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
As a member of our band I struggle with this issue. Many of our members think louder is better. After just 10 minutes my ears ring for the rest of the service and well into the afternoon. I’m going to find the app you used and see what our decible level really is.
You can find it here – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/rta-lite/id337536333?mt=8
But as has been pointed out, it may not be perfectly accurate. It’s still a good reference though. Here’s something I like to do… I’ll put a song on in my car and get the volume where I like it. I’ll use the app to analyze the volume and frequencies. I’ll try to replicate that in our worship space. It helps me understand why I like things to sound a certain way, and helps me recognize other factors (like room treatment.)
I hope you can help in producing the best worship environment possible. Bless you!
Goto Radio Shack and purchase an actual SPL Meter. $50 and its accurate.
Set your meter to dBc weighted Slow Responce to measure the entire audiable spectrum.
dBC for Measuring Full spectrum. dBa for Measuring Range of less lower Hz, or Speech.
Your free App SPL Meters dont offer you the flexabilty of setting weight measuresment, responce, which are vitial to your data.
Please dont waste your time on Apps in regards to SPL metering.
However, i have found the Pocket RTAs relativialy accurate, pocket SPL Meters… not so much.
Seeking anyother factual DATA or advise contact me at [email protected].
Several things factor in. (1) Anyone can play loud. It takes skill to play quietly well. (2) Some people do want to hear themselves sing. Some people don’t. As a worship leader, one of the most thrilling experiences is to hear the church singing to Jesus. (3) We have to consider the difference between volume and style. Most people who have complained to me about “volume” are actually complaining about “style.” When I ran dB tests in both the traditional and contemporary services at a former church, I discovered the pipe organ was actually louder than the entire contemporary band. When we occasionally combined for a blended service, people would complain about how loud “those drums” or “those electric guitars” were, but we never got a single complaint about the volume of the organ.
I my current church, I instruct the sound techs to shoot for an “ideal” volume of 80dB, with a max cap of 85dB. Our auditorium seats about 250 and any more volume than that is just unnecessarily loud in that smaller room. And, our congregation sings out…
Hi Andy – I really like your “ideal” of 80db. I think that’s the sweet spot. At times Disney felt too soft – but never too loud (at least the shows I attended.) And you’re right about the pipe organ. They can get really loud. This just highlights the fact that there are several factors going into someone’s impression of a worship experience.
As a worship pastor who’s failed at this many times, I’ve learned that genuinely loving the folks is way better than getting the volume just right. At the end of the day – we’re just imperfect people.
Bless you man!
This whole subject is very complex and cannot be solved with a simple setting on a dB meter. I have run sound at a bar (a long time ago) and the SPL on the meter was 120dB! Nobody complained. Why? It was a good mix and the SPL meter was set on C weighting. There are 2 “weightings” on most meters and the type of music that you are measuring will give you vastly different readings based on the setting that you use. C is basically a flat response to the meter. A has most of the low frequencies filtered out. So if my band has a lot of bass and kick drum, it will give a much higher reading on C than on A. Why do they have different weightings? It is because of what is called the Fletcher-Munson effect. Essentially, the ear does not hear all frequencies the same at different volume levels. So the A weighting is more accurate to what we hear at lower volumes and C is more accurate at higher volumes. This is why some stereo systems have a “loudness” button. It compensates for the ears insensitivity to low and very high frequencies at low volumes. Another thing that is important is getting a balanced mix. All of the instruments should be heard, but the bass, drums and vocals are the most important. Inexperienced techs will mix too much guitar or keyboard in which when blended with the vocals builds up a lot of energy in the 1K-4K frequency range where the ears are most sensitive. This is why a lot of people think that the distorted electric guitars are too loud. You pull out the SPL meter and solo the guitar and it is just as loud as the piano, but nobody complains about the piano. It is because the ear is more sensitive where the guitar’s upper harmonics lie in the frequency spectrum. As you can see, I could go on and on. It really is in the best interest of any large church to get at least one sound tech who really knows her/his stuff.
Mike, no argument there, and it is the responsibility of the church to get it right and make sure that all can enjoy the music without discomfort to their ears, a threat to their hearing, or even problems with pace-makers. Worship should be unified.
There are (as been said) many things that contribute to the “loudness” of a mix that have NOTHING to do with the reading on any RTA or dB meter. Perception is reality. Some people will complain even at 80 dB just because the source is a guitar and not a piano. This is an interesting article, but you still have to observe, experiment, and find what is right for your church. I have yet to find an alternative to that.
For the record, some of the loudest services I have attended were primarily pipe organ.
