first 2 points. I have a micro-manager worship leader who insists on catering to 19-20 year old’s who want in-front-of-the-speaker rock concert stage volume. He’s not happy unless I’m running 96-98 dB with peaks at 100 dB. Without this he says there’s not enough “energy” in the mix. I’ve tried to tell him that more volume doesn’t equal more energy but he won’t listen.

    So the real bottom line is… it’s not the musicians or sound guy, it’s the worship leader with the control issue and bad research.

    P.S. If someone can show me some published OSHA dB levels, I’d appreciate it.

  9. Admin says

    First off, here is the link to osha levels.  Second, you didn’t mention in your dB listing if that was dBa or dBc and if it was slow or fast.  The a and c weighting can make a big difference.  As for these osha levels, I’ve heard some say osha seems to allow for more time than they expected at certain levels.

    Another sound tech told a great story to me about how he would run the sound for the praise band at the typical level for a few weeks.  Then he’d boost the volume a bit.  If he added just enough, there was more energy, but if it’s too loud, there is less energy.  The energy was seen via people raising their hands and moving a bit more. 

    In my sanctuary, I run around 87 dBA(fast).  I have cranked it to 90 but based on the size of the room and the congregation, 90 is my upper limit.  When the praise band sings, the congregation sings and all voices should be heard.  That’s what works for my room.  I also know a lot of guys that run 94.  Different place, different space.

    I wish I had my SPL meter when I was at a recent MWS concert because I could hear the band perfectly as well as the crowd singing.  Ah, another day…