By Alex Macdougall
On a recent Sunday morning return visit to a nearby church, I noticed myself not participating nor engaging in worship. I was not even singing. I found myself merely standing with the rest of the congregation, out of respect, and I determined that I would not again return to this particular church, as the volume level in this church had exceeded my tolerance on multiple occasions. My story is not unique. Apparently, many are leaving churches over the problem of “loudness”.
The issue here is not necessarily whether the drummer is in a cage. There are many mature drummers who play with enough finesse and room adaptability that a cage is not always necessary. In my recent experience, the drummer was in fact, in a cage. However, the band was simply too loud. Even a small choir acappella burst can sometimes stretch the limits of a listener’s ears. So in my experience, the above elements were probably the doing of the sound mixer, as the amps were located offstage, and some of the instruments were inputted directly into the overall system.
To be fair, there is such a thing as being “too quiet”, or “not loud enough”. Music definitely needs to be performed and heard at certain dynamics to have any impact or power. A song sung too softly does not have any “punch” to it. So there is a definite balance that must be struck by the worship leader and sound engineer.
The sound engineer and support team are often volunteer positions within a church. Many times, the audio engineer is not fully trained vocationally, nor does he/she derive their income from doing it professionally. Sadly, the sound support team are often the brunt of many complaints and criticisms. It’s a dynamic that plagues many churches, both large and small.And it might not simply be “the volume” that is the cause of the problem. EQ comes into play here, and so the hearing of the worship songs being used to inspire and encourage worship is sometimes impaired by the “man behind the curtain”, who, because of lack of training or profession, simply delivers a poor mix to the congregation, despite his or her best intentions. We also know that the size of the congregation can affect the overall sound, as does the ceiling height, acoustics of the room, where a congregant might be sitting, where in the room the decibel (dB) reading might be taken, where the mixing board is, and multiple other variables that may all impact the level of sound.
In a recent informal polling of churches, some of them very well-known, I found the dB levels to run typically in the low to high 90s, with a weighted “A”. For example, 92dB A or 96A dB. Some churches use a weighted “C” reading, which allows for more bass frequencies into the measurement. At one Dallas area church, the volume level on a Sunday morning is now ranked at a slow weighted 102C dB! According to a Purdue University study, that number is comparable to pushing a power lawn mower, the use of a jackhammer, or a jet flyover at 1000 feet!
Veteran audio engineer Randy Adams, who mixes Sunday mornings for First Baptist Church of Dallas, states, “I try to keep the average around 85 dB A weighted, slow response. Peaks are occasionally in the low to mid 90s. The important thing is the eq curve. If it is too bright, that level will get complaints. I never use an SPL meter, though I did a few times when we first set up the room. My meter is the sound of people singing around me. As long as I can hear the congregation, everything is fine. I try to keep the level of the sermon in the 80s, so the music doesn’t sound so much louder than the preaching. Of course, what happens just before the pastor gets up to speak? The loudest moment of the entire service is usually the end of the anthem. So, I try to make sure his first few words are strong and powerful, then gradually ease back just a bit to a comfortable level where you can hear every word.”
Randy also added, “A and C weighted refers to the frequency response curve. A weighted “A” is closer to the curve of human hearing at a nominal listening level. Our ears are much more sensitive to high and mid frequencies, and A weighting takes that fact into account. C weighting is used sometimes when the operating level is going to be above 100 dB, or when low frequencies are dramatically out of balance in a particular environment.”
So what can these higher dB levels do beyond potential hearing loss over extended time? The May 2016 Thom Schultz “Holy Soup” podcast, interviewed Dr. David Gauger. Thom notes, ” A new scientific study from Dr. David Gauger, a music professor at Moody Bible Institute, found that such sound levels discourage congregational participation. ‘When you get above 90 decibels, it drops off dramatically,’ Gauger said. ‘They do not feel they can worship. They cannot hear their own voice. They do not feel supported.’”
What happens physiologically in this dynamic is that the congregation becomes spectators due to the volume coming from the stage. In this scenario, the worship team is actually reduced to a performance troop, because of the physiological changes occurring within human bodies not wishing to sing along. People cannot hear others, nor themselves, singing, so they refrain. Simply put, that’s how we are wired.
More important than any possible excuse or explanation for poor sound or extreme audio levels, are the questions that must be asked in order to find a solution to the problem. These are questions for the worship leader, pastor, worship team members, and extended sound team. “Am I leading and no one is following? Is my church singing? Does the audio volume of the worship songs encourage singing, or not? Is the volume of our worship a hindrance to the worship time because of the physiological reasons outlined by David Gauger? Are people wearing earplugs so that they can attend church? Are we gathering AND worshiping, or merely gathering? Are people leaving my church over this issue?
The problem may be difficult to solve. To be clear, there are many variables to be addressed. And many opinions, including those from the congregation, may weigh in weekly on the matter. Feelings may be hurt, and tempers may flare. But ultimately as we ask ourselves the above questions, let us never forget our true purpose in leading worship: to create a refuge for those in the sanctuary, helping them to experience and honor our Lord.