A couple of weeks ago the sound operator and I were standing in the middle of the main sanctuary trying to decide if the overall level was too hot.
We were also trying to understand why the stage volume seemed to be up significantly.
As we were talking (actually almost shouting, so that we could hear each other), I asked, “Is that the acoustic snare I’m hearing, or the amplified one?”
With the sound level meter showing peaks of nearly 95 dB (A weighted) and an average of about 88 dB (A), I knew it was probably amplified or a combination of the acoustic and amplified. As we walked closer to the stage, it was apparent that the drums, overall, were rather loud.
Recently, an excellent drummer (college age) started playing with our house worship band. His presence brought new energy and excitement to the band, in addition to showmanship and a positive stage presence enhancing our worship time. He is also, shall we say, a bit aggressive (read loud) in his playing.
Our stage set for this particular service brought the drum kit about 8 feet downstage (closer to the audience) from its normal location.
More importantly it placed the kit outside of an overhang/opening area toward the back of the stage.
So with the drums now in front of the opening - and fully inside the main room - we were hearing a lot more of the acoustic sound from the drum set than usual.
Between songs, the sound operator and I approached the worship leader (and head of the band) to ask him if he felt that the stage volume was a “bit much.”
He paused and then said, yeah the drummer is a bit loud, and I’ll talk to him.
Case closed, right? Well, I happened to overhear him talk to the drummer, and it went like this. Worship leader: “The drums are loud, a little too loud this morning, but that’s good.” Drummer: “Awesome, that’s right where I want to be, a little too loud, but good!”
In the past, I’ve discussed controlling worship drum sound.
Here, I’d like to focus more on overall volume, as in, how loud is too loud?
Much has been written about appropriate sound levels for worship services. I’ve talked with sound guys who use very sophisticated monitoring setups and others, like me, who rely on a Radio Shack sound level meter. Mine even has the old analog needle rather than a digital read-out.
I choose this simple metering technique because it’s an easy way to take an average of the overall dB level of a one-hour church service. Check out Tom Young’s excellent primer on sound level meters here.
OSHA states that you can experience 105 dBA for up to one hour a day. Here are a couple of OSHA charts on sound levels:
Clearly, it’s best to keep levels lower. Think about it: a contemporary worship band at 90 dBA and below can be listened to for some 8-16 hours every day. That’s absurd, of course, but it does highlight the point that levels should be kept under control as much as possible, with the region above 95 dB reserved for very short peaks. (Think about this within your overall approach to a mix.)
—If using a sound level meter to check levels, do yourself a favor and make sure that it’s set to dBA, not dBC. There’s a significant difference especially with respect to low frequencies.
—Set the response to slow. Peak level (easily seen on the fast response) is important if you’re above 100 dBA, but below that, I always look at the average level, which is best reflected by using the slow setting.
—Level is objective and subjective. For example, the lead guitarist might strike a note that’s already not pleasant to our ears, and if you cranked it up to 95 dBA, it would be painful to most people.
However, an overall quality mix at 95 dBA would be perceived as powerful, and not painful. So just because you measure it does not always mean that people will accept it. You may be technically right that your mix is 95 dBA, but you might get booted out of the sound booth because your ill-balanced mix is, well, painful.
My buddy Chris Gille has written an excellent letter explaining the overall dB level at Willow Creek and the explanation behind it. Read it here (pdf).
If you don’t own a sound level meter, I suggest investing in one. They’re not expensive. Or perhaps you own one but it’s gathering dust somewhere.
Regardless, help yourself and everyone else out by doing some basic measuring of levels during your services. Combine this data with listening and input from staff and attendees, to determine the best sound level for your worship services.
Finally, keep the meter handy and regularly and monitor your services to make sure you stay within the range.
Gary Zandstra is a professional AV systems integrator and has been involved with sound at his church for more than 25 years.