April 14, 2016, by Chris Huff
If ever there was a thorn in the side of a sound tech, it would be one labeled VOLUME.
A couple of days ago, I talked about balancing the stage volume with house volume.
But that’s not the volume thorn I’m discussing. I’m talking about the right house volume level.
My favorite volume story comes from a sound tech working a concert. A person came up to the sound booth and said “it’s too loud” and another person walked up after them and said “it’s not loud enough.”
He looked at both of the people and said, “You two talk it over and let me know what you want me to do.”
Funny story, but it really describes the nature of setting the proper house volume.
When It All Goes Horribly Wrong
The church environment, like any organization, has people who can determine the right volume level.
For example, if the pastor says, “it’s too loud,” then you turn it down. This seems all well and good but then it happens. Someone in power gets the wrong idea about the right volume level.
I received an email this week from a tech who wrote, “the church board believes more volume means better worship.”
It’s that simple?
OK, how about I crank the volume to 120 dBa for every song. Oh, you want it “as loud as it can go?” NO! SETTING THE RIGHT VOLUME IS NOT THAT EASY!
Setting the right volume comes down to three things:
1) Hearing safety
2) The needs of the congregation
3) Mixing to match the volume
1. Hearing Safety
Let’s get this one out of the way. You must provide a safe volume level so as not create permanent or temporary hearing loss.
This doesn’t mean you can’t “mix loud.” It means you shouldn’t rattle teeth.
One problem with mixing on the louder side is when people bring up the OSHA’s (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) hearing level safety chart as a means of saying it’s too loud. You can see it here about halfway down the page as “TABLE G-16 – PERMISSIBLE NOISE EXPOSURES.”
This chart lists the limits for sound levels over a period of time. I have actually had this conversation with a congregation member who contacted me regarding their church, “I bought a sound meter and watched it during the worship time. They exceeded the OSHA numbers.”
At this point, I asked the question, “Did you use A or C-weighting?” I didn’t mind having the conversation with them about their church’s sound, but I did want to make sure they weren’t comparing apples to oranges.
The problem with the OHSA chart and using it for comparison of live audio production is that the OSHA chart is based on constant noise as one would find in a manufacturing facility with constantly running machinery.
For example, when their chart shows a limit of 2 hours for 100 dBa, they are talking about a constant noise for two hours. Worship sets aren’t apt to run for two hours and they aren’t going to be that loud the whole time.
Therefore, don’t worry too much about the chart. Common sense should tell you went it’s too loud. You should also consider…
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.