In my 10yrs as a worship pastor, the issue that’s come up more than any other issue has been the issue of volume. From countless conversations I’ve had with other worship pastors, I’m going to guess that it’s in the top 3 for most churches - at least the ones attempting modern music.
I think the issue deserves more time than just turning up or down the master volume knob, so I’m going to attempt to tackle it in more depth here.
The words “too loud” or even “too quiet” send chills down every worship pastor and sr pastor’s spine. The points when I’ve been closest to leaving my position in the Church have been as a result of this issue.
But here’s the most difficult part: This huge issue of “too loud” isn’t even the real issue. “Too loud” doesn’t mean “too loud”. We’re not even talking about volume. The conversation is very illusive.
You can’t ignore the complaints because they come in the form of concern for the safety of people. “My ears hurt.” “You’re causing hearing damage.” You can’t ignore that. But let’s at least be sure about what we’re talking about here. Because when people are convinced their safety is in jeopardy, the conversation tends to become a little less objective…
Your services probably land somewhere between 85dB and 95dB SPL.
OSHA’s allowable sound level pressure (SPL) for 30min straight (most of our churches’ worship services are that or shorter) is 110dB. That’s the volume of a power saw about 3’ away and it’s WAY louder than your loudest service has ever been. And that’s allowable for 30 minutes straight, according to OSHA. Would you like to listen to a power saw at 3’ away for 30 minutes straight? No, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about danger and hearing loss.
At my church (richwoods.org), we’re known for having “loud” music. We’ve got real drums and a relatively small room (500 seats). We’ve got real amps and a serious PA (Danley). We play rock music and it’s loud. We run at about 90dB (on slow-A from the back of the room) at the loud points. Sometimes it hits 91. It’s loud, but no where near dangerous.
When you mow your lawn, you’re listening to 107dB for about 30 minutes.
A rock concert will be running around 115dB for a couple of hours.
You may decide your music is too loud at 85dB. But do everyone a favor and take the safety of people and the danger of hearing loss out of the equation. We’re strictly talking about preference here, nothing more.
So what? If someone complains “it’s too loud”, it’s not like you can say “no it’s not, look at this OSHA report”. That’s because the problem is not that it’s too loud. The problem is that they’re uncomfortable with what they’re hearing. You’ve got to understand this. If the violin is turned up way to loud in the mix, they’ll say “it’s too loud” about the entire mix. If the 2nd background vocalist is to high, same thing. A mix is just that. It’s not one thing. It’s a combination of things. And if anything is out of balance, an untrained person will recognize a legitimate problem, but by default will incorrectly label it as “too loud”.
Getting that should help you deal better with this issue. Or at least look at it more objectively together with your staff.
In my opinion, 90% of “too loud” complaints are actually totally valid. Yes, they’re saying the wrong thing, but that’s not their problem, it’s yours. What you should hear when they say “too loud” is “I don’t like what I’m hearing”. Now that’s something you can deal with. Why don’t they like what they’re hearing?
Here are some possible reasons:
1. The mix sucks. I can’t state this strongly enough. I’ll bold it: If you recruit someone to run audio who isn’t a professionally trained audio tech, your music will always sound wrong. And guess what? Even though OSHA doesn’t say their mix is too loud, it is because their mix would sound best if it was just turned down to zero.
A bad sounding mix is ALWAYS TOO LOUD.
2. You’re using the wrong style of music for your crowd. Maybe the mix is fine, but if they don’t like the sound you’re making, they don’t want to hear it louder. If you keep turning down the electric guitar and snare drum until it’s inaudible and then your staff or complaining congregation member yells “stop, that’s perfect!”, you’re probably playing the wrong style of music. I don’t know. Maybe you’re not the right person for that position. Maybe they hired you with the idea that you’d bring young people to their church, but they weren’t aware that it would cost them their comfort, not just your salary. It might be time for (a) you to move on or (b) leadership to get on the same page about how much comfort you’re willing to sacrifice for future growth and relevance.
3. Your room and/or coverage is bad. When your gear was installed, did a professional acoustician treat the room? Did a professional technician select gear with a dispersion pattern tailored to hit your crowd evenly and avoid the walls? Clap in your room. If you hear a decay of more than 1.5 seconds, your room is probably too live for rock music. That means everything will sound smeared and unintelligible. That means you have to turn things up to compete with the reverberations in the room… which makes the reverberations louder. If you bought your gear from guitar center and installed it yourself, assume you have the wrong gear and that your coverage is uneven. You’re fighting a losing battle. Go hire a professional and have them do it right.
So what to do when the complaints come in? (In my opinion, if you never receive “too loud” complaints, you’re probably not loud enough. No one complaints about it being too quiet - they check out instead. You’re uninteresting. So is church. No wrecked expectations there.)
Here’s what I’d suggest:
1. Don’t dismiss the complaints, but don’t take them at face value either. Investigate what they really mean by “too loud” in your situation. Is it a bad mix? Is your music choice really relevant to the crowd you’re playing for? Is your room or gear killing intelligibility or evenness of coverage? Address the real problem.
2. Don’t argue. No one cares about OSHA. That info is for internal use only (you, staff, leadership), to increase objectivity and perspective.
3. Contact the person who is complaining and ask them what they’re experiencing. Pastor them, because they matter. It could be that your church is the wrong church for them, but don’t assume that for them. Some folks wear earplugs just so they can remain part of a church they love. Help them pick out a pair.
Here’s my last thought for you: Take heart. This is a mind-numbingly frustrating topic for you and for your sr pastor. But you only have 3 options. Two are easy and one is very difficult. (1) Turn it down. Pander to complaints. This leads to a slow death (of art, of involvement, of passion), but you’ll feel very little pain in the short term. (2) Ignore the complaints. This feels good for a moment, but you’ll lose great people unnecessarily and you’ll probably be ignoring some helpful signals about bad mixes or other legitimate issues. (3) Live in tension. That’s probably what you were trying to avoid by reading this article. Sorry. If you handle volume issues correctly in the church context, you will feel tension most of the time. But if you don’t do it, no one will. One of the first two options above will become default.
You’ve seen the power of well-done music in your own life which is probably a big reason why you’ve taken the responsibility you’ve taken. I’d say it comes along with the territory, but that sounds too passive. Your job is pursue this tension - to cause it. It’s a fight you must fight, or people will suffer. Will they thank you for it? Probably not. But we both know that’s not why you do what you do.
Thanks for your hard work.