Overseers Adam Diehl & Jon Paul Robles

I’m sorry to disappoint those of you who may be looking for a specific decibel level – you won’t find it here. In this post, I aim to encourage leaders and sound techs in some principles on volume that I believe in. There is plenty of room for preference in my philosophy on volume – but I believe this perspective is universal in all churches that want expressive worship.

It’s easy for music to be too loud, but there is such a thing as “too soft.” The difference between the two is a small sweet spot.

Problem #1: We are Humans

In the diagram above, I wanted to demonstrate that the sweet spot is kinda small. It’s hard work to get it in the sweet spot. I’ll say that again – it is a lot of hard work to get the volume in the sweet spot! Especially when you account for the humanity of the volunteers.

When my voice cracks after too many hours of rehearsing and singing – nobody complains. When a guitarist plays a wrong note, nobody says anything. When the drummer drops a stick, everyone is forgiving. But when a guitar or keyboard changes their setting to a louder effect – and the sound guy made a mistake and didn’t adjust for it . . . it’s Armageddon! Was there a loud moment? – yes! That is correct. But let’s have a little bit of grace  like we would with any other volunteer making a mistake. I’m not sure how the sound guy’s mistakes became the unforgivable sins in the church. They’re steering the sound of the whole through a narrow window of the “sweet spot” and so if they make a boo-boo and allow a “too loud” moment to go through the sound system, it’s not the end of the world. Let’s just work on it and get better. It’s important for them to find the “sweet spot” if we actually want people to sing. Segue to #2 . . .

Problem #2: The Sound of Your Own Voice (Why there’s a sweet spot)

I was once in a church and the worship leader began singing a song I had never heard before. It was beautiful. Because I didn’t know it, I just listened the first time. It was a good volume – I loved listening. The next time through the chorus I opened my mouth and started singing, thinking I would join in expressing my worship. As soon as I began singing, I felt like my voice was louder than the music around me (and I wasn’t singing super loud, either). I couldn’t even hear the melody line anymore. I felt incredibly out of place, looked around, and realized that nobody else was singing louder than a mumble! The music wasn’t loud enough that I could hear it while singing — the music wasn’t loud enough to create an environment in which people could SING OUT (like the Bible tells us to). (If your church’s goal for worship is for the congregation to mumble or sing quietly – then you’re fine. Don’t read on, this isn’t for you).

If someone can’t still hear the music well when they’re singing out in the audience, it’s “too soft.” There is such a thing. Try it in your car! Music gets a whole lot softer once you start singing out. At the same token, if the music is so loud that you can’t hear yourself singing out (and you are singing out) – then that’s “too loud.” The appropriate place is between the two; the very small sweet spot.

Sound guys – you can’t mix to make everyone happy. It’s impossible, so don’t try. If the goal is to help people worship then you need to mix to help the congregation. That means you need to listen like the congregation does. Make sure you walk around the room during rehearsal so you know what it sounds like where the people will be. Also, be sure that you occasionally listen to the mix while you’re singing out yourself, as well. That’s how the congregation would be hearing it. If you can’t still hear what’s going on – it’s “too soft.” If you can’t hear your voice at all, it’s “too loud.” Mix for the worshipers.

Time and time again when I sing and worship with some CDs or something, I find myself turning the volume up once I start singing out just because I can’t hear what’s going on anymore. I can’t sing along if I don’t know what we’re singing or if I can’t hear my own voice! I believe people often say, “That is too loud” when really what they mean is “That is too loud for listening.” (And I would agree with them!) But folks, the goal of our worship services is not to listen. It’s to participate in worshipful expression to God together – to sing out (like the Bible says)! Our volume needs to help that happen; we need to make decisions based on the church’s vision. This is a great resource coaching leaders on how to “get the congregation singing.”

Problem #3: A Bad Mix – fix it with these three steps.

If this stuff is over your head – that’s okay. I’m not writing to you here, I’m writing to your sound guy. Send it to them. :)

Another thing that can make things seem too loud is a bad mix. Sound guys – high frequencies are perceived as louder than they actually are (this won’t be reflected in a flat dB meter). Really high frequencies (the shrill piercing) may not actually BE loud (on a dB meter) . . . but they SOUND loud (to ears). If lots of people are saying, “The music is too loud” – the solution is probably not to “just turn it down.” If you do that, you’ll quickly go into the “Too Soft” region. Most likely, you need to mix better:

1) Cut some highs on your EQ (This will eliminate the shrill piercing). Listen and think critically and pull down any particular instrument that might be causing the problem (most people that say “its too loud” don’t realize its often one instrument that’s causing the sensation of loudness). Pull down the problem spot, usually its the highs. But don’t take this too far, it’ll get muddy.

2) Increase low-mid and bass frequencies, turn up the bass guitar, add more “Kick Drum.” (This low end will help people feel the music – also a valuable contributor to creating an environment in which people can sing out). But don’t take this too far, it’ll get rumbly, boomy, and will quickly feel TOO loud.

