The perfect volume for a church service isn’t found in a magic number. Truth be told, what one person finds perfect, another thinks is too loud or too soft. Who’s correct? This guide helps you find the ideal volume for your sanctuary and implement a process so all audio techs mix a consistent volume each week.
Let’s get this part out of the way. You might even hate me for it. I can take it, I’ve raised teenagers. Here goes: The volume level for your church service is to be at a professional level, which is not the same as a rock concert.
I was at a huge church tech conference that offered a worship time. Was the volume perfect? Far from it. I talked with other techs afterward and we all agreed it was so loud that we couldn’t worship. I’ve even been at a 50-person church which was just as bad. It’s not a rock concert!
What’s this professional level of which I speak? Before that can be answered, let’s talk about sound measurements.
Sound Meters and Measurements
Meters for measuring sound are called SPL meters, not dB meters. Oh, someone might say “dB meter,” but what is measured is the SPL (sound pressure level). When sound enters the ear, we don’t detect “volume.” Instead, we detect the pressure in the air created by the sound waves. When the pressure is strong enough, we feel it, like a loud bass guitar or thunder.
SPL meters are great but they aren’t all the same. There are a few differences.
1. Feature Set
They all offer basic functionality, but some also allow for tracking and recording the average over a period of time. I rarely use extra functions except when I want a sound average for my own curiosity, audio geek that I am.
2. Meter Type
The type affects the quality. Put a better way, smartphone meters can vary a lot in how well they detect sound versus a true hardware-based meter which is more accurate. Smartphone meters are also often limited to 100 dB and rely on the phone’s microphone, unless a measurement microphone is purchased for the phone—at that point, why not just buy a real meter? Meters can be re-calibrated if necessary.
Primarily, I use a hardware-based meter but do use an iPhone meter on occasion, such as if I’m at a loud restaurant and curious about the volume, again, audio geek that I am. My recommendation is for a hardware-based meter when taking front-of-house measurements.
- A good SPL meter will last a long time so spend the money and get something like the
Galaxy Audio CM140 SPL Meter.
Please note that while the measurement is defined as dB SPL, for ease, I’ll be using the generic term “volume” going forward.
How to Measure Sound
A quick glance at a sound meter will reveal options including weight and speed. These are very important in SPL measurement.
Coke or Pepsi? Chevy or Ford? Weighting is another one of these questions because there are two types of weighting common to live audio: A-weighting and C-weighting. The difference is one measures sound how humans hear and the other measures sound differently.
Our ears interpret frequency volumes differently. In the below chart, the Equal Loudness Curve shows how the frequency/volume differs. As the frequencies decrease (to the left) and increase (to the right), the volumes start increasing so they are perceived to have the same sound level. For example, a sound at 1000 Hz at 80 dB SPL appears to sound as loud as a 100 Hz sound at 90 dB SPL.
A-weighting measures sound as if it’s heard by the human ear. This weighting reduces frequency volume below 600Hz. Not a lot at first, but by the time you get to 200Hz, it’s a 10dB cut. The same thing happens above 5kHz with 20kHz getting a 10dB cut.
Let’s say a contemporary band is playing at 90dBA (notice the “A” at the end). C-weighting does cut the highs just like the A-weighting but it doesn’t cut the low-end volumes until below 40dB. Therefore, that same band might have a C-weight measurement of 96dBC. The differences in weightings is seen below.
Which is preferred? I’ve heard arguments on both sides. Pick one and stick with it. Much of what you are doing is comparing numbers within your own sanctuary. Also, the volume that works for one church doesn’t equate to the volume that will work in another.
Personally, I use A-weighting. I believe it’s a better representation in the venues I mix. That being said, I’ve checked my C-weight numbers when I thought there was a heavy amount of low-end in the mix. If you run an organ in your service, use C-weighting. See what I mean?
How often should measurements be taken? Be careful before answering. While a combination of instruments and singers produce a combined sound, there are all sorts of little volume peaks that occur, from the sound of the drum stick on the snare head to a passing guitar note. Watching a constant measurement would drive you crazy because it wouldn’t show a true average. This leaves two meter options: fast and slow.
- Fast is 125 milliseconds. A little slower than constant but it’s still going to pick up a lot of peaks.