This is a very important topic as worship is a vital necessity of the Church. Sadly the battle over music has been one that has broken many relationships, and has even caused people to be excommunicated from their home Church! In reading these posts, I sense a lot of “what I like” instead showing a concern for others. Those who do have sensitive ears shouldn’t be forced out of worship or have to put in ear plugs or headphones on loud songs and off for the softer music and prayer. We need to ask ourselves this simple question; Can anyone suffer loss, damage, or discomfort at a medium decibel range? and can anyone suffer or get damage in the loud decibel range? I am taken back by the fact that we can acknowledge that hearing loss can take place at a certain range and this is a hill that some choose to battle on. If worship comes at the expense of others hurting or not able to worship due to the physical distraction endured, then I would pose the question “is it really worship?” How can we say “Lord I love you, and show me your glory” at the same time we are saying I don’t care about the lady who gets startled, or the child who’s ears hurt, or the people with tinnitus who suffer when music is to loud. It was just recently an elder gentleman from my church was asked to leave the church because he stuck his fingers in his ears and offended the worship team. While I do not support his approach, I still find myself baffled at the Church at large who choose to please those who want a loud concert over those who came to worship The Lord.
You’re touching on some of the things that are bothering me here as well. It seems that too often we may be worshipping our music and not our Lord! Distractions and music are all part of the ‘business’ of putting on the Sunday event—
But isn’t it time to start thinking about doing Church: DIFFERENT?
Sadly, I came to realize the same thing (the amusement and entertainment factor in worship). Lest we forget, we are in the age of the “Seeker Movement”. My heart was changed when I read Gene Edwards’ book, The Early Church. It is out of print, but sometimes copies are available on Amazon. It is an eye, mind and soul opener. God bless you!
Amen! One of the many things I try to teach the church audio guys I train. Church sound guys are more than FOH engineers, they are audio producers responsible for helping to create an atmosphere where God’s people choose to throw away earthly distractions and enter in.
Very good blog and observations. The key is to have a high quality system capable of accurately reproducing all frequencies without distortion and plenty of “headroom” so that dynamics can be reproduced with high impact but not necessarily to turn everything up.
I don’t put much stock in the actual levels sighted in the article however. That is not Jordan’s fault but is due to the inherent limitations of the iPhone hardware itself. The iPhone is not a calibrated device. I have used many different sound apps on 4 different iPhones and they all vary from 5-10 decibels. Also, Apple designed the iPhone to remove most of the low frequencies in the microphone circuit because bass cannot be transmitted over the phone network. The lows contain the most amount of measurable energy. Therefore the observed levels are probably a lot lower than actual. The 75db numbers cited should probably not be used as the new reference for your Sunday worship but the observations and principles are right on.
Thank you Jim – very thoughtful comment.
Great points on the iPhone apps. I wouldn’t rely on them solely for serious analysis. Nor would I say that 75db is the holy grail of worship volumes. It would be fun to conduct an experiment where an iPhone app A/B’d with a calibrated pro instrument and see the variation – have you seen that done?
Here’s a link to a blog entry from Bob Kauflin from a while ago addressing this same issue.
As an experience Audio Engineer, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard this debate. In my opinion, church sound levels should be:
80’s: Acoustic/A capella Music
90’s: Band Music (Band can be anything from an organ and stringed instruments to drum sets and amps)
Here’s why; in the 80db region, everything can be clearly heard and it is the same volume as the average singer. If you want to be able to hear everyone around you singing, this is the level you want to run. In my experience, it is less distracting and encouraging for everyone to sing if the level is at least slightly higher (ex. 93db). Any band (multiple instruments) playing in the low 80db is not going to feel like they have any energy. Bands playing at this level makes people stay sleepy.
I live 10 minutes form Disney and would guess that they run their real concerts closer to 110-115db. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to hear the music over the crowd.
NOTE ON DB LEVELS ON A PHONE: These levels should be taken from a dedicated db meter, not the tiny mic on a telephone. The telephone mic is designed to pick up nearby audio sources while eliminating any background noise. Try using it to mic a conference call for a large group of people and you’ll see its limited ability to pick up sound sources further than 2 feet away. In this case, the db measurement is close to a guess from the phone.
Hi Brandon – thanks for your input.
At first I wondered if my phone was working properly. But then again I also felt at times it was “too soft.” I’m sure a pro db meter would have given more accuracy. What it did was force me to think about how often I resort to turning up the volume in the attempt to make a set energetic. I’ve been guilty of that too many times.
Enjoy “O-Town” my friend!
I think Jesus’ band was pretty commonly running at… oh, wait, no band. Hmm.
Well, at least Peter’s band, you know Day of Pentecost? that one ran at….. no, guess not.
