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It’s too loud!

Has this happened to you?

Someone approaches you and declares the music is too loud.  Whether it is done prayerfully or out of frustration, that person wants you to fix it.  To them, it’s rather simple.  Just turn down the volume.  Clearly your sound engineers must need more training.

I thought myself to be a seasoned expert in this, but recently this has roared its ugly head again – and caught me completely unprepared.  All a person wants to hear is “I understand.  I’ll take care of it.

You could try to discuss it with them.  You can try to get more information.  Perhaps they would be able to be more specific than “too loud”.  Probably not.  The average person does not critically listen with the same trained ears of a musician or sound engineer.  In any case, if they don’t like what they hear, chances are they will go over your head until they find someone that will listen.  That will not end well.

So, what do you do?

First, take a deep breath and calm yourself.  They are not criticizing your job nor attacking you as a musician.  They are reporting a rather simple conclusion they have made about their environment.  It is too loud and they want it fixed.  The best thing you can do is demonstrate understanding and listen to them.  Don’t make promises, but do thank them for coming to you.

At this point, you have some work to do.

First, if you aren’t, begin actively monitoring your sound levels with a dB meter – preferably dB-A (which reflects human hearing).  Sustained loud sounds can cause permanent hearing damage.  Churches are responsible for the health of their congregation’s ears during worship.  I have provided a dB chart below to help explain sound levels.

The dB meter is a great tool, but it will not solve every problem.  Not all sounds are created equally.  The human ear is more sensitive to certain frequencies than others.  Part of what makes electric guitars, cymbals, trumpets, and piccolo flutes piercingly loud is the frequencies they create.  They all have strong frequencies in the 2-4 kilohertz range.  When these frequencies become overbearing, you can run a very conservative 85 dBA and still get complaints.  The problem here is one of EQ.

Praise bands are disadvantaged here.  So many of their instruments reside in this frequency space.  The electric guitar, acoustic guitar, cymbals, keyboard, and even vocals reside here.  It’s easier to say what couldn’t contribute: the kick drum and toms, the bass guitar, and mid-range piano and keys.  By the time you reach a shout chorus, things will get loud.  The key is to keep them from getting harsh.

This is where individual instrument EQ plays a role.  Cut down the offensive frequencies in the 2-4k range.  Nasal singers will need some work too – especially if you have several of them.  If you do this right, the complaints should stop.

But life is rarely this simple.

There are other potential issues.

Next, check the subs:

Sub-woofers are wonderful.  They can add depth to a mix but if poorly mixed create a tremendous amount of mud (and complaints).  Think of an action movie packed with explosions.  This is when the subs on your sound system really go off – and you get the most impact.  If they were constantly cranking, you would lose the impact when the explosions hit.  This is why you mix for punch.  You want the subs to make an impact and then stop.

The problem is you decided to run the bass guitar mostly in the subs.

The difference between a kick drum and a bass guitar is that the bass guitar sustains a pitch – and plays consistently through a piece.  The kick drum impacts key beats in a song and does not sustain.  Having the bass guitar primarily in the subs creates ear fatigue, muddies the mix, and is the second biggest cause of complaints.

 

Any frequency can be a problem.  An overly muddy mix has too much sound energy in the 500hz range.  A very sibilant (lots of “S”) mix has too much in the 6-8khz range.  A good, clean mix will generate less complaints than a bad one.

Lastly, deal with sound issues with understanding.  Arguing with a person or dismissing their opinion never works in the ministry.

 

Decibel Comparison Chart:

Environmental Noise:

  • 0 dB – Sound floor
  • 60-70 dB – Normal Conversation at 3-5 ft
  • 80 dB – Telephone Dial Tone
  • 85 dB – City traffic inside car
  • 90 dB – OSHA monitoring requirements begin
  • 90 dB – Train Whistle at 500 ft
  • 95 dB – Subway Train at 200 ft.
  • 107 dB – Power Mower
  • 110 dB – Power Saw
  • 125 dB – Threshold of Pain
  • 125 dB – Pneumatic riveter at 4 ft.
  • 140 dB – Jet engine at 100 ft
  • 154 dB – Ear Drums are shattered
  • 194 dB – loudest possible noise
Musical Noise:

  • 60-70 dB – Normal Piano Practice
  • 70 dB – Fortissimo singer at 3 ft. away
  • 75 – 85 dB – Chamber music in small auditorium
  • 92-95 dB – Piano Fortissimo
  • 84-103 dB – Violin
  • 85-11 dB – Flute
  • 92-103 dB – Clarinet
  • 90-106 dB – French Horn
  • 85-114 dB – Trombone
  • 106 dB – Timpani & Bass Drum rolls
  • 120-137 dB – Symphonic music peak
  • 120 dB – Amplified rock music at 4-6 ft.
  • 150 dB – Rock music peak

Guidelines:

OSHA: What is Legal

  • 95 dB – 4 hours
  • 100 dB – 2 hours
  • 110 dB – 30 minutes
  • 120 dB – 7.5 minutes
NIOSH: What is recommended

  • 88 dB – 4 hours
  • 91 dB – 2 hours
  • 97 dB – 30 minutes
  • 103 dB – 7.5 minutes

One third of the total power of a 75-piece symphony orchestra comes from the bass drum.

The brass section playing fortissimo can drown out practically the whole orchestra.

High Frequency sounds of 2,000 – 4,000 Hz are the most damaging to hearing.

When listening to music with earbuds, the levels can exceed 100 dBA which is loud enough to cause permanent damage from just 15 minutes of listening.

Hearing loss is not reversible. Once the damage is done, it cannot be undone.

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