- Slow is 1000ms (one second) and the preferred method. Can a lot happen in one second? Yes. However, to get a true average, it’s the best speed.
Record measurements by using the formula: Number dB[WEIGHT] (speed).
For example, 90dBA (slow).
Max vs. Peak
Some meters allow for tracking a max volume and a peak volume. For recording average sound levels, use the max value. The peak could be significantly higher because it doesn’t take a time factor into consideration. You might see a max value of 90dB and a peak value of 96dB. Your average would be 90dB.
How to Measure the Room
Using a combination of weight and speed settings, there are a few volume levels to record. It starts with the volume across the room.
There isn’t a perfect acoustic space where all points in the room receive sound at the same level, at least not in the church world. Through this process, you’ll discover how much of a volume difference occurs in the room. As long as the differences aren’t too bad (under 5dB) then all is good. If it’s greater than that, it’s time to call a professional to address the problem through speaker alignment changes, acoustic treatment or other options.
1. The Shape
Start by drawing out the shape of the sanctuary and mark where the seats are located. Next, draw a grid over this with points every 12 feet. If the sanctuary is small and/or has side seating or alcoves, make sure to cover those areas.
2. Pink Noise
Run pink noise through the house system. Pink noise is equal energy through octaves and works in the same way our ears work. Dennis Foley of AcousticFields.com says, “It’s not that pink noise is calibrated to the human ear’s frequency response. It’s just calibrated to how we hear, which is very well-grounded in math. Each time the frequency doubles, we hear that as an octave. From one octave to the next, we expect to hear an appropriate amount of sound energy (depending upon the program material), which is why we calibrate our audio systems to pink noise. Octave bands are easier for our hearing mechanism to understand.”
Set this loud enough that is seems like a reasonably loud volume.
Walk to each point where the grid lines intersect and take a measurement. Write this on the grid intersect. Make sure you also take a reading from behind the mixer as it’s a reference point.
4. Review Results
Once finished, look for high and low volume areas. This shows how the congregation hears the sound system. Also, if you get volume complaints, find out where they sat and see if it’s a naturally louder part of the room. You might find the sound booth has the lowest volume which means when you’re mixing and think the volume sounds right, the congregation is hearing it louder—maybe a lot louder.
In an upcoming section on finding the right volume for the room, remember any such difference and accommodate for it.
Time to take a few measurements from the sound booth.
1. Noise Floor
The noise floor is the level of ambient noise that’s present in the room when the sound system is turned on. If the room’s air handlers present a noticeable volume, then they add to the noise floor. This means you want to know how much sound is present in the room when the AC/heaters are running and the sound system is humming. Once a room fills with people, their presence (talking and moving around) can also contribute to the noise floor.
The noise floor is the level at which you can minimally produce sound through the house speakers. We typically don’t think about how low we can go, but if you have a soloist who is singing a capella then it’s possible they might lower their volume and sing at a whisper. You don’t want their volume to drop below the noise floor.
2. Maximum Volume
The next volume to record is the loudest the system can go. That being said, be careful testing. Just because the audio system goes to 150dBA doesn’t mean you should push it that high. What you’re looking for is the point in which the system starts clipping and/or the house audio distorts. An older sound system might distort at 100dBA while a newer system might go much louder. The reason for finding this upper level is to find out how much you can push the volume over the nominal (expected) volume.
Let’s say the band mix runs around 88dBA. One day the band is on fire, the congregation is really into worship, and you want to push the volume a little higher to add energy to a song. If the system distorts at 95dB, you don’t have much room to work. If it’s higher, it does. You don’t want to fill the room with a distorted sound. Once you find the optimal volume for the room, as described in a later section, note that as the nominal level. There will be a nominal level for music and one for the spoken word. Record the higher of the two.
You can record this volume with pink noise, though it would be hard to hear the distortion though you could see the amp clipping. Or, do it with the band playing. If you opt for this route, you’ll have to do it quickly.
The difference between the nominal level and the loudest the system can handle is the headroom. For tall people who ride in small cars, you know all about headroom and the first big bump you hit—ouch.
4. Dynamic Range
There’s one more volume to record and you don’t need the meter. Subtract the noise floor from the loudest value (before distortion) and you get the dynamic range. This is the volume range in which you can safely run the volume and know it will be heard. This can be useful for using volume as a dynamic to a song. Just remember to account for the sound of congregational singing.
