Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How Loud Is Too Loud? - An Extended Online Discussion

He's standing behind you at the sound booth. You do not know him well, but you have talked before. You have a good idea of what he is about to say. "The music is really loud. Can you turn it down a little?"

While I am grateful that I don't have to answer this question very often at Covenant Life, I know that this question comes to mind more often than it is actually asked. And I also am confident that this is true for many churches around the world each Sunday.

As the tech director at Covenant Life, I own the responsibility to understand, teach about, and help the pastors navigate decisions related to volume levels of music.

And here's the challenge I am struggling through now:

Most of what I've read about volume levels in church acknowledge the many complexities of assessing loudness:
  • It depends on how you measure and where.
  • It depends on the sound system.
  • It depends on the music mix.
  • It depends on how loud the congregation sings.
  • It depends, it depends, it depends...
But, honestly, those same articles tend to be very simplistic in their prescriptions: Don't get louder than [enter your favorite number] decibels.

So, step one: if you know of an article that actually tackles the complexities, would you please send that my way?

And, step two: please consider participating in an extended online discussion. My goal from this discussion is that we all come away with clearer convictions about volume in our church services, clearer direction for our ministries, and confidence to clearly communicate our conviction and direction to the people whose preferences we don't meet.

This discussion will include (God-willing):
  • One 15-30 minute online chat each week. This will be a group talk event, not a presentation by any one person. I will choose the topic, but I won't be the sole or even primary contributor.
  • One blog post per week per participant based on the video chat. If you don't have your own blog, I would ask you to email me a three- to four-paragraph email with your response to the discussion that I can post on undistract.
  • 30-60 minutes per week of research. You may get an assignment to learn something to teach to the group, so don't expect to just ask questions, pose problems, and then walk away.
So, this would be approximately a 2-hour per week, weekly commitment. I expect the discussion to last about two months, but I'm open to shorter or longer as the Lord leads.

Leave a comment here or email me at dwilcox[place @ symbol here]covlife[period goes here]org if you would like to be a full participant. Lurkers will be welcome to watch the video chat and read the results, but only full participants can talk in the chat or have their thoughts posted outside of the comments on undistract.

Who's in?

15 comments:

Doc said...

I am ... if you want me ...

David Wilcox said...

Thanks, Doc. I'd love to have your thoughts.

Chris Jessee said...

If there is still room I would love to jump into the conversation... if not, I look forward to observing the results.

David Wilcox said...

Chris, it would be great to have you in on the discussion. Thanks!

Doc said...

I've been in churches where the music director "required" average sound pressure level readings of 105 dB SPL during their regular worship services, and I've been in churches where a peak of 90 dB SPL sent people scurrying toward the sound booth. People are different, and every church is different.

I was on staff as the Audio Director for a large church for eight years. I always had my trusty little Radio Shack SPL meter sitting right in front of me. I tried to balance how "exciting" the music got and how loud I wanted it to be with what that meter was telling me. I knew, for that audience, that if I allowed the sound to go much beyond 92 dB SPL ('A' weighted) or roughly 95 dB SPL ('C' scale) that I would start to get complaints. The church had a tear-off "tab" in the weekly bulletin that provided an efficient means through which the congregation could communicate with the church staff. If there were complaints about the sound, I heard about it. If it was one or two complaints, we took note of it. If there were several comments, we did something about it ­ meaning, we would turn it down a notch.

Now for your audience, 92 dB might be way out of line. You might find it necessary to keep the sound back down to 85 dB during worship. If you can do that successfully, I would encourage you to do so. One rule of thumb says that if you have to raise your voice to communicate clearly to someone standing next to you, you're already in a noise hazardous environment. My ear doctor gave me a stern talking to when I told him that I regularly expose myself and our congregation to levels above 90 dB SPL. Since then, I have made a conscious effort to keep the level in check.

...

Now, I figure that God didn't really build a deficiency into our hearing. I'm not really sure why it's that way. Maybe someday I will. But I do know that, when I'm trying to mix a "big" song at a soft volume, it helps the authority factor if, for example, I boost the bass guitar a little more than usual. Maybe I'll boost the kick drum slightly, or the low end piano mic. I would not go for the house system equalizer and offset it for this curve. That would cause more grief in other areas than it would help in this. But subtle adjustments to the mix of various instruments, or maybe a slight lift in the low frequency EQ on those channels, can provide a significant improvement to the sound. It won't solve everything. Louder will still sound bigger. But it may be the better compromise. If your sound system includes subwoofers, it can prove even easier to give your music that "authority".

Recording engineers have known about the equal loudness contours for years. Studies show that the average home stereo listening volume is 85 dB SPL. So the smart engineer will try to keep his mixing volume at around that volume. He will check it at very, very soft volumes, and he will turn it up loud and check it there as well. If the producer wants to hear it really loud, the really smart engineer will show the producer where the volume control is and leave the room. If this policy of mixing at 85 dB is followed, when you play it softer it should still sound fine. When it's played really loud, it should sound huge, bigger than life. If, on the other hand, the engineer mixes the songs at loud listening volumes, and then tries to listen to them at a soft volume, the resulting sound will not have the same punch. This isn't because of hearing fatigue. You'll still hear the same lackluster mix tomorrow after your ears have rested. Mixing at loud volumes alters both the EQ decisions as well as mix choices that the engineer makes. Those are based on what he's hearing at the time.

based on

http://www.churchsoundcheck.com/hlitl.html

Bill Goddard said...

Dave, I would love to chime in and give feeback from a small church's perspective.

David Wilcox said...

Excellent, Bill, thanks. Stay tuned for more information.

thomastjt said...

I'm with Bill.

Jim Hevesy said...

Hi Dave. I'd like to be a part of your group. I'm the Church Administrator at Sovereign grace Church up in Joppa, MD.

Travis Paulding said...

I'll jump in. Already "spent" a good amount of time on this subject over the past year anyway.

Shawn Gierling said...

I'm a worship pastor, so I don't have anything to offer to the conversation, but I will definitely be lurking and encouraging my sound team to do the same.

I'm very much looking forward to this. Thanks Dave.

David Wilcox said...

Thomas, Jim, Travis, thanks for joining. Stay tuned for more details...

Dave Stagl said...

Depending on when you're doing the chats, I guess I'll get in on this, too, if you're still looking for folks. I've also done a lot of research on this over the years, and I get asked about this a lot through work and the blog.

David Wilcox said...

Dave, I'd love to have you involved, and your expertise and experience would be hugely helpful. I'll keep you in the loop.

djnoyze said...

I know I'm wayyy too late to this conversation, but I've literally seen people grimace and try to move further to the back because of volume, so according to the bible, if I (as the sound guy) offend my brother or cause him to stumble by causing him to leave church because it's too loud, well it's too loud.

You don't have too many people leaving with the level around 95dB SPL SLOW A