Define Loud: Three Things To Consider Before Turning It Down
I don’t know if there is a single, more irritating critique to a worship leader or audio engineer than the “too loud” comment.
It’s just too loud.
Why does it have to be so loud?
It hurts my ears!
Do you think God can’t hear us or something?
Now, here’s the problem with loud complaints. There is no universal standard for loud.
Let me give you a personal example…
A few years ago, I was beginning to lead worship in a new church. One of the first things I wanted to do was try some “alternate instrumentation” Sundays. First on the list was trying an acoustic set. Vocals, acoustic guitars, bass, cajon, the end.
Now, rewind 3 to 4 weeks before the acoustic set. I was new to the church, and there were a couple of people who wanted to voice their concerns quickly while I was still fresh and new. It was the typical volume complaint that I mentioned above. In their words, it was just too loud.
We were really good about taking dB readings during soundcheck and during each service to make sure we were staying within bounds for hearing safety (check out this OSHAX article for help on that).
Now here is the kicker…
Our dB readings that first acoustic Sunday were the exact same as the dB readings as every other Sunday with the full-band. BUT, those same people who had complained in weeks prior stopped me after the acoustic set and said how much they loved the softer volume.
Now, besides feeling like I wanted to laugh-cry right as they told me this, it illustrates my earlier point: there is no universal standard for loud.
There are several things people may call loud that have nothing to do with your overall volume/dB reading, because loud is the only word they know to describe their discomfort.
Think about it, if you’ve never been stung by a bee, would you describe any stinging pain you’re having to be like a bee sting? No, you would just say "it stings."
Furthermore, can you really say “it tastes like chicken” if you’ve never had chicken?
So let’s look at three things (out of probably 100 things) people might be calling “loud” in their complaints to you.
You might only be rolling at a whispering 20 dB. But if someone has a sensitivity to a particular frequency that is very present in your front of house mix, they may think it’s too loud. When someone has a frequency sensitivity, it can cause a rattling or hissing/over-modulated sound in their ear, and can even spur an instant headache.
Some people just get really uncomfortable with low-end. Many of us love the kick drum you can feel in your chest, but some people freak out about bass. Too much bass may make them think of that neighbor kid with a dozen 15-inch subwoofers in the back of his Civic. The sheer fact that they’re experiencing sound they can feel may be especially uncomfortable and startling to them.
By the way, I made up this phrase, "Bass Confusion" to be able to categorize this issue. So don't look for it on Wikipedia, but it could make a good band name if you need one.
This might be the most important one. You took intro to psychology, right? Pavlov is the guy who would ring a bell right before he fed his dogs. After awhile, the dogs would start salivating just because the bell rang regardless of whether or not there was food.
I submit that sometimes people just assume loud when they see certain instruments on the stage like an electric guitar or drum kit.
As I mentioned earlier, my acoustic set ran the same dB as the regular full-band set. The full-band prompted loud complaints from these parishioners, but the acoustic set somehow created audio bliss for them. Why?
Simple. There was no electric guitar on stage, and the drum kit was sitting idle.
To many people, just the sheer sight of an electric guitar or full drum kit on stage makes them go, “this is gonna be loud,” before you even play a single note. They associate those instruments with high volume. They’re expecting it. They’re sensitive to it.
Much like Pavlov’s dogs would hear the bell and think “FOOD!” - Some of the folks in our church may see a particular instrument and say “LOUD!”
- Does this mean we pitch the electric guitars and drums? No.
- Does this mean I need an audiologist to screen my entire congregation before each service? No.
- Does this mean I need to throw away all the subwoofers? Nooooo! Don’t even joke about that.
What this does mean is that there are more things you can think through and talk to your loud complainers about instead of just volume. You actually may not be too loud, but that’s the only way they know how to describe their discomfort.
Bottomline: Turning it down may not be the solution because volume may not be the reason they think it’s too loud.
So I'd love to hear from you in the comment section below: What are ways you address volume complaints or handle volume issues in your church?
Dusty Wallace is a worship leader from central Ohio, the owner/operator of Wallace Creative LLC, and cohost of The Plugged In Church podcast. You can find more about him at DustyWallace.org and on Twitter @DustyWallaceMUS.
By the way, do you need a decibel meter? Here's an affordable one with good ratings. (Note: affiliate link)