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Church Sound: The Thorn In Every Sound Tech’s Side—House Volume Level

The challenge to balance "too loud" against "not loud enough"

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.”

This article is provided by Behind The Mixer.

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…

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