Random Article


 
Don't Miss
 

Worship Volume Explained

 

 
Overview
 

Author: Greg Jones
 
Tech Categories: ,
 


12
Posted June 2, 2015 by

P

robably the most common complaint any worship leader will hear is that it is too loud. Many times, the critic can be frustrated with questions like, “How come the worship leader and musicians can’t hear for themselves that it is too loud?” or “Why is it so hard to simply turn it down?”

If only it were so simple. Because of the knowledge gap between musicians and non-musicians, this article is primarily intended for non-musicians with such complaints. The next time you receive a complaint about volume (and believe me you will), try pointing the critic to this article.

A typical sound system will have main speakers that only the congregation hears. The musicians can NOT hear the sound coming from these speakers as they are going to be positioned in front of the musicians. Why is this? This is due to the fact that the microphones on the platform are subject to feedback (noise) should they pick up sound from a speaker pointed behind them. Therefore, the musicians and vocalists will typically have wedge (floor) monitors, which are speakers sitting on the floor aimed to cast the sound underneath the microphones. Here is a crude diagram:

volume

 

As an alternative, a newer technology is substituting out these wedge monitors for earphones (the technical term is In-Ear Monitors [IEMs]). IEMs exist because the wedge monitors produce a stage volume that can still be heard to a lesser degree by the congregation even though they are not facing them. IEMs are ideal in reducing the overall house volume and giving a clearer sound to the congregation, however, they aren’t cheap.

Either way, the takeaway from this is that the worship team on the platform does NOT hear the same thing that the congregation is hearing. So what is too loud for someone in the congregation may be perfectly reasonable for a musician on the platform.

Many times musicians may have amps on the platform (usually not the case if the team is using IEMs). Why might these amps be necessary? There are several reasons, but to keep things simple, I’ll just talk about one. A guitarist, for example, is going to want to hear more of his guitar than the rest of the worship team is going to want to hear. But usually the floor monitors are not configured to allow for him to have a separate mix out of just his monitor with his guitar boosted. There are exceptions, but since for most cases, this is not an option, it is easier for the guitarist to have a separate amp where they can add more volume without having to subject the rest of the team with those increased levels in all the wedge monitors. BTW, this is not a need limited to guitarists.

Another complicating factor pushing volume levels are acoustic drums. IF the PA system were completely turned off, the acoustic drum kit would produce a considerable amount of volume. In fact, in most small-to-medium-sized churches, there is no need to even mic a drum kit because the drums are naturally too loud. This means that the sound engineer cannot turn the drums down past their natural acoustic volume. So to lower that volume many churches will put a drum kit behind a Plexiglas shield. Unless that shield has a roof, that shield is just there for looks. Another possible solution is to use electric drums. While electric drums are completely controllable by the sound engineer, electric drums are often considered a compromise to most drummers for reasons that go beyond the scope of this article. Spending more money on an electric drum kit can help ease the pain for drummers but many will still have bellyaches.

Short of completely enclosing that acoustic drum kit, or coughing up the cash for quality electric drums, the acoustic drums are producing an invisible volume “floor” that the music can’t go below without ruining the mix. So if your requests to turn it down seem to go unabated, it might well be because if the sound engineer lowered the volume, the drums would be the loudest thing you’d hear, thus ruining the mix.

If all of this isn’t complicated enough, perception is a huge factor affecting volume concerns. One person’s junk is another person’s treasure. So if you think things are too loud, here are things to consider before voicing your complaint.

  • Are you alone or in a small minority or do many others also have the same complaint?
  • If there are others, are they older, all wearing hearing aids or all have a preference for another style of music and therefore possibly mistaking volume for other factors?
  • Have you consulted a decibel (dB) meter? A dB meter will give an objective measurement of the volume for a room. They are relatively inexpensive. You can even download an app to a smartphone although it might be less accurate.