3) Put Compression on instruments or voices that seem to POP unexpectedly. If your preacher is one that yells spontaneously and it hurts people’s ears – somehow that becomes the sound guy’s fault. Sound guys – fix it by using a compressor. Do the same with untamed instrumentalists or vocalists.

The first week we followed those three steps to creating a better mix at my church, we had an elderly gentlemen tell our senior pastor, “Hey that music got quieter! I loved it. Thanks!” Truth be told, we increased the volume by 5dB.  But because of the better mix – nobody perceived it as loud; the way it felt was more important than the way it sounded. Conversely, the first week we ever used distortion on an electric guitar, a lady commented on how much louder than usual the music was — “so loud things were rattling on the stage.” But we ran everything 5 dB SOFTER than usual. In this case, it was stylistic preference.

Sometimes when people say “It’s too loud,” it really is too loud. Let’s not get our head in the sand. But think about it critically before just turning down the entire thing. The situation is far more complex than that.

5 Responses to "How Loud Should a Worship Service Be?"

  1. oh – and if you’re not using a dB meter, I highly recommend it. That can help bring consistency and takes out the guess work.

  2. I remember too how ‘hot’ we once got the monitors, as the musicians couldn’t hear themselves. We were fighting ourselves, and almost all the sound was coming from the monitors. Turning the monitor down or even learning to depend on the room speakers, makes a huge difference. Guess this might be a different subject:)

  3. Corporate worship is different than parallel individual worship. If ideal worship is just “me and God” then true corporate worship in a church service can be deemed optional, and unfortunately, for many it is.

    I believe there are at least 2 parts to worship in church: the vertical where we address God directly with our words, songs, actions, etc., and also the horizontal corporate action where other people witness, overhear, and join with our worship as we “preach to one another” using the words of the songs, readings, etc.

    One problem is that we unwittingly make the corporate dimension very difficult for the simple fact that we just can’t hear one another in many worship settings. This effectively eliminates the horizontal component of worship. This is not a style based issue.

    I just submitted my doctoral dissertation last week on the effect of congregational volume on one’s encouragement to sing. Keep in mind, that my results are based on what my test subjects wanted to hear of the rest of the congregation, not the sound system. After all, what a congregation hears of itself is what happens when the sound system is turned OFF.

    Here is what I found. This is not opinion, but the average response of 35 test subjects which is a statistically valid number of responses.

    The ideal volume at which to hear the rest of the congregation was 81 dB. The ideal volume at which to sing while hearing the congregation at 81 dB was about the same: 80 dB. The people felt best about singing at those levels.

    At 85 dB congregational level, responses to questions like: “I felt I could worship under these conditions” and “The balance between my voice and the congregation was good” began to drop. And 90 dB and above was found to be a DISCOURAGEMENT to singing.

    Most fascinating was that the louder the congregational volume, the louder the test subjects sang. However, above 90 dB they disagreed with the statements like “I can worship under these conditions” and “If given a chance, I would sing again at these levels.” This means that while people may sing louder at louder congregational levels, they don’t like it and don’t even feel they can worship properly.

    Is this a style based issue? No. Pipe organs can overwhelm a congregation just as much as a sound system belting out a worship team can.

    Want to help people to sing? Let them hear themselves as a congregation. This involves acoustics and volume levels of all types of accompaniment.

  4. Thanks for those thoughts David! I was quite surprised to see that you were able to pinpoint the perfect volume for congregational singing. Your comments made me think of two things:
    1) I tend to disagree that people always sing louder when they can hear everyone else. I know a lot of people that feel uncomfortable singing if they think everyone else can hear them too. I don’t discount that some people feel otherwise – but that’s just not been my experience. I understand your findings don’t relate to style, but how much of other voices do people want to hear… that aspect is certainly style. Not rock vs. organ style but the style and preference of the people.
    2) In the last section of my blog I discuss reasons I don’t mention a specific volume level…. 90dB of a good mix will seem SOFTER than 81dB of a bad mix (with lots and lots of highs). In other words, the essence of my blog post is that PERCEIVED VOLUME is not always equivalent to ACTUAL MEASURED DECIBEL LEVEL.

  5. Adam,

    What my data actually shows is that for every 5 dB rise in congregational volume there was a 1.28 dB rise in the volume of the test subjects singing. The only point at which the two were equal was at about 80 dB. There was a nearly linear rise in singing volume in response to congregational volume. It was interesting that at congregation volumes below 80 dB, test subjects chose to sing louder than the congregation while at congregational volumes above 80 dB they sang softer than the congregation.

    Test subjects were given a fader to adjust the congregational volume and they chose a mean value of 81 dB as the optimal volume. The volume at which they sang while hearing the congregation at 81 dB was 80 dB. This means that they preferred to sing when the output of their voice was the same as the volume of the congregation, no more, no less.

    I understand your point about perceived vs. measured volume. All the volume measurements in my experiments were derived using the ITU-R BS.1770-2 specification which was designed to measure volume as the human ear perceives it.

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