Everyone’s favourite topic. There’s tonnes of blog posts across the internet discussing this, and as always with the internet some are much more helpful than others. Everyone has something to say, and everyone thinks they’re right. But I think the discussion is less about how loud it should be, and instead about how appropriate it can be. This post is not aiming to give a definitive answer on volume, but instead to suggest a few thoughts to consider when looking at volume levels in your church.
Live sound is powerful. It’s such an opportunity, and a big responsibility, to utilise all the audio tools at our disposal to reinforce and convey what’s going on at the front. As audio engineers, we aren’t just pushing up the fader ’til you can hear the vocal, we’re playing a large part in ‘funneling’ the energy, message and emotions from the front. We’re responsible for conveying all the hard work and preparation of those on stage to the congregation.
That’s a hard job and we’re doing our very best. It requires a lot of hard work to do it well. So why do we still get complaints?
Firstly, it might be too loud. There are many reasons why this may be, some more acceptable than others. These might include: negligence, the engineer’s personal preference, the agreed church volume level isn’t set, there’s a big band on stage, the songs chosen need to be that loud, building issues, or maybe it’s just loud by mistake. It’s common for volume to just go up and up during rehearsal, so by the time the service starts it’s way louder than we planned. Engineers: use your ears and eyes, ask yourself: is it too loud? Can the congregation hear one another singing praises together? Are people covering their ears? If it is too loud, turn it down as subtly as you can. You don’t want it to be a distraction by suddenly cutting the volume, but you do have to run it quieter. Also ask yourself who it is raising the complaint, if it’s lovely old Margaret in the front pew, be kind and gracious, and maybe suggest she sits further from the speakers. But if it’s your senior minister, for example, submit to their leadership and swiftly turn it down.
But, it might not be too loud. The complaint might have been raised because of personal preference or because the congregation member doesn’t enjoy the music choice (or thinks the electric guitar is from the devil!). John 13 calls us to follow Jesus’ example to wash feet, putting God first, serving him and one another. To an extent, genre choice and personal preference shouldn’t matter as we live for others and what helps them worship God most easily. But again, be careful how you respond. Love them, even when they’ve bluntly insulted the work you’ve been doing.
So, some ideas..
I don’t think there is a universally correct volume level for every church to be running at. I think even within one church there should be a range of volumes across the services. The ‘right’ volume is situation specific, and venue specific. This should be discussed with the elders of the church, and ultimately we submit to their leadership. The volume level isn’t a target, but the outcome set by a number of factors.
The appropriate level is partly set by the genre of music being played. The energy and passion of a rocky worship song cannot be conveyed at a low volume where you can’t hear the low end and the guitarist looks like he’s miming. In the same way, the intricacies and emotion of a vocal and piano solo song during communion gets lost when the high frequencies cut your head off. If you have a service of rocky worship songs, the volume and feel is going to be massively different to when you are just using a piano and singer. Dynamic contrast is good and important in our churches. Different volumes and genres evoke different emotions, which as we see from the Psalms, is important in our worship of God. We should not be letting personal preference lead to complaints and dispute in our churches, as Romans 14 instructs us: Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. We’re not in church to be served with the music we like most, but to encourage and edify one another in our service of Christ to bring glory to God.
The quality of your band and musicians can lead people to think it’s too loud and complain to the sound engineer. It might be that your drummer just doesn’t have a good balance across his drums and cymbals, or your band play at completely different levels during rehearsal compared to the service. Invest in training your musicians, both theologically and musically. The better your band play, the better your mix will sound. None of this stuff saves people, but it can definitely aid your congregation as we worship the Lord with gladness, and come before him with joyful songs (Psalm 100).
This post isn’t about mixing, but your volume (or perceived volume) directly works with the way you mix. Complaints often come because the mix isn’t smooth and balanced and as a result, your congregation hears an instrument too loudly and forms the opinion that the whole thing is just too loud. Say, for example, you have the cymbals too loud and every time the drummer hits them they cut through the mix and slap the congregation in the face. The rest of the mix might have been appropriate and you might still be within agreed volume limits, but the perceived feeling is that the PA is running too hot. If you have a good mix you’ll get fewer complaints, even if it’s louder than last week. So mix well and don’t let anything stick out unintentionally.
The congregation you are serving should also play a large part in determining how loud it should be. If you’re mixing a late night service for 500 youth, you’re going to want to run it louder than if you’re mixing the 8am communion of 50 pensioners. I’m not talking about speaker coverage, but about how your mix and level translates to their ears. Hopefully the style of music will be appropriate to the service, which will help you achieve the sound you’re aiming for. But don’t use crazy FX on the vocal if the congregation respond better to a traditional sound. A big part of worship as a congregation is encouraging one another as God’s people. If this is an important part of what we’re trying achieve, we can’t have the PA so loud that it drowns everyone out! Tailor the level to the number of people in the room, and run it so all they want to do is praise God at the top of their voices. Let me briefly add: too quiet can do as much harm, if not more, as too loud. If the band are too quiet, the congregation will feel vulnerable and struggle to be led, emotion and feeling will not be conveyed from your worship leader and band. If you hit an appropriate volume, they’ll be a massive change in the way the congregation receives and responds with the worship set. Similarly, if speech is too quiet, people will get fatigued from straining their ears to hear and therefore lose concentration much faster. Don’t make it loud, boomy and aggressive, but convey your pastor’s message with intelligible and clear speech across your venue.
In this quest for a good volume you’ll also need an appropriate PA, especially in the reverb filled caves we call our church buildings! While an out of the box budget PA might work OK in a small, dry room, you’ll struggle as soon as you put it in a church building with reflective walls and pillars in the way. These budget speakers are designed to just ‘throw’ the sound out to the audience, whereas good speakers can tightly direct the sound to where you want it to go, and only where you want it to go (not into the bass trap or bouncing off the horrible wall). The frequency spectrum matters – you have to get a good balance between the low end and highs. You can push up the low level frequencies a lot before people perceive it to be too loud, whereas highs will very quickly be painful and offensive. You need clarity, good balance and fullness in your mix, not harshness. If the speakers you use have a small range, it will very quickly seem loud to the congregation. You’ll also have to crank it to hear any bass or kick, which will not result in an appropriate volume. If you have a good full-range system, you’ll be able to run it at a lower volume and still hear all aspects of your mix. It is important that your PA is tailored to your space and the way you use it. Use an expert to provide you with a system designed with tight and full coverage for your congregation then put good content through it. I think you’ll see God’s people respond and sing louder and encourage one another. Awesome!
With a gracious Heavenly Father whom enables us to praise him, good content played by an equipped, servant-hearted band and a well-built mix put through an appropriate PA, we’ll hopefully reduce distractions and complaints, and get on with being one united Church family to worship and serve of our wonderful Lord!
So let’s get on with Colossians 3:16!
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Bertie Styles- Christ Church Mayfair