Paul and Silas’ band must have been pretty loud, I mean, well, maybe stone walls in a jail have good acoustics. But I don’t think they were allowed to play instruments….
Some day, maybe we’ll do Church: Different
If you don’t think Jesus was loud, how did he preach to the 5000 (more likely double that since it suggests that women and children were not counted) without a microphone? If you think 90 is too loud, imagine what it would have been like that day if you were in the “front row”!
Jesus preached OUTSIDE. No walls, no ceilings for the sound to bounce off band back and double. He didn’t need a group of entertaining p and w singers up front. Jesus is GOD, His voice would never ‘hurt’ ppl’s ears, and if it ‘did’ He’d heal them.
Church: DIFFERENT, your comments miss the important context of scripture. Or perhaps I’ve missed the point of your sarcasm. Did King David institute instrumental musical worship in the temple? Absolutely! Was there a context of worship music that the disciples and Jesus grew up in. Absolutely! The entirety of the Psalter (Psalms) was the worship lyrics for their worship music. Please see Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 in the liturgical context of the passover meal. They sang hymns taken from Psalm 113-118 called the Hallel. Sure they sang a cappella, but how many could afford to be instrumentalists? They were traveling ministers. To understand the scriptural importance of instruments in worship music, please read Psalm 150.
As the director of my church’s contemporary music program I am one who insists that the volumes be such that the congregation can hear itself. There is no better incarnational measure that we are doing our job than when we can hear the congregation singing full voice right along with us. If they are into it, then we are leading. If they are not, then we need to lead differently. So I don’t want to be different just because of those who are anti-instruments. I want to do whatever it takes to help people sing the praises of God as a congregation…that is leading worship music.
Amen! Totally agree. I’ve tried saying all that to pastors for years, with only a look or answer of “Go away little girl”. But God put on my heart that a true worship leader wants to encourage the PEOPLE to worship, not just lipsinc because the “music” up front overpowers them.
Glory! You are a worship leader who gets it righteously. Many thanks for your post. It’s encouraging to know that there are Godly leaders who are sensitive to the congregation. Bless you!
Amen! Your comment is a breath of fresh air!!!!!!!!
After experiencing members walking out of a recent Sunday morning service where we hosted a musical quartet (they controlled their sound), I would agree with the bloggers comments. Our music was too loud. Nothing too worshipful about that!
Amen to all you said (I hear you, and you didn’t even raise your voice 🙂 What is it with the all the deafening noise? Volume is cranked up to ear-shattering decibels everywhere–on television commericials, at shopping malls, at concerts (Christian or otherwise), and even, for heaven’s sake, at church. I personally don’t think this qualifies for what is meant in the Bible as making a joyful noise unto the Lord. I am hardly joyful when my ears hurt–and I mean HURT! Now I take ear plugs everywhere I go. As for energy…….I sing with a professional Bach chorus, and we are highly energetic singers and need tons of it to sing all those longwinded, circuitious melismas. From where does our energy come? By breathing deeply. All this loudness in music today distorts the sound and ruins the varied nuanced dynamics of the music. And in church, it’s hardly worshipful. We are simply adopting wordly “rock” standards. Anyway, enough, but I do thank you for this thoughtful and on-target post!
Lynn, very well said.
I am an older man who has been a Music Director in two Pentecostal churches in New Zealand. I play guitar, keyboard and drums and in the 70’s played in Rock bands. I also am an electronic engineer with much experience in rock band sound mixing and Hi-Fi music reproduction.
My one concern in all this discussion is that we don’t lose sight of what Church is about; Gathering of the saints to praise and worship the Lord. It is NOT a rock concert or entertainment for observers, It is about cooperate worship where all feel free to participate. I have been to a Samoan AOG church (100 people?) that ‘raised the roof’ while singing to the backing of a single acoustic guitar. So what is wrong with us if we need so much ‘propping up’ just to praise our Lord?
I think many younger people enjoy the excitement of a rock band just to feel in the mood to praise or worship. That’s OK as long as their heart is in the right place. Also there are many old and young people who accept loud music simply because that is what their worship team do. The worship team should be going into the Holy of Holy’s (Like the tribe of Judah) and drawing the church in with them. The music team are simply the foundation and leaders for cooperate Worship and are not the centre of focus. The question I ask is this; Why do we need all the ‘horse power’ (watts) to launch us into worship? I love hearing people around me praising their Lord, but at 95 db, that is lost! We need to know why we are there and also, regardless of sound levels, are we glorifying God or Music?
In 1962, 20 Watts (RMS) was as much as you could achieve in a home Hi-Fi system (I know, I built one) these days we can blast out 1000’s of watts, so I wonder if this ‘power’ could be exploited by Satan (an angel of music) to distract the saints?