Ever notice how the band at your worship service begins at a reasonable sound level, but as things progress they get louder and louder? You plead with them to turn it down for the sake of the congregation, but the musicians and singers keep insisting that they can’t hear themselves and have to turn up the stage amps or monitors.
As this stage volume increases the only thing you can do is keep pulling their amps out of the FOH mix, and soon the only sound of the instruments in the room is coming directly off stage, and the vocal monitors are so loud they’re bouncing off the back wall and echoing all over the place. The mix you so carefully crafted during sound check is now thrown out the window, and it’s all you can do to get the vocals up over the blazing guitars and pounding drums.
Sound familiar? I’ll bet it does. I’ve spent a lifetime of dealing with this phenomenon and have developed a number of techniques and mind games to help convince musicians to “turn it down.” But today we’re going to explore just why this volume creep happens to performers (and everyone else, for that matter). But first, a few definitions.
All human beings (and animals with ears, for that matter) exhibit something called the Threshold of Hearing. This is the lowest volume sound that can be heard under controlled conditions.
You may notice that in a very quiet environment, such as a snow-covered field, even small sounds appear really loud. For instance, a deer stepping on a twig sounds like a big branch falling. That’s because your Threshold of Hearing has dropped to the lowest level possible which enables you to hear (and notice) any sounds that could signal potential threats such as a predator.
Now, imagine taking that same sound of a twig breaking, but in this case you’re standing alongside a busy highway. You won’t even notice the sound of that twig because your Threshold of Hearing has been raised enough to only hear loud sounds that signal danger, such as a semi-truck blowing his air horn for you to get off the highway (oops!).
This same adjustment of perceived sound levels happens while you’re watching a football game on television. For example, when you and your buds first start watching the game, the volume level on the TV set is probably pretty reasonable. But after the first great play everyone shouts and the TV volume is turned up a bit. Of course, nobody asks to turn down the volume, they just adjust their own voices (and hearing threshold) to this now higher ambient level. After the next play, the volume goes up yet another notch, with everyone talking even louder. Soon the television set is at maximum volume and everyone is practically shouting at each other. But nobody in the room seems to mind, or even be aware of the increased volume level. That is until your wife (or significant other) walks into the room for the first time. Then they’ll generally say something like, “Are you guys deaf?”, at which time you can answer, “No dear, but our threshold of hearing has been temporarily raised due to the increased ambient noise level.” Don’t count on this working though…
However, bringing the volume up by 3 decibels (dB) doubles the wattage required by your sound system. So if your system was using 100 watts to produce my initial reference level of 0 dB, the next step of +3 dB is drawing 200 watts, +6 dB = 400 watts, +9 dB = 800 watts, +12 dB = 1,600 watts, and +15 dB = 3,200 watts.
Download this sound file (or check out the video version on this page) onto your own media device and start playing it on your sound system with the console meters around -12 dB or so. Once it hits +3 dB on your console your amplifiers should be close to clipping and your ears perhaps ringing a little. At the end of this file my voice will drop back to the original 0-dB reference level, which you’ll think sounds very soft compared to what I sounded like in the beginning. But no, I’m at exactly the same sound level as I started with. Your own “Threshold of Hearing” has been raised in one minute to accept loud sounds as a reasonable volume. After perhaps 10 minutes or so of no noise your threshold of hearing will return to its “quiet” level, but during that time you’ll be expecting (and wanting) really loud sound or music.
What does this all have to do with sound volume in your worship service? Well, exactly that same sort of “threshold adjustment” happens during mu
sic at a worship service. The band may have done a great sound check at a reasonable volume, but once the adrenalin kicks in, somebody is going to play a little louder (you know who you are). The other musicians really don’t complain, they just turn up their own volume a bit, and the song goes on. But after a few more minutes, others in the band can’t hear themselves so they add to the SPL of the stage by turning their own instruments up a bit more. Soon everyone is playing their instruments and screaming into their mics as loud as they can in an attempt to be louder than everyone else on stage.
What to do, what to do? Well the first thing is to get an SPL meter of some kind and shoot for a targeted volume level on stage. Then it’s a matter of herding the musicians into that level and keeping them there. – Mike Sokol