By Jordan Richmond
If you have any semblance of modern, band-driven worship, I guarantee you’ve had complaints about volume. I had a guy who would stick toilet paper in his ears every week and obnoxiously pace the foyer during the music set.
Conventional wisdom tells us that more volume equals more energy. After all people don’t want to hear themselves sing right?
So what’s the perfect volume? In this case, Disney has the answer. Disney seems to have a knack for managing expectations and providing the best user experience on the planet. They can teach us a thing or two about worship. So during my last visit to Disney World I decided to conduct an experiment. Every show I attended I would take out my iPhone and fire up the RTA Lite app. This handy (and free) little tool let’s me measure the decibel level at certain frequencies. I can see the level of the bass, mids, and trebles. The results shocked me.
- Decibel Level – At every show and concert, the average level was about 75 db. That’s pretty soft—about the same as a dial tone with the phone up to your ear. Occasionally it might pop up to 85 db (city traffic), but not much more (hearing damage occurs at 90-95 db with sustained exposure). It was amazing how an explosion or kick drum had incredible intensity when everything else was at a pleasant level.
- Frequencies – The frequency spectrum was linear (as opposed to flat or the typical “smiley face” with enhanced lows and highs, and reduced mids). Bass was the loudest, and it would evenly taper off as it headed toward the higher frequencies. So the sound I heard was ultimately smooth. It had impact when it needed to, and was never shrill or brassy.
- Other Factors – Admittedly the shows I attended were family friendly—inviting young and old. EPCOT did have more concert/dance adult-oriented venues later in the evening. These were significantly louder (too loud for my taste). Also, every Disney venue featured Meyer arrays and trained sound men, so the end product was excellent.
So what did I learn from Disney?
I observed everyone, babies to grandmas, enjoying their experience. They participated. I also realized that sound is something we cannot escape. We cannot turn off our ears. We can look at something else if a light is too bright, but we cannot divert our hearing.
I attended a church service that weekend and felt almost assaulted by the sound (around 90-95 db). Admittedly I’ve subjected my church to that numerous times and wondered why they didn’t participate as actively. By all means pump the volume for youth groups. But for the large corporate service featuring all age groups (or children’s worship), it might be a good idea to bring the volume down.
More volume does not necessarily equal more energy. It insults your listeners, and robs you of the head room you need to emphasize dynamics and impacts when you need to. Turn it down. Smooth it out.
How loud is your church? Would you respond differently if the volume were different?
Jordan Richmond is a worship pastor at Idlewild in Tampa, FL. He has also served other local churches in Florida, Kentucky, and the Cayman Islands.
Posted on April 17, 2013
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
More from Thom
Just saw this article on WebMD.com on high sound levels causing heart disease.
“For each 10-decibel increase, your odds of heart disease and stroke go up even more. Scientists think it’s tied to how your body reacts to stress.”
I’ve been a musician and sound engineer at churches for almost 20 years now. I can tell you the top issues I find over and over. Everyone has an opinion that isn’t based on facts. First problem I find is old gear that is past its prime and not able to perform. Old amplifiers and bad wiring is usually the first thing I find. Soundboards that are full of dust and not plugged into any power conditioning or protection. Cheap non-pro quality gear that clips early and doesn’t have the ability to handle the room size. Lack of proper sound absorbing panels to prepare the room and eliminate problematic room reverb and problematic frequencies. Most church don’t realize is there is a minimum amount of money to get a system that can be run at the proper volume and still allow everything to be heard. The reason some amps and speakers cost more is they work and sound better. That being said, with my current setup with is 4 JBL SRX 835p tops and 4 JBL SRX818 subs, I run about 78db peaking at 80 to 81db using my compressor on my main output of my digital board like a limiter to keep things from going past a certain point. With this setup correctly, EQ set right and parametric EQ fine tuning for the microphones and singers, I can take a 6 piece band with 3 vocals and make it fill the room but not exceed my target SPL. The sound is bright and lush, there are no problems hearing each instrument and no issues for the congregation understanding the words. We play serveral styles of music and have never had a complaint from anyone who doesn’t “complain about everything anyhow”.
