Stewards of Audio Volume

By Eric Radecki

In the field of church music today, dealing with audio volume comes with the territory. It’s not a simple topic, and it’s worthy of a serious and honest discussion. Daniel Schantz’s article “The Half-Inch Solution” broached the subject but failed to go beyond generalizations and opinions.

In this article I hope to offer practical help in dealing with the audio volume levels in your church by providing a responsible interpretation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines within a theological context.

 

“Loud” is in the Bible

Scriptures seem to indicate that much of the music of public worship is intended to be loud (Deuteronomy 27:14; 1 King 8:55; 1 Chronicles 15:16; Psalm 33:3; 47:1; 150:5; Revelation 1:10; 6:10; 19:1). “Loud” isn’t wrong. Loud worship is an emphatic expression of our common affirmations, praise, and thanksgiving. The full range of dynamics, from soft to loud and everything in between, facilitates the full range of response from worshippers.

The question for us is two-part: In this era of technological advancement, how can our worship volume vary from loud to soft, and at the same time demonstrate proper stewardship for the hearing of those in our congregations?

 

Sounds like rock ’n’ roll

Many congregations today are playing and singing in a rock ’n’ roll style. Guitars and drums characterize rock music. Like a trumpet, an electric guitar can create some very loud, high-pitched sounds. Similarly, cymbals in the psalmist’s day and in modern praise bands can be very loud. Guitars and drums, with their unique timbres and range of dynamics, along with other instruments, can be used to achieve some powerful musical moments.

 

Too much sound, or just bad sound?

Sometimes music can sound awful, even if it’s not loud. Poorly equalized vocals and poorly mixed instruments can be the problem, as can out-of-tune (or out-of-time) singing and instruments. All these things, and more, can contribute to a bad mix and the perception that it’s “too loud.” Rather than arbitrarily lowering the volume of music, try improving the music and/or the mix first. You may find that the volume level is quite safe, or could even be increased.

 

Audio volume is measured in decibels (not inches)

Decibels are abbreviated as dB. An “A” is added for A-weighting, which most closely represents the perception of the human ear (as opposed to C-weighting). OSHA lists parameters for safety in its hearing loss literature. The guidelines allow for safe exposure to an eight-hour average of 85 dB(A).

OSHA offers an exchange rate for averages that exceed 85 dB(A) for eight hours. For every 5 dB(A) increase, the allowable time of exposure is cut in half. So, an average level of 90 dB(A) has a four-hour allowable duration of exposure, 95 dB(A) for two hours, and 100 dB(A) for one hour. Therefore, a typical one-hour worship service would need to exceed 100 dB(A), on average, in order to be considered unsafe by OSHA.

 

Audio Suggestions

Begin monitoring the sound pressure levels (SPLs) for each segment of your services. An SPL meter can be purchased at a store or as an app on your smartphone. Multiple services can vary based on different crowd size, so monitor each service separately.

Record the base dB(A) of your auditorium with audio and video equipment powered off, then powered on, with the heating or air conditioning running, during rehearsals without the congregation present, etc. These numbers will help indicate what’s normal for your room.

Higher-pitched instruments can be piercing, even if the overall decibels are within safe limits. Use digital technology or shielding to manage any directional sound issues. Choose to invest in higher-quality instruments and microphones to help get the best sound overall.

Run your mixing console at, or close to, unity. The further away from unity you drift, the greater the loss of sound quality.

Adopt an audio volume policy for your church. Below is the audio volume policy at Greenwood Christian:

We operate at levels lower than OSHA allowable exposure levels to ensure a safe environment. SPL meters are used in any room with levels reaching 85 dB(A) and a program of 30 minutes or more of music.

For typical one-hour worship services, peak levels shall not exceed 95 dB(A), which is 5 dB(A) below the OSHA allowable average exposure for one hour. Averages shall be lower than 90 dB(A), which is 10 dB(A) below the OSHA allowable average exposure for one hour. For concerts and special events, averages shall be lower than 95 dB(A), which meets the OSHA allowable average exposure for two hours).

 

Complaint Suggestions for Leaders

Remember that nothing pleases everyone and someone will dislike anything. Resist knee-jerk reactions based solely on a comment from a person who dislikes the volume. If there is an audio issue, by all means, fix it; but a complaint doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a real problem.

