How Loud is Too Loud?

8 05 2007

There has been a lot of discussion lately about how loud we run our services. I got to thinking about this recently while going through a thread on the church sound forum. The question was posed, “How loud at FOH?” The answers varied greatly, from in the mid 80s to well over 105 dB SPL. Then a debate ensued about whether the metering of the sound should be done with A-weighting, C-weighting, fast or slow response and where the meter should be placed. Because I’m a geek at heart, I really enjoyed the discussion, and ended up doing a bunch of extra research to better understand the whole topic of sound level metering.

But something was bothering me. The thought that we can quantify how our various congregations perceive loudness and represent that with a single empirical number troubled me. There are so many factors that affect perceived loudness. Consider these factors as a non-exhaustive list:

  • The acoustic signature of the room
  • The tuning of the speakers
  • The quality of music on the stage
  • The skill of the FOH engineer
  • The type of music
  • The temperature, humidity and loading of the room
  • The mood of the congregation (are they into the worship, or more passive?)

Those are just some of the factors. Some we can control or change, and others we may be stuck with. For example, consider the tuning of the loudspeakers. A while back, we had an issue with the tuning of our room. People were actually leaving the worship service because it was “too loud.” From a purely SPL standpoint, it wasn’t that loud; maybe 90-92 dBA. However, when a vocalist really belted it out, or the drummer hit the cymbals hard, it would just about take your head off. It hurt to be honest. Because we were still using floor wedges, we had to keep the FOH level high to cover up the stage wash. Now, when people are walking out of the worship service because it’s too loud, there is a problem. So we fixed it.

By switching to personal monitors and EQ’ing and time aligning the all the speakers, we’ve improved the situation by a large margin. Now we can mix the house sound without having to just cover up the stage wash, and while we still run peaks between 88-92, people have actually thanked me for turning it down.

Or take the skill of the FOH engineer (and I have no one in particular in mind here…). If the sound tech is not particularly adept at mixing, he or she could construct a mix that is painful to listen to regardless of the actual level. Improper EQ on vocals is a prime offender. Because our ears are generally more sensitive in the mid to upper midrange, if the vocals are too hot between 2-3K, the entire mix will sound “too loud.” Or if th music is overtaking the vocals and the mix lacks clarity, it will sound “too loud.”

Even the style of music will dictate what is too loud and what is not. A soft reflective ballad of a worship song may sound just right at 80 dBA in our room, while a really rocking number feels perfect at 92 dBA. However take that same ballad up to 92 and it sounds “too loud.”

So I propose this: If it sounds too loud, it is – regardless of what the meter says. Now, if this doesn’t open up a can of worms I don’t know what will. Who is to be the final arbiter of what “sounds too loud?” I suspect that will vary from church to church, but there should be consensus between the music pastor, senior pastor, sound tech and the congregation. This is not to say that we take a poll, but let’s face it, if the congregation is leaving during worship or complaining because it’s too loud, it’s too loud. Once a philosophical level has been agreed upon, the SPL meter can be useful for making sure things don’t get out of control.

For example, in his book  The Heart of Technical Excellence, Curt Taipale talks about a plan where more experienced sound techs are allowed to mix with peaks ranging in the 90-92 range (this range will depend totally on your room), while less experienced techs are only allowed to go to 86 – 88. The techs then need to be trained to understand what music needs to be near the top of their allowed range and what needs to be lower.  In any case, exceeding the top of the range can be cause for a “time out” of no mixing for a while. The ranges were set and agreed upon by the music director, technical director with input from those in the body and pastoral staff.

This is getting long, but I guess my point is, don’t blindly follow the number on a little meter as your final determining point of loudness. There is so much more to it that we can’t simply say, “The meter says 92 – it’s not too loud!” That may be true, or it may not. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the matter – this is by no means the final word on the issue!

