Killing Me Loudly With His Song

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Most of us can’t imagine operating a lawn mower or power tools without hearing protection and yet regularly operate our worship sound reinforcement systems at a comparable decibel level.  We all know volume complaints are more prevalent when the musical style is one the complainant doesn’t particularly like.  But the reality is that decibel levels are no respecter of persons or styles.

An organ introit, choir and orchestra anthem, rhythm section bridge, or southern gospel quartet all have the same potential to hover around unsafe or even damaging levels with extended exposure.  In fact, some studies have even shown that incidents of hearing loss are slightly higher in classical musicians than rock musicians.  Even though our volume preferences may be subjective, the potential effects are not.

Worship and Tech leaders often use the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) decibel scale to determine acceptable levels.  Although a helpful resource, it is often used reactively rather than proactively.  In other words, leaders often use this scale to defend existing levels in response to complaints.

Proactive use of the OSHA scale can instead help a congregation consider not only acceptable levels but also appropriate levels for the culture of their individual congregation.  Acceptable levels are objective…Appropriate levels are subjective.  Appropriate levels consider the congregation we have been given to lead, not one we wish we had been given to lead.

decibelIn most cases it would require only slight adjustments to reduce the risk of hearing damage or loss.  Experts have written that based on the length of time of exposure vs. the intensity of exposure, every 3 dB drop reduces the risk by one-half.  Even though humans are very good at determining and measuring frequency, they are not very good at determining loudness, or differences in loudness.  In the noisy environment of a worship service with numerous instrumentalists and vocalists playing and singing simultaneously, a 3 dB drop of the band or orchestra would be imperceptible to most congregants.[1]  Slight adjustments would foster significant progress toward safer worship music levels for longer periods of time.

As leaders, we can rationalize unsafe decibel levels because it feels better, because it fits the genre, or because we prefer it at those levels.  And yet, we often vilify those congregants who make those same claims about their preferences.  It is really just a matter of our responsibility and accountability as leaders to fulfill our obligation to steward those we have been entrusted to lead.  How are we doing?

 


[1] Marshall Chasin, Hearing Loss in Musicians: Prevention and Management, (San Diego: Plural Publishing, 2009).

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2 Responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Bryan on 10.02.13 at 4:36 pm

    It’s best for the FOH engineer to keep the sound around 85dB for equal loudness according to the Fletcher–Munson curve. Also the human ear can handle 85dB for eight hours without risking hearing loss.

  2. Posted by Brendan Prout on 10.02.13 at 4:36 pm

    I’ve found usually it’s not the overall volume level that offends people’s ears, but particular frequencies that make it “too loud” in perception. The reality is I can run the SPL meter in the room and have it show 85db(C) with two different instruments playing solo, and one can be deemed as a nice pleasant volume (say, a Hammond B5 organ with a low-attack pad) while another can be deemed as piercingly loud (say, a flute). The true measure is not simply the overal dB readings but the balance of frequencies. If you can manage the offending freqs, you preserve people’s hearing and achieve what you’re intending – which is that the music becomes a transparent vessel to usher people into the presence of God. If their concentration is on the music being too loud or too quiet, then the sound mix isn’t right because it’s become a distraction rather than a vehicle.

    We have a staggered volume measure in our main sanctuary, allowed by phased speaker arrays and sound buffering & abatement. Front half of room receives 95dB(C), rear receives 85dB(C). Front half receives and EQ heavier on bass freqs, so the drums and bass ranges of instruments are more pronounced. This allows folks who like it loud to come up front and experience the “thump” and more vibrant interaction with the band. The rear of the room has those freqs subtracted, leaning more towards sibilance – so the vocals are highlighted and other instruments diminished overall. People that are sensitive to the “loudness” of the bass freqs perceive the rear half is a comfortable level.

    On the platform, we’ve moved away from wedge monitors and now use the MyMix in-ear monitor system, with Shure SE215 sound isolating earsets. Those earsets provide 37db of sound reduction, so those in close proximity to the drums have their hearing protected, and they can set their monitor levels at appropriately low levels to protect their hearing. The only amp we use on stage is the bass guitar cabinet – beyond that all instruments are direct in with digital effects units to shape sound, so the stage volume level has been decreased drastically as compared to our wedge monitor days. This allows our FOH sound engineer to get a much cleaner mix in the room and keep far better control over the overall volume. It took us over a year to put aside the money for the monitor system and implement it, but it was well worth the wait. Now we actually have people asking if the volume can be turned UP instead of down!

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