Recall that grumbling and complaining in the church, and not the subject of the complaint, is the true disruptor of unity. Again, if the audio is unsafe, address it; but teach the people not to grumble and complain. Naïve? Paul didn’t think so (see Philippians 2:14).

Don’t acknowledge anonymous complaints. Anonymity is biblically opposed to unity. Unity implies relationship and dialogue. Anonymity sidesteps both of those virtues.

Discern between a grumbler/complainer and someone who is genuinely sharing a concern and is interested in the solution. A reference to the worship music as “ruckus” or “that noise” is an indicator of a bias against the music, and that safety is not on the agenda.

Give your worship leaders some credit. They likely are aware of the OSHA guidelines, even if they fail to apply them correctly. Perhaps they are somewhat impeded by equipment or acoustic issues, and you can help them with that. Also, worship leaders are familiar with complaints, and probably are less shocked to hear them than you may be. Ask for their honest assessment, and most of all, support them.

The church should find encouragement in the true nature of unity in the body of Christ, which does not depend upon our agreement over audio volume. We are blessed beyond all people to have the bond of peace, the love of Christ, holding us together. When we celebrate at the Lord’s table, we must know that from which our unity comes, and it is our Lord. We are one because he and the Father are one. As we continue to discuss audio volume and other issues related to worship music, let’s do so with a biblical mind-set as well as a proper understanding of the relative musical and acoustical issues.

Feel free to continue the conversation with me on my blog (www.erictunes.blogspot.com) or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/erictunes).

 

Eric Radecki is worship minister with Greenwood (Indiana) Christian Church on the south side of Indianapolis, where he lives with his wife and three sons. He holds an MA in worship studies from Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.

You Might Also Like

3 Comments

  1. June Ground
    April 27, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    I am a 77 year old Christian woman. Easter, 2008, the decibels of the instruments were 90 or over and I almost fell over people in the pew to go to the door to get out of the room. The ear pain was high and my ear ringing went higher. I had learned from the nurse giving me a hearing test that sound that brought on increased ringing was hurting my ear. After that day I couldn’t stand as high decibels as I could before that situation.

    Later I talked to the two young men responsible for the decibels and the one in charge of the Technology said, “The services are not geared toward people like you”. The church has three services on Sunday mornings and people in the first service tend to be the older people. Many, like me, have asked that in that service, the decibels be reduced, but no one pays any attention.

    I love music. I was in the choir at that church for 48 years, and I LIKE ALL KINDS OF MUSIC. My daughter earned her Bachelor’s Degree with a major in vocal music.

    Ear plugs or headgear used for gun fire don’t work. If I remove them, then someone upfront will sometimes make a loud noise and I have ear pain again.

    I couldn’t worship there anymore. I attend two Sunday school classes, one in which I co-teach. Then I drive to Charleston Bible Church in the next city to worship. Fortunately, I was a volunteer math teacher in their private school so I knew the pastor was a good leader and the music wasn’t too loud. In the evening I attend the services of the First Southern Baptist Church which is not far from where I live. I still try to be as active as possible at my church. Just have to watch out for those high decibels. It has been hard on me though.

    Sincerely,

    June Ground
    Mattoon, IL

  2. Al Forthman
    April 29, 2013 at 9:04 am

    So, here’s the issue, well explained by Sister June. While there is certainly a preference issue, it is important to note that there is a health issue, as well.

    God bless you, Sister June, for being persistent in your worship!

    The authors have done a wonderful job of analyzing this from a technical viewpoint (a bit over my head perhaps, but then I’m no physicist). The point is, they’ve decided to be intentional about it, for which I deeply appreciate their work, as well as their sharing of it.

  3. May 1, 2013 at 8:12 am

    Mr Radecki’s main concern seems to be with the question of whether or not the level of sound is “safe.” As June Ground’s letter amply demonstrates, “safe” and “comfortable” are not necessarily the same, and some people do have more sensitive hearing. Although I agree that it is not good to pander to those who just like to complain and who may be hiding behind volume and safety issues when what they are really unhappy about is the style, wouldn’t it be more loving to lower the volume to levels that are not only “safe” but also “comfortable” for everyone possible?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for Free!

Subscribe to gain free access to all of our digital content,
including our new digital magazine,
and we'll let you know when new digital issues are ready to view!