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Loudness: Perception vs. Reality

FOH-Loudness-Large

If you’re reading this, you’ve most likely had someone walk up to you and say “Can you turn it down? It’s too loud.”  If it’s one person (there’s one in every crowd…), we’ve come to expect that from them, and we usually apologize for their discomfort and say something along the lines of “Thanks for your feedback! I appreciate your input.”  But what if there’s more than that?  What happens when several people approach you, or worse, your senior pastor, and complain about the volume levels of worship?  Of all the things this post will cover about perceptions and some science behind the relationship between the mix and overall volume, the singular most important thing that you can take away from this will be that you can NEVER please everyone.  Ever.  It’s impossible.  But what steps can we take in order to be certain that the product we are delivering to our congregates is the best product possible?

GET DIRECTION

Firstly, and most importantly, have a conversation with you senior pastor.  The most important thing you can have in your position is to be on the same page with the person who not only is the head of your church, but also the same guy who signs your paychecks.  THEY need to make the call about which decibel level your worship needs to reside at, but keep in mind that sometimes an arbitrary dB level is the wrong course of action.  Non-techy folks will most often arbitrarily choose a dB level that’s way too quiet to be productive, so go prepared with an SPL meter on your phone, or a physical SPL meter, so that you can demonstrate that 75dB (roughly the volume of a lively conversation between two people at a table) is too quiet.  But in the end, THEY need to make the call, understanding that not everyone will be pleased, about the culture of the worship experience at your church.  If they are wanting a more energetic and upbeat worship experience, then give them that.  If they want a simpler, more traditional-style worship service, give them that.  Regardless of what complaints you get from the general population, ALWAYS give the pastor what they want.  Communication is key, and being on the same page as upper management sets you and your team up for success.  Will people leave your church if your pastor elects to go with a more upbeat worship experience?  Of course they will.  Will people leave your church if your pastor elects to go with a more traditional worship experience?  Of course they will.  You absolutely will NOT be able to please everyone, so the direction in which to go absolutely needs to come top-down from the senior pastor.  Once those guidelines are set, any complaints that you receive about volume levels can be redirected to your senior pastor (“Thanks for your feedback!  But I’m actually operating within the guidelines set by our pastor, so I’m unable to make any volume changes.  I’m sorry that it’s too loud for you, but if you’d like, you are free to talk to him about it.”).  It’s important to remember that your responsibility is to deliver the product as best you can, not to field complaints and ridicule from the masses.  That is the responsibility of those who have oversight over you.

 

UNDERSTANDING LOUDNESS

Science is your friend.  The human ear, regardless of age, can handle 90dB for about eight hours before they begin to suffer some hearing damage.  So if someone complains to you that it’s too loud for the 20-30 minutes your worship set is happening, bear in mind that they are saying that it’s too loud for THEM.  Personal preference is exactly that: it’s personal.  If you are operating within the guidelines that your pastor laid out for you in the conversation you had as far as expectations and direction, kindly inform the complainant that you are within the guidelines that your pastor has set, apologize that they feel the music is too loud for them, and offer a pair of earplugs (which you can buy in bulk for REALLY cheap on Amazon).  This all rolls back into that old fairy tale about Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but substitute porridge for volume. How loud something is perceived is totally personal, and what may be too loud for one person is just right for someone else, and what is just right for that person may be too quiet for a third person.  We cannot please everybody, so maintain a decibel level that is safe, yet suitable for the majority of congregants (maintain a decibel rating in the mid-high 80s, with peaks in the low 90s).

UNDERSTANDING SUBTRACTIVE MIXING

Science is your friend.  It’s is important to understand that MOST people cannot discern between a bad mix and overall loudness.  Drums, keys, vocalists, guitars and basses (“Hey, that’s everything on my worship team…”) all fight for the same frequency range.  Being able to mix by subtracting (cutting unused frequencies in one instrument so that another instrument can occupy that frequency space) is absolutely paramount.  For example, kick drum and bass guitar share a LOT of the same frequencies, but if I cut the kick drum at about 500Hz and again at 5kHz, I have now created space for the bass guitar to live in.  I can also cut the bass guitar at 60Hz and again at 2.5kHz, to create space for the kick drum to live.  By doing this, I have separated the two instruments in EQ, allowing both of them to be present and prominent in the mix WITHOUT competing with one another for frequency space.  Effective equalization and mixing to create that space in the sound makes it SEEM not as loud to the average listener.  The sound becomes muddy and disorienting when instruments are conflicting with one-another, and when mixed correctly, that goes away.  You can run a full band at 90dB, and an acoustic set also at 90dB. The human ear will perceive the music as quieter, even though you run at the same dB level.  The loudness didn’t change, but the perception sure did.  Effective mixing will allow all instruments and vocalists onstage to be heard well, mixed well, and not be off-putting to the audience.

DRUM ADJUSTMENTS

Most people will complain about the drums.  The reason behind this is simple: their sound consists primarily of transients, which mask the sounds from other instruments.  If your drummer is having a hard time controlling the intensity of their strikes, put them on hot rods.  This will not only lower the intensity of the strikes, but will also darken and warm the timbre of the drums and cymbals themselves.  It will make them not as physically loud or punchy.  Mallets on cymbals can also add a nice, soft touch to a swell, but it’s situational.  A lid on your enclosure MAY help dampen then sound a bit more, but if the back of the enclosure is open, it’s negligible that this will be effective.  Speaking of negligible, drum enclosures themselves BARELY dampen the actual, real-life loudness from the kit.  But again, the PERCEPTION is that it does!  It makes them look quieter.  We can talk all day about the effectiveness of cages and shields from drums, but your time would be better spent reading this article from Chris Bellamy.

In summation, if we understand that we are unable to please everyone, having a clear and purposeful direction for proceeding with worship style and appropriate volume levels is absolutely paramount. And once that direction has been established, there are some practical things you can do it create a more well-designed worship experiences that allows your team to worship fully, while not sonically offending the gross majority of folks who are participating.  Perception is 90% of what we do.  Old people can dance and jam to Hillsong Y&F, and young people can get down on hymns.  Our jobs is to make them perceive that the product that we are putting out is the best we possibly can, while remaining within guidelines that have been laid out for us by our superiors.

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