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.
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.