Finally, many times volume complaints are voiced because there are really other issues behind them. Sometimes volume is perceived to be the problem when the real issue is EQ (tone). Maybe the sound engineers need more training on EQ. After all, at most churches, the sound engineers are usually untrained volunteers. Many times, people complain about volume when they really have an issue with the style of the music. There is a subjective and psychological factor to volume perception where an electric guitar can be playing at the same volume level as a pipe organ or string orchestra, but only the electric guitar is perceived to be too loud.

So if you’re reading this article because the music at your church seems too loud, please don’t expect a simple fix and don’t feel frustrated because change isn’t happening. As you can hopefully see, there are many factors in which the diagnosis, not to mention the solutions aren’t always simple, let alone within your church’s budget.

 

Greg Jones is a musician, music teacher, worship leader and independent recording artist. On my site you find me sharing music instruction, with an emphasis on worship music and articles on worship leading.


12 Comments


  1.  
     
     
     
     
     

    I know this discussion is old, but I just read it, so it’s new to me. I agree with Chris – acoustic drums aren’t loud. Drum volume is completely up to the drummer.

    Drums can be the quietest instrument on stage, or the loudest. Don’t let volume-challenged drummers play at your churches!




  2.  
    Chris

    Greg,
    An acoustic drum kit should be able to provide the greatest range of volume of any instrument in a band. A drummer should be able to play the quietest (well below 85 db) as well as the loudest, without sacrificing his/her intensity. Techniques such as griping the stick a variety of ways, using proper wrist & finger control, and applying a full range of strokes determines dyamics as well as tone. Also, a drummer’s stick bag is like a guitar players pedal board. Inside that stick bag are brushes, hotrods, sticks from 7As to 5Bs, broomsticks, etc, that provide a multitude of sounds at various dynamic levels. In addition, there is an assortment of ways to dampen drum heads and even cymbals to control volume (and w/o sacrificing a good tone). These are essential skills for every drummer to learn, but young drummers won’t learn them when churches put them behind drum shields or inside cages. I first learned many of these techniques watching drummers play in jazz clubs with the audience only a few feet away. Drums can be played well in a variety of conditions, to include churches, w/o putting up barriers.




  3.  
     
     
     
     
     

    No one is blaming drummers. The source for the acoustic volume floor are acoustic drums. I have played with fantastic drummers who were great at dynamics but none of them were able to keep the volume ceiling for an acoustic kit at below 85 db.

    I pick 85 db because lots of sound professionals suggest that the stage levels be at least 10 db less than the FOH levels and I believe that 95 db is a reasonable FOH level for most.

    But what do you guys think? Is it possible for an acoustic drummer to keep their loudest dynamic levels under 85 db (without altering the drums in ways that seriously compromise their tone)?




    •  
      Mitchell Ebbott
       
       
       
       
       

      >Is it possible for an acoustic drummer to keep their loudest dynamic levels under 85 db (without altering the drums in ways that seriously compromise their tone)?

      Here are a few things I’ve found helpful:

      1) Don’t reflect, absorb. As you say, a drum shield without a roof is just for looks, but that’s only true if all of your material if reflective. I’ve gotten very good results by lining the bottom half of the drum shield with acoustic foam and placing a wall of absorptive materials behind the drummer.

      2) Tame resonances. Moon gels are a cheap and effective way to do this. By taming the extra sound you don’t want (ringing drum heads), you can get away with more of the sound you do want (attack).

      3) Hot rods are quieter than sticks, especially on cymbals (which are often the most problematic part of the kit). Drummers don’t always love playing with them, and they do alter the tone, but it’s worth trying. If they don’t like hot rods, lightweight (7A) wood-tipped sticks are a decent compromise.

      4) If all else fails, change your style. Playing with brushes will definitely solve your volume problems, but you can’t play the same way. You can’t imitate Phil Wickham with brushes, but they work great if you channel All Sons and Daughters or Bethel. That means being creative with your arrangements, which sounds like a drastic move. But sometimes that’s what it takes to work within the constraints of your room.

