We Need To Lower The Volume!
(Yes that’s Comic Sans font…On purpose…Don’t hate me bro!)
We need to turn down the sound. Do those words strike fear, anger, frustration, artistic disruption, etc… within you and your team? If they do you need to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself “Why are you doing this?”. If you hear this and you think, “Hmm this could be an opportunity to make use of my mad skills and solve an irritating problem!”, then you know where this post is going to go.
As a worship sound guy I know having worship music at loud levels is good for the congregation, especially those congregations where they don’t know how to move around and haven’t felt the powerful impact of a worship song that’s allowed to fully breathe and exult God’s presence. I’ve been a part of the magical mystery that happens at a large event where with the last thunderous chorus the music comes way, way down and you feel the mist of the Holy Spirit washing over the crowd and something happens to people. But I get it. Not everyone wants to hear that sonic energy all the time. So do I impose my style onto the congregation or do I find a way to make softer levels sound as good as I can regardless of my personal opinion? If we are doing this for the right reasons the answer is clear.
Some background is appropriate. Our church is a gymnatorium in its current phase of life. A big, square, very reverberant, non-treated environment. Hard surfaces everywhere including the floors and ceiling. We have an electric guitar driven worship team with live drums in a shield without a lid. Even the stage which is about 4 feet off the ground doesn’t have any carpeting. Needless to say, it’s a bit of a challenge to get decent sound and intelligibility out of the system. The system itself is decent. Presonus StudioLive 24.4.2, QSC RMX amps, dBx Driverack, EV tops and subs. Everyone is on in-ears and everyone goes direct into the snake except for the worship leader’s electric that’s in an amp closet. So the only stage volume is from the drums which is substantial. The install company that put in the system (way before I came on the scene), for some reason, decided that 4 top speakers would be best for coverage. Unfortunately the way they positioned the speakers created significant phasing issues and reverberant splash around the room. Our worship team is pretty good with good dynamics.
All that to say being quiet is not easy. Initially I wanted to disconnect the bottom two EV tops and get rid of the phasing and reverberant issues caused by the speakers. The worship leader initially didn’t want to do that as he thought everything sounded weak with just the two speakers and so I experienced some pushback. That meant attempting to EQ the room as much as possible to get some intelligibility out of the system. He also liked having a heavy kick and bass presence so that meant I had to run the mix hotter to keep everything coherent. Now in that room configuration 98 dB c-slow is pretty substantial and is close to concert level due to the reflections. But that’s what we had to run to get things sounding correctly. With helping the dynamics on the mix we would vary between 85 and peak sometimes at 100 dB c-slow.
Our congregation is primarily in their 30s and 40s. They’ve grown up on rock concerts. They’re used to loud music. But some of them have probably commented to the senior pastor about the volume. The senior pastor asked the worship leader to turn it down who then turned it over to me. So let me repeat this point again because it’s important and those of you that are just getting started in sound need to hear. Whoever is in charge of the event gets to dictate the rules. Whether its a corporate gig or a worship service, ultimately there’s one person in charge and they get the final word and, by definition of where you sit in the pecking order, your best attempts to satisfy that request without a lot of moaning or theatrics. A true mark of a professional sound engineer is being able to accommodate the varying styles and preferences of the client willingly and without fuss. So to put this in the perspective of the church, the senior pastor is where the buck stops. It doesn’t matter if the worship leader doesn’t agree with his decision. It’s his decision. You can either deal with it or leave. Sorry to be so blunt but I’ve seen churches where there is such a large disconnect between the senior pastor’s wishes and the attitude of the worship or tech teams that it’s impossible not to feel the tension between them. DO NOT make life difficult for whoever is in-charge. You won’t win any friends.
Okay I’m off my soapbox!
So back at our church, after getting the mandate from the senior pastor, the worship leader and I got together and brainstormed what would be required to make the senior pastor’s request happen while keeping the fidelity of the music and improving it, if possible. We came up with a plan consisting of several areas:
- Relocation of the drums and drum shield to bring it closer to the back wall and close off the sides with the purchase of a Sorber lid planned for next year.
- Disconnection of the two lower top speakers.
- Flattening of the dBx DriveRack EQ and letting the StudioLive handle the FOH EQ processing for a cleaner signal.
- Changing the crossover frequency and pattern on the DriveRack to bring bass back into the tops and bring some mid-lows into the subs to bring out a fuller sound.
All this with a goal of reducing our volume from 98dB to around 90-92dB with peaks around 95dB.
We accomplished the drum relocation and disconnected the bottom tops. I played back pink noise through the system and checked that the StudioLive was seeing everything flat which it was. I then fired up the Room EQ Wizard and checked the frequencies coming into my measurement mic. Overall not bad and about where I expected it would be. Definitely areas that I could tweak. I then flattened the EQ on the DriveRack, reconfigured the sub delays and the crossover. After a quick “pinking” I played back a multitrack recording from the previous Sunday’s worship service. First at the old sound level to get a base feel then at the target dB setting. It sounded decent but a bit muddy. I then looked at the master EQ on the StudioLive and decided that I’d start over again by turning flattening the EQ and going from there. So to not mess my self up and because I was too lazy to add another scene at this point I just turned off the EQ. As soon as I did that the sound came through nice and clear. Some of you may be thinking that I’m nuts for not running a house EQ but keep reading.
Side Note: At this point some of you are probably thinking why not add in acoustic treatment? It would certainly help. That’s true. However due to the budget considerations because this building is phase 1 and because it’s used as a basketball court, and will eventually become the Youth Center when phase 2 gets going, it wasn’t an option available to me.
Anyway now that I had the band sounding really good without any house EQ I then focused on the kick and bass. Rolled off some low-end and mid-lows on both of them and got them both sitting in the mix all pretty and not walking over everything else. That enabled me to bring the volume down even further while maintaining the clarity that I wanted to keep. Yeah baby! Then I had the drummer go up and whack the skins while playing back the mix to see what the drums sounded like live. While the live drums are a bit louder and I have less control than I’d like because we don’t have a lid on the drum shield it’s still a lot better than before. Outside of those minor channel tweaks not much had to change. Keep in mind this is my situation and I don’t recommend arbitrarily turning off the house EQ permanently and tweaking the channel EQs to compensate. If I had to make the same EQ changes on every channel I would have kept house EQ in and changed those settings.
Overall I’m pretty pleased with the reduced volume sound. Would I like it louder? Sure but it’s not about me. It’s about someone coming into this church for the first time who’s hurting and longing for God’s saving grace and being able to possibly experience it because another distraction has been reduced or eliminated. And if bringing down the volume helps to accomplish that then I’m all for it.
The takeaways? The senior pastor gets to make a request. Your job is to make it work without making the pastor feel bad about asking for it. That’s what you’re there for. Don’t be afraid to change things and start over. Look for opportunities to make things better instead of just turning the volume down. Could I have accomplished the request without going through all this by simply turning down the master fader? Yes. Would it have sounded as good? Absolutely not. So bring your A game to everything you do. Always look for improvements and trashing things to start over can open up unexpected results.