In the below image, I’ve used a handful of easy numbers to demonstrate all of this.
What’s the Right Volume?
Here’s a list of how I’ve heard the right volume described:
- I love my country music turned up loud in my truck but I expect church music to be soft.
- As loud as I want, whenever I run sound.
- Loud enough I can’t hear myself sing.
- Loud enough I CAN hear myself sing.
And you thought picking out a paint color with your spouse was hard.
The right volume for your church service, once you find it, will not be perfect for everyone. It’s possible and you might be so blessed. However, understand each person has their own preferences so what you’re looking for is the volume that suits the majority of people.
The right volume is not what worked at your old church. It’s easy to hear a certain volume and get used to it. I started at a church several years ago and was told, after my first few services, that my mixes were solid but just not loud enough. I raised the volume and then discovered it: “That actually sounds better.” It was the right volume for the room.
The right volume is that which enables the majority of the congregation to be engaged with the sermon, hear all spoken words no matter the speaker, and fully engage in worship. Note those are three different things, each requiring an appropriate volume. This means you can’t set the volume on the channels at the beginning of the service and never touch them again.
During the sermon alone, I guarantee the pastor’s volume level will change. It will likely drop the longer they talk or when they pray. Mixing is an active process, and while there might be good decibel levels that are set for a channel, they might need changed, so never forget that.
Through this page, I’ll help you find the best volume ranges for all of these things but you’ll still need to listen throughout the service in case a change needs to occur.
How to Find the Right Volume Range for the Room
The right room volume is based on three things:
- Hearing safety
- The desire of the worship leader/pastor/church elders
- The response of the congregation
Before discussing the process of finding the right volume, know you might already have it figured out, but just don’t know it. And it’s always good to verify it. After all, it might be good but it could be better. Let’s get to it!
1. Hearing Safety
Provide a safe volume level so as not to create permanent or temporary hearing loss. This doesn’t mean you can’t “mix loud.” It means you shouldn’t rattle teeth.
One problem with mixing on the louder side is when people bring up the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) hearing level safety chart as a means of saying, “it’s too loud.” This chart lists the limits for sound levels over a period of time. Take a look at the chart and then read on to find out why it’s not useful for the church service situation.
I’ve had this conversation with a congregation member who contacted me, through this site, regarding their church. “I bought a sound meter and watched it during the worship time. They exceeded the OSHA numbers.” At this point, I asked them the question, “Did you use A- or C-weighting?” I didn’t mind having the conversation with them about their church’s sound, but I did want to make sure they weren’t comparing apples to oranges. But the weight question was just the beginning.
The problem with using the OHSA chart for comparison with live audio production is the OSHA chart is based on constant noise as one would find in a manufacturing facility with constant running machinery. For example, when their chart shows a limit of two hours for 100dBA, they’re talking about a constant noise for two hours. Worship sets aren’t apt to run for two hours and they aren’t going to be that loud the whole time. Therefore, don’t worry too much about the chart. Common sense should tell you when it’s too loud. And if you’re not sure, see the next two points.
2. The Desire of Church Leadership
This is a tricky area. There are times when leadership is wrong about volume. I’m talking about instances where they are clearly wrong. For example, a sound tech once told me his church leadership said to crank the volume because more volume equals a better worship experience. I’ve visited places like that and trust me, it doesn’t and I could tell the congregation didn’t like it either. This could be a make or break deal for you.
For example, if I was at a church that demanded a certain decibel level I knew was too loud for the congregation and detracted from worship, I’d attempt to educate leadership and ask to test lower volumes and get responses after the service. Or, they could just track their complaint count. If this didn’t work and they said I had to keep it at that volume, I could not in good conscience stay on as an audio tech at that church—even stay at that church for that matter. We have a huge responsibility to the church, to the congregation and to God to sculpt the audio so it’s a blessing; always remember that.
You could be on the other end in which you’re told to keep it soft, too soft. I wouldn’t consider it a make or break deal because you aren’t doing damage to anyone’s ears. But if they aren’t engaging because it’s too soft, it’s a conversation you need to have with the worship leader and the church staff, if necessary. In either situation, first go to the people to whom you directly report. And again, ask to test volume changes.
