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:
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.