How Loud Is Too Loud?
The other night I was at a show at a local bar…I mean church…I mean…no it was definitely a bar, seeing a friend’s band play, and the mix was LOUD. Like, uncomfortably loud. I pulled out the dB meter app on my iPhone (not super accurate, but close enough) and it was reading 112 dB on average during loud choruses. Luckily I had earplugs, but it got me thinking: how loud is too loud? And what do we as church engineers say when people tell us that the mix is too loud?
On a technical level, it’s pretty easy to say what’s “too loud”. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has done research to determine exposure times at various decibel levels that can lead to hearing damage. Their data tells us that around 106 dB (A-weighted) for 3.75 minutes will lead to possible hearing damage. That’s pretty loud, but I’ve definitely heard some church environments (especially camps/retreats) hit that level regularly. Above that, you get to a mere 2 minutes of exposure at 109 dB and less than a minute of exposure is acceptable at 112 dB. So…I’m really glad I brought those ear plugs.
In purely the technical sense, going over 106 starts to get into the territory of “too loud” for the average ear to handle for the length of a typical song, but there’s a lot more to it than that. For on thing, it’s rare that a song is going to be that loud for the whole duration of the song. Contemporary worship music usually has a lot of dynamics, with lots of different parts that are soft and loud. So it’s unlikely that you’re going to hurt anyone if you peak at 106 for a few seconds at the loudest part of the chorus, because after that loud chorus there’s going to be a softer verse or instrumental that drops the dB level back down again. There’s a lot of give and take when it comes to loudness.
But let’s talk about what really matters: your congregation’s PERCEPTION of loudness. You could be running at 91 dB, which on a technical level is perfectly safe to listen to for 2 hours straight…but if you try to pull that level with a congregation full of older people, you’ll be kicked out of that church faster than you can make a joke about turning down their hearing aids.
My personal “safe level” for the churches that I mix at (which are contemporary, medium-to-mega churches playing modern worship music) is from 92 to 98 dB depending on what it feels/sound like in the room, and what the congregation is used to. Lower than 92 dB, and the mix usually starts to feel flat and lifeless, but higher than 98 dB, and you usually start getting complaints from the people near the speakers.
So what do we do when we get a complaint about it being “too loud”?
The answer is: it depends. If the complaint comes from the pastor, or from the tech director, I immediately turn the mix down. There’s is ZERO room for argument when the request comes from them. You might be perfectly within the safety levels defined by NIOSH, but if the pastor says it’s too loud, then it’s too loud.
But what about the other times, like when a random congregation member comes back to the board and says I’m running too loud? This is when we as sound engineers have to be very objective. There’s definitely a chance that I may have become caught up in the moment and have pushed things louder than they should be. So the very first thing I do is to check my dB meter. If I find that I actually am loud, I’ll pull down the mix a little and thank the congregation member for telling me. That’s just the right thing to do. But, if I REALLY, objectively don’t think it’s too loud, I’ll politely tell the congregation member “Thank you, I appreciate your input, if you’ll come stop by the sound booth after service, I’ll be more than happy to talk with you”. That’s my line, every single time. Feel free to use it.
If they actually do come back after service (which is exceptionally rare) I’ll explain to them that I’ve been hired by the church to provide a certain level of sound reinforcement that is compatible to what thousands of churches across the country do on a Sunday morning, and that what they were hearing was absolutely not damaging anyone’s ears. Usually, that’s enough to satisfy them, but if not, I’ll refer them to the tech director or a pastor on staff for follow-up, but I’ve almost never had that happen.
Hopefully, this has provided you with some insight on what volume is “too loud”. It’s a complicated subject, but it’s an important one that needs to be addressed. Above all, trust your ears. If it feels like a good volume, it probably is.
-Worship Sound Guy
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*All figures quoted above are based on the “A weighting” system of sound measurement, and all information is based on my experience – none of the information contained within this blog should be taken as scientific, and I take no responsibility for its use.