I’ve been fortunate as all pastors I’ve worked under have all allowed me to run the volume as I saw fit.
I should add that if you’re running sound and the pastor comes up and asks you to turn it down…turn it down. You can talk later about why/what they thought was loud.
3. The Response of the Congregation
The best way to set the volume level is by basing it on the number of people singing, standing, raising their hands in praise, or using whatever your congregation tends to do that shows they are fully engaged in worship. That goes for music. For the spoken word, it’s a bit harder but if you hear people say they couldn’t hear the message, then it wasn’t loud enough. So let’s talk practical application.
Consider this three-step process for meeting the needs of the congregation regarding volume level:
1. It Seems Right
Set the volume during the sound check based on what you think is right.
2. Make a Change
Once the service starts and the worship band starts, look at the congregation and slowly raise the master fader volume to an extra 3dB. If there’s no change, try higher or lower. At some point, you’ll see more or less people fully engaged in worship. The more stoic the congregation, the harder this can be.
3. Check, Rinse, Repeat
Once you find that ideal volume, check to see what is it, using the SPL meter. The next time you run sound for a service, do steps 1 and 2 again and check again with the meter. You’ll find a few things happen from one service to the next and from one song to the next. First, your average dB levels will vary slightly from service to service and that’s ok. It means you’re meeting the needs of the congregation for each particular service. Second, you’ll find a soft song might sound better at a lower volume than a higher one.
Let’s talk real numbers. I won’t recommend a specific volume level because it all depends on your room and the congregation. For example, in one church I ran the worship sets around 86dBA(slow). At the church I’m at now, I run around 91dBA(slow). I know guys that run their worship sets around 104dBa(slow). 86dB to 104dB is a huge difference. It’s a matter of what sounds right in the room and how the congregation reacts. All that to say, use your ears and watch the people. I mean listen with your ears and watch with your eyes.
Let me be clear: Going forward, a meter should not be used as the primary means of setting and maintaining the volume. That’s to say, don’t ride the house fader so the volume never goes above or below a specific number like 88dBA. The song needs room to move. Same for the spoken word. I can have a song that fluctuates from 84dB to 93dB during the song. That’s normal. One verse only has a piano. The chorus has all instruments in. The usage of every instrument in a song affects the volume and so a natural change is normal. What you’re looking for is the number that best represents the majority of the song.
When you find the right range, start using your ears to guess the right range. Run the volume so it’s where you think it should be. Then, check the meter to see. When I moved to a bigger sanctuary, as I’ve mentioned, I found I was mixing quieter than I needed to be. After a while, you’ll find you’re mixing the right volume and the meter only becomes something you check a couple of times per service to make sure you haven’t let the volume get away from you.
Visit this page for a worksheet you can use for testing volume changes.
Work with the church to establish a church policy on volume. Then, it becomes your safety net. There might be complaints, and they should be investigated, as I’ll cover soon, but as long as you’re under the church’s policy level and within their preferred range, you’re good.
Uniform Volume Across Services
There are times when one sound guy refuses to listen and runs the volume higher. The mentality is normally that of, “I know what I’m doing,” or the self-centered, “I like it this loud.”
In order to get these people to change their ways, they need to be educated in two areas.
- They need to know you’ve determined the volume range that works in the church. This can happen in a meeting with everyone or one-on-one.
- They need to see it from the congregation’s point of view and that’s the best way to lead into a discussion of how you found the best range.
The congregation needs a music volume that’s conductive for worship and it’s not based on your personal preference. That’s why I spent a previous section discussing how to find that right volume. If there is anyone on the audio team that mixes louder or softer than everyone else, they need to understand this point.
The congregation also needs to hear a consistent volume of audio production from one week to the next. If you mix music at a volume the congregation likes and the next person mixes too loud, the congregation will notice and they’ll come to a point where they look to see who is running sound on days they don’t like it. Eventually, when they walk in and see that person in the sound booth, they know they aren’t going to enjoy the service.
Volume and Mixing Warnings
A few notes and warnings about the dangers of volume, hearing and mixing.
