If there’s one complaint that pastors and sound techs hear the most, it’s this: “Worship is too loud!”
There’s often a good reason for most of these types of complaints. Unfortunately, the issue is seldom a volume control problem.
Before sound techs and worship pastors can arrive at a positive solution for solving volume levels at church, it is important to cover some basic insights for acceptable and unacceptable volume ranges.
Volume Levels and Hearing
We measure volume in decibels, A-weighted (dBA). Zero dBA is, in theory, the lowest level of sound a human can hear. 140 dBA is an extreme level that results in pain. The average conversation registers about 60 dBA. The average concert runs anywhere from 90-120 dBA, depending on the venue.
As the volume goes up, so does the risk associated with hearing damage. And this risk increases with how much time the listener spends in a loud environment.
As a rule, someone can safely listen to 85 dBA sound for about eight hours until there is a risk of hearing damage. At 100 dBA, that time limit shrinks to less than two hours.
While it may be OK to listen to sound that is 100-110 dBA for short periods, it is extremely important that the total time exposure to this volume level be taken into careful consideration. The more time spent in a loud environment, the greater the risk of hearing damage.
(Note: The levels expressed here are slow response averages, not peak levels which can exceed the average for short periods of time.)
Music Styles and Acoustics
Many listeners and sound techs believe the volume level should be different depending on the style of music being played for worship. That is simply not the case.
The style or genre of music does not dictate the volume (although it could be the choice of the sound tech or worship leader). It is the listening environment that most often dictates the minimum volume levels required.
A large room with a lot of background noise (e.g. singing congregation members) may require a louder listening level than a small room with minimal noise.
Room acoustics also play a considerable role in the amount of audio energy a room can be subjected to before things become hard to understand. Traditional cathedrals generally require very little volume before reinforced speech becomes unintelligible. Whereas a well-controlled room can easily sustain great amounts of volume before the energy overcomes the controlling acoustic properties of the room.
The only style decision that really dictates volume is that of congregational singing.
Some churches may wish to set the overall volume lower in order to allow the congregation to hear themselves participating in worship. Other churches choose to turn up the volume for a greater sense of musical presence for each listener. This can even be a mixing choice from song to song.
Many church leaders choose to use volume level targets to deal with arguments about how loud worship should be. For example, “worship should always average 88 dBA.” Well, maybe it should. And maybe it shouldn’t.
I’m not a fan of strict volume targets. But I do agree with implementing safe maximum volume restrictions.
A lot of live contemporary worship registers anywhere from 80-93 dBA. Some churches run quieter, some louder.
The volume targets for one church or venue should not be applied to all other churches or rooms. Acoustics vary, congregation size varies, worship priorities vary, etc. There are too many variables to responsibly state that worship should always average any particular volume level.
Volume targets can also become a crutch instead of a tool.
It’s not uncommon to hear sound techs justifying the volume of their mix simply because it didn’t cross the target volume threshold approved by the leadership team. While this may be a “safe” argument, it is not the best argument.
The right volume is what’s right for the room and the experience the leadership team wants to provide.
It’s All in the Mix
It is important to understand that most listener complaints about volume levels are not about volume at all.
Instead, the predominant cause of volume level complaints is an improperly balanced mix.
Maybe the lead vocal is too shrill. Or the electric guitar tone is overly present. And that snare drum can just be piercing at times.
There can be a lot of reasons for a mix that isn’t balanced.
Do This Before Adjusting Volume Levels
There are two things that will make a big impact on the quality of the mix with respect to volume: Layers and EQ.
Building a mix involves more than simply turning up various instruments or vocals until they can be heard. It is important that each component in the mix is adjusted relative to its proper place in that mix.
Mixing with layers can be very style dependent and team specific. The instruments or vocals that are at the front of the mix can vary greatly, however, it is important that the mix is built with clarity and intelligibility in mind.
A muddy mix with vocals that can’t be understood isn’t good for anyone, no matter how loud it is.
But the number one thing that can impact a mix the most, as well as solve a lot of volume perception issues, is EQ.
That shrill vocal is not fixed with volume. It is fixed with EQ. The over-present guitar tone requires some EQ too. And every drum with a microphone will certainly require some EQ.
Each instrument has its place in the mix. EQ allows that space to be defined and uncluttered.
One other tool that can assist with temporary volume peaks is the compressor. This can be very helpful on channels like the pastor’s mic, bass guitar, and drums.
EQ first, balance the mix, then use compression to help control the dynamics.
Winning the Volume War
Battles about volume shouldn’t be fought with earplugs and decibel meters. They should be thoughtfully engaged with effective mix layering, sensible EQ, and modest dynamic range control.
Target volume levels are not inherently bad, but they can be a terrible excuse for suffering through a bad mix.
Create a great sounding mix, then think about how loud it should be.