Actually in a way, it is being forced. I live in a rural county. There are many, many churches around, however, every one that I have been to, is the same. The only ones I know that do not have the volume that loud are well over a hundred miles away, and being poor, I don’t have the gas money for that. So, the command to assemble regularly with like-minded people, I am unable to do, because all of the churches in my area are just like how you say yours is, and honestly, I have tried to ear plug thing. Not only was it still way too loud, even as I walked out the door with them still in, I could still hear it outside. Also, the ear plugs do nothing for the vibrating in my chest of the loud bass. That has even been known to affect people’s health. So basically, the way you say it, you are trying to reach a certain group of people and the others, basically who cares; that is what is sounds like. You say there originally was no way to reach the people you are reaching now with the loudness, but now there is no one to reach us, the ones that not only are bothered by the loudness, but also that do not believe it is even proper. The gospel must reach everyone, not just certain groups. There are still unchurched older people that would not be attracted to that level of sound. Who will reach them? The churches that play normal soft music are dwindling down to almost none left, especially as organists are aging out and no young people seem to want to learn it anymore. I believe any church that really cared about all, would have two different services. Also, there are certain disabled people, who have specified disabilities related to too much noise. Is the church not going to accommodate them? Is the church going to discriminate against these special people? Then I would say it is not a real church.
I am at the Toby Mac concert right now and I’ve left the main building because it is ridiculously bass heavy and way way way too loud. Jeremy Camp was the previous act and it was loud but more than acceptable because the sound was defined. This is ridiculous.
These comments are the reason people run from church. Name calling, implying impure motives, describing the way others worship as sinful or selfish, and the other nastiness that has dominated these comments is an embarrassment to the name of Christ. Jesus said we should be known by our love one for another… And this comment thread has missed the mark entirely.
Personally, I have a horrible singing voice and do not enter into worship well when the music is not loud enough to drown me out. Others prefer a more quiet setting. There is nothing wrong with either approach. It is blatantly a misuse of scripture to attempt to make your personal preferences into a Divine command.
I put tissue in my ears whenever the music level is uncomfortable. It happens at movie theaters, concerts, and yes, even wedding receptions and when we visit some churches. I do not agree that loudness = best experience. It is physical painful to me above certain levels that others seem fine with. Plus, the musicians are not in front of the speakers!
Because it is a major discomfort, loud music is a distraction to my worship experience! Additionally, both my mother and my mother-in-law are now very deaf and warn everyone not to do anything that will affect your hearing later on. Deafness is a very isolating health condition.
It’s a tough call for sure. Back in the day, my mother played organ, and if the windows weren’t rattling, it wasn’t loud enough. Congregation participation, my mother told me, was driven by volume of the organ, keeping the tempo up, and familiarity of the worship songs. This was in an old Anglican / Lutheran church with a pipe organ and stained glass windows, minister wearing a robe, chanting, etc.
These days, the music has been reduced to 85 or 87 decibels, congregation don’t sing, they just watch the “performance”, they don’t participate, and as a musician in a church, I cannot get into the worship myself. I cannot hear my tone, I cannot hear the small little nuances of the notes I play, I can hardly hear my note at all. The mix is so low of the “lead” instruments that I question why I am there at all. The worship leader is banging away on his acoustic, and we have all be diminished somehow to not being able to express ourselves musically.
If I go to a KISS, AC/DC, White Snake, Demi Levato, Jonas Brothers, Ed Sherhan, and the list goes on and on, there is massive audience participation. People have their hands in the air, and they are worshiping. Go to a U2 concert, and witness the worship.
I just recently lead worship. The worship leader told me we were too loud. I was able to sing, hit the high notes. As my vocal teacher says, being able to hit high notes requires that one uses their diaphragm as a bellows, push the air. My mother was a professional vocalist, and when she opened up her throat and sang, it was loud! Congregation aren’t singing, but today in church, they were on their feet, hands in the air, and their voices were loud coming off the floor. I could hear them over the volume of the monitor speakers on stage. There was movement, there was participation. If I hear complaints on the music, I’ll expect some. If you don’t have some complainers, are you really hitting the sweet spot?
There is too quiet when it comes to motivating congregation participation. One cannot sing quietly, not really sing. Not when you want to open up your throat and sing.
One congregration member said it to me this way… while she was surrounded by others who nodded in agreement. “When I hear a song I like in my car and I want to sing along, do I turn down the volume?”
