Volume Wars (Part 1)

Featuring Branon Dempsey Posted on January 29, 2009

Last week, I conducted a small poll on the Worship Team Training site regarding Decibel Levels. 70% of churches rated their volume at 90-95db range. 20% of other houses of worship rated theirs as being 95-100db range, while only 10% remained at 85db’s.

A new book I’m reading is on the spectrum of audio signals for live and studio applications. There were several issues that address volume concerns. One of them was a study conducted over a few years involving studio/album recordings. Sound engineers determine that master volume levels were drastically lower 5 and 10 years ago. Master volume settings for CD recordings use to be at 0.0; now, 5 years later we are pushing anywhere between 2.0 and 5.0 db levels above the historical norm. Now keep in mind, we are not talking about live sound yet. We are discussing what happens in the studio and in the headphones. In the studio world, bands and artists each push the envelope to have the loudest album. Think about your favorite MP3’s. Try this exercise. Listen to any 2008 recording, then pop in something from 2003. You will notice a huge volume drop between the two recordings. You’ll need to boost the volume up a few notches on the 2003 recording just to equal it’s predecessor. Here’s the point. As our ears become more accustom to louder music each year, we turn everything else up to keep our hearing relative. Just think about all the volume levels around you: neighborhoods, traffic, malls, offices and other public places. I’m pretty sure that the music in your church is at least as loud as the noise outdoors. In fact, I bet your sound is 5-10 points higher than it was 10 years ago. For some, this may be a very shy estimate.

The rate of volume changes due to adding instruments, amplification and technology on the stage (and behind the board). We have more toys in our live gear set-up than what we really need. Ok instrumentalists, guitar players and drummers, raise your hands if you like it loud? Uh, huh... Singers, how many of you like it loud? I thought so. The band wins; go figure. Instrumentalist like louder volumes everytime. However, we failed to ask the most important group in our sanctuaries: the congregation. I know I enjoy a good loud thump of the bass and drums along with the roar of guitars. Some may enjoy having the earth moved in their worship centers. To others, this could be an annoyance and could result in people leaving worship services (and the worship leader/team asks why.) Who is the priority? Do we satisfy our artistic needs, or do we facilitate the needs of others for worship? Most of all, are we honoring the Lord through serving each other?  There is a purposeful difference between a Friday night gig and a Sunday morning worship service.

War of the Band
About six weeks ago, I was confronted by a worship leader who told me that he had trouble asking his lead guitar player to turn it down. The guitar player was truly gifted, attended all rehearsals, but he showed little respect to his worship leader. As the story goes, the guitarist was persistent in turning up his stage amp, although, the leader repeatedly asked him to turn it down. The worship leader tried several attempts to work with the guitarist as well as to visit with him personally. Upon one evening at practice, the guitarist was asked to turn it down again. The player got up, packed his things and stormed off.

The worship leader asked me what to do. My response: let him go. The last thing that your team and congregation needs is contention and a prima donna. I shared my personal concern.  There are too many players/singers that believe worship/music cannot continue without them. The truth is, God is not dependent our ability to praise Him. In fact, God’s greatness precedes HImself. It is by grace from Holy God that we are called into relationship with Him and a privilege to worship Him. Isaiah puts it this way, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away,” (Isa. 64:6).  I don’t think God is calling for any band auditions here. It truly is a unique and humble invitation (not a right) by God to minister to him through music, while leading others into His worship. There’s the key - His worship - not our worship. When we mix our personal griefs/agendas/etc. and the music goal of the team, we are heading for a train wreck. Our real goal: to exhibit Christ-like leadership in being used by the Spirit to facilitate the worship of God. I know this may sound seminarian, but this really is the ultimate truth. At least, this is what we can apply from the words of Paul when he says:

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. - Romans 12:4-5.

The Volume Wars Rage
Now from the spiritual application we move to how this relates to our logistics. When our volumes are out of control, it definitely makes the sound engineer’s job more difficult and frustrating.  Like you, I have seen my fare share of arguments between the stage participants and the audio team. Guitarists and drummers get upset because they can’t/want to hear themselves, while the engineers are trying to balance the main mix. Ok, I am going to side with both here. Guitar players get a different feel for the sound and vibe as their levels are up. Especially in working with tube amps, when the tubes are working hard, the tone is dynamically sweeter. When the tubes are idle (or running low) the guitars have no life and impact in the sound. This explains the frustration of the guitarist, as well as the engineer. Can the two really co-exist? Yes, but getting them on the same planet is another struggle. Again, the resolve is to make the right choice based on priority for the greater good. There is a technical solution: IEM’s, which we will dive into in a moment. At all costs, we need to avoid the volume control fighting and train wrecks. This should never happen especially in a service. However, truth be told, I have witnessed a non-verbal volume argument in a service. This is a horrible situation and has no place before the Lord in worship. The service of worship is no place to make a point. If so, we have lost our understanding of worship and our place as being the people of God.

Here’s one instance of how volume wars begin. When the guitar amps are cranked-up on stage, the drummer can’t hear so he plays louder. The bass begins to lose focus on his instrument while they turn up their levels as well. The keyboardist and acoustic guitar is about to pull their hair out and they follow. Everyone else and the vocals become non-existent. At this point, the engineer has lost total control. They can literally mute all the channels on the board and the stage volume takes over the entire room. Ok, let’s understand exactly the job of the engineer. He/she is not a volume control baby sitter. The engineers are just as important as the band in leading worship. They provide shape and dynamic contour of the overall mix. The engineer’s split job is to make sound audible (not amplified) for the congregation; also, they are to assist the band in providing good monitor support. Two of my best sound engineers, Brad Duray (about) and Dan Yeaney (about), told me that their #1 job as an audio team is to be invisible. In fact, Dan went on to say, if there were no negative comments made by a congregation/staff member after a service, then the audio team did their job (in most normal cases). In this scenario, the band’s job is to maintain a good level of stage dynamic, while controlling their instrument and playing volume.

It is true, that if musician has (or develops) a good ear, they can successfully manage their individual volume control. Even more so, they will gain a more polished approach over their instrument and maximize their playing ability. With this adjustment alone, you have solidified one section of your mix. In the event that your entire team makes this adjustment as well, your stage mix will improve by 80%. Result? Two outstanding rewards: (1.) The engineers can actually mix and enhance the sound. (2.) The congregation can sense a balance, hear the singers, and most importantly, they can hear themselves. Volume must be shared by all.  (Part 2 Soon to Come)

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