2. The Needs Of The Congregation
The best way to set the volume level is by basing it on the number of people singing, standing, raising their hands in praise, whatever your congregation tends to do that shows they are fully engaged in worship.
So let’s talk practical application.
Consider the following process for meeting the needs of the congregation regarding volume level:
A) Set the volume during the sound check based on what you think is right.
B) Once the service starts and the worship band starts, look at the congregation and slowly raise the master fader volume. At some point, you’ll see more or less people fully engaged in worship. Slightly raise and lower that fader until you find the right level. The more stoic the congregation, the harder this can be.
C) Once you find that ideal volume, check to see what is it using a dB meter. The next time you run sound for a service, do steps 1 and 2 again and check again with the meter. You’ll find a few things happen from one service to the next and from one song to the next.
First, your average dB levels will vary slightly from service to service, and that’s OK. It means you are meeting the needs of the congregation for each particular service.
Second, you’ll find that a soft song might sound better at a lower volume than a higher one.
Let’s talk real numbers. I won’t recommend volume level because it all depends on your room and the congregation.
For example, in one church, I ran the worship sets around 86 dBa(slow). At the church I’m at now, I run around 94 dBa(slow). I know guys that run their worship sets around 104 dBa(slow). 86 dB to 104 dB is a huge difference. It’s a matter of what sounds right in the room and how the congregation reacts.
All that to say you have to use your ears. You have to watch the people.
3. Mixing To Match Volume
Mixing music isn’t as simple as dialing in the mix and leaving everything alone. Not only do you have mix changes required from one song to the next, the volume of the song affects your mixing. This can be heard in the high-end and low-end sounds. As soon as you lower the overall volume of the band, the first thing you’ll notice is the highs and lows seem to have significantly dropped off.
Therefore, when you are suddenly mixing a slow song that would benefit from a lower volume, listen to where you highs and lows have gone. You’ll likely have to boost instruments and vocals in those areas. You might find that a little EQ work in those areas is also helpful.
A Caution On Volume Creep
I must caution you on volume creep. If you have a rockin’ worship set, it’s easy to boost the volume. This can happen for two reasons:
1) It rocks! You naturally want to ROCK IT like when you turn up the radio when a good song comes on. I’m guilty of this one.
2) Temporary threshold shift. This happens when your ears get used to the loud volume and it registers differently. The same loud volume no longer sounds loud.
Boosting volume for effect is a valid use of volume boosting but don’t let yourself get tricked into boosting the volume because you suddenly think it needs it.
The Take Away
I’ve seen it all when it comes to the volume wars. I’ve seen techs have to debate about decibel numbers. I’ve seen it get ugly: “I want it louder.” “I want it softer.”
Everyone from the congregation members to the sound techs to the musicians to the pastors has an opinion.
Focus your volume control in the areas of hearing safety, needs of the congregation, and mixing to match the volume. It’s through these areas that you’ll find the right volume for the congregation.
(As a side note, if you are in a situation where you have a volume cap that you’re not to exceed and you feel it’s too low of a volume, ask for a one or two-service reprieve. Use the above information for volume control during those services. Then see how the congregation responds during the service and what comments they make after the service. You might get that volume limit lifted.
If you are in a situation where you are told to run it louder, then bring a member of the church board into the booth during the service and explain how volume is driven by safety and congregational response. Let them watch you as you work.)
Chris Huff is a long-time practitioner of church sound and writes at Behind The Mixer, covering topics ranging from audio fundamentals to dealing with musicians – and everything in between.