This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (Oct 2007). For more great articles like this one, subscribe today.
Mention Spinal Tap around a group of musicians and they will declare in unison, “This one goes to eleven.” The mythical British band in the movie is enamored by a guitar amp with unprecedented volume capacity. So, too, it appears, are many worship musicians. A million dollars worth of acoustic design, EASE and EARS modeling, meticulous installation and planning can be obliterated by a guitarist with a three hundred dollar amplifier. While increased volume is ingrained in the fabric of modern worship music, there must be a reasonable balance between the needs of the bands and the needs of the congregation. After dozens of consultations with churches about volume, I have developed a multi-pronged approach to giving the band enough stage level to function properly while reserving the bulk of the room’s energy for the congregation. As Spock noted in Star Trek IV, “The needs of the many (the congregation) outweigh the needs of the few (the band).” Here, then are some guidelines:
- The five-gallon rule
The room will only contain a certain level before either it or the humans occupying it express displeasure. Noted acoustician R Bob Adams conducted an extensive study of the tipping point where people begin to complain about volume. He determined above 95dBA/slow, some portion of the congregation will find the level uncomfortable if it is maintained for more than one minute. Below 95dbA/slow, few complaints are heard. Naturally, the context of the music’s tonality, the acoustic signature of the room and the existence of aberrant frequencies in the upper mids will affect the tipping point, but it is safe to use 95dBA/slow as a starting point for level control. If the band’s amps, acoustic energy and floor monitors register 90dBA before the mains are engaged, there is a problem since the sound system has only a 5dB window before the point is exceeded. In this case, the band must reduce level as there is no “silver bullet” solution available. The bucket is full before the PA is turned on. Note, the level can go above 100dBA for short bursts without incidence; the concern here is the average level over time.
- The invisible sound curtain
Sound does not magically stop at the lip of the stage; it proceeds unencumbered into the audience. For example, if you walk into a home theater store and the salesperson is going to demonstrate the clarity of the speakers, the last thing she would do is turn the speakers away from you before engaging the Blu-Ray disc. No one wants to hear the back of the speaker, yet that is what we subject the audience to each Sunday with our floor monitors. The boomy low-mid energy washes into the congregation and masks the clarity of the main speakers. Guitar amps positioned on the stage at floor level facing the audience sound perfect to the guitarist but can devastate the audience’s experience.
- The audio security blanket
Performing in front of an audience can be unnerving. Some artists use a wall of sound as a security blanket to protect themselves from rejection. Unfortunately, a pair of biamped wedges in front of the leader causes the BGVs to ask for more level in their monitors; in turn the guitarist turns up his amp and the drummer plays louder. It is a counterproductive spiral.
- The colored index card
When asked to intervene in a stage volume issue, I carry two oversized index cards in my briefcase. One card had only red, green and blue stripes on it. The other has a smattering of seventeen colors. Invariably, the artist will ask for “a little bit of everything” or more of something in the monitor mix. I respond by holding up the card with all the colors on it and ask, “What colors do you see?” The artist replies they cannot make out any specific color, only that there are a number of colors on the card. I agree and then hold up the card with only three colors. “Now, what colors are on this card?” I ask. They respond, “Red, green and blue.” “Exactly,” I concur and then explain if you combine the seventeen colors on the first card you end up with a dull shade of gray. However, if you combine red, green and blue, you have sixteen million colors at your disposal. In essence, then, the more elements present in the monitor mix, the less discernable each element becomes. The purpose of the monitor mix is to keep the artist on time and on pitch. Anything that detracts from that purpose is counterproductive to the goal and needs to be eliminated. Usually, voice, hi-hat, bass, right hand keys and acoustic guitar are all that is necessary to fulfill the monitor’s mission.
- The myth of in-ears
In-ear monitors are not a panacea for the band. They require a competent engineer to develop the blend since the wearer is now fully dependent on the ears for the entire aural landscape. Ears also need an ambience input to bring the audience into the artist’s head due to the isolation inherent in ear monitors. However, if these needs are met, in-ears can provide a stellar experience, with full bandwidth response and all the information needed to perform properly.
- Personal monitoring can work
Instead of relying on the mix engineer to turn signals up and down, personal monitors transfer the task to the user. With either Hearback’s eight channels or Aviom’s sixteen channels, the artist dials the knobs to achieve the mix they desire. With the Aviom system, the mix can be stored and recalled for later recall. The process in both instances is simple and effective. Generally, BGVs are the only band members who need to remain on wedges due to the time and expense of creating a personal mix for each one. In most cases, the drummer, bassist and keyboardist are most inclined to use personal monitors while the leader and guitarist are most reluctant to the technology.
By definition, a sacrifice of praise involves giving up something of value. If the band is willing to explore some options, the volume wars can come to a peaceful end and the congregation can enjoy the result.
Kent Morris delivers a bridge-building perspective to the technical arena. He is a live sound engineer for Paul Baloche, Tommy Walker, Kim Hill, and Israel Houghton and served as a senior pastor for a decade. He spent a dozen years in MI retail and wholesale. Currently, he is an audio/video system designer with Cornerstone Media, whose clients include Mt. Paran Church of God and In Touch Ministries.
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Kent Morris is a 40-year veteran of the AVL arena driven by passion for excellence tempered by the knowledge digital is a temporary state.