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5 responses

9 05 2007
ktackel

If it’s too loud your too old! 🙂

Great post and on the mark. A thought I wanted to add is some people’s hearing is just more sensitive also as I found out (after getting a little defensive). We started a 3rd service which is a more rockin’ modern worship style and I actually had a lady come up to me and say “I would love to come into that new service you guys are doing but it is too loud.” I said “it’s not that bad, it’s not like we are doing a heavy metal concert in there.” She replied, “No it’s not that, I like the style but I have always had very sensitive hearing and physically can’t be near loud volumes no matter what the style.”

It just hit me that not everyone that thinks “it’s too loud” is saying that as a reflection of style of music or your mixing ability. We can’t please everyone but hopefully taking all of these thoughts into account will help us push ourselves to excellence in what we do.

9 05 2007
Craig

The best advice I was ever given as far as “loud”, and this paraphrases your explantion, was “The volume should match the energy level of the room.” You must take into account your audience, the style, et cetera.

We have a full band onstage most Sundays playing Lakewood and Tommy Walker songs, (almost always 120 BPM or faster, but that’s a gripe for another time.) and I find that 95-102 dbSPL sounds about right most of the time for faster songs, down around 85 for the slower songs – for me, in our room. I have little respect for “concert” sound engineers who feel they must must push the house sound to levels so terrifying that small woodlands creatures explode, yet I do not want the congregants to be casually conversing their upcoming golf game during Israel’s “You Are Good”.

Of course, sometimes things get out of hand, like the week I had a cold and there was nobody to cover for me – our half-deaf drummer (who was in the audience) told me it was too loud. 🙂

15 05 2007
Brian Davis

You make an excellent point. A sound pressure level meter should only serve as a reference, not a goal to achieve a certain level. The times I especially pay attention to the meter is when we are getting complaints about the volume.
I try to exaggerate dynamics at the mixer, especially in the softer passages, so that I can have somewhere to go without causing a painful experience for our worshipers. At my church we seem to top out around 98 – 102 dbSPL “C” weighted. Usually right at 98. We don’t shoot for that, it’s just where we land because it feels right. I always try to look around and judge how much people are into what we are doing. I know I can’t tell what’s in a person’s heart, but I can observe raised hands and people spontaneously standing a singing.
On a Sunday morning about a year ago, our first song was the most rockin’ song we’ve ever done, with an extra electric guitar, a 20 minute rehearsal, and the first day to use real drums in ten years. No ramp-up to the song – it just hit hard and fast. An usher passed a note on to me after church that read “Is the sound tech deaf, or drunk? It is bad, we are leaving”.

4 08 2010
Karen

I am not an audio geek. I do video. I served for a really good group at our church. We IMAGed the show. I had a Clearcom covering my left ear, but my right ear got totally hammered. I was just about deaf in that ear as a result and had to follow up with and ENT doc. Let me tell you – that was TOO loud. Now when I am doing any kind of band, I head to the sporting goods department and load up on hearing protection. My thought is: damaging somebody’s hearing is not an act of worship. Bad music over-amplified is still bad music. Good music over-amplified is damaging. I protect myself. How do you treat your audience/congregation? I really don’t want to be one of those old folks on the hearing aid commercials.

6 08 2010
Mike Sessler

Karen,
Wow, I can’t believe anyone found this post! FYI, the blog has moved to a much more active site; http://www.churchtecharts.org. There is a lot going on there. In fact, we just did a webinar on that topic, check it out here: http://www.churchtecharts.org/archives/1902

As to your question, it really comes down to exposure time. I’ve been stage camera for over 200 concerts and know full well the damage that can come from them. I always wore ear plugs in my non-com ear, though I think my com ear received more damage from having the com up so loud to hear. The switch from floor wedges to IEMs has been a great change for us camera people!

For someone sitting in the congregation, hearing damage is not that likely even from loud worship sets. OSHA guidelines limit exposure to 95 dBA SPL to 4 hours a day. Given that most worship sets are 15-20 minutes long, the danger is not that significant. For the crew, however, we need to be careful. Between rehearsal and 2-3 or more services in a day, we can easily come close to maximum exposure time. If I’ll be mixing for a long time, my musicians earplugs come out.

Hope that helps!
mike

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