Music volume drives emotion, mood, spirituality, and the ability to get lost in the moment. This is demonstrated in many studies. Yes, hearing loss can happen from long exposure to high levels of volume, but spirituality and singing participation can happen from short exposures to high levels of volume as well. What is too high is the question… and of course, balance, EQ, and dynamics is all important.
@P Your comment strikes me that you place no reliance on the Holy Spirit to draw the congregation into genuine worship with their hearts and voices.
You are using the intensity of loud music to induce the people into a frenzy, just as in a rock concert.
It does not seem like the Holy Spirit is present in the worship.
Ask yourself if the devil is leading you to counterfeit the effects of the Holy Spirit by carnal means.
News item about research from the University of Leicester, UK:
‘Loud music … causes hearing loss by having a similar effect on nerves as multiple sclerosis, research finds. The research shows that noise levels above 110 decibels strip insulation from nerve fibers carrying signals from the ear to the brain. Loss of the protective coating, called myelin, disrupts electrical nerve signals.
The same process, this time due to an attack from the immune system, damages nerves in the brain and results in multiple sclerosis.
It is well known that loud noises can lead to hearing problems such as temporary hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and even permanent hearing loss. But this is the first time scientists have been able to identify damages to nerve cells as a result of noise exposure.
“The research allows us to understand the pathway from exposure to loud noises to hearing loss. Dissecting the cellular mechanisms underlying this condition is likely to bring a very significant healthcare benefit to a wider population. The work will help prevention as well as progression into finding appropriate cures for hearing loss”, said the lead researcher Dr. Martine Hamann, from the University of Leicester in the UK.’
My church has been considering an acoustic up grade for 3 years, and we are finally making the transition to new equipment. I have found much information in these comments which will help my church in the future, when we have the equipment and capacity to fill our sanctuary without straining and distorting the speakers; and hopefully the consciousness not to hurt anybody.
This long thread of replies has some sad themes of arrogance and prejudices towards believers with different physical hearing issues, and it also has some thoughtful sharing of wisdom by experienced tech and musicians. I have mild autism and hearing has always been troublesome for me, but I have always accepted it as part of the way that God made me, and I protect my ears. I believe that people who complain are much more vocal than those who compliment, so let me change that and applaud everyone who has shared Godly wisdom and Spirit led grace and compassion to the other writers who have problems with loud sounds, (i am not even going to use dBa or dBc; “to loud” is an ability to tolerate pain, not a mechanical robotic experience). For me worship is a heart condition not a physically stimulated experience.
The Bible plainly says to play skillful The church has ran many great musicians to the world where they are excepted.
A lot of churches end up with terrible musicians and singers because the old hard shell people have run them off.
As far as the sound I think it needs to be the best mix possible. The musicians and singers need to give it 100 percent. It’s a team effort.
It’s all for the Kingdom of God. I for one don’t believe Satan is the angel of music. God created it same as the ground we are standing on and it needs to be used for his glory.
I do believe that people have louder noise in there homes than the loudness at church. I will say this Satan hates the fact that we use music to praise God I really wish more people would understand that because when the arguments start over music at church ole Satan just puts another feather in his hat.
Good observation. There is one huge difference that needs to be addressed. Go to Disney and walk around. Yes…ONE concert venue or ride with an SPL of 75 can seem quiet….but Disney is anything BUT quiet. It is loud. WHY? You are talking HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of sources of 75db. Put them all together and the ear has prolonged effects. Any louder than this for prolonged times and it is an entirely different situation. It is a CONSTANT sound pressure as well.
A church….a single venue….is not as such. The very first service at your church – the one I lead at…there were no bodies in the chairs during run-thru in the theater…and we were at 85db. Ed tells our FOH sound engineer…”doesn’t it need to be louder?” You see….sound pressure and perception of what you here is sooo speculative. That is one thing I have observed over the years.
I’ll part with one final story.
Williston, ND – I had moved from Nashville to take on a roll there as Redemptive Arts Pastor. Our FOH guy had a man who would come up to him covering his ears mouthing “TOO LOUD! TOO LOUD!” while the music was going. Our PEAK was at 88db.
We invited the a southern gospel band (Ernie Haase & Signature Sound) to play there. They ran a CONSTANT 100db peaking much higher using OUR equipment. The ONLY difference was the FOH engineer. SAME man comes back to the FOH area…and see my FOH tech back there and says “see…THATS how it should be on Sunday…NICE AND QUIET!”.
(Hope you are well, my friend!)