Volume and Frequency Changes
Mixing music isn’t as simple as dialing in the mix and leaving everything alone. Not only are mix changes required from one song to the next, the volume of the song affects the mix sound. This can be heard in the high-end and low-end sounds. As soon as you lower the overall volume of the band, the first thing you’ll notice is the highs and lows seem to have dropped off. Therefore, when mixing a slow song that would benefit from a lower volume, listen to where the highs and lows have gone. A little EQ work in those areas will bring the mix back to life.
It’s easy to boost the house volume when you’re into the music. Just a little louder, just a little louder, just a little … you get the idea. But if you’re doing it for yourself, you’ll get into trouble.
When it comes to raising the volume, it’s OK to do this when it’s part of your active mixing plan, such as boosting for a chorus or for the last song of the service. But there’s an area where things get dangerous: TTS.
Temporary threshold shift (TTS) happens when your ears get used to a loud volume and it registers differently. Eventually, the same “loud” volume no longer sounds loud. You’ll want to push it louder. In some cases, you’ll want to make mix changes such as boosting the highs and lows. However, these changes would destroy your mix. If you’re ever doing extended mixing sessions in a loud environment for over 30 minutes of solid sound, either wear ear plugs when you’re not mixing or step out of the room for 5-10 minutes. You’d want to talk with someone or listen to something at a low level so your ears can reset.
Boosting volume for effect is a valid use of volume boosting but don’t let yourself get tricked into boosting the volume because you suddenly think it needs it.
Ways to Manipulate Volume
There are three primary ways in which audio volume can be controlled through automation: compression, limitation, and gating. While they aren’t directly related to setting the right volume for your sanctuary, they are worth noting because of their functionality and impact on volume.
A gate is used to control when a sound is heard, based on its volume level. In this case, if the volume drops below the specific threshold, it’s no longer sent out to the house mix. This is useful to rid a microphone of excess stage noise when it’s not receiving the intended sound, such as when a vocalist stops singing.
- Check out the free Ten-Minute Guide to Audio Gating for more on gating.
Audio compression is the process of reducing the dynamic range of a sound. This compression occurs when the volume level signal exceeds a specified level. In practical terms, when a singer decides to belt out the chorus, instead of jumping for the fader, the compressor does the work for you.
I prefer to use compression on any channel in which the volume could potentially spike quickly and noticeably unbalance the mix. For example, if an electric guitarist changes pedal effects during a song then there’s the potential for the next pedal effect to have a higher gain and thus become massively louder that everything else in the mix. It’s OK (and good) to have volume fluctuations in a mix; a louder vocal can give the feeling of more of an emotion, for example.
- Learn how to use a compressor on vocals with Audio Essentials for Mixing Vocals.
A limiter is a compressor with a fixed high ratio, such as 50:1. It’s used as a protective measure so a volume spike caused by something like a dropped microphone or something worse isn’t amplified. That amplification could damage speakers and even harm hearing of those people in the room, either on a temporary or permanent basis. This will be set to a higher threshold than anything else so any event can still produce audio with a wide range of volume and allow for normal volume spikes like a burst of energy from the drums.
Music Versus the Spoken Word
Volumes levels are funny when it comes to music compared to the spoken word. A band might be rocking out the sanctuary at 94dBa but if the spoken word was run at that volume, it would be unbearably loud. The majority of the volume discussion has been about music, as it’s more a point of contention than anything. So, what’s the best volume for the spoken word?
Let me ask this question. Can you hear the pastor? That’s an easy one. How about this: Can you understand the pastor? The same questions should be asked of anyone speaking in to a microphone.
When it comes to the spoken word, the problem is usually with the mix. That’s right, it’s an EQ problem. So much effort is put on the music but little is spent on the spoken word.
Check out this article of mixing the spoken word:
Based on my experience, the right volume for the spoken word is when the speaker can be heard throughout the room while the volume walks a thin line between “just loud enough” and “too loud.” Vague, I’m sure. When I’m listening to a speaker, I want to feel I’m listening to them, not to an amplified voice. I want it to feel personal. When it’s too loud, I feel it’s echoing off the wall. When it’s not loud enough, I have a hard time hearing them. It’s about finding the balance. You don’t want the congregation struggling to hear and you don’t want them to feel like they’re in a sports arena.
There’s a problem with volume complaints. They’re incomplete. Seriously. Someone comes up and says the volume was too loud. This is their opinion, right off the bat, and there is much more to learn. Consider the following questions:
- Where were they sitting?
