Friday, May 19, 2006

How Loud is Loud Enough? :|: The Art

Today's Topic: Questions & Answers

Last Friday I discussed the question, "How Loud is Too Loud?" from a scientific standpoint. The OSHA standards for noise-induced hearing loss provide good limits on the upper range of sound levels. However, I would certainly not advocate simply pushing your sound levels to the max limit because you can do so with a "clean conscience." That's foolishness. And it leads me to another question:

How Loud is Loud Enough?

Consider a couple things: 1) a person singing moderately will be 80-85 dB in his own head. A person singing at full voice will be 90dB in his own head. 2) An enthusiastic congregation singing a capella can easily get up to 88-93dB in everybody's ears. 3) The ultimate goal of a mixer is to allow people to hear everything, meaning everything needs to be loud enough and adjusted so that nothing "covers up" anything else.

At Covenant Life, I have about 5dB of range between "loud enough" to be heard over the congregation singing (93dB -- yeah, we sing loud) and "too loud" such that it will cause people hearing damage (98dB). Anything that I want to be heard clearly during singing will have to squeeze between those two levels without getting in the way of each other. That's why mixing in a church that sings loudly can be such a challenge. And that's why the temptation is to turn it up.

This is where sound mixing becomes an art. And from my perspective, mixing worship is really an art of managing competing priorities. Here are my audio priorities for music in worship and a brief explanation of why. Before adopting these, you may want to talk to your pastor and understand his priorities.

Priority #1: The congregation should be able to hear the worship leader. This allows everyone to follow along and hear the melody.

Priority #2: Each person in the congregation should be able to hear someone singing his or her part. I find it helpful if the men can hear at least one male voice and the women can hear at least one female voice, so they can follow along more easily.

Priority #3: Each person in the congregation should be able to hear others singing with him. If the musicians are so loud that no one can hear other people sing, the band is simply too loud. We are called to "address ONE ANOTHER, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (emphasis mine).

Priority #4: The congregation should be able to enjoy the musicianship of the band members. They aren't up on stage just to look pretty but to enable good music to draw people's hearts toward God. Let them be heard!

What this means when I mix: If nothing else is heard, the worship leader is heard. If anything has to "be lost" amongst the crowd "noise," I'm going to lose the band first. But I work hard and challenge my mixers to work harder to make sure that everything can be heard even though we have such a narrow range between distinctly hearable and too loud.

That's the challenge and fun and art of mixing!

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