      And any of that is a whole heck of a lot better than electronic drums. Yuck.

      Source: 10 years of alternating between worship leader and sound guy.




  4.  
    Lisa

    Depending on the hearing aid, that can be a real cause for concern in mixing – some will make loud sounds painful to the wearer. I’m also of the educational mindset. Encourage musicians to study with a qualified performer/educator who is a specialist and technician on the instrument in question, and help folks find grants or other funding to help pay for that education. It is helping the musician give of their first fruits to God and helping the congregation worship as well. (Same for the sound technicians. Are there college music tech programs in the area who might have a senior in need of a thesis project and are willing to work with folks?)

    All the above said, thank you for an article that challenges me to grow in my understanding of worship music. Bookmarked to share as needed!




  5.  
    Nick M
     
     
     
     
     

    I appreciate this article more than I could possibly articulate. I have been on all sides of this – congregant, sound tech, musician, vocalist, sounding board (the person people complain to), and I’ve probably filled a few other roles than I’m forgetting. While Chris’ argument that a highly skilled drummer will absolutely be able to reasonably control his volume, it is also true that the loudest instrument that produces a sound without electronic assistance (so this would include any acoustic instrument – including guitars, non-electric pianos, violins, vocals, etc.) would constitute the mix floor.

    Nevertheless, perhaps the most important point in this entire article – and the one that is most important to take back to our churches, as it would likely resolve better than half of the complaints that the general congregations raise about the sound quality (typically lumped in as volume or being “too loud”) – is that inadequate training on proper sound balancing is the source of much of the problem. Unfortunately, while churches may invest in state of the art equipment, they fail to invest in state of the art training for the volunteers who they task with running that equipment on a day to day basis. Too often, those volunteers are trained on how to group, ungroup, mute, adjust gain (physically, but not functionally), adjust level (again, physically but not functionally), and yell at the musicians who bring their own amps for creating too much stage volume. That’s it. Nothing else.

    A well-mixed worship band can be “loud” without being “too loud.” A poorly mixed worship band can be “too loud” when they’re barely present. If it’s difficult to listen to the sound because it sounds bad, “too loud” occurs at a much lower decibel level.




  6.  
    Michael

    Hi Greg. Thanks for your work. Would you agree that most church musicians have not been out in a live gig setting (say, a restaurant) and are unaware of their own levels?

    Your article rightly posits that drum levels are the floor of any mix. It seems to be very rare to find a drummer who can hold a tempo or an intensity level without playing louder. I am thinking a lot of the troubles we have in church sound is related to the awareness/ability of our drummers.




  7.  
    Chris

    I’ve been playing drums for over 40 years. Pls don’t blame accoutic drums as the volume threshold constraint and therefore must be completely enclosed In a drum cage or just give up on them and buy an electric kit. If the acoustic drums are too loud it’s the drummer’s fault not the kit. Find a drummer who knows how to control his dynamics. Believe me, there are still some around. All that drum cage does is teach the drummer to play even louder. Put the kit out in the open and teach the drummer to be a musician.




    •  
      wyatt

      Chris, I agree 100000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000%
      Unfortunately most church drummers haven’t even been alive for 30 years! Ha!
      But we have to roll with what God gives us don’t we?




    •  
      Michael

      Chris, great to hear it from a drummer’s mouth! This is exactly what I was trying to articulate.




    •  
      Frank

      Thank you Chris! My son is a trained drummer and percussionist. He has played the same kit, in the same room, without a shield as our regular drummer and gets way different results. I play electric guitar and bass, by the way and experience some of the same issues that drummers do. The speaker, preferably 12″, is an integral part of the tone of my guitar. But I have found ways to play with a good tone at reasonable levels. Out with the 50 Watt amps and in with the 15 Watt (or less) amps. No, I don’t get the same thump and roar, but I don’t see people in the congregation covering their ears either.





Leave a Response


(required)