- Is this their first time at the church?
- How old are they?
- Did you run the music mix louder than usual?
- What, exactly, was too loud?
- Have they complained before?
- Has the makeup of the band changed?
Don’t dismiss complaints. Some are valid. Regular complaints from different people each week are a sign of a problem. If people are leaving the church because of the volume, it’s a problem. Ask the person questions that can bring to the surface why they thought it was too loud. The next step might be to recommend they sit in a different area. Or, explain the volume is in the preferred range set forth by the church. Be sympathetic, learn what you can, and be honest. You might even find yourself saying, “I’m sorry, I think I did run it a little louder than normal.”
Dealing with Hostile Complainers
The band was rocking and I’d just checked my meter to make sure I was within the allowable volume range when I felt a tap on my arm. From outside the sound booth, a man had reached over. When I turned to address him, he started going off on me and saying things like if I didn’t turn down the volume, he was going to walk up to the front of the sanctuary. I explained, twice, the volume level was within the acceptable range and he could take it up with the person I named. Eventually, he walked away. I was a bit shaken but more surprised than anything. These things happen.
Deal with these people in a calm but firm manner. If it’s during the service, you’re not going to alter the volume just for them—unless you know you were running it way too loud, but that might go without saying. You can recommend they talk to you after the service or simply direct them to talk with your leader. If you have a technical director, it’s probably them. If it’s you, again, offer to talk after the service or later in the week. Be kind, yet firm. You are doing a job that you know how to do.
If a person is hostile after the service, use the same things outlined above except add in the ability to ask questions. However, if you think that would only make them more upset, find someone else in church authority and go to them.
Complaints can still happen when you have the perfect volume for the majority of the room. It’s just part of the job.
Ear Plug Usage
Are ear plugs for the congregation OK? I’ve had people tell me they keep a bowl of earplugs by the doors to the sanctuary. If that’s not a sign of a problem, I don’t know what is. Let’s tackle this from two points of view.
1. They Asked
It’s possible there are a couple of people in your congregation who find the music too loud and opt for earplugs. This can happen. I was at a church where an elderly man would walk into the hallway during the music because it was too loud for him. The volume as at a respectable level but for him, it was too much and instead of making a big deal out if it, he would quietly slip in and out during the service. But to put out a bowl of earplugs? There needs to be a better way. Just the sight of the bowl would throw anyone. I say it’s the responsibility of the person but if a couple of people ask for them, consider keeping them at the sound booth.
2. They Need It
If you’re running the volume so loud that half the congregation wants ear plugs, IT’S TOO LOUD! I had a person recently tell me their spouse could no longer sit through a service because of the high volume. You’re mixing for a church service, not a rock concert. And you also can have children and babies who are exposed to those high volumes and don’t have the ability to leave (or to express the pain from the volume).
If you’re running the volume so loud that you have to put out a bowl of ear plugs by the door, please explain the details of why it’s absolutely necessary to run it that loud. Oh, you don’t need to convince me, you need to convince yourself.
The Pre-emptive Strike
I had an elderly man come up to me before the service and kindly asked if he could ask me a question. I smiled and said, “Sure, what’s the question?” He said he has sensitive ears and wanted to know if the service would be loud. I paused, hesitant to just say yes, knowing volume preferences are relative and knowing we run at good levels. Then I said, “Given the type of music and the size of the band, it does tend to be loud by nature of these things.”
He could have left or asked me, “Does it have to be that loud?” but instead showed a wonderful spirit by asking about the schedule of the service and if there was a place with a close-circuit TV he could watch. I explained that in the outer lobby are televisions that broadcast the service. I also explained the first fifteen minutes of the service are music but then we run a 30 second intro video before the sermon and suggested he come in then. He was grateful for the help and went away happy.
Had I had ear plugs to offer, I wouldn’t have felt right about it. To me, it’s like saying I know it’s too loud and here’s our way around that. Please know this is my opinion. I know churches that offer them to people who are grateful to have them, and the sound techs and the church are OK with it and it works for them. Maybe it’s just the gut feeling I get whenever I walk into a church and see a bowl of ear plugs. My first thought is, “this won’t be good.” It’s not inviting; it’s foreshadowing.
This article originally appeared here. Visit the original page to download a worksheet to help you find the right volume for your sanctuary.